By Daniel H. Martins
For a little more than a thousand years, the mortal remains of St. James have rested in a crypt behind the high altar of Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain. Santiago has been a well-traveled pilgrimage destination since then. Between August 13 and September 19 last year, as part of a sabbatical, I walked all 820 kilometers (about 500 miles) of the classic Camino de Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage. In so doing, I followed in the footsteps of innumerable other pilgrims who have trod that route across northern Spain for more than a millennium.
The notion of pilgrimage is common to many religions and cultures, and it certainly enjoys a secure place in the tradition of Christian spiritual practice. We all come from God, and the fulfillment of our human destiny and purpose lies in our return to God. A Christian may see returning to God as a pilgrimage writ large, beginning in baptism and culminating in the Celestial Banquet. A traditional church interior reflects this mystical reality, with the baptismal font near the entrance, a place of welcome and initiation, and a central aisle leading to the altar, a place of communal feasting and adoration.
While walking the Camino, I had occasion to discern and reflect on several themes that linked my long trek to the journey of a soul back to God. I will point to some of those themes without connecting the dots between the physical and mystical experience of pilgrimage in very much detail.
There is only one destination, and there is only one “best way” to get there from wherever you are. There are rare instances when the signs that mark the Camino route offer an alternative path — usually one that is shorter but over more taxing terrain — but these are both few and short. The main path is the main path, and if you want to reach Santiago, it is best to follow that path and not try to improvise. Remember, people have been doing this for centuries.
Your feet will blister, and it will hurt. With my high-end shoes and socks, and no foot pain after the first couple of days, I began to consider myself immune. I was wrong. Pilgrims feel pain. My shins hurt, my muscles ached, and I was often bone tired after walking 15 miles. It’s all quite normal.
The way is well-marked, but heed the signs. Either yellow arrows painted crudely on pavement or the side of a building, or more upscale blue-and-yellow shell logos on stone pillars, mark the route of the Camino. But I discovered that I had best not let my mind wander or my attention lapse. This is particularly true in populated areas, where the route lies along crowded city sidewalks, with lots of turns. Even in the countryside, if there is any kind of intersection, a pilgrim had better watch for that familiar yellow arrow.
If you make a wrong turn, the wisest decision is to retrace your steps. There was one day when I missed a sign coming out of a town and walked on the wrong path for 45 minutes before it became clear to me that I was no longer on the Camino. The anger I felt toward myself melted away in joy when I saw the familiar and comforting (and, to my chagrin, unambiguously clear) yellow arrow that I had missed. Repentance is emotionally laborious, but it is also very rewarding.
Sometimes the signs are not as clear as we would like them to be. Unlike the one I missed that morning, there are instances of genuine ambiguity, or the apparent absence of any sign. This can be disconcerting. But patient attentiveness, combined with clear and non-anxious thinking, invariably pays off. Clarity eventually emerges.
Listen to your fellow pilgrims. Some of them may have a helpful guidebook. Or they may have walked that part of the way before, or they may know someone who has walked the way before. Once, on a day when it was particularly important for me to find a place to refill my water bottle, and I came across one of the “alternative route” choices, I saw a message scrawled with a marker warning that one of the possible routes passed through no towns or villages, so there would be no water. That single message made my decision easy.
Greet those whom you meet along the way. It becomes clear quickly that there is an etiquette along the Camino. When someone passes you, or you pass another pilgrim, you say, “Buen Camino” (“good way,” but more equivalent to “Have a good trip”). Those might be the only words you exchange — people walk at different speeds — but pilgrims headed toward the same destination share a profound bond, even when they do not know one another’s names.
Invest in temporary relationships. The Camino is dynamic. People on a pilgrimage are, by definition, always moving. Not only do people walk at different paces, but they start at different times and have different deadlines for arriving in Santiago, and various levels of interest in the sights along the way. Some pilgrims are already, by intention, walking with one or more companions. Some form a bond with someone they meet, or with a group, and choose to stay together for an extended time, perhaps all the way to the end. But those traveling alone, as I was (and especially those of an introverted temperament, as I am) meet and interact with a wide variety of other pilgrims in exchanges that last between a few seconds and several hours. It is tempting to not give very much weight to these chance encounters, to avoid the risk of vulnerability in conversations with people you will likely never see again. But I found that some of my most rewarding moments on the Camino happened when I was willing to extend myself with those whom I met, to take an interest in their lives, in their stories, to invite them to share those bits of themselves with me. Temporary relationships do not have to be meaninglessly casual.
Sometimes you will see someone headed in the wrong direction. The Camino is mostly a one-way street, but not completely. On those rare occasions when I passed someone hiking the other way, it certainly caught my attention and caused me to wonder what was up. If someone looks confused or distressed, be open to offering help. But if someone looks resolute, simply offer your greetings, keep moving, and perhaps say a silent prayer.
Pray without ceasing. Some of the Camino route requires focused attention to avoid potential injury. The terrain is never dramatically dangerous, but the Camino is not a theme park; it is possible to hurt yourself if you are not careful, and perhaps even if you are. But much of it is tame enough for the average pilgrim to multitask. As a result, I have never done as much purely intercessory praying in my entire life as I did on the Camino. Without particularly intending it, I quickly developed a set list of intercessory intentions — people and institutions and situations for which I prayed importunately. In time, I began to see my backpack as a sort of sacramental sign of these intercessory intentions, to see myself mystically as “carrying” these people and institutions and situations constantly into God’s presence. There was a great spiritual sweetness to this experience.
A pilgrimage route is foreign territory. It may be pleasant or beautiful (and a great deal of the Camino is one or both), but it is not home. I can get along decently well in Spanish, but it is not the language of my heart, and I am always a little bit on edge, stressed, when most of my interactions are in another language. Unlike residents of larger cities in Europe, most of the locals along the Camino cannot be counted on to converse in English. I was constantly aware that I was an alien in an alien land.
Accept that the road will end. The night before my last day of walking, I had mixed feelings. I was eager to regain my “real” life, but I was also in grief. The Camino is compelling. But when I came around a bend in the city of Santiago and caught my first glimpse of the cathedral spire, my spirits were buoyed. I was seeing that toward which my life had been singly configured for the proverbial 40 days and 40 nights. It was a moment of supreme consummation.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel H. Martins is Bishop of Springfield.