Guest Blog by William Howell
“It is not idealistic to declare that the prime need on our planet is interfaith harmony.”
When my wife Brahmi and I walked the Camino de Santiago in October, 2013, we were awed. The gorgeous almost-fall weather, the postcard landscapes splashed with Galician sun, light-drenched stone walls sponged with centuries of moss either side of a lane arched by oaks yet permitting vistas of sheep-pointalized fields green as any in Ireland—we breathed it all in. Yet beyond this landscaped vision, one essence stood out, and it was most unexpected.
History, in many lands, gets focused in pilgrimage—to a shrine, temple, place made immortal by heroic vigilance, saint’s burial place. Each of our lives a journey…even if the destination is as yet unclear. Which is why pilgrimages have for eons drawn souls to make a sacred walk—in India, Japan, Spain. Europe is veined with paths, lanes, roadside trails…all leading to the heart—the heart of pilgrimage in Europe being Santiago de Compostela, resting place of St. (Sant) James (Iago), one of Jesus’ most intimate disciples. Symbolizing this 1000 year-old Church-sanctioned pilgrimage are the staff, gourd and scallop shell, whose ribs converge, as do the many routes to Santiago, with many races and nationalities making this commitment. Every year, hundreds of thousands from all over the world walk the Camino (The Way, Road, Path, Journey) de Santiago.
To rise daily for weeks, put on walking shoes and walk ten or more miles describes the physiological activity of pilgrimage. There are, of course, many other benefits—including the people who might accompany you and the relationships, for a minute or hour or morning or day or days, you form; the sacred sites you visit; the dreams and discussions of this gran adventura. Yet the most striking aspect of our pilgrimage through northern Spain was to experience its energy—its morphogenic field. Of course, our contemplative natures (when solely walking, there is no destination, no ‘getting to’) were particularly susceptible to such a sweet phenomenon.
The morphogenic field that gets born out of sacred intention was as clear to us as our enjoyment of a café con leche in the late morning or hanging out our newly washed clothes in the sunlit afternoons. When a sacred path is leading one into the deeper levels of life and love, the effects or, shall we say, radiance of this visceral participation is palpable, is a felt-sense. If we would stay in a hotel or take a bus now and again, we would soon sense—energetically—that we were ‘off’ the Camino, such that, when re-entering that flow the next day, we would feel buoyed by…by what?
This sense of support is born of directed collective intentionality. Each camino—and there are a number of roads to Santiago—is like a telephone line or pathway in the brain or a necklace/rosary connecting its many beads. The intentions of those who have walked before are encoded in a sacred pathway. Thus, when my wife and I walked the Camino de Santiago, we were participating in the intentional energetic of the millions of pilgrims who had preceded us. That is why we felt so supported, almost carried.
It is wise to here point out that pilgrimage—dedicating oneself to sacred journeying—can be and generally is quite purifying. On the first day we lost our walking sticks…and then our guidebook! Along with lesser items, the Camino took my glasses, watch…and finally our camera (yes, 100s of unique photos…gone!), as if to say, “Sorry, but yours is a walk uninvolved with time and image.” What could we do but consent? For our experiences on this camino were certainly worth the costs!
The example of the Camino de Santiago shows us the nature of the world on which Prima Mundi is focusing. The world (Mother Earth / Gaia) is essentially the connectivity out of which all her phenomena—mountains and rivers, seas and plains, rocks and trees, the two-leggeds and the four-leggeds—are being expressed. Less about her individuals, the world (Mundi) is primarily (Prima) the intelligence that holds all of us individuals together, all of our bodies, all of our eco-systems, all of our relations. With this understanding, it naturally follows that our purpose on this astounding planet is mutual service. In terms of attitude, it is called compassion. Energetically, it is called harmony. Human beings living this way create a human eco-system. Living in harmony is what we mean by peace. Living in this peace means living in ease. Peace means the ease of mind. Relationally, peace is the ease of heart that we call love.
At the end of our Camino in Spain, the morphogenic field ‘spoke’ to us, meaning that such a path, such a thread of collective focus and intelligence—because it truly is intelligent—is by nature designed to share itself, to promulgate its essential purpose and energy And what did this intelligence say? It whispered—inside, but as clearly as the coming of spring—“It’s time for a Camino de Crestone.”
The Camino de Santiago has many routes—the Via Francaise, Via Portuguese, Via de la Plata, to name a few—and all roads lead to Santiago and its cathedral. Yet, just as oak trees create other oak trees and Red-tailed Hawks create other Red-tailed Hawks and human beings create other human beings, so every form of intelligence is geared to re-produce itself. We can say that the intelligence of the Camino in Spain “wanted” to replicate itself in the little town where, since 1994, Brahmi and I have have made our home.
Ever hear of Crestone? It’s a small international village at the foot of the striking Sangre de Cristo Range. But our little mountain town offers far more than gorgeous Colorado country. What makes it extraordinary is that within walking distance are stupas and zendos, ashrams and a Carmelite monastery, a Sufi tekke and a Shinto sanctuary, retreats and centers for sacred dance and voice, not to mention medicine wheels and sweat lodges, plus the labyrinth of Chartres in its exact dimensions.
