Our life is a series of seasons, distinct, observable, times from which we learn and grow and evolve the people we are. Each of us is the sum of our seasons.
There are seasons of maturity, seasons in the valley, and those on the mountaintop. There are seasons of great reward. For me, in many ways, the past few years has been a season of loss. My wife’s best friend died in tragic circumstances. Two of the most righteous men I’ve known went on to their greater reward. Our 10-year-old family pet was here one day, gone the next. I’m in the last days of losing another friend, and I want to tell you about him. He’s on my heart.
Walking the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago in 2015 was a foundational moment in my life. Those who experience pilgrimage naturally become kind of an international family. We stay in touch, reminisce, and we even host frequent gatherings in different places across the country and the world to reconnect.
When he wrote to me as I was walking in 2015, I couldn’t believe it was really him.
I was getting messages from Phil Volker, who may well be America’s rock-star pilgrim. We’ve been friends for six years now. He’s one of the greatest men I know.
Several years ago, the Vashon Island resident was diagnosed with cancer. It was right about the same time that his thirst for history and world events raised his interest in the 500-mile pilgrimage of “The Way” from St. Jean Pied de Port, France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Intense treatment wouldn’t permit Phil’s own journey to Spain, so he literally built a camino trail on his rural property, walking several miles every day, and replicating the actual experience. At the end of each day, he’d imagine overnighting in an actual village on the trail, preparing native foods for his dinner that night and imagining the Spanish surroundings, and recording it all in a journal. Phil couldn’t go on Camino, so he brought the camino to him. It was Phil’s Camino – an amazing thing -- and it became the subject of a popular documentary.
As a result of his walking those 500 miles over several weeks, something happened. His physician found Phil’s health extraordinarily improved allowing him to skip a chemo treatment and travel to Spain for the real thing if he so desired. He was on a plane a few days later, and made that journey with a backpack and a pair of shoes. It wasn’t easy. But Phil never asked for easy.
It is through his documentary Phil’s Camino (philscamino.com) and through his wisdom and goodness, that Phil has brought so many of us together as a community. Phil and I visit regularly on social media. We first met personally at a Phil’s Camino screening in Hot Springs. A year later, I traveled to Vashon Island and spent a weekend walking with him on the real Phil’s Camino. Hundreds, maybe thousands, just like me, whose great fondness for this man drew them there have gone to walk with Phil. He embraces each one. There are some people in life that you just want to spend time with.
The documentary, directed and produced by my friend Annie O’Neal, includes several profound moments, none greater than the lesson Phil shares about his personal journey living with a chronic illness.
“There is being cured, and there is being healed, and there’s a difference,” Phil said in a moment of reflection some halfway through the pilgrimage. “I’m not going to be cured of the cancer, but I’ve been healed, and what that means is the joy of knowing that all things are reconciled with family and with God. There is a great joy and a great peace in that healing,” he explains.
What an amazing piece of wisdom. Healing versus a cure. One is simply physical. The other, some would say, eternal.
Phil’s post-Camino, post-documentary life has been a thing to behold. Healed, but not cured, he saw whatever time he had left as his second chance. In all the years that have followed he has shown us goodness, gentleness of spirit, encouragement, hospitality, and grace.
Just a few days ago Phil made the decision to stop treatment for cancer. He’s in hospice care now. In typical Phil fashion, he’s asked them to put up an old civil war-style tent so he can leave this world like a man off the battlefield.
That’s my friend Phil Volker – living this worldly life to the fullest until he goes on to the next.
Thanks for making the most of that one last line, Phil. You got it in there indeed. Love you, brother.
Check out the trailer to Phil’s Camino at philscamino.com
See you in next week’s newspaper.
(Steve Watkins is a writer/columnist for the Stone County Leader. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org)