The Way of a Pilgrim is the title of a small book written in the nineteenth century that describes a pilgrim’s walk across Russia searching for a way to practice St. Paul’s advice that Christians should “pray without ceasing.”(1 Thessalonians 5:17). My wife, Karen, and I recently completed the Camino Santiago de Compostela, a Christian pilgrim route that has been walked by countless people for over 1,000 years. The Camino, in English, the way of St. James, is a pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where, according to legend, the remains of the Apostle James are buried. Our route, the Camino France, took us on a 495 mile journey from St. John Pied-de -Port in southern France to the Cathedral. Like the Russian’s pilgrimage, the exterior journey was a portal for a more profound interior journey, a journey of the heart and spirit.
In its document on the Church, Lumen Gentium, the second Vatican Council reminds us that “on earth” we follow the Lord “as pilgrims in a strange land.” On the path to Santiago, the meaning of that phrase came to life in a way it never had before. We left a somewhat routine life at home where we are known by the roles we play, the jobs we perform, and the relationships we have formed. On the Camino, with our belongings in our backpacks, we were known only as peregrinos, pilgrims on the way to Santiago. We were in a strange land, walking side by side with peregrinos from all over Europe, speaking different languages, but united in the daily hardships and joys of an arduous walk and a common destiny.
The daily walk of 12 to18 miles began in early morning’s darkness and ended with a mid-afternoon arrival at an albergue. An albergue is a hostel that offers pilgrims very basic overnight accommodations, usually in dormitory style. One of the highlights of each day was gathering at a café with other pilgrims to share a meal, Spanish wine, and commiserate about our various aches and pains! These meals were like United Nations meetings, yet despite the language barriers, we made lasting friendships. We became particularly close to a young Italian who had cystic fibrosis. He had a very severe cough and difficulty breathing but was determined to finish the Camino. When asked why he was on this pilgrimage, he remarked that he needed to do this to find himself. Catholic by tradition, something deep inside called him to walk this ancient path. So many other young people expressed similar sentiments. It is remarkable that in a world that seems to have lost its spiritual center, thousands of pilgrims seek that center walking alone on a remote path in Spain. Whenever we saw this young man, his frail frame weighed down by a heavy pack, we drew strength from his energetic and persevering spirit, and prayed he would find himself and, in finding his true self, discover God once again.
Our simple work each day was to follow the scallop shell markers and yellow arrows that mark the path. Day by day, as our feet connected with the earth, we became more grounded and in communion with the soil, the living creatures around us and with God. Although our bodies were tired, our spirits were refreshed on the sacred ground which bore the footprints of so many pilgrims before us. If time permitted and a computer was available, we blogged about the myriad of ways God blessed each day. Step after step the soles of our boots wore thin but our inner beings grew in humble awareness of God’s amazing grace.
It is impossible to fully describe the profound impact this pilgrimage continues to have on our lives. The images, experiences and people we met on the Camino permeate our consciousness. Recently, while climbing an Adirondack mountain, I relived our first day’s strenuous climb from a picturesque country village in France over the rugged Pyrenees and into the Basque region of Spain. A powerful wind forced us to hold on to each other for safety. Watching the mountain sheep steadfastly grazing on the summit in this wind, we considered crawling, like our sister goats, through the mountain pass to avoid being tossed about. At the summit, the valley below us was mysteriously blanketed in an enormous white cloud. It was a mystical moment on the mountaintop; we had left the planet and entered the heavenly realm.
About 150 miles from Santiago the path makes a steep ascent to the highest point on the Camino, Cruz de Ferro. A simple iron cross stands atop a weathered pole surrounded by thousands of rocks deposited there by pilgrims. We climbed the rock pile and placed the small rocks we had carried from home on the pile. The rocks represented all the people we held in prayer on the Camino. Those rocks held their suffering, dashed dreams, death, the brokenness we all feel and the brokenness of our world. We were once again on Calvary with the Lord who was broken on the cross for us.
In one of the hundreds of churches that dot the Camino route, a large poster with a smiling face of Jesus welcomes pilgrims with these words: “Yo Soy El Camino,” translated “I am the Camino.” When we finally reached Santiago, we began to understand the meaning of those words. The joy we experienced entering the Cathedral with hundreds of pilgrims to celebrate mass was overwhelming. At the end of the liturgy, an enormous incense burner, the botafumeiro, was hoisted high above the dirty and tired pilgrims by six attendants who began to swing the burner higher and higher until it seemed as if it would touch the ceiling. The incense filled the sacred space; its fragrance was a balm for our weary bodies. We were finally home, but the Camino did not end at the cathedral.
The Camino is the pathway to Santiago. The real Camino is the journey we make each day. Each human person is on a Camino. We are all on the Way. Jesus is our Way. When our eyes are open to see the Lord in the intimate details of our daily lives, revealing God’s goodness in the tiniest flower, the canopy of stars and each face on the street, we will have learned what the Russian pilgrim set out to learn- To pray without ceasing! Buen Camino, Blessed Journey!