Here’s my April column for the Holland Sentinel:
A spiritual pilgrimage, so the thinking goes, consists of both an outward journey and an inward journey.
Last week I returned from my first Camino de Santiago, a spiritual pilgrimage dating back to the 11th century. I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port (on the French side of the Pyrenees) to Santiago de Compostela (a university town in northwest Spain with a famous cathedral), a distance of 500 miles, which I walked in 29 days.
A pilgrimage is not a race, of course, and many pilgrims walk more slowly and cover the distance in two months or more. I enjoyed the physical challenge of the Camino and averaged more than 17 miles a day, not necessarily a pace I would recommend to every pilgrim.
My walk, with a backpack weighing approximately 20 pounds, was my outward journey. My inward journey has not ended. I am still sorting out the meaning of my experience and will probably do so for weeks and months to come.
Without a doubt the best part of my pilgrimage was meeting fellow pilgrims from all over the world. During the first several days I was mostly alone, without another human being in sight, often for hours at a time, and so I spent my time praying, singing (sometimes loudly, why not?), and reflecting on my life. Later, as the number of pilgrims increased, I walked less by myself and more with others.
I was surprised to learn that few pilgrims walk the Camino for spiritual reasons—or what they would consider to be spiritual reasons. Many of the pilgrims I met were hoping, as they put it, to “find direction” for their lives or, more simply, to find themselves. Why they expected to find themselves by walking a long distance, I wasn’t sure, but for centuries this has been one of the most common reasons for walking the Camino.
One of the first pilgrims I met was a Jesuit priest from Chile who now lives and works in Russia. As we walked I learned that he has a Ph.D. in biblical theology and that he trains priests in Siberia, in what sounded like a small theological seminary. He speaks Spanish, but is also fluent in Russian, French, and English. While we talked, I couldn’t help wondering if I would have been willing to do the work to which he is devoting his life. I went eagerly to Switzerland, but would not have been quite as enthusiastic about Siberia
Later I met an American man who told me he was diagnosed 35 years ago with type 1 diabetes and was told he had 30, maybe 35, years to live. His doctor told him that eventually he would experience blindness, his internal organs would fail, and there would be amputations. His response to this grim diagnosis was to start walking, to achieve a level of fitness that most people without diabetes would envy.
In addition to completing several ultra-marathons, this man has walked the entire perimeter of the United States (in stages), giving talks along the way about living with diabetes to Rotary Clubs and church groups, basically any group that would give him an audience. To observe the 35th anniversary of his diagnosis he is planning a 100-mile walk in the U.S., and his grandchildren will join him for the last five miles.
The equipment he carries related to his insulin weighs eight pounds, and suddenly my own 20-pound pack felt much lighter.
One evening in a pilgrim hostel—or albergue—I met a young woman from Estonia who was doing some unusual stretching exercises between bunk beds. I quickly realized that she had cerebral palsy and that nightly stretching was essential to her being able to finish the Camino. The degree of difficulty she faced for her Camino, I must say, brought me to tears.
While we walked together the next day, I asked Greta what she did for work, and she told me that she was an accountant and that she owned her own accounting firm. I didn’t know what to say, so I said, “Oh.”
My own reason for walking the Camino always seemed less grand when I met Greta and others like her. I walked, I would tell everyone who asked, because I am grateful for my life. And that was certainly true but not, as it turned out, the whole truth.
Now that I am back in the U.S. I realize that I was walking, like all the others, to find myself. And the good news is that I found myself—in a great company of women and men who, over the centuries, have walked and listened and attempted to understand what God was doing in their lives. For this pilgrimage, and for its discoveries, I am deeply grateful.
Photo: …moments after arriving at the cathedral in Santiago, 29 days after setting out from Saint Jean Pied de Port.