This past spring, I walked the Camino de Santiago, an 800-kilometre pilgrimage route to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galacia in northwestern Spain. Tradition has it that the remains of the Apostle James are buried at the site of the cathedral.
My fascination with the Camino de Santiago began in the summer of 2012 while watching a movie called The Way, in which a doctor embarks on the pilgrimage to retrieve the body of his son who died while hiking along the Camino.
Before watching the movie, I had never heard of the Camino, nor thought about the idea of pilgrimage. But half-way through, I blurted out, “Mom, I’m going to do this.” She smiled, knowing that I had offered many ‘brilliant’ dreams before and might not actually follow through. Inside, though, I knew that this was something that would happen.
The image of “the way,” and the ideas of “process” and “destination” intrigued me. Doing something that would push me holistically—physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally—excited me. I began reading books on the background of Christian pilgrimage, and with the help of Irma Fast Dueck, my faculty advisor at Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, I created an independent study so that I could delve deeper.
Still, the questions sat in the back of my mind: Why would someone walk more than 800 kilometres, and, more importantly, why would they choose to do so? At one level it made no sense, but another part of me knew that it did. So I resolved to walk the Camino de Santiago alone and open myself to what the pilgrimage could teach me.
I filled my backpack with 10 kilos of clothing, a sleeping bag, water bottle, every imaginable blister medication possible, my journal, and a whole lot of fears and questions about why I was going to walk across northern Spain.
One foot in front of the other
On April 28, at 6 a.m., I set out from the small French village of St. Jean Pied du Port. A mere five kilometres later, early on in the Pyrenees Mountains, my first blister appeared and a sharp ache in my back began to pulse. I tried to mimic the stride of the Hungarian man in front of me, and eventually developed a rhythm with my walking poles, but I still felt like I was doing everything wrong. At that point, I knew no more than to follow the arrows and shells marked along the path, and to put one foot in front of the other.
On that first day, the fear of walking for 33 days straight—an average of 25 to 30 kilometres every day—alongside people from all over the world whom I did not know seemed daunting.
As the days passed, and my aching feet began to adjust, my appreciation for walking, particularly walking alone—began to emerge. I got up early and often walked by myself before the sun rose, but slowly I realized that walking alone was impossible. Sure, I was on my own path, but we pilgrims were always together. We were all simply walking, each with our own story and our own reason for being there, and each falling in step with others on this journey.
A deep interconnectedness with complete strangers emerged. There were no labels or judgments—often not even names. Sometimes I would know only from which country they came and the injuries they may have encountered that day. But beneath all of that, we found ourselves sharing out of our deepest selves.
This hit me early on while walking a few days with Dan, a U.S. Marine who had just finished a tour of duty in Afghanistan. As a peace and conflict transformation studies major, I was initially nervous about walking alongside someone whose worldview and experience were so different from mine. What amazed me was that I came to know far more about Dan’s deep commitments, his family, his questions, his summer plans, than his life fighting in Afghanistan. We came together as two pilgrims, each walking the same path together.
Two weeks into the journey, my body adjusted to the physical realities of the Camino and the experience became far more than simply walking. I began to realize that while my 10-kilo pack was full of my physical belongings, it was also being filled with experience, humanity and sacredness.
Pouring sorrow into rocks
As I sat, walked, cooked and ate meals with pilgrims from around the world, I listened to and took in their stories. I breathed in stories of deep grieving, of deep searching and questioning, and of deep discovery. I learned very quickly the impossibility of labelling any of the people I met. I learned that so many were searching, but none were lost.
I was graced with pilgrims who entered my life: Dan, the Marine; Mary, a Hungarian woman, who, at 72, was paralyzed from the knees down and walked nonetheless; Judith, an Australian mother whose son had recently committed suicide after the death of his twin daughters; Ben, a 17-year-old boy whose mother forced him to walk the Camino after he got his girlfriend pregnant; Veronica, a 78-year-old Irish woman with more than 40 grandchildren; Richard, a Canadian albergue (hotel) owner who walked the Camino last year and committed himself to hosting pilgrims from that time on in a small town in Spain; Sue, a Canadian writer who has walked the Camino 11 times, always in her bare feet; and the list goes on.
Each of us held and carried our own narrative, our own motive for walking. Along the way, I saw many of these pilgrims holding a stone and dropping it off along the path. I asked a friend what these pilgrims were doing, and she explained that many chose to pick up a stone and grieve with it, pouring all of their sorrow into it. When they were ready, they dropped it off. As other pilgrims would walk, they were then invited to pick up one of these stones and continue the process.
I did this as well, but soon realized it wasn’t only my own sorrow that I was pouring into these rocks, it was the sorrow of my fellow pilgrims that I had begun to carry in my backpack. Their experiences, and the radical hospitality I experienced in sharing our stories, in sleeping in albergues and being cared for by monks and nuns in monasteries, was transforming for me. Shared stories and experiences of pain, of humanity, of hope and of grace were overwhelming.
As I walked I realized that, although I was physically stronger, it was the emotional, spiritual and relational truths of these people and their stories that filled and overflowed my backpack. So often, I think this is the case for all of us. Many of us tend to pack and carry and walk our lives so that we can control things around us, so that we can deal with our insecurities and fears, and with our own needs and aspirations.
The Camino taught me in a profound way the power of surrendering control and opening myself to what I cannot control. I could never control how far I might be able to walk that day, whether an injury would arise, who I would meet or what story I would encounter, where I would eat or stay for the night, and so much more.
Learning to be present and open to glimpses of God at work in the people I met, and the shared experiences we had, was a gift. Walking the Camino opened me again to learning to trust God and to leave room for God. In doing so, my overflowing backpack felt lighter and lighter.
A unique part of an ancient journey
“The way” is a prominent metaphor both within and outside of Scripture. Although destination is important, it is the way we get there—across the Pyrenees, into valleys, through forests and across fields, in cool rain and beating sun—that the action takes place. It is along the way that one lives through past and present wounds and hopes, thinking and crying and feeling and talking and walking in silence with them.
Jesus calls us, his followers, to practise God’s way, to walk God’s walk. In embarking on the Camino, I found myself stepping back into an ancient Christian practice. I was walking the way that millions of pilgrims had walked before me.
The path of the Camino opened me up to much more than dust, pain, blisters and conversation. It opened an ancient story in which I became one unique part. Through this, I developed an openness for God’s presence walking with me.
Indeed, the goal of reaching a specific “holy” destination—in my case, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela—signifies not the end of the journey, but rather the start. It’s a portal into a renewed way of being, of seeing life afresh with spiritually cleansed eyes.
I learned that “the way” commanded by Christ is one to be journeyed. Indeed, “the way” is made by walking.
Clare Schellenberg, 22, attends Home Street Mennonite Church, Winnipeg.