This former IBM executive is the first person in 250 years to walk the entire 1,600-mile El Camino Real Mission Trail from Loreto, Mexico to Sonoma, California. And that’s not the most interesting thing about her. Ten years ago she was given three months to live after a Stage 4 gallbladder cancer diagnosis. Against all odds, she survived 79 rounds of chemotherapy and radical liver and lung surgeries, losing 60% of her liver, and her right lung.
Bible Gateway interviewed Edie Littlefield Sundby (@ediesundby) about her book, The Mission Walker: I was given three months to live… (W Publishing, 2017).
After enduring 79 rounds, 1 million milligrams of chemotherapy, the removal of a lung, and defeating a three-months-to-live prognosis, you decided to walk the 1,600-mile El Camino Real Mission Trail from Loreto, Mexico to Sonoma, California. You became the first person in history to do so. How did your extraordinary expedition help in your physical healing and spiritual faith journey?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: My 1,600-mile walk was a pilgrimage—a spiritual, emotional, and physical cleansing.
Prior to the walk, I had fought stage 4 cancer for over five years. When I finally emerged—after radical liver and lung surgeries, hundreds of thousands of milligrams of chemo, and multiple radiation treatments—my exhausted body yearned to heal, and my overwhelmed emotions needed to empty.
Five months after losing my right lung, in February 2013, I began the mission walk, starting in San Diego, near where I live. After walking 55 days and 800 miles (averaging 14.5 miles a day), I arrived in Sonoma California, the end of the old El Camino Real de las Californias mission trail.
Eight hundred miles was only half the distance, and I had a deep yearning to walk the entire old mission trail, and start in Loreto Mexico, where it began, and walk to the California border.
Two years later, a CT scan revealed cancer was back; this time a tumor in my healthy left lung. I knew then it was time to finish the walk.
In the fall of 2015, starting in Loreto Mexico, and, assisted by 20 vaqueros, I walked another 800 miles, following the old Spanish missionary trail to the California border, through the spine of the sierras and the Sonoran desert.
Why this obsession to walk an old mission trail; to become a pilgrim?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: I believe there’s within each of us a yearning to connect with grace; to light up our lives—as Thoreau put it, “with a great awakening light,”—and to connect wholly and completely with God.
A pilgrimage is a walk of faith.
I would walk one step at a time—one day at a time—and God would decide how long and how far.
Like countless souls through the ages, I find that long distance walks ignite that holy spirit that lies within, and make me feel genuinely, completely alive.
A long distance walk tidy’s up the mind; with each step the body purges the emotional mind of its overflowings.
Long walks are tonics for the spirit, not exercise for the body. The heart becomes engaged and assists the mind in deciding what to keep and what to discard. Once the emotional mind is emptied, the heart returns to its natural, joyous state. Therein lies grace.
Each step is a soulful connection to grace. The mind empties and loses consciousness of self. A heightened sense of wellbeing floods that senses. God’s creation is overwhelmingly beautiful and peaceful. That peace becomes our peace.
The 1,600-mile walk was a slow remembering of how profound and wonderful life is. Life became transcendent and intensely vivid. God was everywhere, and in every thing. Even the most ordinary was infused with wonder and awe. It was a walk of joy, of gratitude, of thanksgiving.
God is mystery. Life is mystery. And even with all our scientific knowledge, cancer is still 99 percent mystery. Mystery is everywhere; we’re just too blind to see it. The whisper of grace—that cries out to the holy within each of us—is mystery. My long, 1,600-mile pilgrimage was necessary to reconnect with that mystery; with Grace.
I became a walking prayer; each in-breath became “grace in,” and each out-breath became “cancer-out.” A thousand steps became a thousand prayers.
Why do you like the slowness of walking?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: What I experienced on the mission trail was what travelers experienced two centuries ago. Life as it once was. There was silence, and slowness in walking. Sometimes, even walking, I was moving too fast.
The essence of life is undiluted experience. It’s hearing the whisper of wind in the trees, seeing wild flowers close their beauty for the night and open to the morning sun.
Walking is an escape from a frenzied 140-character Twitter and text world, and the artificial, contrived life of social media. The modern world seems to become less genuine, and more impersonal with each new technology breakthrough. The more we connect through technology, the more we risk disconnecting from self.
Life is God’s gift. When we disconnect from nature we disconnect from life, and from God.
Nature is physical; God is spirit. He made us in his image. Man is physical and spirit. God gave us words. Words are vibrations emanating from spirit. He gave us joy. Joy is vibration emanating from spirit. He filled our soul with light. Light is vibration emanating from spirit.
When I walk I vibrate.
I feel like a child of God, imperfect and flawed and ignorant, seeking and yearning for wholeness. Walking connects me with God and makes me whole.
How should someone pray for those with cancer?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: I believe there’s no right way or wrong way to pray for anything or anyone. When we open our hearts to God and ask him to speak to us and let us listen, he’ll guide us on what to say, what to do, and how to pray.
What’s a favorite Bible passage of yours and why?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: Job 40:11 (ESV): Pour out the overflowing….
I believe God speaks to each heart through the Bible and prayer. When my cancer came back for the third time, in the depths of fear and despair I cried out to God to help me, and I opened my Bible at random. It opened to Job 40:11. I understood instantly, and profoundly, what God was telling me: To pour out my overflowings, so that I could fill with his healing grace.
This verse changed my life that day, and every day since. Every day there are overflowings: some days, grief; some days, anger; some days, fear; some days, despair; some days, discouragement; some days, self-doubt. Whatever it is, pour it out! And, make room for grace; for joy; for love; for peace—for God.
And it’s healthy, too! Intense emotion needs to be released. It can overwhelm and damage the immune system and deplete the spirit.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: I love Bible Gateway. I have many favorite Bible verses—I collect them. I keep a list of “Favorite Bible Verses” in a notebook. When I’m searching for a comforting, appropriate Bible verse to help guide me through a difficult time, or to share with others, I search my “Favorite Bible Verses” list. Invariably, I turn to Bible Gateway to find just the right translation that opens my heart to its meaning and mystery.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Edie Littlefield Sundby: One last thing, related to pouring out our overflowings: Gospel music is emotional, yet paradoxically it helps us escape from emotion. Listening to gospel allows us to pour out overflowings of emotion and escape their harmful effects. The emptied space is filled with electrifying spiritual energy, as every cell in the body opens to grace. Gospel music is a big reason I’m alive today!
Bio: Edie Littlefield Sundby was diagnosed with stage four gallbladder cancer and given three months to live. Despite 0.9% odds, and after almost one million milligrams of chemo, radiation, liver, lung, colon, and throat surgeries, she is gratefully alive, and the only person to have walked the historic and largely unmapped 1,600-mile El Camino Real Mission Trail that spans from Loreto, Mexico, to Sonoma, California. She and her husband live in San Diego. Her essays have appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
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