The most sacred mountain in the world to the Hopi (Crestone Peak, 14294 ft) and to the Navajo (Mt. Blanca, 14,345 ft) both overlook the Camino de Crestone, an interfaith pilgrimage. Here is a true place of power. As proof, one Hopi elder sighted the fact that here heaven (wind) and earth (blown sand) merge in the Great Sand Dunes, a national park just to the south.
And so, when we returned to our little hamlet at the foot of sacred mountains, we began organizing what has now become the world’s first interfaith pilgrimage.
“In these chaotic times, we daily witness the results of inter-religious tensions.”
Beginning in 2013, groups of pilgrims traveled to Crestone and the San Luis Valley in order to visit 15 spiritual centers, and thereby experience the lifestyles and practices of those dedicating themselves to their respective sacred “paths of return.” It’s a 36-mile journey that lasts a full week. Along this circular way, pilgrims take part in meditations, yoga of the voice, labyrinths, sacred dance, a sweat lodge, a shamanic journey and much more, including some great eating.
While several of the many spiritual centers in the Crestone area have been in place for more than 25 years, 2013 was the inaugural year for the Camino de Crestone. The great pilgrimages of the Earth—in India, Japan, Spain and England—have now been joined by the world’s first full interfaith pilgrimage, oddly enough in a tiny village at the dead end of a road.
The 2014 Camino de Crestone schedule includes five dates: June 14-21, July 5-12, August 9-16, September 13-20 and 20-27. Interested persons, couples and groups can register at www.caminodecrestone.com. The inviting tuition ($800) covers everything: all meals, lodgings and programs. These seven-days of mini-intensives are designed to be a life-affirming and life-transforming education unlike any other.
Of course, anyone anytime can walk this American Camino: MP3-player audio-tours, offering recorded presentations along the route, are available at the beginning of the pilgrimage, as is a detailed day-by-day map. Potential pilgrims needn’t define themselves as religious or even particularly spiritual to walk the Camino de Crestone’s carefully mapped route, nor do they need to be experienced hikers. Virtually anyone can be a pilgrim, as daily walks are neither strenuous nor lengthy, and the end is the same place as the beginning.
As that in these chaotic times, we daily witness the results of inter-religious tensions, one of my hopes is that seminarians, divinity students and both grad and undergrad students in Philosophy or Comparative Religions will feel the Camino de Crestone to be a necessary part of their educational program. This pilgrimage is dedicated to the uniqueness and universality of all participants and each of the participating spirituo-religious traditions, as well.
It is not idealistic to declare that the prime need on our planet is interfaith harmony. I’m spearheading the Camino de Crestone because, in my 40-years of experience of delving into all the great faith traditions of our planet, such togetherness happens not via dogma or indoctrination, but in meeting adepts who model wholeness of life in their various traditions.
Just as bees seek nectar and inadvertently pollinate plants, so the Camino de Crestone, without trying to do so, will create natural ambassadors for peace. Because the balance of knowledge and experience they’ll carry within them is as valuable as it is rare, the Camino de Crestone constitutes a significant, albeit quiet, contribution to world harmony. I mean, isn’t it time our Earth be re-forested with harmony that goes to the roots of peace?
In founding the Camino de Crestone, it has become evident to me that the religious impulse is the deepest urge in the human heart. Only since returning from the Camino de Santiago have I realized that religion is simply wanting to belong to the grandest and most intimate context imaginable. If peace in our human family is going to come about, it won’t be by legislation, fatwahs or Papal decrees—but by people, individuals, who are open and evenly at ease in this fundamental longing to greatly belong.
Those who walk such a pilgrimage find that their Camino does not end…not in Santiago or in Crestone. Brahmi and I still carry something, perhaps unnamable—too layered for travelogue, too full for reportage. In Spain we were led, carried, day after day taken beyond expectation, beyond previously observed boundaries, out of all assumptions and into our bodies, into feet meeting earth, into towns centered by its tall stone crucifix and capella or catedral built on high ground, into the intersection of self and suffering that is iconographed in Christ crucified. And, though the location has changed and we’re back in familiar surroundings in America, we still feel buoyed. To become intimate with pilgrimage is to see the purpose of being human as a journey, a bodily participation in the search for the sacred, a longing to keep putting one foot in front of the other every day for as long as it takes to participate in the grace of being truly alive.
If the Camino is anything, it is connection; it’s about waking up, donning one’s burden and walking, walking on, walking out of image, out of modernity, out of predictability, walking in the belly on the earth to where stone and sky, darkness and light, timeless past and inexplicable present all come together, like palms touching in prayer. Buen camino, everyone!
William Howell—poet, author, retreat master, meditation teacher—has had the great fortune to have studied immersively with adept teachers in the main spirituo-religious traditions of our planet. He founded Sanctuary House (a religious-educational non-profit: sanctuaryhouse.org) in 1992, co-founded Crestone Charter School in 1995, helped bring the Crestone End-of-Life Project into being in 2007, and now spearheads the Camino de Crestone (caminodecrestone.com).