The first reality which hits you when contemplating a pilgrimage such as The Camino Francés is the distance – walking 800 kilometres is a daunting challenge in any language. But to limit the challenge to the physical is to ignore the real purpose of pilgrimage. In fact it is almost impossible to escape other realities – the Camino seems to have a purpose all its own. I freely admit that I undertook this pilgrimage as a hanger-on. It was a long-held dream of Ev (my wife) to “do the Camino” and I wasn’t about to miss out. When we set out from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, I had little idea of what might lie ahead save for the first climb through the Pyrenees and 800 kilometres of walking. The lingering question in my mind as we commenced was whether I was physically up to it.
In many ways the journey was much longer and broader. It turned out to be not just a pilgrimage across Spain, or a journey to Santiago, but a journey through my own life, through the challenges I had faced in the past, the choices I had made, and the opportunities both taken and let pass. Though there is a popular belief is that the Camino is divided into three parts: first the physical, then the emotional, and finally the spiritual, it was my experience that these were intertwined and interwoven with the social all along the way. No-one does the Camino on their own, but relies upon the provision of so many others, the encouragement and companionship of friends and strangers, and the gifts which the Camino itself manages to throw up at the most opportune and unexpected moments.
At its core, pilgrimage is about a journey of encounter with God, but it is much more. Either that, or the definition of what it is to meet God needs to be radically expanded. I dialogued (and wrestled!) with my younger self, with the landscape around me, with Ev, and with others on the way. Even the weather could join you as friend or foe, presenting questions which you would be required to answer. The full array of human character is tested and exposed – at least to yourself if not to others. There is nowhere to hide on the Camino. Previously unshed tears were released, muted joys given greater expression, prior reflections pushed deeper and given new perspective. When you have nothing to do but walk for hours on end, you can distract yourself for a time, but the questions, events and experiences remain and resurface.
At different times sifting through memories, life experiences, expectations of ourselves, and other thoughts Ev and I confirmed with each other that there was fresh insight into our own formation, and questions posed about the future. We were reminded of the power of choice, and of self-imposed expectations. We saw God in our lives in ways that we had not previously recognised. There were questions asked of us that now live… questions to deal with in the continuing journey. God was not to be found in a single place (although encountered in single places!), but was to be discovered all around: in the scenery, the pathways, the people, the weather, the learning of language, in the deep history of many of the places we trod, in the cathedrals and many village churches, and more. Perhaps we were most surprised by the deep impressions from small and often simple chapels maintained in the small rural communities. The simplicity of many village lifestyles was challenging to someone who lives in a megacity. Also, to spend so much time walking gave insight into the life of Jesus. At times there was a new appreciation of the Via Dolorosa…
I have noted elsewhere that one pilgrim along the way invited us to consider when and in what guise we would meet the devil on the way. It was a thought that hadn’t crossed my mind until that point. My first reflection was that the devil was in the destination: seeking simply to get the end point of the journey rather than staying in the moment along the way. I have come to realise that it is more complex: the devil being found in distraction, inattention, and denial – in my willingness and related creativity to avoid dealing with a thought. Invariably what was denied was only postponed.
Now that we have been home for nearly three weeks, I still find it difficult to answer the question, “How was it?” I suppose it is not unlike asking someone in their advanced years the same question about life: “How was it?” That we have lost about 11 kg between us on the journey is but one indicator of the physical toll (benefit?!) of the journey, but in its own way a reminder that we have been reshaped by the experience, and reminded that the pilgrimage did not end in Santiago. The Camino has become to us an image of the reflected life. As we have re-entered the maelstrom of a typical Western urban context, we are determined to retain the commitment to space and time for reflection – creating ways to slow down and absorb what is happening in us, around us, and to us as we seek to walk the Way. To continue life’s pilgrimage in the ordinary moments, but with intent.
Gary Heard and his wife Ev live in Melbourne Australia with their three kids Caleb, Rachel and Sam. Gary is Dean of Whitley College. Gary and Ev have just returned from walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. You can read more about their experiences through their blog Heard About the Camino.