Unity minister will be seeking spirit, answers along The Way of St. James

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  • Rev. Stephen Towles of Unity Spiritual Center of North Idaho will walk The Way of St. James after Easter to celebrate his 70th birthday. Many pilgrims follow the route, shown at right — also known as the Camino de Santiago — as a form of spiritual retreat for personal growth. Photos: LOREN BENOIT/Press

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    Rev. Stephen Towles’s Camino de Santiago walk begins in St-Jean Pied de Port, France and ends at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The walk spans roughly 500 miles. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

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    Rev. Stephen Towles of Unity Spiritual Center will display a scallop shell on the back of his pack. The shell has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • Rev. Stephen Towles of Unity Spiritual Center of North Idaho will walk The Way of St. James after Easter to celebrate his 70th birthday. Many pilgrims follow the route, shown at right — also known as the Camino de Santiago — as a form of spiritual retreat for personal growth. Photos: LOREN BENOIT/Press

  • 1

    Rev. Stephen Towles’s Camino de Santiago walk begins in St-Jean Pied de Port, France and ends at Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The walk spans roughly 500 miles. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

  • 2

    Rev. Stephen Towles of Unity Spiritual Center will display a scallop shell on the back of his pack. The shell has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. (LOREN BENOIT/Press)

The journey of a million steps begins with one.

And Unity Spiritual Center of North Idaho Rev. Stephen Towles is ready.

“I’ve always had my best spiritual life in movement," Towles said, sitting back on the sofa in his office. "I'm a movement person."

Near the door to his office rested a hiking pack and two walking poles. On the pack, a large scallop shell was tied with string, red like the ornate cross painted on the shell.

The scallop shell has long been the symbol of pilgrims who walk the 500-mile Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), which leads to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain where the remains of Jesus’s disciple St. James are traditionally known to be buried.

This journey to the cathedral has been made by millions of people on a network of pilgrim's ways since the ninth century A.D. It has served as a pilgrimage of penance, a scenic adventure, a tourist attraction.

Towles said it's called the "journey to yourself," and that's the kind of journey he intends to have during this 30-day adventure.

"There are just so many things to be aware of, and because of that, and because of the monotony of it, that’s when I believe I’m most open to existential-type experiences where you actually feel the presence and hear the voice. Those are the moments," he said.

"It’s being in the moment. I will have to be in the moment all the time."

Towles decided about 19 months ago that The Way will be how he ushers in a new chapter.

"In my pending transition to another decade in life, I wanted to do something significant, something that was hard, that challenged me, that stretched me physically, emotionally and spiritually," he wrote in the May-July Unity newsletter. "It was not a thrill I was looking for, or something that was over quickly. It was something that took time and patience and focus and determination and grace. I wanted to experience a new culture firsthand."

Towles just turned 70. But this steadfast Aries is far from calling it quits.

"I’m not somebody that is ready to retire at all, I just don’t feel the calling to do that," he said. "I would like to continue to do something that is meaningful."

A founding member of Unity and a former board president (the first one, to be exact), Towles is also a Kellogg High School graduate. He left North Idaho in 1982 to go to ministry school in Missouri. He served four churches in Sacramento, Reno and Seattle, and worked helping seniors and people with debilitating conditions find proper housing and care for 10 years while in Seattle.

He returned to the Idaho Panhandle in 2015 and took over as the spiritual center's pastor in October. During this 1 million-step adventure, Towles will be reflecting on what he should be doing next — "What is mine to do? — and carrying with him the intention of the ministry.

“My job is to lead it," he said. "I want to be open to some direction around that and how we as a ministry can have a really positive impact in the area that we serve. I think we do already, but sometimes I feel like we’re the best-kept secret in town."

The Way of St. James will take Towles from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenean foothills in southwestern France through the country of northern Spain, to ancient cathedrals and in and out of the lives of strangers. The 2010 film "The Way," starring Martin Sheen, chronicles a bereft father's journey as he forms bonds with others and makes peace on this spirit-filled path.

Towles said part of why he's going is to make the connection to those who walked The Way before him and "to be open to whatever."

"You never have to walk alone if you don’t want to," he said.

The pastor has been walking six to 10 miles every day to prepare for this trip.

"To walk, to do an 8-hour day walking, it takes discipline and focus," he said. "You have to pay attention to each step."

He'll stay in bunkhouses and dorms called "albergues” along The Way. They're hostel-like quarters, sometimes in churches or old schools, where pilgrims can rest for the evening. He'll have a pilgrim's passport that will be stamped at every stop, and when he completes the journey he'll be awarded his "Compostela," the "Credencial," which will be a certificate of completing the distance.

Towles doesn't know exactly what he'll do when he reaches Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. If time allows, he may explore the nearby Camino Finisterre (the "End of the World," as it was known in the Middle Ages) on the northwestern coast of Spain.

"I get back midnight on (that) Saturday night and I speak Sunday morning,” he said with a chuckle.

He shared that on his birthday, his youngest daughter gave him a birthday card. In the card she wrote how she appreciates that he's doing this, and how he inspires her.

"That made me feel really good," he said. "If I can inspire somebody to break out of their box, their routine, if I can inspire somebody to break out of it and do something that changes their experience and their perception and their perspective, that will be as meaningful to me as anything."

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