Liminality is a Recipe for Navigating Winter: Becoming a Pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago

December 19th, 2022

Whether you’re in a midlife, quarter life, or general life crisis, the proverbial crap hits the wall. You break up with your girlfriend, your community starts falling apart, your movement dies, your organization goes bankrupt, you lose the political campaign. You hit rock bottom, as they say, in your addiction—to alcohol, drugs, or whatever it might be for you. You realize that your dysfunctional relationship with your family or your partner or your work or your life generally is not going to work anymore. You get kicked out of the house, you move out, you go on the road. Somebody that you love dies, you get thrown into what we call a natural disaster, or your house burns down. You get thrown into drastic change in your life.

Most of these things facilitate a “dark night,” where we can no longer live by the light of our daily routines, and our habitual free time recreational activities. The morning coffee doesn’t cut it anymore. What has usually been a consolation to us, the safety and security of our life, gets shaken to the core. And finally we have to ask ourselves, What the hell do I do in this season of my life? What do we do in this proverbial winter?

What is liminality? And why is it important?

To answer these questions in my own life, I have turned to my own mystical tradition, and the theory of liminality. To me, liminality could be described as the theory and philosophy of grieving. How do we grieve? How do we go through these transitions in our lives? How do we constructively use the pain of these experiences to grow into people that are more developed, and more resilient, instead of being traumatized by it? How do we use the elixir of pain and suffering as a pathway to greater resilience? Richard Rohr often says that there’s really only two ways to spiritual growth: voluntary suffering or involuntary suffering, or, as he puts it, “great love and great suffering.” And either way, it pulls us through a process of having to let go of the old and move into the new. It takes us through a season, the metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a butterfly. Or, as we say in 12 Step, a time when we learn that we must “let go or be dragged.” 

Many great authors that I respect have written about this kind of process within the framework of liminality. Great theorists of liminality include some of my favorite thinkers, people like Richard Rohr, Victor Turner, Rebecca Solnit, Thomas Keating, Alan Hirsh, and many indigenous traditions that are studied at the Ayni Institute. 

But what the hell is “liminality” anyway? Liminality was first coined as a term in the anthropological study of rites of passage, different cultural processes and frameworks for taking people through these major changes in their lives. “Liminal” technically just means a transitional or “in between” space. Throughout history, there have been many powerful rituals that different traditions have created to take people through these processes of change, to take people through the winter of life, or the transition from youth to adulthood, from singleness to married life, becoming new parents, entering a vocation, retiring, moving and entering into a new community, sickness, old age, and death. 

Throughout my life, these have been hugely important experiences for me, mostly navigated through yearly, silent 10-day meditation/prayer retreats, which help me reground and regenerate after a year of hectic work. Or, seven years ago, when I did a 40-day spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius retreat to discern whether to get married and start a family. I’ve also experienced liminality in other ways throughout my life, before I had any language for what I was doing. When I graduated from high school and left my hometown, I experimented with backpacking for weeks on end in the wilderness with my closest friends. As a young activist, from time to time I would participate in week-long mobilizations where I would be initiated into a new community as part of a social movement, like the resistance to School of the Americas, or the global justice movement, that culminated in mass civil disobedience, arrest, and sometimes time in jail. When I found out about the framework of “liminality,” it gave me new language and a theory—the secret recipe for what made these powerful experiences work for me and others.

The person who wrote the definitive text that talks about this framework was the anthropologist Victor Turner, who studied indigenous rites of passages. Turner’s primary research on rites from dozens of indigenous African communities found that they all shared certain very similar characteristics that contributed to their deep psychological impact on participants. 

Other academics and writers, such as Rebecca Solnit, have done amazing work to study how the characteristics of liminality often apply to people and communities when they go through natural disasters. Almost every time a natural disaster hits, instead of devolving into chaos and cannibalism which is the familiar cultural depiction within the genre of Hollywood disaster films, history, and the emerging field of “disaster science,” shows instead that communities go through a process more like that described by Victor Turner. They develop and grow. They rapidly mature. They form a special type of community in the midst of great collective challenge. This is because, as Solnit has so brilliantly expressed with great hope for the future—natural disasters have the potential to unintentionally usher people into a liminal process that can be powerfully, and positively, transformative. Individually, and as a culture, we need rites of passages. And although they were a common part of ancient cultures, they have been stripped from the capitalist market economy that demands the continual, and never-ending growth of what my friend Carlos calls “eternal summer.” We need these liminal experiences, and we need to support them. 

