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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

A Pilgrimage through Life

This May my wife Penny and I and friends trekked 100 miles in nine days across Portugal and Spain on the famous Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as “The Way.” Along with thousands of others, we were pilgrims on a journey through life. Some were there for religious purposes, some for a spiritual experience, and some were just seeking solitude or a physical challenge.

Our journey began in Porto, from which we headed due north in search of our True North. We followed the yellow arrows pointing north, and observed the direction of the scallop shells that ancient pilgrims have followed for centuries to the Cathedral of Santiago (St. James in English, St. Jacques in French).

In our van to the starting point south of Ponte de Lima we passed the monastery of Bragga, site of David Whyte’s poem “The Faces of Bragga,” that proposes we accept all our flaws as an integral part of who we are so that we can live authentically. That night we stayed in a beautiful manor house owned by a count whose family name is that of the town. The count gave us a personal tour of his 14 C. home.

The next day we started the countdown from south of Valencia, Portugal and KM marker 112.  On the Camino we walked through beautiful vineyards, smelled gorgeous roses, wisteria, and honeysuckle plants, visited and prayed in chapels and churches on the path, climbed to the top of a Celtic village, and walked along beautiful streams and rivers, through forests and fields, and many villages and towns.

For my part this pilgrimage was metaphor for life: each of us is on our own separate journeys through life. We each had our own unique experience as we continually intersected with fellow pilgrims on their journeys. Just as we encounter obstacles in our journey through life, on our path we faced many obstacles from climbing hills to the dangers of walking alongside highways with fast-moving vehicles, crossing rapid-flowing rivers, and baking in 90+ sun, along with tired legs and bodies.

At one point I walking alone and lost track of my fellow pilgrims and the scallop shells guiding us. I had to find my way back to the route with no map or ability to ask for help in Spanish until a nice man pointed to a little used path through the woods. This also is a metaphor for the times in life when we lose our way, and look to others for help to get back on track.

One of the people in our group courageously walked the entire way with the difficulties of Parkinson’s disease, while another suffered from advanced rheumatoid arthritis. One man in his 80th year kept the pace the entire journey with the younger pilgrims. No one ever complained about the challenges.

Each of us had our own special purpose for being there. One man said he was praying for a miracle for a friend. Another for healing. Some to honor the death of a loved one. Or help for a friend in need. I cannot honestly say that I had any great awakening or transformation on my pilgrimage. Rather my pilgrimage served as a deepening of my faith, reinforcing my desire to live an authentic life, and renewing my commitment to make a difference in the lives of others.

Our arrival at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela was not the end point of our journey but an essential waystation that enabled us to reflect on its meaning. At the cathedral are the remains of St. James the Great, whose body was discovered in the 9th century. There we were constantly reminded of the scallop shell as the symbol of St. James and of our journeys.

At the Pilgrim’s Museum next to the Cathedral, the pilgrimage was described as: “an allegory to express the similarity between a journey to a holy place and human life itself. The physical effort to reach the pilgrim’s goal is a metaphor for the human spiritual journey, full of sacrifices, abnegation and heartache. Depending on one’s particular belief system, its objective is to reach the highest level of knowledge, spiritual renewal, glory, paradise or eternal salvation.”

Pilgrimages like the one we took are described in most major religions. Members of the Jewish faith make pilgrimages to Jerusalem, Muslims to Mecca, and Christians to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago. Buddhism describes the inner journey to reach “nirvana,” and Taoism is defined as the “way to perfection.”

So I ask you, where are you in your journey through life? How are you approaching the obstacles you are encountering in your life? What fellow pilgrims are you helping on their journeys? Who is there to help you on yours?

In the deeper answers we seek to these questions we will find the meaning and purpose of our lives. After all, life’s greatest tragedy would be to sleepwalk through life, not take time to search for its meaning, engage fellow travelers, or stop and smell the flowers along the way.

  • Paula Northwood

    Thanks Bill for sharing about your incredible pilgrimage!