Mission leader ponders spirituality walking the Way of St. James

September 1, 2011

Assisted by little more than a good pair of athletic shoes and a wicking T-shirt, Catholic Health Initiatives' Vice President of Mission Integration Luke Larson, joined by his wife Evie, walked 500 miles in 48 days across the Camino de Santiago de Compostela to the burial place of St. James. The pilgrimage brought Larson closer to Jesus, his wife and even the origins of health care.

"My walking time was my quiet time," said Larson. "This was a time to truly just be present with God. We didn't have prayers of petition. I was truly without an agenda — there were just a lot of prayers of gratitude, a lot of communing with the saints."

Larson's sabbatical from CHI was supported by the Cahill Leadership Initiative, a grant program established to honor CHI's first president and chief executive, Patricia Cahill. A Jesuit for eight years, Larson decided the Camino, which cuts through the fields and villages of St. Ignatius of Loyola's Basque homeland, would be the perfect place to reconnect with his Ignatian spirituality. To prepare for the journey along the Way of St. James, Larson studied Spanish and walked, walked and walked. He wanted to complete the pilgrimage entirely on foot just like pilgrims have for centuries.

"There is this image of a busload of people going to three or four sights with a statue of Mary and laying flowers," said Larson. "I didn't just want to toddle around villages."

Blessed with time
The Larsons began their pilgrimage Sept. 14, 2010, in the traditional starting place of Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, at the foot of the Pyrenees Mountains in France. After crossing the mountains on the second day, they were in Spain for the remainder of their trek. Their journey concluded on All Saints Day, Nov. 1, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.

Larson, who is 50, and Evie, a nurse, usually walked about 13 miles a day, sometimes more. Blessed with time, they took breaks along the way. "The Camino is the journey, not a destination," Larson said. To help the miles pass, they kept spiritual company with relatives at home and loved ones who have passed. Always present — Larson's brother Adam, who was killed in the World Trade Center attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Because of my Catholic faith, I truly do believe in the communion of saints and that we can truly be present with those who have died," said Larson.

"Adam was there with us every day, and we counted on his spiritual support."

No two days of the Larsons' journey were alike, but typically the couple set off at 8 a.m. after a breakfast of tea and toast. Lunch was often an apple or baguette. At night, backs aching from carrying their 16-pound packs, the couple would wash their clothes, pray, journal and visit with other pilgrims. The couple also would reflect on the day's events. It was during these conversations about St. Ignatius and the meaning of prayer that Larson and his wife, happily married for 15 years, discovered a new admiration for each other.

"If you would have asked me, 'Do you and your wife have profound conversations?' I would have said, 'Sure.' We're a couple that is close and in love," said Larson. "But what was amazing was the profundity of these conversations and it was like, 'Whoa. We've never talked like this before.'"

Early hospitals
The journey also offered Larson a singular opportunity to visit the earliest hospitals, actually hostels for weary travelers.

"Back then, they were simply places for travelers to stay. And often travelers need to be cared for," said Larson. "That tradition continues today along the Camino. It almost blows you away — these communities built numerous hostels — hospitals for pilgrims to stay based on that Christian notion that these people were making a sacred journey and so they were treated with respect and reverence.

"That's the origin of our ministry today," he said. "The Latin is 'hospitalitas' from which we get 'hospitality.' We truly are in the hospitality ministry. First and foremost that's what we provide. We may not be able to cure the cancer, but we can always provide hospitality. It is our Christian obligation."

One-mile sabbatical
Larson is writing a book about his trip called Keeping Company. Although Larson took some 2,000 pictures and made daily journal entries, the book is not a travelogue of the Camino. Rather Keeping Company will explore the power of walking as a way to connect to God and others.

"Walking provides a focused time in simply being and connecting with the Lord," said Larson. "We can all put on our tennis shoes and walk out the door and walk with ourselves, a beloved companion and certainly with Jesus and say, 'Jesus, let's take a walk.' Sometimes we have the impression that to pray we have to close our eyes and bow. But to me, I feel with the Lord when we're taking a stroll together."

Those in the fast-changing world of health care could benefit from that message, said Larson. He knows extended sabbaticals, like his, are a rare gift. So, he encourages brief breaks for contemplation, one-mile sabbaticals as it were.

"'Sabbatical' comes from the same word as 'Sabbath' and the whole notion is a time of rest," said Larson. "In my sense, it's not to go lay in a recliner. The rest is that attunement, that time of truly listening, truly being with yourself and others.

"You cannot be a leader — and certainly not a servant leader — unless you have that true attentiveness. The more we get caught up in the hectic demands of modern health care, the more we need that. It doesn't have to be a 48- day, 500-mile trek to achieve that sense of Sabbath in our lives."


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.