Some things to think about before you go on a pilgrimage

A dirt path disappears into the hilly distance.
The Camino de Santiago in Spain.
 on April 1, 2020
The Rev. Canon David Harrison

It haunts me still.

When I finished walking the 800 km Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in early June 2017, I was convinced I would never do it again. It was hard and gruelling and I was relieved to be done. But now, if given the opportunity, I’d go again tomorrow. So when the editor of The Anglican asked me to offer 10 tips for anyone planning to go on a pilgrimage this summer, I jumped at the opportunity. Here’s my list:

  1. Pack lightly. I took two pairs of clothes – today’s and tomorrow’s (which was also yesterday’s). It is amazing how little we actually need to survive day by day, especially when we have to haul it all under our own steam.
  2. Train for the inclines. On the first day of my Camino experience, I climbed up the Pyrenees from France into Spain. No Toronto hills prepared me for that.
  3. Train for the declines. Walking downhill, especially with a pack on your back, puts a lot of force on your limbs and joints.
  4. Yes, it’s true. Downhills are worse than uphills. I didn’t believe it before I experienced it. I came to dread the steep downhills of the Camino. On the first day, after getting to the heights of the Pyrenees, I had to walk all the way down again. It was painful.
  5. Go alone. True, I’m an introvert so I crave time alone. But being alone allowed me to be open to the stranger. I had holy conversations with people from around the world whom I still stay in touch with. (Ask me about my Baptist friends from New Zealand who own a lingerie store. I met Deborah in the men’s washroom.) And holy conversations with strangers that lasted 10 or 15 minutes and whom I will never hear from again.
  6. Prepare to get cosy. The thing I feared most was sleeping in rooms full of strangers, but it turned out to be not as big of a deal as I feared. Your sense of privacy and self change, but everyone is in it together. (Still, bring ear plugs!)
  7. Expect nothing. I went on the Camino hoping to gather material to write a book. It didn’t happen because I quickly realized that that intention was getting in the way of experiencing things in the moment. Just go.
  8. It’s the journey, not the destination. The journey (for me) took five and a half weeks. Arriving in Santiago took an hour or so. The pilgrimage is just that – a journey.
  9. But it’s also the destination. When I finally arrived at the cathedral in Santiago, I felt nothing (except sore feet). Nothing. And then a friend took my photo and I said, “I’m going to send this home to my family.” And I began to weep uncontrollably.
  10. When you are finished the pilgrimage, you haven’t reached your destination. My pilgrimage started at my front door with my wife taking my photo as I walked up the street to catch public transit to the airport. And it “ended” when she took a photo of me walking down our street from the subway. Front door to front door. But it hasn’t really ended. I’m still walking the “Camino,” which is “The Way.”

When I look at this list, I realize it isn’t just a list of tips for a pilgrimage. It’s a list of tips for life. We have too much stuff. (You should see our storage room in the basement. Ugh!) We experience times in life when we are heading upward and times when we are careening downward, and they are both challenging – but going downhill is worse. We can easily close ourselves off from the unexpected encounter with a stranger; surely our phones and headphones and social media are doing this all the time. We are all human, with the same basic bodies and needs. It’s only when we get out of the way of our own plans and expectations that God can surprise us. Our lives are journeys and it isn’t about getting to the end – except that it is, because we have the promise of eternal life. And until our dying breath, we are still on the journey.

My pilgrimage haunts me still. I’d go tomorrow (except that I haven’t trained!). I know that my next pilgrimage, even if it were the same route, would be entirely different. Different encounters, different bunk beds, different surprises and challenges (like there being “no room in the inn,” which happened a couple of times, including on the first day after having traversed the Pyrenees). And I might, again, get to the end and feel nothing. And then feel everything.

Godspeed on The Way.


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