Camino Reflections of Sabbatical

This is a copy of a long-format reflection I wrote as I prepared to transition back to work after my 6 month sabbatical as I sorted out what I wanted to take from my time away, especially on the Camino. If you’ve got a good chunk of time, take a read!


Introduction

  • “What was your favorite part?”
  • “Was it hard?”
  • “Did you receive any revelations about God?”
  • “Did it change you?”
  • “What was it like?”

These are the questions I received upon return. As I struggled to give answers, internally, my head was filled with many more questions than answers:

  • How does one describe 500 miles?
  • How does one choose a “favorite part” of a 40-day journey?
  • How do you explain physically working so hard in a 6-month rest?
  • How do you describe “change” when you find yourself closer to your true self?
  • What if what I have to say doesn’t sound spiritual enough?
  • What if what I have to say sounds way too spiritual?

Much like a shell-shocked missionary struggling with reverse culture shock, I struggled to re-translate what I had experienced. Perhaps it was because one can’t simply put into words what a pilgrimage like the Camino de Santiago de Compestella is. Worse, unlike a missions trip where you’re there to help someone, I had no story of selfless charity to hide behind. But a pilgrimage is something different; it is a paradox. One goes on a pilgrimage to journey to a foreign place that represents a historical location of God’s work, with hopes that as a pilgrim walks upon a path where God had met others in history, the pilgrim might personally experience God him or herself as well. Much like the physical path of a prayer labyrinth, it is paradoxically both a journey inwards and outwards. Perhaps this is why it is hard to share with others- because there is no shallow answer to describe a journey that has taken me so far outside of my context, yet has dug so deep into my soul.

The Camino de Santiago is a journey following the footsteps of St. James’s missionary journey from Jerusalem to the very ends of the earth- which at that time was the tip of the Iberian Peninsula at Fisterra.  For all accounts, it was actually a failed journey. James took Jesus’ command seriously and went to “the ends of the earth,” only to make a few converts before having to head back to Jerusalem to help lead the church (which was also a failure, since very soon after that, he was executed). According to legend, the body of St. James was carried back to Spain, where he was buried in Santiago (the name itself is derived from St. Iago, the Spanish name for James). In fact, it was not a well-used pilgrimage until a king had “discovered” the remains in Santiago and the pilgrimage was used as a political excuse to send soldiers along the Iberian Peninsula to protect the pilgrims- when in reality, it was to prepare for the reconquistadora and to retake the peninsula from the Moors. However, when one strips the political undercurrents, this pilgrimage was not about conquest, but this pilgrimage is along a path of obedience even towards failure and half-met expectations.

A fellow pilgrim once shared that the first part of the Camino breaks your body. Then in the Meseta, the immense stretch of flatland, it breaks your spirit. Finally, in Celtic Galicia, one begins to see things clearly in enlightenment. The description is a little new-agey, but is roughly accurate, though not as linear. For my own personal Camino, however, I had my own three stages in which God invited me into three shifts within different paradoxes: in my own awareness of my body and soul, in the way I navigated the shifts between community and aloneness and finally in my relationship with Him.

Paradox 1: Stopping to keep moving vs. Constant moving to paralysis

The first part of the journey took me from the border of France through the Pyrenees to Pamplona, and then through the wine country of Rioja to Burgos. It was along this stretch where I encountered the limits of my physical abilities. Martin Sheen’s movie, The Way, which had popularized the Camino for English speakers, made the journey seem like a nice pleasant walk through warm pleasant Spanish summers. Once one gets going on the Camino, the pilgrim discovers that it is actually a grueling journey through heat, rain, hail, snow and sleet. By the second day, on top of catching a cold from a Canadian pilgrim the first night, I could barely walk because I had gotten shin splints so bad that I could hear the swollen muscle creaking as I flexed my foot. Once that healed, I had several waves of blisters- the first three I named (Jerry, Larry and Jim), but then I stopped naming them because there were too many. I made a lot of friends on the Camino, but Ibuprofen (400mg) was my best friend. There was a South African pilgrim, Yano, who said out loud what we were all thinking internally about the physical pain, “Daniel- I feel like there is a hammer striking my foot every time I take a step!” to which I responded, “That’s not a hammer hitting your foot, it’s the Camino.” The rain had become a regularity in April (usually not as rainy as it was this year- the locals apologetically blamed El Niño for this). At one point during one of the worse stretches of rain from Najera to Santo Domingo, I took a break at a café along the way, marveling that there was not one part of me or my backpack that was dry. Pilgrims came in silently, grabbed coffee and watched wearily and solemnly the puddles forming from the water that dripped off of us, and then suddenly laughing hysterically at how wet we all were.  All of a sudden Yano burst into the café, in a panic because her phone had gotten so wet that the light would not turn off and she could not make calls from the water damage. “This rain is shit. This poncho is shit,” she whimpered, “My phone is shit,” she continued, looking like she was about to cry, “But oh well, we only have 15 more kilometers!” And Yano’s face changed all of a sudden as she burst out the door into the pouring rain.

