As some of you may know Jim and I walked the Camino de Santiago in May this year. Nearly two and a half months later these are my reflections on what happened to us ...
I still don't quite understand what we did ... I know it was a test for me of endurance and resilience. I know there was a call and a compulsion to do the Camino that grew over time. It wasn't overtly spiritual. Most churches in Spain are always closed during the day so you can't go into them to pray or reflect. There were special spiritual moments for me though in the places and spaces imbued with history and in some of the pilgrim masses that we were able to attend. The recitation of the pilgrim prayer to St James and of intentions for friends at the start of each morning’s walk set the tone for the day. For me, nature has always revealed the face of God and there were stunning vistas to be appreciated along the way as well as the simple joy of the lives of animals.
Many people seemed to be doing the Camino for “non-spiritual reasons”, some for spiritual reasons and others to find the answer to a broken life. Stories were sometimes written on people’s faces. As we walked and met pilgrims from all over the world all sorts of motivations swirled around us on the daily path. There was some physical pain and discomfort. There was rain and cold, sun and heat. There were annoying habits and different customs of other pilgrims to deal with. There was the camaraderie of hearing “Buen Camino” over and over again as you walked. The sharing of funny and not so funny stories in the Albergues at night and in cafes created connections with others. There was also a day to day monotony of walking, eating, washing clothes, finding food, finding a place to sleep, unpacking and repacking your backpack, and then doing the same thing again day after day after day ... all up, we walked continuously for 33 days averaging about 25km a day and covered over 780 kilometres.
Our arrival in Santiago coincided with that of others we had walked with for the last four and a half weeks and there was a mutual recognition and celebration of something unique achieved. The pilgrim mass in the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela, where thousands of others have worshipped for hundreds of years, was an emotional and a fitting end to the way of St James. Obtaining our Compostelas sealed and closed the endeavour.
Since then I have been reading the walking accounts of others and one author used the term "ritual" to describe the walk and I think that's accurate. When you walk the Camino you share in the continuity of a ritual activity that has occurred for about 1000 years done by millions of people. One knows where and what the goal is -Santiago de Compostela - but you don't know what you will encounter or how you will feel along the way each day ... the goal is set by you but also for you by history and custom. So you have to cope moment to moment with daily existence. You have to step outside your normal life, you have to give up things that are usual and familiar [habits, physical comforts and privacy] and you have to accept yourself and others and just keep moving on. That's where the resilience lies. That's where you tap into your inner strength and beliefs. In a way it’s a purposeful "not doing" ... you are not doing anything much except walking with a purpose and perhaps thinking. You embrace it and just do it like many others have before.