Months ago, my dad quizzed me on the expectations I might have for the trek I plan to do. In just over a month, I leave for Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. This is a spiderweb of ancient pilgrim routes through Spain that converge at the city of Santiago de Compostela in its northwest corner. The city is said to be the burial site of the Apostle James.
At the time, I could answer my dad without much thought. “I have none.” No expectations. I just wanted to do the pilgrimage as sort of a spiritual (and physical) exercise. I visualized getting up every day with nothing to do but walk all day toward a holy place. Whether St. James is really buried there or not doesn’t matter. I figure the place has been sanctified by all the hopes and dreams, faith and desires of pilgrims who have been coming there for over a thousand years.
So I had no expectations other than a good walk and some time to reflect.
That was then.
Now, the emotional temperature in my little cabin in the woods is in turmoil. Every day, news seeps in through the ether, and every day my head explodes. I talk to myself in bad language. I become despondent over the latest spate of Twitter smackdowns and bans, orders, appointments, and general, hostile chaos.
Were my dad to ask me that question today, I’d say that I go seeking perspective, balance, understanding, and peace. A sense of how to place the present geopolitical trajectory against an eternal world view. And to increase my own faith and composure. And love. I need to learn about love.
In short, I need help, God.
As I mentioned, there are many roads to Santiago de Compostela, just as there are in life. The traditional route begins in France, crosses the Pyrenees, and winds across Galicia in northern Spain. This is the route the Martin Sheen character in the movie The Way traversed.
It’s not the way I’m going.
I’ve decided to take the longer north-south route called the Via de la Plata through the center of Spain, mostly because it’s less crowded. So many people walk the northern route now that it seems every day is a race for a bed.
The Via de la Plata begins in Seville. I hope to spend Semana Santa in Mérida. (Three years ago, I was in Mérida, Mexico, for Semana Santa, so there’s a satisfying circularity there.) Beyond that, I haven’t planned much—I’m just giving myself time to walk at my own pace and rest when I need it.
The way is well-marked by variants of yellow flechas—arrows—which doesn’t mean you don’t get lost, and I’m sure I will. Every day you walk from one village to another. Sometimes the villages are close and sometime they’re farther apart. Each village has designated places, called albergues, where the pilgrims stay in cheap dormitory- or hostel-style lodging. The total length of the Via de la Plata route that I’m doing is 600 miles (968 km).
I’ve heard stories about monstrous snoring, flammable flatulence, and various annoyances on the part of the pilgrims in the albergues. This is to be expected when you cram a bunch of people together from many countries who have come for many reasons. I’ve told myself I can always take a private room for a break (or a good night’s sleep).
I’ve also read stories about how the camino changes people—usually subtly and mysteriously, sometimes dramatically. Maybe that’s a consequence of attempting something difficult, testing yourself physically and spiritually, and being open and vulnerable to what each day brings.
Each pilgrim carries an official Credencial, like a passport, which is stamped at every place he or she spends the night. At the end of the journey, in Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim receives the final stamp and an official certificate of having completed the journey–a Compostela.
I can’t imagine what that will be like.
Pilgrims say, “the Camino provides.” That’s what I want to reclaim: a sense of daily Providence; a sense of letting go and being open to breeze of the Spirit that plays across each day.
I’ve noticed in my last couple of trips—four months in South America and two weeks in Israel—that I’ve become increasingly tight. More worried about getting lost or getting scammed or losing things and less aware of the magic that might be happening right under my nose. I walk around with a furrowed brow and closed spirit.
That tends to be my default, and travel challenges me to open up and lighten up because otherwise, it’s no fun.
So, I am looking forward to beginning my walk–with some trepidation, I admit. It’s a challenging undertaking. I wonder if I can go the distance—or even make the first day’s 14 miles (23 Km).
I also feel anxious and guilty about leaving the ongoing struggle at home and abandoning the resistance at a tender and critical time. My hope is to return with both greater conviction and greater equanimity and a focused sense of purpose. Carry on, friends, while I’m gone. It’s a good and necessary fight.
Meanwhile, I’ll be steeped in the best of Catholicism, which is my birthright. I look forward to attending mass frequently and to living in the spirit of the Camino, which goes like this:
Live in the moment
Welcome each day—its pleasures and its challenges
Make others feel welcome.
Feel the spirit of those who have gone before you.
Imagine those who will follow you.
Appreciate those who will walk with you today.