After all of the planning, training and execution, we have after a month of walking completed a 650-kilometre trek on the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. The Camino falls within the ancient pilgrimage tradition of the Catholic Church and millions have preceded us on the way. The Camino was hugely popular in the Middle Ages, fell into relative disuse and has now been rehabilitated.
People are searching
Does that mean there is a new, widespread commitment to the church? I suspect not? Does it indicate a new interest in some sort of spirituality? Perhaps it does. We meet people who are searching in a specifically religious sense but in our sample, at least, we meet a larger number of people unhappy and unfulfilled in their work and in some cases in their relationships. There is the young German woman travelling alone for six weeks. We like her and feel somewhat parental toward her. She was there yesterday in the same line up as we were to pick up a certificate indicating that she had completed the Camino. She was in tears when we said goodbye. We wish her well.
Why we walk the Camino
I have been asked, along the trail, and by friends following me on Facebook what my motivation was for walking the Camino. Thankfully, I am not at a crisis point in my life and I am not seeking any divine inspiration. I did retire from my day job not long ago although not from writing. My wife Martha is quite recently retired, too, so we look on this walk as a kind of marker. I should also say that her reasons for the Camino may well vary from mine and I make no pretence of speaking for her.
My motivation for hiking the Camino are not overtly spiritual or religious. We did attend 10 or a dozen of the pilgrim masses held in the evenings in churches along the way. I found them meaningful and even moving at times. I suppose that I am a cultural Catholic familiar with the mass and other of the Church’s rituals. I have fond recall of my high school education at a Catholic boarding school and have many friends within the Catholic and other churches. But if you were to ask if I believe in all of the phrases recited in the Apostles’ Creed, I would have to say that I think not.
Taking privilege for granted
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. I believe that some pilgrims take their privilege for granted. Most people on the planet would not have the luxury of making a similar journey to contemplate their lives and futures. Yet they, too, are seekers after meaning and often the divine.
Who is not to be found on the Camino? We met no one from Africa, save for a Caucasian couple from Namibia and one South African. In fact, I do not recall seeing any black people at all. There were no Muslims or Sikhs, at least none who would have been identifiable by their dress. This is not surprising given that this is a famous Christian pilgrimage route but nonetheless walking the Camino is not an inter-religious experience and for many it is not a religious experience at all. Yet, there were days and evenings when it was profound, at least for me.
Everyone is divine
One of the Scripture readings that occurred several times during the pilgrim masses 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 the disciples talked to him without recognizing him. Some of the priests, in their brief sermons at pilgrim masses, used this story to talk about the importance of recognizing the divine in each of the people we meet.
I like this idea and wish that I practiced it more often. That’s where I will leave the Camino — with the lovely people who we met, both pilgrims and Spanish people, most of them serving our needs for a price it is true, but also with patience and grace. I saw something in many of them which leaves me in quiet awe.