The challenge of pilgrimage

A group of pilgrims smile and pose for a photo together.
Some of the pilgrims on Church of the Redeemer’s pilgrimage gather for a photo at the end of the journey.
 on December 29, 2022

Non-sighted Anglican transformed on the Camino

Stepping onto the Camino is like stepping into a mighty river bent for the ocean.  Once on this path, one is carried along by a powerful current, which may or may not take one where one wishes or had planned to go. God willing, one will reach the holy destination of Santiago de Compostela. But invariably, the process itself, with its delays, detours and disruptions, its surprises and sacrifices, will change the pilgrim. One will be transformed. Made different and new. More fully human, more fully alive.

This is what happened for the 14 pilgrims and one pilgrim guide dog who stepped onto the Camino together on Sept. 23, 2022. High in the misty mountains of Galicia, at the village of O’Cebreiro, the pilgrims of the Church of the Redeemer in Toronto ventured into this current and didn’t turn back. Early that morning, we gathered, as we did every morning, to reflect on what it was we were about to do, to pray together and to receive my blessing.

Outside the village church, I offered words that were both descriptive and inspirational. With two Caminos under my belt, I knew something of which I was speaking. For most of the rest of our group, however, they were still theoretical words. Not yet real. But as it happened, they were profoundly prophetic.

I described pilgrimage as a transformative adventure in faith. I said that on this adventure we would step out of our rutted comfort zones of life into the great unknown. We will, I said, be invited to surrender to the process of stretching and stretching and stretching. We will be invited by God to radical trust, to give up our need for ironclad security and certainty in all kinds of physical, material, emotional and spiritual ways. We will try to live the words of Jesus, preached as he and his friends walked the roads of Galilee, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink,” and by extension where you will sleep or bathe, wash your clothes or even find a toilet.

And then we began the adventure in faith. And what an adventure it was!  Different for each pilgrim who walked and confronted their own needs and desires for certainty and security – in other words, their own difficulties trusting God – in different ways and on different levels.

What follows is the story of one of our pilgrims, Joan, who had a singular adventure of challenge and transformation. Joan’s account bears witness to the unique experience of a non-sighted person on the Camino, whose surrenders to the uncertainties of pilgrimage and whose need to trust herself, others and God along the road were greater than those of the rest of us. Despite all of that – and likely because of all of that – her deep plunge into this mighty current was both a transformative experience for her and for all of us who were privileged to share and witness her journey. It is the story of three pilgrims, actually, because on her right was her faithful guide dog Danielle and on her left her faithful friend and human companion Carla.


The Story of Three

Walking the Camino was a long-held, cherished dream. From the time I was first inspired in the mid-80s to the time in 2021 when Redeemer began seriously to consider making this pilgrimage, it called to me. I volunteered to be on the planning committee but was sure that “this ship had sailed for me.” While relatively fit and accustomed to doing 6 km hikes in the city, I am in my early 70s and doubted my capacity to walk 20 km days. Mostly I was unsure of the nitty gritty of walking this path without sight. I was daunted by the manifold uncertainties. So day after day as the Camino called, I prayed, “loving God, give me the courage to live this dream.” And “help me imagine how to overcome obstacles.”

Joan Robinson (left), Carla Agnesi and guide dog Dani stop at the 100 km waymarker on the Camino.

Courage and imagination come in various forms, as do the answers to our prayers. In February 2022, Susan offered to guide me so that I could join the pilgrimage. Her kindness was the push I needed. But I also realized that, as the tour leader, she would be busy with many responsibilities. However, it was that very month that a little spark of a guide dog became my partner. Dani (aka Danielle) and I completed our training together and soon after I began investigating the possibility of taking her with me on the Camino. The French representative of the International Guide Dog Federation said not to take a guide dog. The Guide Dogs for the Blind call centre advisor said, “Don’t let anyone talk you down!” So I didn’t. So we went. Having found a second companion, Carla Agnesi, an experienced Camino pilgrim and librarian like myself, we set off on our great adventure.

There is no way to know what it will be like. From day to day, from step to step, one is swept into the Camino current with its many joys and vicissitudes. The paradox is that while planning is essential to a pilgrimage, a pilgrimage cannot be planned. So I prayed, “give me grace to walk in the moment.” That first day we stepped onto the Camino fully believing that we were prepared for what we might discover, yet over the eight days to come, we quickly became astonished, uplifted, overwhelmed, cast down, and lifted up again by what we experienced.

That first day we came across a statue and plaque dedicated to San Roque, the patron saint of dogs. Dani was delighted to have a clear path with no traffic lights, few cross streets, and everyone heading in the same direction. She literally ran her way down the path, with me hanging on as her companion. Her pleasure was infectious and we found ourselves climbing to new heights and descending into the low valleys, joyfully greeting pilgrims with “buen Camino.” A guide dog on the Camino is rare, so pilgrims were intrigued and stopped to give her their blessing, with a kiss on the head or a kind word. By the end of this first day, she was the toast of the Camino. Carla and I took breaks to hydrate and to ensure Dani could rest. Greg, one of the dog-loving Redeemer pilgrims, examined her feet in the evening to make sure her pads were not injured.

