Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Reflections on the Camino

Paul Adams

These are some general reflections on walking the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage that was enormously popular and well traveled in the Middle Ages and which has undergone a tremendous revival in recent decades.

Here's how my daughter Katryn described our pilgrimage as she introduced her terrific gallery of photographs on Facebook (I'll include a few here later if and when I figure out how to transfer them):
We walked from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (the northwestern part of Spain) along the medieval pilgrimage route from France. We only did the last 112 km -- you need 100+ for it to be recognized by the Church. It was a religious thing for my dad, but more of a cultural and bonding experience for me. We could have had better weather, but overall a great trip!
It was also a cultural and bonding experience for me, as well as a religious pilgrimage to honor God and St. James and in reparation for my sins.  The Cathedral office that dispenses the Compostela (certificate of completion) only has two categories of certificate based on your reasons for making the pilgrimage - religious/personal/spiritual/cultural and as an athletic activity - and the latter definitely did not fit either of us.

There were plenty of athletic types - Italian and German cyclists as well as young people who whizzed past us on foot and whom we never saw again.  At the same time, a few families with children and American elders in groups, and English mums had their luggage shipped ahead for each night.  But this was late April and early May, when most younger and fitter peregrinos were still in school.  We had heard and read tales of boisterous partying at the pilgrim hostels along the way that were said to lead to serious sleep deprivation for more mature pilgrims.  But we saw none of that.  Most of the people we met and chatted with, those going at our pace, were moms of children who were now in high school or beyond.  There were the two South African sisters who were walking the Way as a bonding experience, along with the best friend of one of the women.  There was a pair of English 'county' women, mothers of six boys between them who had been or were currently at the same public (private) school in the South of England.  

We saw other pilgrims at Mass along the way and not only at the famous Pilgrims' Mass held every day at noon at the Cathedral in Santiago.  But none of those we chatted with seemed to identify as Catholic or indicated they were doing the walk as Christian pilgrims. Others from here at Ave found the same on their pilgrimages and in that respect the film, The Way, seemed accurate. I had Chaucer's Canterbury Tales on my Kindle.  I did not turn to it as I had meant, though I read one tale on the plane to Barcelona.  But thinking of that great medieval work reminded me that those going on pilgrimages always had a range of motives, secular as well as religious. It was all that most pilgrims had in the way of a vacation - as opposed to a feast or festival.  It was a respite from routine and responsibility and for some from unhappy marriages or grinding work.  Some pilgrims were holy people filled with the love of God and neighbor.  But others were, in the English expression, no better than they should be.

Still, I was filled with the sense that I was walking in the footsteps of hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who had the made the journey in faith and in much harder conditions for more than a thousand years.  I felt their presence and their prayers as clearly as I saw the many Romanesque and Gothic churches of the Middle Ages, the monuments and statues. Or saw the deep identations made in the column at the Cathedral by countless peregrinos as they paid their homage over the many centuries down to the time it was cordoned off from our touch for its own protection and ours, like the leaning tower of Pisa.  

Doing the full 800 km of the French route on foot takes more time than most people can manage, unless they are young people using a long vacation or time between jobs or else retirees.  So we met only a few spiritual-but-not-religious seekers of enlightenment about their own lives - hoping to find answers to questions they had about what to do next after finding themselves without a partner or a job. One particularly intense American woman fell into that category, saying she had walked over 400 miles and still had not found the answer she was looking for.

Yet most people seem to find the Camino a spiritual experience in some sense.  It is a time apart from the daily routines and responsibilities of life, a bit like a long retreat at a monastery, even without going to Mass, but a retreat with blisters, aching feet, and the sense of accomplishment that came from a physical feat requiring more exercise than most of us had done in many years.  It is a unique and unforgettable life experience, a time of bonding with old friends or family and of meeting many wonderful, kind, happy people along the way - pilgrims, locals, and young Catholic volunteers from other parts of Spain who offered free services like tea, coffee, and toilets - wonderful, kind, happy people whom we'd never see again in this world.

Like the intense American lady, most peregrinos, I suspect, do not have a singular moment of enlightenment, an aha moment, when an answer to their question, whether about God or their next career choice, is revealed.  I had no such unique moment, no falling-down road to Damascus experience.  Instead I felt the continuous presence of God as never before, something more - I imagine and for a time - like a "life of prayer" than the usual life with prayer episodically in it.

Over lunch at an inn on the way, one of the English women asked me upon learning that I was Catholic, what my reward would be on completing the Camino.  She asked in a very mildly teasing way and I realized she was thinking of those rules for indulgences, like a week off Purgatory if you confess and attend a mass celebrated by a regular priest, a month if it's a bishop, and a plenary indulgence if you drop dead on the way - there were enough little memorials along the route to remind us that it happens.  I did not want to get into the history and theology of indulgences or what it might mean to talk of time periods in that way for a situation where there is no time, and so forth.  I forgot what I did say, it was not much.  I also felt the conversation and the question were too light for me appropriately to get into the way I actually did think about my "reward," which had much more to do with the parable of the Prodigal Son, the way we voluntarily separate ourselves from the Father, how we nevertheless can return and be welcomed home.

More on the actual Camino - what we saw and experienced, the country, the churches and other notable buildings, the way we ate and slept on the way - to follow.  First to figure out and select those pictures.

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