In Wishful Thinking, Frederick Buechner writes about bread: “Man (sic) does not live by bread alone, but he also does not live long without it. To eat is to acknowledge our dependence—both on food and on each other. It also reminds us of other kinds of emptiness that not even the Blue Plate Special can touch.”
On an actual pilgrimage and the pilgrimage of life, bread—especially broken bread—is the portal through which we may meet not only companions on the journey we are on as pilgrims of faith. The very word “companion” is French, meaning, “my mess mate” or “the one with whom I break bread with.” And with bread (or other foods) we may stumble upon, create, sustain, and grow the community of faith in which we are members.
Being an extrovert who often goes solo on many of my initial pilgrimages, I discovered one of the ways to quickly start a conversation and break through the loneliness or sense of isolation of being on a pilgrimage was by breaking bread, or sharing a meal with others. I remember starting the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Leon, in which I knew not a soul on this long walk. Early in the morning, I walked into an Albergue, a large house with numerous bunk beds for pilgrims along the Camino, where everyone was sharing breakfast with one another. Coffee and juice were flowing; people were taking out rolls and baguettes from backpacks and breaking bread with each other; others were swapping small paper packs of cold or hot cereal everywhere. Taking off my backpack, I sat at a table and was starting to take out my bottled water when a complete stranger asked me if I wanted some coffee. “Sure,” I said with a thankful heart. Soon someone else asked if I wanted part of a baguette with some sliced cheese, and again I accepted the gift of food. Conversations soon began from these veteran pilgrims who started at St. Jean in France as to who I was, where I came from in the States, and where was my destination for the day. As John Spalding wrote in his book on walking the Camino, “there was a startling candor among pilgrims who, like strangers at a bar, opened up in ways that they could not with others in their everyday life.” I soon knew more about my fellow pilgrims than many of the colleagues I worked with for years at home, in churches, or among faculty members.
Over many pilgrimages, I marvel at how quickly I moved from my status as “stranger” to “companion” along the way. On pilgrimage, I quickly came to understand and comprehend anew Aristotle’s breakdown of friendship: there are some pilgrims who I have a very brief encounter over a meal or two, maybe a days’ walk, concluding with a glass of wine at the end of day. There are others in which the friendship is of great usefulness, who helped me make it to the goal of getting to Spain’s Santiago de Compostela, or when walking across England along Hadrian’s Wall, making it to that last point, Newcastle on Tyne, binding up my blistered feet each day of the trek, carrying someone else’s backpack when someone is exhausted, or helping rub out a knotted muscle for each other over a period of a few weeks. Then there are those pilgrims who I met along the way who I am still in touch with, with whom I have gone on more than one or two more pilgrimages, with plans for more in the future, who open me up to a community of other pilgrims over a span of years. I am in touch with other pilgrims around the world with whom I have had the great privilege of walking with them over the years, in which we have a kind of unspoken yet well-known knowledge of what it means to be one of God’s pilgrim people.
In the pilgrimage of everyday life, in the life of the Christian community I currently serve, I’m also keenly aware of the simple gift of breaking bread with strangers in our midst, or when I am out visiting members in their homes, or meeting strangers along the pathway of life. Breaking bread, sharing a meal, becomes a conduit towards understanding that we are companions of the pilgrimage of life, following none other than the pilgrim God who was made known in the simple act of breaking bread with his disciples time and again. In the story of the disciples walking to Emmaus after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the two disciples meet a “stranger” along the way, with whom they share the Gospel, the Good News, of Jesus’ life. Hidden from their recognition, Jesus comes upon them and asks, “What are you discussing with each other while you walk along?” We know that the true identity of the stranger was revealed at the end of the day when they sat down and broke bread with the stranger, revealing the Christ among them (Luke 24).
In that spirit, the Rule of St. Benedict includes the important act of welcoming and receiving guests: “As soon as the arrival of a guest is announced, the superior and members of the community should hurry to offer a welcome with warm-hearted courtesy. First of all, they should pray together so as to seal their encounter in the peace of Christ…furthermore, rules of fasting may be broken by the superior to entertain the guest, and the superior pours water for guests to wash their hands and then wash their feet,” seated next to the superior during a meal, with the community involved in the ceremony. Why? Because in welcoming the stranger we welcome none other than the Christ among us. The late Brother John of the Taize community wrote that by praying and sharing life together in this way we are “enlarging to the scale of God’s people the experience which many are already living, and have been living for years. To go out to one another, beyond the barriers which usually separate us, and to go forth together to encounter God in prayer—is this not the true meaning of the Christian Pilgrimage,” or of Christian community? In welcoming the stranger into our community’s of faith along the pilgrimage of life, we may be welcoming the very stimulus for growth and change in a community’s life. For God may very well bring the stranger among us as we try to cling to old ways, knowing our propensity to change at a snail’s pace as we cling to the sidewalk and stones on the pilgrim’s path. Strangers call us to listen to one another, to sit silently and take in the stories of another, thus taking in the stories of God’s people. The stranger, the pilgrim, who visits, may cause a ripple effect of change, calling a Christian community to truly be the body of Christ in ways that those who are already members no longer can do because of the stability or the ruts we have become accustomed to in community life. The stranger also reminds us how we can be strangers to ourselves, pointing out parts of our lives that we fail to care for or tend to in our daily pilgrimage of every day living.
As I meet pilgrims on an actual pilgrimage along with the pilgrimage of everyday life, moving from the status of “stranger” to “companion” in the community of faith where I find myself, I also recognize that I am part of a greater community of pilgrims who were here before me and us. In the following post, the focus is on the memory of those who have come before us, whose footsteps we first find ourselves following, along with the act of making new trails along the pilgrimage of everyday life.
The Rev. Dr. Brett Webb-Mitchell is a pilgrim, a speaker, a writer, a teacher, a Presbyterian pastor, a parent, a partner, and a pet lover. Currently, Brett is interim head of staff at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (USA) in Portland. OR. He is a pilgrim, having written extensively on pilgrimage that includes stories from his pilgrimages from Thailand and Cambodia, to the Holy Lands, the Celtic frontiers of Ireland, Scotland, and England; along with the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, Chimayo, and pilgrimages throughout Central America. He is speaker and writer, covering issues facing people living with disabilities, religious education theory, and LGBTQ parenting in faith communities. He taught at both Duke Divinity School and NC Central University in Durham, NC. He is a dad of two wonderful young adults, and he and his partner are living bi-coastally between OR and NC.