Philosophy Course Takes Students on 150-mile Pilgrimage Through Europe

While everyone else sorts out plans for summer jobs, classes, or internships, a group of 10 students is being selected to start their summer off on a different path—literally. The philosophy department is once again offering “Self-Knowledge and Discernment: The Experience of Pilgrimage,” a spring semester course that culminates in a two-week, 150-mile pilgrimage that covers the final length of the Camino de Santiago, or “the Way of St. James.” 

The Camino has been a popular pilgrimage since the early ninth century. Pilgrims can choose one of dozens of routes—the two most popular run from France and Portugal into Northern Spain—as they journey to the city of Santiago de Compostela, home to the tomb of St. James, who was one of the 12 apostles.

More than 50 students applied by the Oct. 16 deadline this year. After the application review and interview process, 10 will earn a seat in the course. McCoy said that there are no prerequisites, and she encouraged students from a variety of backgrounds and religious beliefs to pursue the program in future years.

While the trip will take place from May 19 to June 6, the selected students prepare for the pilgrimage throughout the semester. They read philosophy and theology, meet every other Monday for reflection and discussion, and attend a retreat in early March. After students return from the Camino, they will have a final paper due on July 15 which requires them to reflect on the experience.

Since the course’s first iteration in 2015, a different professor has taught and led the pilgrimage each year. This year, it will be led by professor Marina McCoy, who will be joined by Rev. Andre Brouillete, S.J., and Marissa Papula, the campus minister for Kairos. Each professor has customized the course to reflect how they view pilgrimage. 

“The themes of the course have to do with self-knowledge and discernment and Ignatian spirituality,” McCoy said. “What are the deeper elements of Jesuit spirituality in terms of knowing ‘Who am I? Who am I to God? What does it mean to be part of a community? [And] what does it mean to know what God’s call is for me?’”

“We have people who are very religious Catholics; we have people who are Catholic and don’t belong to any formal religious groups on campus, but they’re interested reconnecting with their faith in some way; people who say I’m spiritual, but I’m not religious; and then people who come from other religious traditions who are just really interested in the notion of pilgrimage,” McCoy said.

Philosophy professor Jeffrey Bloechl founded the course in 2015 after a non-traditional teaching experience inspired him: a summer abroad course in Athens, Greece, which allowed him to teach more directly and deeply to students than he could in a standard classroom setting. 

Another important experience he had was walking the Santiago with his family. He realized that it would be easy to do it with students, if planned properly. He then started brainstorming the logistics of the course almost immediately.

He also decided that by having a different professor teach each spring, a variety of professors would be able to participate—he hopes to see a theologian leading the course in a few years—without being locked in to major time commitment year after year while also providing an opportunity for development and spiritual formation among faculty.

There is a $1,300 fee attached to the course, which covers the weekend retreat, two meals, and travel expenses for the Jesuit who accompanies the trip. Students also need to pay for airfare, meals, and lodging—along the Camino, food and lodging costs an average $30 to $40 per day. The group typically stays in albergues, or hostels designed specifically for pilgrims.

Throughout the semester, students read theology, philosophy, and literature relating to pilgrimage and discernment, from Rebecca Solnit’s A History of Walking to Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker. They also go on several walking exercises and journal frequently. 

In fact, while on the trip, students are encouraged to journal twice a day, take part in daily mass, and spend the first hour of each day’s walk in silence. After the trip, students write a final paper about their experience.

Just as each professor customizes the coursework to focus on new questions and themes, they also hope for their students to have different experiences on the trip.

“I hope that they will connect more deeply to God, [and] I hope they will form strong community bonds with one another,” McCoy said. “Another important part of the course is this idea of mutual accompaniment. … There’s something really beautiful about being on a journey with other people where we accompany one another.”

Bloechl, on the other hand, said he hopes his course helps students become more focused and centered on their goals in life.

“I want students to think about what interests them, what they care about in terms of life vocation,” he said. “My students got ahold of that very quickly, I heard them asking each other, ‘Dude, what’s your Camino, what’s your Santiago going to be?’”

Rachael Boxwell, CSON ’21, took the course her sophomore year. She said the movie The Way, which she watched in middle school—in addition to her love of travel and interest in reflection and exploration—inspired her to take the course.

Boxwell said that going on a pilgrimage is something that would be much more difficult to take the time out to do after graduation, so the course provided an excellent opportunity to take a pause and step away from the pressures and monotony of college life.

Looking back, Boxwell said that taking the course was the best thing she has done in college thus far.

“I think that there is something special about the BC community that mimics what I saw on the Camino, where everyone is willing to get to know you for who you are,” she said. “And I think that’s so important to have, to be able to develop that ability to connect to people and to connect to yourself.”

Featured Image Courtesy of Luis Miguel Bugallo Sánchez / Wikimedia Commons