The normal point of departure for an article about pilgrimage would be the beginning. But it’s 2020, so let’s shake things up and start at the destination.
I arrived in Santiago de Compostela on Oct. 6, 2018, shortly before noon. There was also rain (a lot of it). The only challenge was that with my guidebook soaking wet and the travel data plan on my phone expired, I couldn’t find the albergue (pilgrim hostel) where I had made a reservation. At 16 euros for the night, it was like the Shangri-La compared to some of the previous albergues in which I had stayed. For one thing, I shared the room with only three other people. For another, we had our own bathroom. If there is one thing you learn when walking the Camino de Santiago, it’s to be grateful for small blessings.
Camino de Santiago translates as the “Way of Saint James.” The geographic endpoint is the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, which is believed to be where the remains of the apostle Saint James are at rest. At roughly 800 km in length and traversed on foot with all your gear in a backpack, simplicity is not just a matter of piety, or a sign of humility: it’s essential. The rule of thumb is that whatever you carry should be no greater than 10 per cent of your body weight, to a maximum of 22 pounds. All that you need for 35 days of walking (the guidebook-standard time to walk the Camino) should be able to fit in a 40-50 litre backpack. Most pilgrims pack two outfits: one for walking during the day (which gets washed upon arrival, and hopefully dried), and the second for relaxing in the evening, which will become the next day’s travelling outfit (repeat this regimen for 35 days, or longer – or until a physician tells you to stop).
It is common for pilgrims to discover after a few days of walking that they can still shed a few pounds of gear, either by shipping it ahead to Compostela de Santiago or by abandoning it altogether. Take the guidebook, for example. Many pilgrims, after walking a section of the Camino, will remove the corresponding pages from the book. I knew pilgrims who half-emptied lotion containers and toothpaste tubes and broke bars of soap in half. I encountered others who declined to carry a bath towel (even a lightweight backpacker’s towel), opting instead for a shammy towel the size of a handkerchief. Fortunately, most pilgrims would dress before exiting the shower stalls. As a 26-year-old seminarian from southwestern Ontario, my training around boundaries and bridges, as well as cultural sensitivity, assumed a whole new level of importance while walking the Camino. Deo Gratias.
Night after night, I slept in albergues in dormitory rooms with with 10, 20, or even 100 other people. It’s said that the soundtrack of the Camino can be described in one letter: Zzzzzzzz. That brings me to boundary lesson number one: bring earplugs for sleeping.
Day after day, I’d find myself in conversations with strangers, both fellow pilgrims on the way and locals interested in chatting and passing well-wishes to pilgrims passing through. Boundary lesson number two: be thankful for the conversation, but also learn how and when to politely bring a conversation to a wrap. This was often a simple matter of saying, “Buen Camino!” Regardless of whatever the encounter had been, positive or negative (or just odd), it was always possible to part ways politely and wish the other person a good journey.
By this point, you may be asking: why walk the Camino? Or for that matter, why embark on a pilgrimage at all? As Christians, we have just ventured through a season of the liturgical year, Advent, that calls us on a journey. We have heard the prophet Isaiah proclaim, “In the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” This message is repeated by the wild-eyed John the Baptist. In the Gospel of Luke, we hear of a peasant couple, Mary (who is pregnant) and Joseph, who embark on a journey to Bethlehem so that they may be registered in an imperial census. And in the Gospel of Matthew, we read of the Magi from the East who witness the rising of a star and decide to pack their camels with gifts and venture forth; crossing deserts, climbing mountains, and fording streams so that they can see this king whose arrival has been heralded by a star.
As a season, Advent is rich with the symbolism of pilgrimage and journeying. At the church of St. John the Baptist in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto, we followed a Christian learning curriculum called “Journeying in the Way of Love,” which we gratefully borrowed from our siblings in the Episcopal Church of the United States. Throughout Advent, we explored a Christian rule of life that called us to embrace seven practices to help guide us in the way of Jesus: gathering for worship, going forth into the world, reflecting on scripture, praying daily, blessing others and sharing our faith, pausing and turning towards Jesus, and —often the most difficult—taking a day of rest. You can learn more about this program on the Episcopal Church’s journeying- way-love.
So again, the question: why embark on a pilgrimage, or an extended journey of any sort? Especially one that leads the traveller far from home and loved ones, and with minimal comfort and security. Isaiah calls the Israelite people to return home. Mary and Joseph travel because an imperial edict requires that they do so. And the Magi travel because they believe that a prophesy foretelling the arrival of a king is nearing its fulfilment. I did not walk the Camino to return home from exile, or because I was commanded to do so by an emperor. Nor did I walk it because I imagined that witnessing the swinging of the Botafumeiro (the massive thurible dispersing clouds of incense used to cover the stink of dusty pilgrims) would somehow signal the fulfilment of a promise from God (but I did sing the Advent hymn, “Lo, He Comes with Clouds Descending” with gusto from my apartment living room).
I didn’t know at the beginning of the Camino why I was walking it, or where I imagined I would be (spiritually) at its conclusion. I just knew I was being called to dare to risk journeying in the way of faith. Looking back, I can recall one day, on a dusty old Roman road in the countryside of the Rioja wine region, when God planted the answer in my soul. It was a portion of Psalm 103: Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. With my knees badly enflamed and in agony, and my heart yearning for home, that verse sustained me. I kept repeating it in the silent darkness of the mornings when I was guided only by fading starlight overhead as night turned to dawn. And it calmed my fears as I walked alone across an exposed mountaintop in Galicia during a lightning storm. Bless the Lord, oh my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
We walk, and we keep walking, and then we walk some more, because our lives give glory to God. Whether on a distant pilgrimage route or a local neighbourhood street; in school playground or a hospital hallway; our feet touch the ground and the psalm verse is traced on our lips and hearts, and on the lives of those with whom we share the Good News. May we dare to walk by the light of faith and invite others to take those first tentative steps walking in the way of Jesus.