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That encapsulates the paradox of the physical experience of the Camino- you must pay attention to your weakness, but in the end, you must keep walking, one way or the other. I learned the hard way what happens when one ignores a little tiny discomfort in the foot for just 2 more kilometers- it becomes a blister. A pilgrim learns to stop no matter what at the first sign of discomfort or feeling physically “funny” to adjust and to attend to the problem at hand. Sick? Get a room for a night and sleep it off early, before it gets serious and it spreads to other pilgrims. But at the same time, you deal with it and you keep walking. I realized that my real-life engagement with pain and difficulty in ministry was nothing like this. Instead of immediate attention to my physical and spiritual needs when I am tired, I keep pressing on until nobody is watching- I must maintain a self-image of control, of strength and endurance. Weakness and vulnerability don’t look so hot when you’re a spiritual leader. Then, when I finally collapse in exhaustion, I no longer want to get back up. I am afraid of stopping because I fear stopping is the first step towards giving up. But what if stopping is the first step to making it to the end, of actually finishing the full path God has before me? The Camino taught me to embrace my weakness and surrender the hubris of “being okay.” The pilgrim community- while not as outspoken about it as Yano- had a common understanding and grace for one another: we are all walking the same path. We all have experienced the same pain, or will experience soon… and together, we will laugh at it and press on. Ultreïa! (trans: Keep your head up, press on!)

Paradox 2: Solitude and Community vs. Isolation and Audience

The second paradox I experienced on the Camino was the push and pull between community and solitude. It was community that pushed me forward in those times of pain- from the singing Canadian and Swiss women I met that made 10 wet kilometers feel like 2, to the German Lutheran priest who walked with me as far as I could go with two large blisters, to the countless other walking buddies I had met along the way… we walked together, we sat in misery together, we laughed together. But there were other times I felt overcrowded- I would feel drained by the company I was around, I would feel insecurity and comparison creep into my head. I would feel slowed down by some and overshadowed by others. Sometimes I felt like I was more tired from talking to people than I was from walking all day. My times alone also had the same double sided nature.  There were dreadful times alone. I remember one night, when I had to stop before all my current group of pilgrims had chosen to stop due to some painful blisters. I ate alone that night because I was the only one who came to that albergue, and laid down in pain alone on the bed after popping my blisters. It was cold, silent and lonely. I felt isolated and didn’t sleep well. However, it was in those places of loneliness where I finally stopped my frantic need to impress others and found myself in places of peace and solitude.  I started most of my mornings alone- and it was those morning walks as I watched the sun rise and the birds began to chirp in the cool morning air where I would have amazing moments of serenity and amazement at the beauty around me. It was in those moments alone that I had the most profound and authentic conversations with God. I remember the day after the rains and I took off before everyone else in the albergue. The clouds were clearing and racing eastward and the most spectacular sunrise pierced through the fleeing thunderclouds. I remember not being able to stop turning around, my eyes drawn to the magnetic beauty, and my mouth uncontrollably sighing, “…wow.”

