Estevez, Sheen find The Way, but it’s a Camino without God

  • November 8, 2011

Many of the World Youth Day pilgrims in Spain this summer warmed up, so to speak, by walking the Camino de Santiago — the 800-km medieval pilgrim route from the French Pyrenees to the Cathedral of St. James (Santiago) in Compostela, Spain. In recent years, the Camino (the Way) has become enormously popular, with many walking all or part of it for reasons both religious and secular.

In my own family, my younger sister did it some years ago, and my mother and father walked some 100 km of it a few years back. Last month, my uncle and aunt made the pilgrim way. It seems everyone and his brother is making the pilgrimage — though not literally, as my family would be hard pressed to persuade this aggressively sedentary brother to take the Santiago stroll.

Indeed, many walk the Camino who are not at all religious. Perhaps they are spiritual, not religious, as it is commonly put, and are in search of something for which a pilgrimage is a both a metaphor and a real journey. Emilio Estevez, a lapsed Catholic who takes refuge in the spiritual-but-not-religious evasion, has made a film about the Camino called simply that, The Way. It stars his father, Martin Sheen, a serious Catholic, who plays a spiritually indifferent California doctor whose son, also of the spiritual-but-not-religious variety, dies on the first day of doing the Camino. Martin Sheen’s character, a widower now having lost his only son, goes to France to claim the body. He decides to do the Camino himself as a farewell-cum-tribute to his dead son, carrying with him his son’s ashes. It’s a father-son movie made by a real life father-son team.

I saw the film when it opened in Toronto, with four seminarians of greater stamina and piety than I. They have done the pilgrimage and assured me that the film, shot on location, was a more or less realistic depiction of the experience — though the movie characters had rather more luxurious adventures on the way.

My young friends went for religious reasons. Sheen’s character goes for familial reasons. “No one walks the Camino by accident,” the film tells us, though soon enough Sheen picks up various accidental characters.

Since Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the literary device of the pilgrim collecting oddball companions is a well-trod path. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Sheen, sans dog, soon finds himself part of a foursome. There is a drug-taking Dutchman, the man of great appetites who is trying to lose weight. He originally says he wants to fit into his old suit for his brother’s upcoming wedding, but it turns out that his wife finds him unattractive and won’t sleep with him any more. There is a chain-smoking Canadian, bitter, angry and cynical, who says her purpose is to quit smoking at the end of the Camino. It turns out her marriage to an abusive man fell apart, and she grieves for their child, whom she aborted. And then there is a supremely annoying Irishman, a loquacious magazine writer who aspires to be a novelist, but is afflicted with writer’s block. He hopes the Camino will help him recover his inspiration, and it does, in that he finds in Sheen’s character a great story.

We’re not in Kansas any more. There is no Tin Man looking for a heart, Scarecrow looking for wisdom or Cowardly Lion looking for courage. The characters in The Way are right up-to-date. They are not looking for the virtues, but rather excruciatingly fashionable things — losing weight, quitting smoking, professional success. One intuits, but only intuits, that they are all looking for a deeper meaning, and enduring love, but they are too superficial to know it.

Walking 800 km requires more than a little endurance and the days on end ought to provoke in even the most spiritually vacant person some modicum of reflection on enduring things. But there is very little of that, for these characters are precisely spiritual-but-not-religious. They are only capable of exploring the limits of their own experiences, imaginations and souls. The soul that goes in search only of itself will find very little, even after 800 km.

The pilgrims discover something — perhaps contentment, or even peace, or maybe just relief. But the Dutchman is still fat, the embittered Canadian is still smoking and the Irishman has a story, but, alas, is still self-absorbed and annoying. As for the lead character, the Camino has given him a taste of his son’s wanderlust and we see him in a final scene trekking the globe like a 20-something backpacker. It’s rather thin gruel for one of the world’s great pilgrimages. But the Camino without God, which is what is being lived here, is rather like a journey without a destination. The travel is its own reward, but still can leave one lost.

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