A Sabbatical Walk to Santiago


A Sabbatical Walk to Santiago
Brian Zahnd

I’ve been a pastor for 35 years. One church. Nonstop. I’ve written 3,270 sermons. In the past seven years I’ve written six books. I’ve never been away from my church for two consecutive Sundays except during some international ministry trips. I’ve never gone two Sundays without preaching somewhere…ever.

Now it’s time for a sabbatical. I’m going to be gone for seven Sundays. No sermon preparation, no preaching, no writing, no counseling. It will be a time of reflection, a time of prayer, and a time of walking.

Walking, walking, walking…

Peri and I are going on a 500 mile walk.

By God’s grace we’re going to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela — a 1,200 year-old pilgrim route from St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. It will probably take us somewhere around five weeks. For five weeks or so we’ll walk and pray, eat and sleep…and that’s about it.


In the Middle Ages Santiago became a pilgrim destination associated with James the brother of John. The tradition is that the Apostle James went to Spain soon after Pentecost, later returned to Jerusalem where he was executed by King Herod, and eventually his remains were brought to Compostela, Spain. Of course, it’s probably just a legend.

But that’s not the point. The pilgrimage itself is the point. The Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) has been made holy by the countless pilgrims who have made the journey — a journey rooted in Christian faith — for more than a thousand years. To walk the Camino is to walk on holy ground. Even thoroughly secular souls who walk the Camino say they sense this. Ironically, as Europe has becomes more secular, the Camino de Santiago has become more popular. Make of this what you will, but I think it has something to do with the Christ-haunted European soul.

Interestingly, during the Middle Ages those convicted of heresy were sometimes sentenced to walk the Camino as penance. Those of you who particularly disagree with my theology may take a perverse pleasure in this!

Well, whether it’s a sentence for heresy or a divine blessing, I’m positively giddy to begin this adventure. I’ve talked to several people who have walked the Camino recently and they all say the same three things:

1. It was harder than I thought.
2. I absolutely loved it.
3. It changed my life.

So be it.

Peri and I definitely have the sense that we are supposed to do this…though I’m not exactly sure why. I suspect I can’t know why I’m supposed to do this until I do it. Which is true of a lot of things in life.

We’ve been planning this for a long time. Four years ago I told Peri I couldn’t bear the thought of enduring another quadrennial autumnal presidential election season. The acrimony, the vitriol, the divisiveness, the politicized passion have now reached levels that are toxic to the soul. So in November of 2012 I told Peri we would need to take our first-ever sabbatical in the fall of 2016. She suggested we walk the Camino. (I add this fact for those who think I’m dragging “that poor woman” off on a crazy lark. No, it was her idea!) We leave September 11 and return November 5 — just in time to celebrate the 35th anniversary of Word of Life Church on Sunday, November 6.

After four years of talking about the Camino, reading books about it, dreaming about it, and preparing for it, we’re about to begin. As soon as church is over this Sunday we head for the airport. After a series of planes and trains we will take our first steps onto the Camino on Wednesday, September 14 — Holy Cross Day.


Along the way we will attend as many church services as we can. Churches on the Camino generally have daily Eucharistic services for pilgrims. In a way we will be walking to church every day for five weeks or more. We’re church-going people, you know.

During this sabbatical I won’t be following the news (hallelujah!), reading email, or engaging in social media. So, see you in November. (Peri may post some on Instagram.)

One final request. Please pray for us. It feels like a spiritually significant season. Pray that our sabbatical would be restorative. Pray that we would encounter Christ on the Camino. Pray for our feet!

Thank you!


P.S. Here’s the trailer to The Way — a wonderful movie I highly recommend about the Camino with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez. (The Way is how we first became aware of the Camino.)