Many of our days were glorious. I felt the ever-changing Spanish ground under my feet, from the soft mush of the farmyard, to the granite pebbles of a hillside, to the asphalt of an urban sidewalk. I listened to the ambient sounds of the open farmland, the muffled sound of walking beside buildings and walls, the hushed cover of a forest canopy, the rushing of water when near a stream.

But mostly I was present to my body moving through space. Fear of the unknown and anxiety about the possible dangers ahead could be overwhelming, so it was a challenge to stay with my body in the moment. Often the steep descents were rock strewn and tough to navigate. One day, we were heading down a precipitous narrow path. We had to step from rock to rock. Dani couldn’t find her way. Slipping into the outer darkness of fear was not an option for me. Nor was hurtling off the edge! I had to remain in the moment and not let the fear of falling take over. I had to trust we would all reach the bottom of this hill safely. We had to take our time, all the while knowing that a pilgrim back-up was happening behind us. Slowly and meticulously and together, the three of us trusted one another and we made it to the bottom. Everyone cheered.

On our second day, on our way to Sarria, we came upon a stream with a rough stone causeway with no handrails. There was mist in the air, so we knew the way across would be slippery. It seemed impossible. But wet feet were safer feet, so Carla, Susan, Dani and I walked downstream and discovered stepping stones just beneath the surface of the water. I put my feet where Dani stepped and made it to the other side without incident. Dani walked across as if we did this every day.

In the days to come we crossed countless ancient bridges, clambered over obstacles, fled from unexpected motor bikes and insensitive bicyclists, trudged along paths next to highways, and endured hours of rain and damp. Carla kept us safe. The other Redeemer pilgrims kept us safe. But we had not yet encountered the worst, most hurtful of obstacles. When we did, I had to remember a petition in my prayer: “help me to forgive those who offer barriers.” Discrimination – wherever it takes place – is humiliating for me and painful for my companions. I had not expected to encounter so many opportunities on this path to forgive those who know not what they do. After all, this was the Camino! But there they were in technicolour: those who were indifferent or insensitive to my need for a guide-dog. Those who were ignorant and even nasty.

Late on the third day, when running out of momentum, the three of us were walking with Melanie and Susan. We made the difficult but prudent decision to call a taxi. Just then a taxi drove by, having just made a delivery, and stopped when we hailed it. However, the driver took one look at Dani and told me that the law forbid him to take dogs in his cab. We all felt anger at the lie. Carla came to the rescue by mentioning a fabulous vegan bar not far down the road. While the kitchen had closed by the time we arrived, their brownies were still on offer, still hot and amazingly delicious. We scoffed them down and Melanie composed a humorous protest song about our maltreatment, which we sang lustily between bites. Thus energized and re-regulated, we continued our journey to our destination.

This discrimination continued sporadically as some restaurant and bar owners misunderstood their legal obligation to welcome guide dogs. When we were denied entrance or asked to leave, we often found another bar or restaurant where we were welcomed with warmth and Dani was considered as another guest. But the worst was yet to come! One night we were staying in a beautiful stone farmhouse in the countryside a ways off the Camino. When our host saw Dani, he said she would have to sleep in the garage. My Spanish is limited, but my answer was a defiant and emphatic “no!” He called our tour company and was told he had to accept Dani as a house guest. Still sulking, the next day he refused to take Dani in his car to get back onto the Camino. An angry dispute broke out, as he and Lee debated his obligation to take all of us as he had promised (and as his duty as host required). His tone turned sour and abusive and Dani, Carla and I decided to take a separate taxi. While his rejection and lack of compassion stung, I choose to forgive this man and his failure of hospitality. His behaviour towards us was such a small part of the experience of pilgrimage, of walking and living the last petition of my preparation prayer: “open my heart to the love from those around me.” The three of us had been showered with love and grace and generosity by people from all over the world and by our Redeemer family.

When the three of us arrived in the old part of Santiago, a Galician piper was playing at the gate of the square surrounding the cathedral. We were there in time to attend the pilgrim mass and felt truly blessed to be at the end of our journey. We then visited the Pilgrim Office, presented our three credentials (passports with stamps verifying the many stages of the journey), and received our compostelas (certificates of completion). When the volunteer behind the desk discovered Dani was a guide dog, he issued a special one for animals accompanying their owners on pilgrimage.

As important and precious as my compostela is, the most valuable of the Camino’s gifts to me is the fulfillment of my prayer. Susan’s kindness transformed my attitude. Carla’s generous and thoughtful spirit made me realize the pilgrimage was possible. Redeemer pilgrims cared for us along the way. As Susan predicted, we stretched and stretched and stretched and were changed. I practiced radical trust despite my fears and stayed in the moment. I practised forgiveness. The many moments of grace and love contributed to and shaped my transformation. They fill me with the hope and the courage to continue to dream.

Carla and I still walk together. My Camino prayer has become my prayer for life. Perhaps it will be yours, too.

Loving God, give me courage to live this dream,
Help me imagine how to overcome obstacles,
Give me grace to walk in the moment,
Help me to forgive those who offer barriers,
Open my heart to the love from those around me.
In St. James’ name, I pray.


Written by Joan Robinson and the Rev. Susan Haig of Church of the Redeemer, Bloor St.


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