I recently attended a preview showing of a film that comes out in a few months time. The film is called The Way and it stars Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez, who was also the director. Martin Sheen plays Tom Avery, a Californian ophthalmologist, whose son, Daniel, from whom he has become estranged, has gone off to travel the world. Tom receives a ‘phone call, while playing golf with some buddies and the caller, speaking in broken English, tells him his son has been killed in an accident in the French Pyrenees. Tom decides to go to France to collect his son’s body. After a spending the night in France, Tom changes his plan to have his son cremated. Having found that Daniel had died just as he was starting out on the Camino de Santiago, the 900km pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Tom decided that he would walk where his son had planned to walk and take his ashes with him. The rest of the film tells the story of this journey and of some of the people he meets along the way.
Martin Sheen is a committed Roman Catholic who raised his son in the faith, but the film is far from being just an advert for the Catholic Church. The Way is an unusual film in that it takes religious practice seriously. While it is not uncritical, it shows that the practice of religion can still have a place in the developed world in the 21st century.
Those of us who have been raised as Non-Conformist Christians do not have activities like pilgrimage as part of our tradition. However, there are some practices with which we are familiar. Regular prayer and Bible study times – probably daily and either in the morning or at night – have been part of the practice of Baptist Christians for much of our history, but we tend to shy away from the word religion, preferring the word ‘faith’. Religion seems to imply doing and saying things by rote, rather than out of a desire to worship. The derivation of the word ‘religion’ is disputed, but one suggestion is that it has to do with being bound to God. John Fawcett’s hymn, Blest be the tie that binds, is referring to the bonds of fellowship, but often we also need help in keeping up our relationship with God and at such times religious practice can help. A 900km pilgrimage might be beyond us, but surely a pattern of regular readings and prayers are not.