Pilgrimage throughout history and across cultures

It’s absolutely shocking to me that throughout human history, this pattern emerges independently within vastly different cultures. Within Christianity, within the Muslim community, within the Eastern Orthodox Church, within Buddhism, and Hinduism there are similar traditions of intense liminal experiences as rites of passage that often resemble a “pilgrimage,” represented in a journey to a monastery, a sacred place, or a religious festival. In Southeast Asia, Buddhist communities have temporary ordination for men, in which people travel to a monastery to become monks for a few weeks to three months, right before marriage. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is still common, both for monastics and lay people, to undergo a walking pilgrimage, sometimes for hundreds of miles, in which each step of the journey includes a full body prostration, where one’s forehead touches the ground and the arms and legs are fully extended. In Islam, the Pilgramage to Mecca is clearly proscribed at least one time in your life. In India, there’s a tradition of wandering monks called sadhus, in which people drop out of normal life to join the community of pilgrims, wearing special clothing and hairstyles (often a shaved head), and visiting different holy sites, ashrams, and gurus. And even within my own tradition, in both Eastern and Western Christianity, there are many different paths for people to undergo pilgrimage. There’s a part of many different cultures that supports people in becoming pilgrims. 

I have even seen a more secular form of this develop in the US around backpacking the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail. Among my own group of friends, it is common for people to take time out of their normal routines and do those trails for a while. But the one that I think a lot of people talk about, one of the most popular within Western Christianity, is the pilgrimage tradition called the Camino de Santiago, in which people drop out to become pilgrims, generally anywhere from a week or two to a month—which is about how long it takes to walk the most famous route of the Camino from Southern France to the Northern tip of Spain. 

Camino de Santigo: a mass experience of present day pilgrimage

It’s fascinating to me that an estimated 350,000 people walked the Camino last year, and that this has been a tradition to travel to the Shrine of St. James the Apostle at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain that has waned and revived throughout hundreds of years since end of the 12th century, when an old monastery reported over 100,000 pilgrims hiked each year over the high mountain pass over the Pyrenees to crash exhausted in their beds for the night. Over the years, the Camino has ebbed and flowed due to many cultural factors, such as attacks by some Protestant groups, who saw the practice as unbiblical and idolatrous. 

The Camino has been embedded within the culture of Western Christianity in Europe for a long time. 

If you go around Spain, and many other places throughout Europe, and talk about Camino de Santiago, everyone knows about it. Many people are encouraged to go on the Camino during their college years. Even many of the people who I was staying with on my book tour in Barcelona, who are secular leftists, had done it or had family members who had—and many who had not yet done the Camino expressed a longing to do it before they died. 

I found this fascinating. It is so much a part of the culture that people do it even without a spiritual tradition encouraging them to do it or providing them with a philosophy to explain it. When I actually did a week of the Camino de Santiago myself, this became even more amazing to me because I realized how much of a liminal experience it is, for such large numbers of people, supported by a large infrastructure, and an informal culture. 

A key difference between the Camino and an American backpacking trip is the structure and support provided by the broader culture. This cultural support is an essential aspect of what makes the Camino work, and why it remains accessible to so many people each year. The small towns that are flooded with hundreds of pilgrims every day welcome them with open arms, seeing the pilgrims as a respected part of their local culture, and a boon to the local economy. A common greeting and departing wish in these towns is “Buen Camino” (Have a good road).

