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Last spring, seminarian Dustin Boehm made a pilgrimage.
But this was no ordinary spiritual journey that his fellow seminarians or any other Catholic might take.
Boehm walked 850 miles in the footsteps of countless pilgrims who have taken similar routes for the past 1,000 years to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela—on the western tip of Europe—that tradition holds is the resting place of St. James.
From his starting point in southern France, Boehm experienced many physical and spiritual crosses along the way.
He was hobbled by an ankle that swelled up to twice its normal size.
He walked with many pilgrims who were dismissive of the very notion of believing in God and in becoming a priest.
And he walked over the rugged Pyrenees Mountains in fierce late winter weather.
Such challenges of pilgrimages, along with the many blessings that come with them, have made them an important part of the Christian faith since the earliest days of the Church. The ups and downs of a pilgrimage correspond powerfully to the journey of faith to heaven that all believers make over the course of their lives. (See more photos from Boehm's pilgrimage | Related story: Mother and daughter make pilgrimage on foot from Paris to Chartres)
This meaning is so profound that the journey to Santiago de Compostela has come to be called in Spanish the “Camino” or, as it would be rendered in English, “the Way.”
Boehm began his pilgrimage on March 21 and completed it on May 31, Pentecost Sunday.
He did this during a year when he took off from his studies at Saint Meinrad School of Theology in St. Meinrad, where he is currently in the third of his four years of priestly formation.
“I really wanted to do something that was physical, that would really kind of help form my actions into prayer,” said Boehm, a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood. “I just wanted the time on the pilgrimage. I wanted to be able to enter into the spirit of the pilgrimage, the spirit of conversion. And I had the time to do that.”
While walking, Boehm gained an appreciation for the historic nature of his pilgrimage.
“It really hit me about one week into it that I was treading the same ground that so many Christians [had walked],” he said. “[They] really were our ancestors who had sought conversion to conform themselves in a greater way to the crucified Christ in the pilgrimage.”
Boehm did this by carrying many difficult crosses during his long trek. Some were forced upon him, such as when he had to trudge over the rugged Pyrenees Mountains in harsh late-winter weather.
“It was horrible,” he said. “It was the first day that they had just opened up the route [over the mountains]. It was right at the end of winter. So the snow was still up there. It was cold. And it kept switching between snow and rain. I couldn’t see more than 50 feet in front of me.”
Other crosses encountered were his own fault, such as his choice to forgo physical training before the pilgrimage and to not break in his hiking boots. This decision resulted in one of his ankles swelling to twice its normal size two weeks into the pilgrimage.
“I was an idiot,” Boehm said.
He took a few days off from walking to let his ankle heal, but also to reflect and pray.
“The pains really showed how sin really slows us down on that journey toward heaven,” Boehm said.
Other crosses were more spiritual than physical in nature, such as when Boehm met several pilgrims who were effectively atheists and showed contempt for his choice to be a seminarian.
“Out of that reality came some of the most frustrating times on the pilgrimage,” he said. “Like the psalmist says, ‘All day long, I hear, “Where is your God?” ’ [Ps 42:4]. In a very real way, I felt that for very prolonged amounts of time.”
At a later point in his pilgrimage, Boehm went from carrying his own cross to being like Simon of Cyrene.
But the person whose cross he helped carry was no other ordinary pilgrim. It was his mother, Kelli Boehm, 50, also a member of Our Lady of the Greenwood Parish in Greenwood.
She met her son in Leon, Spain, and planned to walk the last 200 miles of the pilgrimage with him over two weeks.
But on their second day of walking, she fell and fractured a shoulder.
They left the trail and, with the help of other pilgrims, eventually made their way to Madrid, where she concluded that she needed to return home.
Before she left, Kelli gained a new perspective on her son’s love for her.
“It was probably the most humbling experience of my life because, actually, my son was the one who ended up taking care of me,” she said. “That’s a humbling experience for any parent. I was totally reliant on him [even] to do my hair and help me through those four or five days before I went back to the states.”
Dustin even offered to give up his goal of reaching Santiago de Compostela in order to accompany his mother back to Indiana, but she adamantly refused.
“To get that close to his destination, and actually give up his goal just to accompany me home on a plane just about made me cry,” she said.
Early on, Andrew Hart, a seminarian for the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark., who is a friend of Boehm and is studying at the Pontifical North American College in Rome, joined him for a few days in southern France.
The physical, mental and spiritual challenges of the pilgrimage were overwhelming to Boehm at the time.
“On the last night with Andrew, we were at dinner and I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can do this,’ ” Boehm said. “He just looked at me and said, ‘One day at a time. Just put one foot in front of another, and you’ll do it. Through the grace of God, you’ll get this done.’ ”
As he took one step at a time, Boehm kept walking west toward the setting sun, which was a daily reminder that life itself is a pilgrimage whose destination is heaven itself, something that helped him “realize in a new way that joy that comes with the suffering of death into new life.”
Boehm eventually walked into Santiago de Compostela on Pentecost. He went to a Mass in the cathedral there that is dedicated each day to the arriving pilgrims. At the cathedral, an announcement is made of the location from which each pilgrim began their journey.
Boehm stayed in Santiago de Compostela for a few days before traveling to the Jesuit-run Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., for a 30-day silent Ignatian retreat.
The physical and spiritual enormity of his pilgrimage and its profound meaning finally washed over him.
“On my last evening in Santiago, … I walked into the cathedral probably about an hour before it closed and I just sat there,” Boehm said. “After about 30 minutes of sitting there, trying to let soak in this fact that I was done and that I was going home the next day, I just heard in the depths of my heart those words that Christ spoke on the cross, ‘It is finished.’
“I just broke down and cried. It was a very beautiful moment with the Lord and resting with him.”
Now back at Saint Meinrad School of Theology, Boehm spoke with The Criterion about his pilgrimage several months after he completed his journey.
He was confident that his experience on the Camino will have a positive influence on his priestly formation.
“It has given me leaps and bounds greater confidence that I can depend on my Lord to provide whatever I need,” Boehm said. “Despite all of the trials that I will no doubt go through in the future, I can look to him and be wholly confident that what I need will be given.
“It might not be what I want, but it will be what I need.”
At the same time, his experience of the day-to-day blessings and crosses of his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela taught Boehm to not worry about the future but, instead, to live in the present.
“With this pilgrimage, instead of looking so much to the future, I was really able to live in that present moment with the pain and suffering of each day, the joys and the peace of each day that came,” Boehm said. “I tried to look for the grace in the moment, even in the pain.” †