by VICTORIA NING
Earlier this year I set foot upon a well-worn path in the south of France, and set out upon the journey known as the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of Saint James. Confident of my destination and walking in the footsteps of millions of people who had traversed this path before me, I was filled with excitement and anticipation, though I wasn’t to know that this journey would subsequently take me further than I ever could have conceived.
The Camino de Santiago (often referred to as the “Camino”, or the “Way”) is an ancient pilgrimage to the burial place of St James the Great in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. As tradition maintains, the remains of St James were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain, and now lie entombed below the altar in the city’s cathedral. Over the course of its thousand-year history, the Camino has seen millions of pilgrims on its trails making passage to the holy site, and still to this day thousands of people each year leave their homes to walk this sacred path.
Today the most popular route is the Camino Frances, which begins at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and finishes in Santiago. All in all, the journey sees one walk 799 kilometres, taking approximately four weeks to complete. And why, you may ask, would any sane person embark on such an undertaking? The thought of carrying all your belongings on your back and walking continuously for a month may not hold much appeal to some, but for the many who decide to shoulder their load, the reasons vary significantly from religious and spiritual, to health, or holiday.
Since high school, walking the Camino had always been a dream of mine, albeit a rather far away, rather unrealistic dream. But it was one that was always in the back of my mind and it also floated up in conversation from time to time. Being a young 23-year-old, I always imagined I would walk the Camino during a mid-life-crisis scenario, however come July of this year I found myself in Spain with time to spare, and the Lord calling in my heart to walk. I said an eager, “yes”, and bounded off the bus at Saint-Jean-Piedde-Port with my sister who would walk with first ten days with me. We were fresh-faced, fresh-legged pilgrims, ready for the journey to commence.
After the third day of walking I was certain that my initial “yes’” had been far too eager. When I heard people say the Camino was the hardest thing they had ever done, naively, I didn’t buy it. But there I was, three days in, with a pack that felt like lead, feet that screamed defeat, and a questionable mental state, and I concluded this was indeed one of the hardest things I had ever done. It was decided that in fact I didn’t really need to (and physically couldn’t for that matter) make it to Santiago, which lay somewhere behind the next 730 kilometres. Most of all, I was struck by a reality that I never would have foreseen prior to beginning: I didn’t want be there. However in the midst of picturing myself enjoying endless tapas on the beach of some quaint Spanish town, I was reminded of my “why”.
On the Camino you realise very quickly that one, there is no certainty that you will finish, and two, your motivation becomes everything. I was there because I chose it, and my motivation was Jesus. I was not walking purposelessly or without direction, but walking in the knowledge that every step was a step for him, with him, to him, for love of him and to be loved by him. When I could have very easily elected to stop and turn back to a life and a place I loved and was loved, Jesus was calling me to leave behind everything and be filled by him alone. And with that I put one foot in front of the other and kept walking through the pain whispering my own quiet “fiat”.
A typical day would involve an early rise to begin walking about 6am in order to avoid the radiating heat of the afternoon sun (who ever thought walking the Camino in the middle of summer was a good idea?), and from there the rest was simple and pretty self-explanatory: you just walk. The average pilgrim will walk anywhere between 20 to 35 kilometres each day, venturing across beautiful terrain, passing by little Spanish villages, and stopping on occasion for food, rest, shade, and more often than not, a little first-aid. Due to the sheer number of pilgrims, the route is very well established, thus you are never far from a water fountain, a helpful local, or a little yellow arrow, which points you in the right direction.
Upon arrival at the destination for the day, the next step would be to check in to an “alburgue”, a hostel specifically for pilgrims at low cost, usually boasting endless rows of bunk beds. After resisting the urge to collapse on the bed and stay there, the evening rituals would commence. This would involve mustering enough energy to shower, hand-wash clothes, tend to aching feet and other infirmities, find food, explore, and, for us, attend Mass. Most towns offered a daily pilgrim Mass as well as a traditional pilgrim blessing, and this became one of my favourite parts of the day. When your body is too sore to kneel, you kneel anyway, and the Eucharist defeats the weariness in you and sustains your journey.