Pilgrims are deeply respected in these communities. To do the Camino is considered to be something that contributes to the world. In the old philosophy, supporting pilgrims was seen as a spiritual practice in its own right, because pilgrims were venerating a saint or a sacred place. With the passage of time, much of this Christian philosophy and tradition has been lost. The Camino is littered with abandoned medieval churches and monasteries, and the Catholic church in Spain is rapidly diminishing. However, although the Camino no longer carries the sense of venerating a saint, and St. James is not really in the public consciousness anymore, there’s still a deep respect for those that do the practice. The Camino remains essential in the fabric of local culture and tradition. The predominant status of the Camino is reflected in the symbol of the scallop shell (known as the viera) that is found everywhere along the pilgrimage route, and on the bodies of the pilgrims themselves, as necklaces, on clothing, as decoration on backpacks. Pilgrims adopt a new identity, declaring themselves to be peregrinos, and recently local offices of the Camino support organizations along the route have begun offering pilgrim “passports.”

Traditionally, Camino pilgrims carried no money, and had to rely on the generosity of supporters along the route. As a peregrino, you became part of a gift economy, a system of reciprocity. Throughout history, and across cultures, this kind of mutual support system has been embedded in religious institutions, reflected, for instance, in the monastic codes of Saint Benedict, and Saint Basil. In Buddhism, it’s called dana. In the Benedictine code, it’s known as hospitality. Christian writings throughout time have specifically mentioned that a key duty of a good Christian, and an essential role for monastics, is to offer hospitality. According to the Rule of St. Benedict, “Proper honor must be shown to all, especially… to pilgrims.” They are even offered a coveted seat at the dining table of the abbot. 

This kind of community support has survived into the modern era. Churches along the Camino still support people on pilgrimage, regardless of whether or not they espouse the faith or even know why they are pilgrims. Even municipal governments support it by subsidizing hostels called albergues, where you can pay anywhere from eight to 30 euros on average for a night’s rest in a dormitory room, sleeping in bunk beds with 6-20 people in each room. 

The Camino is largely supported by an essential volunteer apparatus that goes unnoticed by most pilgrims. These volunteer bodies, in coordination with local governments, monasteries, and churches, make important decisions about the Camino, determining the official route, coordinating the support network of volunteers, and providing educational events for pilgrims interested in learning more about the history. Many of those in leadership roles become involved via their own personal pilgrimages, choosing this work as a way of continuing their relationship with the Camino.

Along the Camino, though it is not often explicitly discussed, there is a deep respect for those who support the pilgrims, and the cultural norm strongly discourages seeking any financial profit. For example, many hostels and cantines offer “pilgrim meals” alongside their regular, more expensive menu items, that are specifically designed to provide good quality, nourishing food for pilgrims at low cost. One tour guide I met who leads paid trips for mostly older middle-class retired professionals from the US said that if the Camino was in the US, there would be billboards, food trucks, and corporations that would find every little way to profit off the pilgrims, but that this is just not the Camino’s culture. For example, it took decades for the first, much-needed food truck to be set up by local residents along a mountainous stretch of the Camino where there were no other services, 10 miles from the nearest town. I imagine, if the Camino were in the US, there would be dozens of profitable, well advertised food trucks littering the same route, run by minimum wage workers owned by some absentee investor in a big city hundreds of miles away.

The basic experience of being a pilgrim

The Camino is a very intense physical and psychological challenge for most people. Many have to leave because of problems with blisters, knees, and fatigue. On average, you walk anywhere from 13 to 20 miles a day through the mountains, resting in old medieval Spanish villages, supported only by what you can carry on your back, and the hospitality and generosity of others. 

These difficult circumstances create a sense of meditative awareness. Your rhythm is absolutely defined by this challenge of walking so much, and just getting your daily basic needs met, in a foreign culture, within a fluid community of pilgrims from all over the globe. You face simultaneously a culture shock, and a deep disorientation with regards to time and daily routine. As a pilgrim, you have time to think, to talk, to eat, and to walk, but not for much of anything else. Everything becomes what the field of anthropology calls “present-oriented work.” This is a total culture shock for most modern people, who are immersed in future oriented work, and the systems, structures, rhythms, and routines of modern society. Those who study liminality observe that this kind of shock is what enables you to connect, or reconnect, to your basic humanity: to your own body walking, eating, and sleeping. In doing so you can find what meditation and mystic traditions often call “basic goodness.” 