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I once was reflecting on this paradox to a fellow pilgrim over dinner, and said, “Whether you are an extrovert or an introvert, a good day on the Camino is when you want to be alone, you are alone, and when you want to be with people you are with people.” The concept of loneliness versus solitude is a topic explored extensively by Henri Nouwen, and later on expanded upon by Ronald Rolheiser. On the Camino, I learned that times alone would happen no matter what along the Camino- I could not control when that would happen. However, I could control how I chose to interpret those times: times of loneliness or times of solitude. Would I choose to let the longing in my heart for others drive me into despair or would I tap into the consolation of the ever-present, rich presence of God? This, while a difficult practice, had been a well-explored concept for myself after years of serving without much community in North County. However, because of this, I had not explored the concept of community. As an extrovert, I learned the difference between healthy togetherness- community- and unhealthy togetherness- an audience. Spending my first several years of ministry without a solid community, I had often thought that it was simply good to be with other people. However, because I didn’t experience it often, I would often find myself drained when I finally encountered other people. Upon my move to the Bay Area, I was within easy access to people who knew me and understood me to a level… but felt drained and overwhelmed over these last two years, feeling the constant pressure to perform and maintain a certain image. I was like a man who had lived on stale crumbs for years and was thrown into an extravagant Las Vegas buffet. After reflecting on the flip sides of being with other people on the Camino, I have begun to distinguish between my unhealthy approaches towards others as an audience and my healthy approach towards others as community. The unhealthy side of me views others as an audience that I must perform in front of in order to gain their approval. I approach others as a source of approval, as people to laugh at my jokes, listen to my stories and marvel at my uniqueness. In the end this approach is draining and never quite matches the true approval my soul needs and can only get from the unconditional love of God. Being with other people is healthy when my source of approval is from God and not others. As I experience the incarnational togetherness that Christ demonstrated for us, I am able to step into the same stream of selfless love; I step into the rhythms of compassionate community instead of competition where I walk with others and share the path, I suffer with others and share our pain and I rejoice with others and share our joy. As I learned to break out of the patterns of loneliness and performance for an audience into solitude and community, it was in that place where God met me and revealed His love.

“As a community of faith we work hard, but we are not destroyed by the lack of results. And as a community of faith we remind one another constantly that we form a fellowship of the weak, transparent to him who speaks to us in the lonely places of our existence and says: Do not be afraid, you are accepted”[1] 

“When you are able to create a lonely place in the middle of your actions and concerns, your successes and failures slowly can lose some of their power over you. For then your love for this world can merge with a compassionate understanding of its illusions. Then your serious engagement can merge with an unmasking smile. Then your concern for others can be motivated more by their needs than your own. In short: then you can care. Let us therefore live our lives to the fullest but let us not forget to once in a while get up long before dawn to leave the house and go to a lonely place.”[2]

Paradox 3: The Cost of Love vs. Business Debts

Peter Scazzero writes that the reason why most ministers preach Sabbath but don’t actually do it is because they are scared of what they may find beneath their busy selves. This fear of being exposed as a fraud, as unsuccessful, and below expectations can be summed up in one word: shame.[3] Even before I started my sabbatical, a hidden and violent emotion was growing within my soul that was becoming harder and harder to hide: I was angry. I kept trying to keep it under control…

…but anger was simmering beneath my thin veneer of good rockstar-Christian leadership. On the surface, I would snap at little things- at my supervisor’s potential disappointment in me at failures (there were many more in the transition than I was used to), at my failure to meet a staff’s expectations, at my family’s unchanging brokenness, at tech culture, at someone’s bad driving on 101 or even at the occasional bad sermon by my pastor. But beneath these were deeper angers…

It became clear at a retreat in Northumbria before I began the Camino, that although there were many things I was angry at, beneath it all, I was angry at God- and I was not just angry, but passive aggressively angry. I had stopped talking to God. A nun at my retreat described these times away with God as the unveiling of a curtain where we get a glimpse into what God is doing in our lives… later, I realized I was afraid of the curtain opening- not because I was afraid of what God was doing, but because I knew that in order for me to see God, I had to allow Him to see me- and I was ashamed.  It was at that retreat, God began to invite me out of my passive aggressive silence… to fight with Him again, to bicker with Him again… and in the midst of that, to experience grace afresh, learn to pray again, to worship again, to be with Him again in truth and authenticity.

