This past week, I had the opportunity to introduce one of my mentors to a cohort of North American faith leaders. This particular group is an ecumenical, multi-ethnic collective from the United States and Canada who are seeking to grow in their capacity for peacemaking and reconciliation. They are women and men who have been educated in some of the most elite academies in the world and possess resumes that boast of international and institutional influence. Success is one of their common denominators. Failure is a foreign concept for most of them. They have been trained to project strength and build power, and believe that they can will social change into being.
I had a sense that these leaders would be familiar with inhabiting learning environments where the consumption of knowledge and the mastery of skills would be the objective. My hunch was that their leading question would be “What do we do?” Thus, I decided to design the journey around the question “Who must we become?” Little did they know, I intended to rebel against the sterile pedagogies that they were familiar with and, instead, invite them into the gritty work of pilgrimage.
With the metaphor of pilgrimage in mind, I invited this particular mentor to be the first presenter of the program. He is a seventy-two-year-old contemplative who, at the age of sixty-five walked the 500-mile Camino de Santigo pilgrimage. He’d hate this, but I describe him as a Yoda figure. He’s quiet and measured. When he speaks, he does so on purpose and reveals the deep well of his soul. He is the opposite of the prototype hero who projects power. Yet when I sit with him, the power of his life and insight have contributed to the reshaping of my heart, mind, and body.
This is the person who I wanted to frame the idea of pilgrimage, help us understand the importance of the journey of becoming, and heighten our awareness to the gifts that pilgrimage offers.
In his time with us, he spoke as one who had become liberated from the pursuit of accomplishment and accumulation of influence. He shared the story of his first Camino and revealed it to be the pilgrimage that finally severed the lines that had tethered him to the misnomer that “I am what I produce.”
And then, rather than waxing thoughtfully on the spiritual dimensions of pilgrimage, he talked about weakness and pace.
For nearly half of his time with us, he shared how his body rebelled against his heart’s desire to walk the pilgrimage. He spoke of his feet and how they ached so badly that he couldn’t help but become fixated on the pain. In periodic telephone conversations with his wife along the way, rather than sharing of spiritual encounters and epiphanies, all he could do was bemoan the reality that his feet hurt…desperately. Because it was an admission of weakness, he felt ashamed to do so.
After five days and nearly one-hundred miles, he observed that his rebellious body finally began to submit. His body realized that his heart was leading and that it had no choice but to get in line.
As his story continued, he revealed one of the gifts that weakness had offered him. Reflecting as he walked, he recognized that much of life was spent at a pace that was unsustainable and that demanded that he ignore pain and rebel against weakness. With miles passing under his feet, he worked to identify the internal and external pressures and expectations that had driven his speed. He wondered about the constructs of success and the thin theologies that undergirded them that he had submitted to throughout his career.
As he walked and reflected, he wondered if he hadn’t spent a good portion of his life out-pacing the restorative work of God. As he lamented, he sensed the invitation to slow down in order to catch up with God.
That invitation was the gift that weakness had offered. Had he continued on with his life-practice of avoiding or ignoring weakness, he likely would have missed the gift. But because he didn’t look away, he received the gift and began to adjust his pace.
In his parting blessing, my mentor shared a reflection on pace that he had learned from Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama:
Love has its speed. It is a spiritual speed. It is a different kind of speed from the technological speed to which we are accustomed. It goes on in the depth of our life, whether we notice or not, at three miles an hour. It is the speed we walk and therefore the speed the love of God walks.
We walked away from our encounter with this pilgrim not only with a deepened understanding of the role of pilgrimage in our transformation but also with a corrective in our approach to weakness. Rather than being threatened by weakness, it is a part of what makes us strong.
 Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God: Biblical Reflections