“Road Trip” Spirituality: In Movies and Real Life

“Road trip” movies are so popular they have become their own genre. Over the past few years, great “journey” stories really seem to speak to our popular culture, which is hungry for the spiritual but avoids the religious. Even when they’re not great movies, road trip films can occasionally take on the status of a phenomenon. (Whether we’ve seen them or not, most of us have probably heard of the films Sideways and Eat, Pray, Love.) Well-done journey stories include not just an outer trip, but an inner journey as well, often with strong spiritual overtones. My favorite “road trip” movies focus more on aspects of the spiritual journey. Sometimes they are hidden gems that never made it big in the theaters, films like: Central Station; About Schmidt; The Straight Story; Smoke Signals; and most recently, The Way.

What is it about road trip stories that connect so easily to the spiritual? Since it is easy to picture our entire lives as a journey, do we naturally identify with the compelling journeys of others? Like “redemption movies,” which focus on a fundamental change in the protagonist, the “road trip” also emphasizes change: either by providing plenty of metaphors for us, or by actually focusing on the inner growth of the character.

The film, The Way: an Invitation to Look Deeper
The Way (2010), starring Martin Sheen and his son, Emilio Estevez, is just such a movie. The context of the film is the ancient pilgrimage el Camino di Santiago, or the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage of over 500 miles which ends at St. James Cathedral. Wealthy widower Tom (convincingly acted by Martin Sheen) receives the news that his son died while trying to walk el Camino, and decides to complete the pilgrimage to honor his son’s memory.

Considering that el Camino is often (not always) a religious pilgrimage, The Way is a less overtly Catholic film than I expected. But the symbols and themes of faith are hidden in the mismatched pilgrims that team up with Tom: from the distressed writer with writer’s block (an unlikable caricature of a writer that I connected with all too easily as a writer), to the hardened woman who is, underneath, carrying a heavy burden she is trying to let go of on this pilgrimage, to the most “normal” of the pilgrims–the young man trying to lose weight. But the story to watch is Tom’s: a story that we catch glimpses of, but never wholly capture. Tom’s experience evokes a true spiritual journey, but happily the film doesn’t give us all the steps. Who can define the spiritual journey? Rather, we are invited to muse on Tom’s experience and connect it with our own.

App for the Journey
For those who would like to gain a deeper sense of wonder on your own journey, or experience some of the insights from the Camino, there is a wonderful new app available for the iPad that encourages a deeper reflection on the moments of our journey, entitled Pilgrim Cards: The Camino Edition. The Toronto Star featured an article about how the app was created by Camino walker Austin Repath: Sometimes It’s the Journey.

Having experienced the power of a religious pilgrimage in my own life, I have been curious about  the Camino ever since browsing through Joyce Rupp’s Walk in a Relaxed Manner. As a spiritual writer, Sr. Joyce Rupp has a wonderful way of taking the most human of experiences and placing them in the light of God’s grace where they can be seen for what they are: sacred. She does this exquisitely in Walk in a Relaxed Manner.

A Profound Pilgrimage: Pauline Beginnings
My most profound spiritual pilgrimage was just over ten years ago. A group of Daughters of St. Paul from the USA and Canada traveled together to Rome and Alba, Italy. It was the 100th anniversary of the “night of light”–the night between the 19th and 20th centuries when our Founder, Blessed James Alberione, received the initial inspiration for our media apostolate and the Pauline Family. We were going to pray in the same place, at the same time, as our Founder had a century ago. We would welcome in the new millennium with a night of prayer. Daughters of St. Paul and other members of the Pauline Family from around the world gathered in Alba for the special night. Our convent, large as it is, provided for the many Pauline pilgrims as it could–we all received cots and lined various offices and rooms–about 20 nuns shared my room. It was too noisy for many of us to sleep much, but there was strength in being gathered together.

That night, in the packed Cathedral of Alba, we had a beautiful Mass and Hour of Adoration. I found myself a bit distracted, but tried to focus my prayer for the new millennium. In the midst of the quiet, at midnight the town square of Alba (just outside the Cathedral) erupted in shouts and fireworks. Living in the various cities that I have, I am used to noisy New Year celebrations during our late night adoration. But I just didn’t expect in Alba. Not on our special night of light.

Secretly, I think I’d been hoping for a particular inspiration, perhaps some interior fireworks. I had been facing deep frustration and great challenges in my work in the Pauline mission, and I badly wanted some consolation and inspiration. Yet, the noise outside continued raucously, distractingly.  I certainly didn’t receive any inspiration that night.

When we finally left the Cathedral to return to our convent to catch a few hours of sleep, I worked hard to stifle a sense of deep disappointment. I knew better than to expect spiritual “fireworks” in my prayer…but I was still disappointed. We continued our pilgrimage over the next few days, visiting the other significant places in the history of the Pauline Family. Then we returned to Rome. Up to this point, my entire pilgrimage had been full of beauty and insights. I was grateful for having received so much, but I wanted a soul-shaking experience, something that would transform my life.

We had just two free days in the city of Rome, and I decided to re-visit the Basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls. We had already visited it as a group, but I had felt rushed and wanted to take my time. Scared of getting lost in Rome, I convinced a couple of other sisters to come with me, and we courageously navigated the way there.

Walking towards the Basilica, I had the profound sense that I was being welcomed, that this was a place to sink in my roots after wandering for two weeks. It was one of those timeless moments: I spent five hours praying in the Basilica, and it felt like five minutes. There were no spiritual fireworks, but I received a very special grace: a confirmation of my part in the Pauline mission, a sense that the path I was taking and the efforts I was making would bear fruit in God’s own time. I truly felt Saint Paul’s hand on my head, comforting and guiding me.

If I had received that grace at the beginning of the pilgrimage, in the midst of the excitement of being in such special places, and all the new sights and insights into the history of the Pauline Family, I am not sure I would have even noticed it. As much as I thought I was open to God’s inspiration at the Cathedral of Alba, I suspect I was too busy “looking for signs” rather than attending to the actual, hidden ways God was working in me.

My visit to the Basilica was one of the very last days of our pilgrimage, and it brought to life many of the gifts from the pilgrimage, which I continue to carry today. I will always treasure–and sometimes still feel–that sense of St. Paul putting his hand on my head.

Have you ever made a religious pilgrimage? How has it influenced your spiritual journey?

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3 thoughts on ““Road Trip” Spirituality: In Movies and Real Life

  1. I really want to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,but for now, I cannot afford it yet. Spiritually however, God has led me to many paths of growth, including dark paths and deserts that helped me know Him more. I am once more at the crossroads today, and I pray that I may choose the way He wants me to go to.

    • I will be praying for you, too, that you will discover God’s will for you at this crossroads of your life! God bless you.

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