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The Sacred Journey

Author explores traditional spiritual practices with modern interest

By Sheryl Spencer

The Sacred Journey
By Charles Foster
(Thomas Nelson) $13.95

A few years ago, I walked a chunk of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage trail that stretches across northern Spain. When I returned, a friend asked if I’d had fun. I had to think for a second. “I didn’t have fun,” I replied. “I had everything.”

It is this everything aspect of pilgrimage that Charles Foster attempts to convey in The Sacred Journey, part of a series called Ancient Practices, which explores traditional spiritual disciplines with contemporary interest. The narrative, like the experience of pilgrimage, is tangential, personal and meandering, exploding here and there with unexpected profundity and beauty.

Foster, a British author and barrister who teaches medical law and ethics at Oxford University, is a supercharged soul in motion, an adventurer and a passionate Christian. His previous books span such categories as evolutionary biology, theology, archeology and philosophy. But having dodged bullets in various sand-strewn countries, skied to the North Pole and run the Marathon des Sables in the Sahara, he offers much more than a theoretical knowledge of the road.

Foster’s voice in The Sacred Journey is learned, cranky and persuasive. He tells us, in pages peppered with biblical and other references, that human beings were born to walk; that our Scriptures favour those who hit the road (Jesus being the prime example); and that those who have taken up modern pilgrimages — including himself — never come back with quite what they were looking for, but rather with a whole lot of what they never knew they needed. They gain knowledge that Sunday worship services can’t provide.

Journeys to the customary pilgrimage destinations — Jerusalem, Santiago, Lindisfarne — are so descriptive that grit from the road almost falls from the pages. And Foster’s scorn for the unadventurous life — in spiritual, physical and any other terms — is palpable, sometimes uncomfortably so.

To say that Charles Foster is a proponent of pilgrimage would be an understatement; at one point, I was struck with such wanderlust that I had to put the book down. Foster challenges you to examine the adventure of your faith with a new urgency. It’s as if he stands at your front door, holding it wide open, hiking boots in outstretched hand.

Sheryl Spencer is a student in the master of divinity program at Emmanuel College. She always keeps her hiking boots handy.

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