On July 2, 2014, I walked into Santiago de Compostela, the Camino de Santiago, completing five hundred miles of pilgrimage with great jubilance and much pondering. The final leg of the walk seemed anticlimactic; I imagined being greeted by frantic cheers and excited faces as a month of walking ended. Yet it was a normal day in Santiago: a couple of hundred pilgrims finished their journey and others busied themselves with the work of that day. For many, it was an ordinary Wednesday that bore no significance or particular attraction. Yet for my companions and me, it the end of a trek across northern Spain, one that included physical and spiritual challenges and growth. As I sat in the grand basilica, I realized that the Camino de Santiago was, in many different ways, my life.
The Camino de Santiago
The beginning of the Camino, as with so many exciting adventures, commenced with great enthusiasm. After months of planning and scheming, we were finally on pilgrimage. My sister and a mutual friend had wrapped up their semester studying abroad and I had successfully completed another year of teaching high school. After a brief trip to visit the Marian apparition site at Lourdes, we started our Camino in Saint-Jean-Pied de Port, France. While there are innumerable starting points for the Camino, this is considered one of the “traditional” beginnings.
Eager for the pilgrimage, the first day of walking was one of continual wonder. Everywhere I looked provided visions of beauty. Our trek through the Pyrenees Mountains caused us to draw near to the clouds and see from France into Spain. Paved roads were replaced with trails near fields of cattle, random hillside shrines to the Blessed Mother, and a steep descent into a minute village. The walk was tiring, yet we were thrilled to be on one of the oldest Christian pilgrimages in the world.
As with life, the start of an adventure is exhilarating. Even when you know difficulties will come up, you imagine they will be tackled with the same fervor you have initially. So often we choose paths, thinking we know the outcome when in reality, there are numerous twists and turns along the way.
When the novelty wears off
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:30)
I don’t remember which day it was, but one day I woke up and I did not want to walk. Previously, I simply wanted more sleep or a room without snoring or my blisters to disappear or a lighter backpack. But this day, I did not want to spend the day walking. I wanted pizza and a movie in a place where I wasn’t simply a guest for a few hours. The idealistic vision I had of a lovely five hundred mile romp through Spain was quickly eroding.
After I unwillingly got ready for the day, I found I soon enjoyed the rhythm of the daily walk. Some days, however, the blisters on my feet were so painful that standing in one place was nearly unbearable. Pausing for a break seemed more torturous to my throbbing feet than walking the whole day, because re-starting meant moving through the initial pain again. Taking my shoes off before the end of the day meant squeezing my swollen feet another time into too-tight shoes that would ordinarily fit well.
This was perhaps the most memorable lesson that I took from the Camino for my life. Even the most beautiful adventures of life can develop a bit of monotony or involve struggles that make you want to quit. In my ordinary life, it isn’t blisters or five hundred miles of walking or shoes that are too tight. Instead, my barriers are laziness when it comes to prayer, the incessant feeling that I ought to relax instead of being productive, and the wide-open world of Amazon or Netflix that convince me to buy more and watch more.
The Lord asks us to follow Him and yet after the initial fervor subsides, it is too easy to beg off with excuses or pleas that we are too busy. On the Camino, I knew I had a certain number of days before the plane for which I had purchased a seat departed. I was not going to take a taxi and I was not going to return home without completing the pilgrimage. Too often in life, I don’t take the daily pilgrimage so seriously and instead assume I have plenty of time to complete it. I put off for tomorrow what was assigned for today. On the Camino, I couldn’t help but ponder the question, “What if I lived this way in my daily life? What if I did what I know I should even when I am tired or don’t want to?”
Fellow pilgrims on “the Way”
The Camino de Santiago is brimming with people from all parts of the world. Thankfully, English is a common meeting point, so many conversations were able to be had without attempting my awful Spanish. I met people from the US and Canada as well as the Netherlands, Brazil, Germany, South Korea, Japan, and beyond. Although we all walked the same Camino, there are several towns to stay along the way. For example, my companions and I might decide to walk 25 kilometers on a given day but there might be towns to stay at 20, 30, or 35 kilometers away from our starting point. Some people we met one evening at an albergue (a hostel-like establishment specifically for pilgrims) and then never saw them again. Others we happened to run into time and time again, even when it seemed unlikely that we would ever see them again.
Beyond what I learned from encountering different people from various countries with a wide range of reasons for walking the Camino, I was also forced to consider how quickly relationships can come and go. The Camino was life at full-speed. Seeing someone for three or four days in a row, seemed so much longer than that space of time in everyday life. I met a man studying for the priesthood and we only saw him for the first five days of the Camino. Yet when we later reflected on that, we could hardly imagine that he was with us for so short a time. The impact he left was more substantial than one work week.
I found myself wanting to hold onto different people, worrying that we wouldn’t stop at the same place or see them again. Despite this fear, the experience encouraged me to practice living with hands wide open. Clinging to different people, places, or experiences only made me dissatisfied with what was offered to me in the present. If I simply received the gift and then let it go, I found I was more joyful and less bitter about the ephemeral nature of the Camino and life.
“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”*
When I finished the Camino on that warm July morning, I felt that crowds of people should have marveled at what I accomplished. I had spent over a month venturing across the varying landscape of northern Spain. Instead, I entered a normal city where people had other things to concern themselves with than the personal accomplishment of a random girl from the United States. It made sense and yet it wasn’t what I expected.
A few people we met along the way arrived there earlier and they cheered us on as we neared the “finish line” of the basilica. They understood the trials we had endured and their exuberance made up for the indifference of everyone else. Some journeys end with little fanfare or celebration or even understanding from the people around us.
The same holds true in my own life. I have gone on retreats where the Lord has done big, beautiful things in my heart and I think the change should be evident to others. Or I will drag myself into the confessional and nobody knows the simultaneous effort and surrender that went into that action. Or I will have a needed and yet painful conversation with someone which provides the impetus for my heart to change towards them. Many of the moments in my inner life that seem foundational and transformative were experienced in secret, without anyone to recognize the heart rearranging that was occurring. However, sometimes I will share these moments of encountering the Lord and they will resonate with the other person. If the other has traveled the same path, the same Camino if you will, they can understand some of the joys and difficulties.
As I sat in the basilica, the pilgrimage made more sense at a broader level. The Camino was life. Santiago de Compostela was Heaven, the glorious end we are all journeying towards. Along the way, we encounter excitement, adventure, pain, companions, fatigue, and joy. Some days we are victorious and some days we fail. Each day, though, moves us closer and closer to home, a place where we will no longer be pilgrims but residents.
So then you are no longer strangers and sojourners, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built into it for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit. (Ephesians 2: 19-22)