Pilgrimage: Inside and Out – 2023

A few more days and I’ll be leaving for another camino; walking a pilgrimage toward the great 12th Century cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. This will probably be my last post until September, so I’ll leave you with some personal thoughts on pilgrimage in general and the camino tradition in particular.

Pilgrim or Tourist?
Educators tell us that we retain lessons much better by doing rather than listening. That’s where pilgrimage differs from tourism. Walked mindfully, the pilgrim journey becomes a metaphor for life; a practical opportunity to work out life lessons for ourselves rather than relying on someone else’s lectures, self-help books or videos. Pilgrimage is an inner journey which parallels the physical one. It means stepping back from the busy, anxious, always-connected contemporary pace of life and stripping it down to basics – walk, eat, sleep, repeat. The Camino de Santiago offers a unique opportunity to do just that.

There is no need to embrace the Spanish Catholic belief that the bones of Saint James rest in the silver chest in the cathedral crypt. El camino is simply Spanish for “the way” (and as a verb means “I walk”). Capitalized, the noun is understood to refer specifically to the legendary “Way of Saint James” (Camino de Santiago); a network of thousand-year-old, well-marked routes, rich with history, culture and tradition, offering affordable infrastructure for those travelling on foot, and a tradition of local hospitality. It’s for everyone: secular or religious; philosophic or spiritual; those needing time out from a busy world or those, like me, walking in gratitude or reflecting on life. Of course some just undertake the trip as a form of backpacking tourism. That misses both the point and an opportunity but, as a fellow pilgrim once remarked, “They are pilgrims too. They just don’t know it yet.”

The cathedral at Santiago

A Salutary Experience
Seven years ago, at the end of a hot, challenging day some 600 kilometres from France with another 200 to go before Santiago, I was grateful to slip off my pack and flop onto a comfortable bunk-bed in an albergue, one of the pilgrim hostels. Tired and dusty, I had to step around several bulky suitcases belonging to a small group; cleanly dressed and relaxed, having covered much of the distance by car.

Now since childhood I’ve known it’s wrong to be self-righteous, but must confess that my reaction was grumpy judgment of shallow tourists taking advantage of inexpensive facilities intended to support pilgrims. Then we had dinner together.

It turned out that the young man had walked the entire distance himself a year earlier – something which I had yet to accomplish! He wanted to share something of the experience with parents who were physically incapable of doing it themselves. The young woman, his sister I think, had joined them at the last moment and, not knowing what to expect, had loaded up a massive suitcase. Now she was feeling embarrassed and looking forward to returning some day with just a backpack. Each, in their own way, was as much pilgrim as me, and I was deservedly ashamed of myself. It’s one thing to know intellectually that it’s wrong to judge, but quite another for that to become an ingrained instinct. It took that practical camino lesson to bring it home.

Misery on the Meseta
Pilgrimage also differs from tourism in aiming to embrace whatever comes, rather than seeking to avoid inconvenience or discomfort. The aim is not to be masochistic – far from it – but pilgrimage is a metaphor for life’s journey, and in life we can’t always escape the hard parts.

Nice day on the meseta

The meseta on the route from France is a wide, flat plateau with few features and long stretches without shelter (think Saskatchewan). Many find the prospect boring, so it’s not uncommon to take a bus or taxi to avoid walking it. But the pilgrim soul embraces opportunities to learn. One afternoon, having stopped in a little bar to dry out after a very wet morning, I wavered on whether to press on into the afternoon. I did, but as my journal recorded, “… on flat road with no shelter the wind picked up, the rain increased, including sleet, and came sideways! At times I had difficulty staying on the edge of the road, occasionally peeking out under rain hat which was practically on the side of my head to offer some protection. I think I can safely say I have never walked in such intense wind-driven rain/sleet.” Those words were written while taking refuge in another little café, with yet six more kilometres to go before my intended destination. Again I chose to forge on, arriving gratefully at the albergue under a sublime, warm evening sky.

Of course I could have avoided all that misery and spent the day in comfort, but we can sit in comfort at any time. Missing that experience would have been to miss what has become, more than once, an encouraging inspiration when dealing with inevitable rough patches on life’s journey.

Parting Thoughts
I’ve already posted a few other stories about earlier experience on the camino. Perhaps I’ll return with more. If you ‘re thinking of trying it yourself, you might enjoy a lovely 6-minute video called “This is the Camino” (once you get past the annoying ads). Or, if you don’t want to go all the way to Spain, live in Atlantic Canada, and like the idea of communal pilgrimage, you might want to consider Camino Nova Scotia. I’ve walked two, and can recommend them highly.

Until September then, I wish you buen camino – the traditional blessing to passing pilgrims. All the best on your life journey till we cross paths again.

Approaching a milestone on the way

Feature photo at the top:  A larger-than-life bronze statue in Galicia; a medieval pilgrim walking toward Santiago, head bent against the wind and hanging onto his hat.
Centre photos: The cathedral at Santiago and a nice day on the meseta.
Bottom: Approaching one of the milestones with its iconic scallop shell and yellow arrow pointing the way to Santiago. I don’t know why, but almost all of us seem to take pictures of our shadows on the road. The theme must speak to some deep human sentiment.