In those times of solitude, I realized that I had stopped treating God as a lover, but as a business partner… and I felt cheated. Why suffer if I never get rewarded? And none of this ethereal, abstract bullshit about my “reward is in crowns in heaven”- I had suffered all these years fighting for just causes as an Asian American in a very white space, and what did I have to show for it? Not much- just bitter, alone and scarred, and students that just keep coming and going (and worse, I constantly struggled with a feeling of being white-washed in comparison with others in the Bay Area). I felt God was a business partner who had cheated me, and I wanted Him to repay His debts. But in the midst of this all, I didn’t want to fight with God… because unfortunately, although He can handle our complaints, our hurt, our bitterness… He usually still wins. And I didn’t want God to win this argument. It took hundreds of kilometers for me to finally surrender this losing fight… and wait for His response.

He answered. From a blog entry at the time:

“Daniel, you refuse to give up these debts you hold against me because you believe that your covenant with me as a Christian and as a minister is a business deal… I AM NOT YOUR BUSINESS PARTNER. I am your Father. I am your lover, My covenant with you is not a business deal, but a marriage covenant… to be with you. I would do anything, and have done everything to be with you- not to guilt you into doing shit for me, but asking you to go with me to where I am… and sometimes that’s in the shitty storms of life, and sometimes it is in the places of peace. You have forgotten the point of suffering is not just to suffer… but it is to be with Me. I didn’t suffer solely out of empty duty like it was a job or a contract… I did it to be with you, out of my love for you… All I want is for you to love me back. You once knew how to do this… But these days you have forgotten how to love Me. You have made fake contracts with Me, putting prices on My grace, and I’m calling them out for the bullshit that they are- I tore those unjust contracts as nail pierced flesh; as curtain tore from heaven downward; as last traces of breath left my chest; as immoveable gravestone was moved… I freed you to love me freely as I love You freely; a choice I made not out of binding legal agreement but out of the wild yet resolute passion of One who is so in love with you. You are free to say ‘no’ to this offer, but I am so tired of this halfway relationship built on duty and not love… Enough of this slavery. Come back, learn to love again… I ask not for your service, but for loving reciprocation out of freedom.”[4]

I realized I needed to learn a new way of obedience, and that the cost of love is not an economic cost, but a cost of love.

“And yet that demand is innate in love itself. Love costs, costs everything. To love beyond daydreams means to ‘sweat blood’ and ‘to be obedient unto death.’ Love invites us to look at the pain that is involved in real commitment and say, as Jesus said: ‘Not my will, but yours, be done.’ The path from alienation to intimacy with others requires that we learn to say those words.”[5]

This was the most important experience of my Camino: an invitation from the God who loves me-not the God who owes me- to release the debts I held against God and to learn to follow out of love again; to continue to pay the cost of love that is not based on a business deal but out of sacrificial desire to be with Him, reciprocating His sacrificial desire. I had a recommitment experience on the Camino in that I surrendered my identity as God’s business partner to begin to rediscover my relationship with my Father and my Lover.

Walking Forward

As I conclude my sabbatical, I am left with questions instead of answers; I find myself within tensions instead of cut-and-dry mandates. How do I live in a way in that I stop so that I can keep walking, instead of never stopping to the point of paralysis? What does it look like to choose solitude and community instead of isolation and audience? What does it look like to follow God sacrificially from a place of love instead of a place of obligation and duty?

“And suddenly in my despair that I should now be so slow and awkward I longed more fiercely than ever for my new life. The longing had no words but I knew I was praying for a strength which had to be granted from without, not dredged up from within where my resources were so enfeebled”[6]

While I have a few plans made to help me make these shifts, I am left more importantly with a desire to live my life differently; with a new resolve to do ministry in a renewed way that can only be done with God’s continued grace on my weakness. The work God had begun in me during my sabbatical is not complete, but I am excited for the continued journey towards learning to live within His hesed (covenantal loving-kindness) and ministering out of that to those around me.

[1] Nouwen, “Out of Solitude,” P. 24

[2] Nouwen, p. 26

[3] Scazzero, The Emotionally Healthy Leader, p. 151

[4] For a fuller account of this interaction with God: https://daniellui.wordpress.com/2016/04/28/to-be-with-you/

[5] Ronald Rolheiser, The Restless Heart

[6] Susan Howatch, Glittering Images

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