Morning Prayers: Lenten Lessons Learned on the Camino Santiago

Sienna Leis speaks at Morning Prayers

Sienna Leis '00, Director of College Reunions, Harvard Alumni Association, speaks about her pilgrimage to Camino Santiago at Morning Prayers in Appleton Chapel. Photo by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications


A Poem by Rabbi Alvin Fine

Birth is a beginning
And death a destination.
And life is a journey:
From childhood to maturity
And youth to age;
From innocence to awareness
And ignorance to knowing;
From foolishness to discretion
And then perhaps to wisdom;
From weakness to strength
Or strength to weakness--
And, often, back again;
From health to sickness
And back, we pray, to health again;
From offense to forgiveness,
From loneliness to love,
From joy to gratitude,
From pain to compassion,
And grief to understanding--
From fear to faith;
From defeat to defeat to defeat--
Until, looking backward or ahead,
We see what victory lies
Not at some high places along the way,
But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
A sacred pilgrimage,
Birth is a beginning
And death is a destination.
And life is a journey,
A sacred pilgrimage--
To life everlasting.


Lenten Lessons Learned on the Camino Santiago

I was in San Francisco last week for Ash Wednesday and it dawned on me during a meeting with a distinguished alum from the class of 1983, Cabot Brown. We were talking about members of his class now deceased, and talking about the ways they would be remembered here in Memorial Church this May during their reunion memorial service.

I asked Cabot, “Why do you do this, what is your inspiration for remembering your classmates in this way?” And he said quite simply, “We forget how blessed we are.” And that was my ah-ha moment. I had been searching for the right message, the right words to share with you on this morning, and had found it.

It’s such an honor to be here during this first full week of Lent, a time that has always been special to me.

As a child, it was about ice cream. I would give up my daily indulgence for 40 days, and be so proud of myself on Sunday when I was rewarded that absolute ice-cream sundae with my family.

Those days of ice cream gave way to Lent, “Harvard-Style”. My roommates and I would try to “out-Lent” each other, to see who could do Lent better the Harvard way. Sincerely, I would not gain a true understanding of Lent, and this opportunity we have during this season, until many years later.

In 2010, I walked my first pilgrimage, the Camino Santiago. This Camino, a route that is walked by hundreds-of-thousands of pilgrims each year, was a journey that I undertook quite surprisingly to those who knew me more by my high heels than hiking boots. But I remember where I was when I first read about the walk to the tomb of Saint James the Apostle in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, and I immediately knew this was a journey I had to undertake.

So, this morning as we start our day, this beautiful Wednesday in Boston I want to share with you four lessons that I learned while walking that Camino that guide me during this season and throughout the year. I hope they will provide you a little bit of inspiration.

Lesson One – Connect:
Connect with others, nature, and yourself. Everyone becomes a part of your expedition, a part of your story. We move so fast in our day-to-day lives that we often miss the message. We miss what is being put in front of us. So, take time, as they say, to “smell the roses.” Take time to see the messages that you are given each day. Take time to see the gifts that we’ve been given.  

Lesson Two – Find meaning in suffering:
If the Camino were easy, it wouldn’t be the same gift. My first Camino was a walk of nearly four weeks, 330 kilometers. Regardless of the pain, you found joy because you were on that journey with other pilgrims, others on their own path but to the same destination. Pain is an inevitable part of life but it’s how we deal with it that matters.

And in that suffering, just keep walking – Lesson 3:

Conquering challenges leads to transformation. I remember my first day on the Camino. I had not read a guidebook, so I was surprised that there were hills and mountains on the walk. But those challenges are really what defined my way, and defined that experience for me. Keep walking through the good and the bad. The sun will rise again. Just keep walking.

The Final Lesson – Realize that life is a journey, not a destination:

While I know you’ve heard the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote time and time again, it’s true. We have to take the time to appreciate and understand that the destination is where we are today — whether we are planning a reunion, whether it’s doing a daycare drop-off, whether it’s the challenges we have at home every day — that’s the journey. That is where we are meant to be. Enjoy it and take your time.

In Lent we have this opportunity to be our best selves, and to be our best selves so that we may be closer to God, the creator, whomever it is you believe. So today I challenge you to pause and ask yourself when you are making small decisions, whether it’s deciding to smile at that stranger that crosses your way or how you interact with others around you. Treat those around you with love and care as you seek to be your best self this Lent and every day.   


Father, Mother, God,
Thank you for your presence
during the hard and mean days.
For then we have you to lean upon.
Thank you for your presence
during the bright and sunny days,
for then we can share that which we have
with those who have less.
And thank you for your presence
during the Holy Days, for then we are able
to celebrate you and our families
and our friends.
For those who have no voice,
we ask you to speak.
For those who feel unworthy,
we ask you to pour your love out
in waterfalls of tenderness.
For those who live in pain,
we ask you to bathe them
in the river of your healing.
For those who are lonely, we ask
you to keep them company.
For those who are depressed,
we ask you to shower upon them
the light of hope.
Dear Creator, You, the borderless
sea of substance, we ask you to give to all the
world that which we need most — Peace.
~ Maya Angelou