"Follow me..." Mark 2:14
The Way is a movie that took its own path to your local movie theatre. Refusing to let major Hollywood studios declare this independent film unfit for major theatrical release, director Emilio Estevez took the promotion of The Way to the people by way of a father/son road trip through America (see this article for a peek into that journey).
Except for Estevez and his father Martin Sheen, The Way doesn't feature any blockbuster stars or include mountains of special effects. Rather, it's the story of a simple journey - and in that simplicity, it shatters all expectations.
Sheen stars as Tom Avery, an American eye doctor whose only son Daniel (played in flashbacks by Estevez) has recently died while on pilgrimage through the Pyrenees mountains on his way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. Tom immediately heads overseas to identify and collect Daniel's body - but while in France, he is inspired to continue his son's journey to Santiago.
We come to learn that this decision was a father's way to repair a broken relationship and come to understood who his son really was and what Daniel was trying to tell him in the last conversation they ever had together: "Dad, you don't choose a life. You live it."
With Daniel's equipment, guides, and backpack, Tom sets out on the very long journey across northern Spain just as his son would have done. This is an ancient pilgrim route (called the "Camino" or "Way") towards the shrine of St. James the Apostle, whose remains are found at the Cathedral in Santiago. However, this pilgrimage journey has actually very little to do with venerating the bones of a saint, but savoring the experiences one has along the road to get there.
Along Tom's path, he has his own unique experiences of pain, struggle, and faith - and has chance encounters with an assorted cast of characters including: Joost (Yorick van Wageningen), a kind-hearted, playful Dutchman who says he walks the Camino to loose weight; Sarah (Deborah Kara Unger), an embittered Canadian who claims to make the journey to quit smoking; and Jack (James Nesbit), an Irish writer who tells passers-by that he is researching a book about the pilgrims along the road.
Like the travelers in The Wizard of Oz, Tom and these three companions learn that, while they started the journey alone, they want nothing more than to walk together (though not without inevitable complications and disagreements that come from the fusion of very distinct personalities as these).
The movie, like the pilgrimage, gets more interesting the farther along the path they go. With each passing kilometer, the pilgrim group has entertaining adventures, meet an eclectic collection of locals and fellow travelers, and discover more depth about one another than they ever hoped to learn. The destination, then, is not the culmination but rather the capstone to the journey: an affirmation of the beauty that was seen and a blessing to the redemption that had come.
The Way reminds us of the fact that pilgrimage is a lost art. Begun in an era before minute-by-minute busyness and the art of multi-tasking, people would go on pilgrimage as we today would step onto a plane for a much-needed vacation (not that we have much time for that today, either). The pilgrim way was a chance to cleanse oneself from the pressures of the world, to renew oneself during the inevitable periods of silence and routine that go into a very long walk, and to open oneself to the new experiences and new people that we may encounter along the way.
Perhaps now more than ever, we need more pilgrimage moments in our lives. Like the first apostles who left their work and anxieties behind and started down their pilgrim road with Jesus with a simple invitation ("Follow me..." Mk. 2:14), we, too, might need a gentle push to get us going along the way.
We each have a starting point (for Tom, it was a penance for the distance he created with his son; for Joost, it was the need to feel accepted despite his weight problems; for Sarah, it was an addiction; for Jack, it was writers' block)... but as we walk onward on our pilgrimage, we peel back the layers to discover an even-greater reason to make the effort. What might your starting point be? What pains, struggles, or rationale would you have to taking time for a pilgrimage? What might be your goal?
Taking time away might seem like a luxury we don't have, but the fact remains that there will never be a perfect time to set it all aside and set out on pilgrimage. Jesus' disciples had work still unfinished with they followed him; in this movie, Tom had appointments waiting back home and Jack had deadlines he had to meet. If we make the excuse that now is just not the right time, we may never walk the pilgrimage we are called to make. Imagine what might have been missed if the apostles refused Jesus' offer... or imagine how bad a movie this would have been if Tom just went back to America after identifying his son's body. Imagine how dull or crazy your life may be if you don't take your first step towards pilgrimage - whatever that may be for you.
And then imagine what possibilities there may be on your own road ahead. Imagine what your Camino would look like. Imagine the adventures, the people, and the personal growth that may be just around the corner for you.
The producers of The Way took their own pilgrim route to make a meaningful film, despite objections and doubts from big studio executives. The result is a simple and yet profound invitation to all those who watch to take their own journey. The Way may very well be the cinematic equivalent of Jesus' invitation to the first disciples, "Follow me..." The film may be challenging us to move ahead, to take that first step.
The questions remain, then: What will your first step be? What's stopping you? and Where will you go?
Blessings on the way.