A couple of weeks back Miho and I went to Avalanche Video to browse movies, hoping to find one we both might like. We were the only ones in the store for about ten minutes, which of course doesn’t bode well for that or any video store these days. Could we have imagined in the mid-1990’s that BlockBuster Video would go broke some day? And now Rogers has announced it’s getting out of the video rental business, having suffered a 43 % drop in sales in one year. Perhaps all of that is best left for another week’s musings since that isn’t what I wanted to share with you this time.
No, I wanted to tell you about a movie (yes, yet another movie) we found at Avalanche in the “new releases” section but one I hadn’t heard of, simply called “The Way”. Starring Martin Sheen and a cast of relative unknowns, it tells the story of a successful American doctor whose adventurous, free-spirited son dies tragically while beginning a popular pilgrimage in Spain, known as the “Camino de Santiago” or “The Way of St. James”. The pilgrimage is basically a 6 – 8 week hike, if one walks 12-15 miles each day, and is one which has been traversed for hundreds of years by people of diverse faiths as well as those of no faith or undefined faith.
Martin Sheen’s character arrives in Spain to accompany his son’s body home to the U.S. but on a whim, or perhaps something deeper, he changes his plans, has his son’s body cremated, and embarks himself on the Camino de Santiago, using his son’s gear for the trek, carrying his son’s ashes, finishing the journey his child had barely begun.
Along the way Martin Sheen’s character meets up with a variety of fellow travelors, some of whom sidle up alongside this strange elderly American and stick with him, though each has his or her own reasons for making the pilgrimage. One pledges to give up smoking at the end, another sets out to lose twenty pounds for his brother’s wedding, yet another seeks to rid himself of writer’s block. Together they walk, and lodge, and sleep, and talk, growing stronger as friends as they begin to glimpse the complexity of one another, the personal strengths and weaknesses, vulnerabilities each possesses, as I suppose is the way it always is in making friends.
Trust me when I say I don’t think I’ve ruined the movie for you as there are many aspects I haven’t touched on. The movie is worth seeing. And although not all achieve whatever it is they hoped to achieve in making the pilgrimage, there is healing, peace, centering from simply having made the journey.
Metaphors abound in this touching movie, some of which may be obvious even if you haven’t seen it. Yet what continues to resonate with me is the idea, perhaps the truth, that even when at our best in setting goals for ourselves, in pledging to improve ourselves or the world, in committing our lives to just causes and selfless acts, we are just as capable of falling flat on our faces as soaring to lofty heights of achievement. In God’s kingdom it makes no difference, success or failure I mean. Surely that’s why Jesus speaks of it in both a future and present tense, as something both beyond us yet within us. What matters is partaking of the life with which we’ve been blessed, and offering it up for a higher cause, a holier purpose than our own self-interest.
We’ve all heard the common phrase “it’s the journey that matters, not the destination”, and “The Way” pounds home that point. Are we attuned to the journey? Are we engaged with the pilgrimage we walk necessarily by virture of our being alive? Are we participants on the way of our own brief lives or observers? Do we live for God and others or for ourselves?
We finish with the words of Frederick Buechner:
“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily believes certain things. That Jesus was the son of God, say. Or that Mary was a virgin. Or that the Pope is infallible. Or that all other religions are all wrong.
“Some think of a Christian as one who necessarily does certain things. Such as going to church. Getting baptized. Giving up liquor and tobacco. Reading the Bible. Doing a good deed a day.
“Some think of a Christian as just a nice person.
“Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me (John 14:6). He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine, or religion was the way, the truth, and the life. He said that he was. He didn’t say that it was by believing or doing anything in particular that you could ‘come to the Father.’ He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life that he embodied, that was his way.
“Thus it is possible to be on Christ’s way and with his mark upon you without ever having heard of Christ, and for that reason to be on your way to God though maybe you don’t even believe in God.
“A Christian is one who is on the way, though not necessarily very far along it, and who has at least some dim and half-baked idea of whom to thank.”