For a while now I have wanted to walk the Way of St James (El Camino de Santiago). The pilgrimage has many starting points and leads to the final resting place of St James the apostle. Pilgrims walk The Way for all different reasons. It is often considered a journey of self-discovery or a search for something greater than oneself. People say that everyone has a reason for walking the Camino. So what was my reason?
I have heard a lot of positive things about the Camino and so I wanted to go and experience it for myself. I didn’t have any particular agenda to go with but was reassured by a priest that this was ok and to just go and see what happens. I also love walking and I’m always keen to spend more time with God; so the Camino seemed rather ideal! A friend of mine also wanted to go and so we set out on the pilgrimage together.
We took a plane to Santiago then boarded a bus to our starting point. I have a terrible sense of direction and so promptly got us lost after alighting the bus, however a few helpful locals pointed us in the right direction and by the evening we arrived in Saria – our first stop along The Way.
The next day dawned bright and fresh and we joined the growing crowds all walking in the same direction. Thankfully, the pathway was well-marked with yellow arrows and shells highlighting the number of miles left till Santiago (our final destination). No fear of getting lost again, phew!
As we walked we met so many different people; Australians, Koreans, Americans, Germans, Irish, Dutch, Italian… People had come from all over the world to walk The Way, and each person had a different reason for being there. I was also mindful of the fact that some friends of mine had walked the same path just a couple of years ago, and growing on from that it dawned on me that hundreds of thousands of people had passed through the same fields, trodden upon the same stones and passed by the same trees I was now walking by. Something about this pilgrimage draws people. I have been on many hiking holidays and never have there been such a mass or range of people. There was more to this than a walk in the countryside. People here desired something more.
Each evening we stopped at an auberge (Spanish hostel) and after a much needed shower we sat down with other pilgrims to eat. I was always struck by how cheerful the atmosphere was. People would be massaging tired (and often blistered) feet, and hobbling around on achy legs, but there was never a word of complaint. I was also touched by how much people helped each other. I was given sun cream and a hat by a Dutch man because I hadn’t brought any with me. Half way through the trip I started getting pain in my knees and a Swiss lady gave me her walking sticks, and I had an Italian give me some ear plugs which proved to be an absolute life saver when sleeping in dormitories. As I neared the end of my journey my feet started to blister and someone taped them up for me. Jesus’ instruction to “love your neighbour” was certainly lived out along The Way.
I had several days when I wanted to walk on my own. I desired silence and a “spiritual” experience. However, the last stretch of the Camino is a very popular part and although I had a managed to have a couple of quiet afternoons I found that lots of people wanted to chat. At first this intrusion on my silence frustrated me, but then something I read prior to the trip came to mind: “What can you give to the other pilgrims as they journey?” This pilgrimage wasn’t all about me. I started to think about how I could be life-giving and soon I was listening attentively to people again and enjoying their company.
One day, when my feet were feeling particularly painful, I walked with an Irishman named Pat. Pat had walked the Camino several times from different starting points and this time was walking from a place called St John in France (a distance of about 800 km from Santiago). Pat was probably the most cheerful person I met on The Way. He walked along with a real spring in his step and could often be heard singing or whistling to himself as he went. As I chatted to Pat I discovered that he was something of a historian. Pat told me all about St James – how the Apostle had sailed around the world preaching the Gospel and was eventually beheaded. Legend has it that in the 9th century a hermit named Pelagius saw a vision and was led by a star to a field where his relics were buried. The relics were said to be moved and a huge cathedral built upon them. Pat also explained the significance of the shells worn by pilgrims and told me that the walking sticks used to double-up as weapons for pilgrims to protect themselves from bandits and thieves in previous years when the journey was more dangerous. Listening to the stories took my mind completely off the pain in my feet and I was so surprised by how much ground I had covered by the end of the day.
When I arrived in Santiago the following day, Pat was the first person I met. He was sat outside the cathedral, looking after all the bags of the pilgrims who were inside having Mass. Pat gave me a huge welcoming hug and wore a great beaming smile. I felt like a bit of an amateur next to Pat when I compared my one week walk to his two month expedition. Pat, however, viewed me equally, saying “you are the same as me. We have both completed the Camino” and joyfully pointed me in the direction of where I could get my certificate. This moment reminded me vividly of Jesus’ parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). In the parable, the workers grumble and say it is unfair that people who had been working in a field for only a few hours at the end of the day should be paid the same amount as those that had been labouring since dawn. Unlike the workers in the vineyard however, Pat responded to another person’s good fortune with the happiness and joy that I imagine is the response the owner of the vineyard (our Father) wants from us all.
I did not want my journey in Spain to end and I found myself walking for another three days onto Finisterre (‘The World’s End’ next to the ocean). I felt that all the people I had met along The Way were all walking the same path but were on completely different journeys. I loved the sense of comradeship I had experienced and wanted to bring this away with me and implement it into my day-to-day life.
Now I am back at home in England and, on reflection, I recognise the Way of St James as a small journey within the much bigger pilgrimage of life.