It took 1,136,875 steps for me to walk the 800 kilometres of the Camino de Santiago through northern Spain last spring. And it meant climbing – and descending – the equivalent of 1,633 flights of stairs (or so says my iPhone). Those are the numbers of my 38-day pilgrimage. But they aren’t the real story.
The real story is that this pilgrimage was a sacramental experience. It had its “outward and visible signs,” to be sure: sore feet, the drudgery of walking 20 or 25 km a day, closely shared quarters, precious little privacy, and the constant weight of my 9kg pack containing my entire belongings for six and a half weeks away from home. But there were also (thank God) those “inward and spiritual graces” that gave my pilgrimage depth, breadth and life.
Fortunate to have the opportunity to take a sabbatical from my parish after seven years, and still working through what had been a challenging year, I walked. My spiritual director helped me understand the walk as sacramental in itself – an outward and visible walking from a familiar place to a new place and, what’s more, an inward and spiritual journey of rest and renewal (and, yes, endurance).
For me, sacraments are all about encountering. I encounter the living Christ in the ordinary things of life: bread, wine, water, oil and, yes, people – those ordinary things that become, through the grace of God, extraordinary. Out of this world, and yet still very much in it.
The medieval pilgrimage from near the French-Spanish border in the Pyrenees to Santiago, where the remains of St. James are said to rest, has experienced a meteoric resurgence of interest in the past few decades. More than a quarter of a million pilgrims arrive each year in Santiago following one of several medieval routes. The journey needn’t be solitary – unless you choose to walk alone, which I did (at least for most of the time): hours and hours to be alone with one’s thoughts. Balm for an introvert!
My grandparents consumed my thoughts one morning as I walked toward a place called Viana on the seventh day of my walk, pondering what I remembered about each of them. There was a span of 30 years between the shock of my maternal grandfather’s sudden death when I was 10 and the expected death of my paternal grandmother when I was almost 40. About to turn 51 and myself a parent of two adults, the sure and steady passing of time and generations swirled around in my head and, what’s more, my heart. Pondering all this, I looked ahead and saw an elderly woman walking toward me, slowly but confidently relying on her cane. As I approached her, I was overwhelmed with a deep sense of love for her, an unexpected welling up of emotion that compelled me to tip my worn and cherished trekking hat to her. To my surprise she stopped, came to me, took my hands in hers, looked straight up into my eyes and spoke directly to me. Having failed in my ambition to learn some Spanish before I left, I understood not a word except “God bless you.”
“God bless you” she said, and then continued her walk out of town.
I stood still for a while and watched as she walked away from me. Even in that instant I knew that this would be one of those profound and unexpected encounters that would animate my Camino pilgrimage. It was neither planned nor expected but was both outward and visible, inward and spiritual.
The word “sacrament” comes from the word “sacred” or “holy,” and this brief encounter was certainly that. But sacrament also means “mystery.” Not mystery in the sense of something to be solved, but rather something so numinous and profound that it cannot be fully contained with words nor dissected by analysis. By God’s grace, the water poured over our heads incorporates us into Jesus’ death and resurrection. The bread and wine placed upon the altar become his very life given for us. In my spiritual middle age, I care not a whit to understand the how and the why of these mysteries. I’m perfectly happy to rest easy “seeing through a mirror, dimly,” as St. Paul puts it.
It remains a mystery to me why this one woman, out of hundreds and hundreds I passed, stopped. Or why I was taken with a deep and spontaneous love for her. Or why I tipped my hat. But it is not a mystery I care to try to understand. I only care to continue to cherish this fleeting encounter on my Camino pilgrimage – knowing that somehow God’s love was made visible for me in the grasp of her hands and in whatever words she spoke. And being thankful that God does work in mysterious ways.