The Camino is place of meetings and encounters with God, but also with your fellow pilgrims. There is no substitute to walking hours each day side-by-side with strangers, with whom you may share everything or nothing in common, yet are united in the same quest. At the heart of it all, it is such a raw experience of humanity and what it means to truly live, for there are no facades on the Camino. Care for appearance falls by the wayside, social status or money bear no weight, country and language matter little, everyone is stripped bare and is merely human. With nothing else but the bags on our backs, we forge our paths together and days become not defined by our mutual suffering, but rather are filled with laughter, meaningful conversation, and newfound companionship.
More specifically, there is a deep sense of community and of stewardship on the Camino like none I’ve ever known or experienced. In one “alburgue” I came across a poem that read, “You are blessed, pilgrim, if you discover that one step backwards to come to someone’s aid is worth more than a hundred steps forwards without a sideways glance” (Author Unknown). It was true that no person was left behind no matter the cost, and at times the cost was great; there was no greater test of character in taking that one step backwards when you had gone past the point of exhaustion, and were staring down the barrel of another 10 kilometres. However time and time again I was a witness to and a recipient of such beautiful demonstrations of love from both friends and strangers, who carried my food for me, gave me the last of their water, waited when they didn’t have to, or just lent some encouragement or hilarity in the midst of the ridiculousness.
On one occasion I discovered a blister on my heel so big that for the next few days I was known as “the girl with the blister” (which was quite an accomplishment on the Camino where there are more blisters than there are pilgrims). With a very understocked first-aid kit and unsure of the next move, my sister and I ventured downstairs to the dining room to implore some help. Never have I seen a group rally so fast; in a few moments I was handed needles, iodine, plasters, bandages, and a lovely gentlemen even did the honours in popping the giant. It was such a spectacle, and while very much disgusted at my feet, I was in awe of the spirit of these people who didn’t hesitate to love.
Because of this, my sister promptly said, “I love the Camino, just not the walking’’. And it’s true, there is something so profoundly special about the Camino, however you cannot have the Camino without the walk just as Jesus is inseparable from his cross. The cross on the Camino is very real; you feel it in every second of every day, and each step is both pain and a miracle. Often it takes every ounce of fight inside you to keep moving, though sometimes the fight falters and the cross begins to slip. In those moments when I couldn’t walk any longer I was carried by the prayers of the saints on whose road we walked, and by Christ himself.
A few weeks down the track I stopped for the night at Monte de Gozo, just five kilometres away from Santiago. Early on I decided that I wanted to arrive by myself and thus leaving my newfound friends for the moment, I woke at 5am and with tattered feet and no less than 12 blisters, walked (or stumbled) my way into the city. It was a short, yet emotional trip — the culmination of so many days of pain, struggle, of hope and desire. There are no words to describe the sense of arrival when I finally stood before the Cathedral of St James, a feeling that may be indicative of when we reach heaven, our true homeland. Sitting in the square beneath the stars, completely floored by majesty, I heard Jesus you say to me, “In the end, all I wanted was for you to know how much I love you.”
Now back in New Zealand, whilst I’m glad for the comforts of home (particularly large towels and hot showers), and I forgo my reality of not having any other obligation but to walk each day, I am struck by a Latin phrase exchanged by pilgrims, “ultreia”, which means “onwards”. Santiago was not the end of the road but rather the beginning of the journey, and as I settle back into the daily grind I know my pilgrimage is far from over because of this certainty: the Camino is Jesus. Jesus is the Camino. Not a futile quest or an aimless wander, the Camino is a pursuit of the one who is quite literally the way, the truth, and the life.
This pursuit is one that will see this lifetime through, and each of us are called to keep walking forwards toward he who loved us first. I wish you a Buen Camino (“Good Way”).