The shock of pilgrimage really gets you to reconnect to life without your usual attachments, because in some ways it’s a via negativa—the way of subtraction. The pilgrimage leads you, through subtraction, to the basic foundations of just living, eating, walking, and talking to other people. And spending this time away from your job, your family, and your normal daily life, can give you the space that you need to see where you are stuck, to let go of negative attachments, and to grieve. The pilgrimage allows us to transition into a totally new community overnight, and to build something brand new through the experience of adversity. That it is hard, that it is challenging, is essential to the liminal experience.

When you go on this kind of journey, you feel a real egalitarian sense of community. You feel a connection to all these other pilgrims who are facing the same challenges. In the study of liminality, this community feeling is often called communitas. When you’re walking the Camino, you create this temporary egalitarian community of people that are all walking on the pilgrimage together. You see the same people day after day because these are small towns, and you’re walking generally at the same pace. You’re in the same wave of people, and the feeling of communitas develops very quickly. You often end up stopping to eat with them, or sleeping in the same dormitory on a bunk bed. They have no power, or rank over you, they are all just pilgrims like you, depending on the generous support of the culture and local community to sustain them. 

Being a pilgrim in my own life

For those whom I have not yet confessed to: I am in a midlife crisis. A year and a half ago my girlfriend broke up with me. COVID had created great instability in my intentional community as many people came and went from the house. Many of the Momentum organizations that I had been part of supporting in their birth had imploded. My Centering Prayer group (what I considered to be my core community) dwindled down to a handful of less active people. Many of the friends I had moved to Los Angeles with over the years had left or moved to new parts of the city where I could not see them often in the hustle and bustle of new lives oriented around raising their kids. In the midst of all this disruption and change, I had to ask myself: Is the core vision of my life of creating a “beloved community” within an alternative sense of family workable, and is anyone holding this vision except me? Feelings of loneliness and sadness came in waves. 

And in the midst of this crisis, the old traditions of liminality came to comfort me. I decided to become a pilgrim for much of this last year. Last February, I went on a 21-day Soto Zen meditation retreat in a monastic community in southeast Minnesota, next to the Iowa border. I traveled around the east coast visiting old friends in Philly, New York, and Boston, sleeping on couches, and staying up to talk about our vision of social movements. I went to Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, with my New Monastic group, to pray and reflect. I went on a book tour in Spain with my brother Mark, as the book we co-authored, This is An Uprising, came out in Spanish. There, speaking with dozens of leftists who had emerged from dying movements to take over their city government and run it with a new vision, we had a wonderful experience of what I call “revolutionary tourism.” 

And last but not least: on September 26th, in St. Jean Pied de Port, France I became a pilgrim on the Camino de Santigo with my own pilgrim passport. I spent the next seven days with only 25 pounds of possessions on my back, hiking about 18 miles a day over narrow mountain passes through the high mountain of the Pyrenees, following the route of many ancient armies into some of the most historical battles in Europe. We hiked through dozens of beautiful medieval towns with old perimeter walls, organized around a central ancient church built of stone, littered with cafes with incredible fresh coffee and pastries—primarily through the Basque region of Spain. I was joined on this journey by my beloved older brother Francis, and my gregarious confidant younger cousin Nathan Kiker. 

My life is still not totally settled, but I have embraced my pilgrim status. I embrace that we are all on our own journey, that everything is changing, and that the next day I will see different people, do different things, and give my life to different people and places. All I need to do is put one foot in front of the other, and follow the spirit. It is ok. God is with me. I am still doing what I feel called to do before I die. 
We are all in this together. Maybe when your day’s walk is over you can share our table with other pilgrims at the Center for the Working Poor. Let’s make these liminal experiences part of everyone’s  life—let’s open our doors to the pilgrims in our lives. Let’s venerate the pilgrim, and realize that for all of us to survive the common winter of human civilization, we all need to become pilgrims. We all need to embrace liminality. Let’s turn our collective challenges into a rite of passage. Let’s leave each other with a farewell wish of “buen camino.” 

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