Sr. Julia Walsh's blue backpack and poles (Provided photo)

Praying with my feet: called to El Camino

For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked across Spain to the Catedral de Santiago (Cathedral of St. James). During Holy Week, I will become one of those pilgrims.

This Lent, much of my energy and prayer has been focused on preparing for this pilgrimage. During this, I have found that God has taught me a lot about what it means to be called.

I'll be walking the Camino Inglés with five other women, four of whom are Franciscan sisters in my congregation. The Camino Inglés is one route — the quieter, less-traveled one — of the pilgrimage that ends at the Catedral de Santiago in western Spain.

Our little group will arrive in Spain on Palm Sunday and begin walking on Tuesday. We hope to arrive at the Catedral de Santiago in time for the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday. Each day, we will walk between 12 and 18 miles. Each night, we will sleep in very simple refugios. We will carry everything on our back and pray with our feet as we walk steadily over the trail that pilgrims have journeyed since the Middle Ages.

Nearly every day since Lent began, I have laced up my hiking boots and headed outside to walk several miles. I have been trying, physically and spiritually, to prepare myself for this journey. A few weeks ago, I even attached my loaded large blue pack to my back to get used to the feeling of walking with it on my body. I have walked in freezing temperatures, through snow, rain and sunshine; along the edge of the highway, on sidewalks, streets, and snowmobile trails. I have left my footprints in mud and splashed through puddles. I have broken ice and climbed over fences. All in all, it has been the most physical Lent of my life.

I began preparing for this pilgrimage a year and a half ago. Or perhaps I have been preparing for it my whole life.

During one of my recent walks, my mind wandered back to my childhood. When I was about 11 years old and at Bible camp, I would hike several miles through the woods and prairie with my cabin group. The camp property was extensive, and it was a trek from where we slept to the pool where we swam. Most campers carried a simple daypack, holding only a water bottle, swimsuit, towel and sunscreen. Me, though, I was excessive and ambitious: I carried all sorts of unnecessary items — extra clothes, toothpaste, a sleeping bag — just for "the experience." When my friend teased me about it, I didn't have the words to express my soul's longing for pilgrimage. I want to be a true pioneer! Years later, we still laugh at the memory.

The restless itch to move and carry all my possessions still stirs within me. Deeper yet is a longing to manifest my trust in God physically. In my everyday life, I believe God will provide for my needs, yes. And certainly, the grace and energy I need to serve others always seems to emerge when I am most desperate for God's help. But do I trust God to provide the basics of life? What if I am uncertain about having shelter or enough water and food for the day? Will my trust in God be strong enough then? I am not sure.

Even though I am now a perpetually professed sister, I have struggled to understand the meaning of being called by God. Certainly, I have felt God calling me throughout my lifetime, whether it was into religious life, a change of location or ministry. And I have experienced those calls in many different ways, through dreams, conversation or community. I have had the courage and grace to say "yes" and step into the unknown. But I wondered, repeatedly, about the relationship between call, choice and the omniscience of God.

My daily Lenten walks have helped me realize that the call from God is often realized after I start. After I move into something new, I tend to look around and see that I have stumbled onto something good, into a plan beyond my limited vision. Often, God just helps us to make one step at a time. Calls are as nudges to keep moving forward.

Footprints along the trail of one of Sr. Julia Walsh's practice hikes (Provided photo)

The call to pilgrimage has been like that, too. I sort of just found myself in the middle of it.

It all started at a weekend retreat for sisters in my community, the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration, who entered community after the Second Vatican Council. This annual gathering, which we call "PV2" for "post-Vatican II," is a peer-led gathering that helps us to grow in relationship, to reflect on our shared life and engage in some dreaming about our future together.

In the fall of 2015, I was part of the planning group for our gathering, and we chose the theme "FSPAs on The Way," using the idea of pilgrimage on the Camino as a metaphor to springboard conversations about what it meant to be Franciscans journeying through life together. "The Way" was a reference to the 2010 film that we watched together on the first night of our gathering. "The Way" is also one of the names used for the Camino de Santiago. That weekend, our discussions pulled forward particular themes from the film related to our communal charism, such as, "What is The Way that we are living together as sisters and Franciscans?" and "How does our FSPA eucharistic life fuel our shared mission?"

To my amazement — and that of the rest of the planning group — on that weekend, a group of FSPAs began to discern going on pilgrimage and actually walking the Camino. Initially, I did not participate in the discernment group because I didn't sense a call to join them, and the shape of my life at the time did not have space for such a journey.

As time went on, however, I prayed and paid attention to whether the Spirit was inviting me. To my surprise, it seemed as if encouragement was around every corner. Then, when my life took a turn last year and I changed ministries, I realized it might be possible for me to join the group. Like many things in my life, I halfway stumbled into it, only to find in the end that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

And now, I am only days away from boarding a plane and going to Spain to be a pilgrim on the Camino. I still am not sure what I am getting myself into. I suspect that awareness will unfold gradually, just as the call to pilgrimage came gently over the years.

During my daily Lenten practice walks, I have realized how closely call and pilgrimage are related. Step after step, stirring up stones and hearing the repeated click of my poles, I have pondered how all of us walk by faith. We are disciples of Jesus, and we take step after step with hope that there is more beauty around the next corner on the path, more life ahead.

With each step, I am gradually coming to understand how our faith is an embodied faith, how our physical and spiritual transformation are closely tied together. It is starting to settle into me more deeply that we all are pilgrims and strangers in this life (1 Peter 2:11; 1 Chronicles 29:15). We all are really just passing through as we move toward our final destination: union with God forever.

As I prepare to depart for the Camino, I step into the mystery compelled by a curiosity. I want to see what beauty is around the next corner of the path and what else I will learn from my walk with God.

[Julia Walsh, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]

Adrian Dominican Sr. Nancy Murray is a writer and actor in her own right. GSR interviewed her about her work and her family, which includes her brother, Bill Murray.
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