For most of September and into early October my wife Martha and I walked the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. I had planned to post occasionally to my Pulpit and Politics blog but found that Facebook presented an easier format in which I could write while on the move, so I made multiple Facebook posts instead. Those of you who follow me on Facebook will find much that is familiar in the following piece about the Camino.
29 days of walking
We flew into Madrid on September 2 and two days later took a train to Pamplona, a city near the Pyrenees and not far from the border with France. We were on the Camino for 29 days and walked about 25 kilometres a day, 650 kilometres in all. We hiked through four Spanish provinces whose topography includes two mountain ranges, the meseta, or high plain that covers much of the Iberian Peninsula, and finally through the rocky, green hills of Galicia to our destination in Santiago de Compostela.
Saint James — Santiago
The Camino is also called the way of Saint James and falls within the ancient pilgrimage tradition of the Catholic Church. It is claimed that James made his way to Spain, where he proselytized among pagan tribes before returning to Jerusalem where he was martyred. It is claimed, as well, that his followers took the body of James back to Spain and that his tomb and relics were later discovered near Santiago in the year 834.
The Camino became a hugely popular pilgrimage in the Middle Ages, when in contrast to today it could be a dangerous trip to make. Later it fell into disuse (more or less) and later still it was rehabilitated. Today about 200,000 people walk some or all of the Camino each year. Does that mean there is a new, widespread commitment to the Church? I suspect not. A new interest in some sort of spirituality? Perhaps.
We did meet people who were searching in a specifically religious sense. A young American, for example, was trying to decide whether to continue his studies for the priesthood. We also met a German priest trying to decide whether to remain a priest or to leave. But we met a larger number of people who were not necessarily religious but who were either searching or were unhappy and unfulfilled in their work and in some cases, their relationships.
We spent some of our walking time with a young German woman who was traveling on her own. She had approached us one evening and asked if she could join us for dinner because she did not like to eat alone. She has two young daughters, aged six and eight, and a partner, but she had left them for six weeks to walk the Camino. She was vaguely dissatisfied and searching for something.
We liked her and felt somewhat parental about it. She even spent one night sleeping on our floor when we had a hotel room and she could not find any accommodation. She was also with us on our last day in Santiago, standing in the same lineup as we waited to pick up a certificate indicating that we had completed the walk. She was in tears when we said goodbye. We wish her well.
I was asked along the trail and by some of my followers on Facebook what my motivation was for walking the Camino. My reasons were not overtly spiritual or religious and I was not seeking any divine guidance or assistance.
I retired from my day job in June, although not from writing. Martha is quite recently retired, too, so we looked on this walk as a kind of marker. However, her reasons for walking the Camino may well vary from mine and I make no claim to speak for her.
We did attend 10 or a dozen of the pilgrim (peregrino) masses held, usually in the evening, in churches along the way. I found them meaningful and even moving at times. I was raised as a Catholic and remain a cultural Catholic, familiar with the mass and other of the Church’s rituals. I have fond recall of my high school education in a Catholic boarding school and have many friends within the Catholic and other churches. But if you were to ask if I believe in the phrases recited in the Apostles’ Creed, I would for the most part have to say that I think not.
So why did I walk the Camino? It interested me as a project. I also want in retirement to be intentional about fitness. And I had both the time to go and the money to pay my way.
Pilgrims and privilege
I believe that some pilgrims overlook their privilege. They are often self-conscious about their identity as seekers on the Camino. But most people on the planet do not have the luxury of making such a journey to contemplate their lives and futures. Yet they, too, are seekers after meaning and often the divine.
All about people
One Scripture reading that occurred several times during the pilgrim masses we attended was that of Christ falling into step with two of his disciples on the way to Emmaus after his tomb had been found empty. For a long while they talked to him without recognizing him.
In their brief sermons at pilgrim masses, some of the priests used this story to talk about the importance of recognizing the divine in each person that we meet. I really like this idea and wish that I practiced it more often.
So, that’s where I will leave the Camino — with the lovely people who we met, both pilgrims and Spaniards, most of the latter serving our needs for a price it is true, but doing it with patience and grace.