Walking through Europe, one finds the relics of Christianity. Not relics in the Christian sense of the term—the cherished remains of the beloved dead, the things that make real our connection to the believers who have gone before—but in the literal sense of the Latin: relicta, things that have been left behind, abandoned, or forsaken. The monastery has become a museum filled with placards that don’t quite know what to make of the former occupants. The cathedrals are neat and clean, but full of more tourists than worshippers. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is not one of these relics, at least not in the same way. Every year, thousands walk the old pilgrimage route across Spain to the relics of St. James, following in the footsteps of thousands through the centuries. It is not the Camino itself that has been forsaken, but its Christianity. Many—perhaps most—of the pilgrims do not travel the Way to find to the one who said he himself was the Way. They are looking to find themselves, to get in touch with the vaguely defined spiritual, or to do something even more banal, like lose weight.
The Way, a new movie directed by Emilio Estevez and starring his father, Martin Sheen, tells the story of Tom, a Californian ophthalmologist (Sheen) whose son (Estevez) dies on the first day of his pilgrimage. Having retrieved and cremated the body, Tom then decides to finish the pilgrimage, carrying his son’s ashes along and burying them at different points along the way. A self-proclaimed lapsed Catholic, Tom doesn’t see much point in prayer during a time of grief. Nor was he close to his more free-spirited son. He embarks on the pilgrimage out of a sense of duty and a desire to help his son finish what he died attempting.
In the first town, he meets Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a jolly Dutchman who claims he’s walking to shed pounds from his substantial girth, yet stops for samples of every local cuisine along the route. Despite Tom’s best efforts to walk alone, the two stick together and acquire two more travel companions: Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an angry Canadian who smokes like a chimney but swears she’s walking to quit, and Jack (James Nesbitt), an Irish travel writer looking for material for a book on the Camino. Together, they pass through the gorgeous Spanish countryside, meeting a host of characters along the way.
None of the main characters walks for religious reasons. They are not on a journey to find God, but, in various ways, God seems to find them. How exactly this happens is a tricky business for the filmmakers. There are many points at which The Way could slide off into a hackneyed story of religious conversion or “spiritual but not religious” self-actualization. It comes close at times, but Estevez and his crew deserve credit for making a movie that remains humorous and thoughtful without being cliché. (Some spoilers follow.)
Everyone, it turns out, gets more than he expected from the walk. Joost, we discover, needs to lose weight because his wife won’t sleep with him. By the end, he seems more content, but how he has changed remains unclear. Jack refuses to enter the cathedral, saying that the Church has done enough damage in his country. He relents, however, and soon is found weeping and praying within.
Sarah is perhaps the most interesting. Her journey is not about cigarettes, she reveals one day after instinctively lashing out and punching Tom. She was married, she says, and pregnant, but she had an abortion because she didn’t want her husband to beat them both.
“Sometimes I can hear her voice, my baby,” she says. “Sometimes I can hear her.”
“Sorry about your baby,” Tom replies.
“Sorry about yours.”
“My son was almost forty.”
“Yeah, but he’ll always be your baby.”
Predictably, perhaps, that is what Tom learns over the course of his walk. The ophthalmologist’s vision gradually becomes clearer, seeing his need both to rely on and to love those around him. The man who left France with an enclosed and wounded heart casts the last of his son’s ashes into the Atlantic and rests in peace. There is no fanfare-filled conversion scene, but he ends up being religious almost in spite of himself.
“Why does something that should be inspirational make me so angry?” Sarah asks at one point. Even if the Camino is safer and more comfortable today than it used to be, it still works on a person. It does not simply wear down, though; it excavates. Along the way, the pilgrims come to a giant cross with an enormous pile of small stones at its base. Here they quietly lay down rocks with paper prayers attached, adding their voices to the crowd gathered at the Mercy Seat.
And yet are they really crying to Christ, we might wonder? Was the journey just cheaply inspirational, a kind of therapy session with a tour of the Spanish countryside thrown in? Perhaps, we might say, pilgrims traveled for holier reasons in ancient days. They walked to repent, to find and love God. They knew the one they were seeking, and he wasn’t just a reflection of themselves.
But of course it was not so. The pilgrims of yesterday were sinners like those of today, and many, no doubt, had dubious reasons for embarking on their journey. There is and was a danger, it is true, that, instead of a hallowed relic, the Camino can become a hollow one. We see that danger real and present in The Way. And yet, we hope, those remains of Christianity can point to Christ in our own time. We see this, too, in The Way. And we hope that for characters such as these, walking the Camino can offer the deepest healing and self-revelation: an encounter with the Way himself.
Nathaniel Peters is a doctoral candidate in theology at Boston College.
Fall Web Campaign: Please donate to support the online mission of First Things.