Nothing quite prepares you for a pilgrimage.
Sure, there is the research on the pilgrimage route, choosing the proper walking gear, exercise preparation, and the strategic packing of just a few clothes and essentials, but the pilgrimage itself calls into question any illusion of control we think we have in life.
Camino Frances is a 500 mile walk across the northern part of Spain that begins in the Pyrenees Mountains along the border with France and leads to Santiago de Compostela where it is said that the bones of the first martyred Apostle, St. James, are buried in a Crypt in the Cathedral. It is one of three major pilgrimage sites for Christianity. The other 2 are Jerusalem and Rome.
My husband, Jeff, 21-year-old daughter, Hannah, and two dear friends, Jane and Rob, began our pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Sarria, Spain approximately 116 km from Santiago. This is typically a 5-6 day walk into the old city where close to 2,000 pilgrims arrive everyday after walking up to 500 or more miles.
The first day was overcast and cool with the forecast of rain but that didn’t dampen our high spirits and energetic pace as we calculated the hours it would take to walk our first day goal of 14 miles. Like a typical North American my focus was on the destination and my race to get there. At one point I caught myself trying to pass other pilgrims much like my experience in Oregon at the Portland to Coast Relay race in which those passes are called “road kill”. This is fairly easy to do given the fact that we had started this journey after others had been walking for over 400 miles carrying everything they needed on their backs. We, on the other hand, were walking the last 73 miles of this pilgrimage – quite an advantage in the competitive scheme of things!
It took me a day of walking with increasingly achy plantar fasciitis feet in the rain to begin to realize that this was not a race; this was a pilgrimage experience. I went to bed that first evening exhausted with throbbing feet worried that I would not be able to walk in the morning. Surprisingly, I woke up buoyant with rested feet ready to head out for the next destination, but Hannah awoke to pain shooting up the back of her knees – tendonitis.
Seeing other pilgrims head out for the new day, I started walking fast, leaving my daughter behind. Then I remembered part of the Camino blessing that I had just read that morning, Blessed are you pilgrim if what concerns you most is not arriving, but arriving with others. Blessed are you pilgrim if you discover that a step backwards to help another is more valuable than a hundred forward without awareness of those at your side. Ah, yes… I determined then that this day I would walk with my daughter at her pace.
Step by step I found a new rhythm of being present to the moment and the people that I encountered, as well as the sights, the smells, the sounds, the touch of the wind on my body, the feel of my feet touching earth, and the new tastes of Spanish food and drink.
As I slowed down I realized that everyone walks the Camino in their own way — like Gary, an 80 year old man from Oregon who walks about 5 miles a day at a very slow pace, his two walking sticks echoing a steady beat as they hit the ground or Bill, a humble Gen Ex vagabond from Michigan, who instructed Hannah how to walk with tendonitis — short, slow steps, flat footed up hill, or Chris, a recently retired teacher from England, who walks at a fast clip because she has lots of energy.
The greeting on the path is Buen Camino, meaning “Have a good journey”, but it can also be a gracious reminder that all ways of walking are good ways.
As I allowed the Camino to have its way with me I began to enjoy the simplicity of the journey. Walk, Eat, Sleep is the 3-fold practice of the pilgrimage. That easy rhythm allowed me to begin to let go of the stressful baggage that I constantly and unconsciously carry with me – the to-do lists, performance anxieties and fears born out of scarcity, not enoughness, and shame. It opened me to see that every pilgrim suffers with both physical and existential pain and yet we walk, we endure, we find joy in the simplest pleasures like taking off our shoes and rubbing our feet at a roadside café while drinking a cold beer or smelling the eucalyptus trees as we walk under their forested canopy. With each step my heart opened wider to a sense of abundance – that this is enough and I am enough and this day is a sacrament unfolding in time and space.
Then like manna from heaven I came across a sign posted along the path that said, Yo Soy El Camino, y La Verdad y La Vida. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Yes, El Camino, the way… this camino, this way. The pilgrim journey is a metaphor for life. Everyone walks it in their own way and it is all good.
Our call is simply to take that next faithful step, find our rhythm in unhurried calm, acknowledge our pain and in so doing find our common humanity — our deep connection to the fullness of life that we thankfully have no control over. This is the deep truth of life – that it is sheer unmerited grace, love incarnated in community.
Several days later during the Pilgrim Mass at the Cathedral in Santiago tears of awe and wonder flowed down my cheeks as I hugged and shook hands with my fellow pilgrims from around the world sharing the peace in our own native tongues.
All these people, all this pain, all this joy, all this good will, all this common journey is a glimpse of the kingdom. El Camino of Jesus is the “Buen Camino” of life.