Two days ago I arrived in Santiago de Compostela having walked 118km over 5 days, from Sarria.
This is the last section of the Camino Francés, or the Way of St. James, a Christian pilgrim path that is over 10 centuries old. The cathedral at Santiago is said to house the remains of the apostle James, who is traditionally considered to be the first disciple of Jesus to be martyred.
I am currently writing this from my hostel, enjoying the extra couple of days (which I thought I´d be using to get here) to reflect on my journey. Here are some first thoughts.
Setting Out – Becoming a pilgrim
Having decided that I can no longer get on a plane in good conscience for environmental reasons, I got the train to Spain. This was not without some hiccups, not least missing all my connections because the Eurostar out of London was delayed, resulting in lots of different conversations in different French train stations for the rest of the day.
I loved travelling by train because I got a great sense of the distance I was travelling, and it immediately put me in the mindset of journeying. This was aided by some strange experiences, including a man sat beside me being taken aside by staff who had a heated discussion with him before they came back to remove his possessions – for reasons still unknown to me. More positively, in Montpellier I spent the hour waiting for my last connection (an hour which then turned into 3…) singing Adele to a crowd, having joined a group making use of the public piano in the station.
This combined with the few days I spent in Barcelona before the Camino, in which a teenager passed out head-first on the pavement directly in front of me, and a drunk woman caught me unawares by punching me in the back of the head (all involved emerged from both situations fine to the best of my knowledge), was sufficient to shift me into a different rhythm of life.
In Scripture, there are many comparisons between our experiences of life, and the notion of being foreign travellers. The Earth is beautiful, and it is made for us, but all is not well. For me, the bits of brokenness prompt me to ask and seek for wholeness, and I believe it is as Dorothy Day says, “…there is always the fact of the Fall, as well as the fact of our Redemption” – i.e. that for every bit of brokenness there is hope of wholeness, a hope realised in Jesus.
Being a traveller helps me to live more within this hope. I believe there is something about being amidst the unfamiliar that directs us to a different way of thinking not found by staying in the familiar. In many ways this makes sense – the extraordinary is not sought after by accepting the ordinary.
In my hostel in Barcelona I had a very long conversation with the French owner. He could not understand why I was planning on walking the Camino and was fairly insistent that I must be trying to ´find myself´. Far from it, I said, I was looking to ´be myself´. To spend time walking and thinking and praying, and through all of these things, worshipping and rejoicing in creation and in my very living. Louis absolutely could not accept this and I think he concluded that I was somewhat delusional. The slight language barrier we had probably didn´t help.
On my third night of the Camino, I had a conversation with a wonderful Irish woman who gave me her second copy of the John Brierley guide to walking the Camino, which discusses what it is to be on pilgrimage (as opposed to being on a walking holiday). He suggests that a good starting point is to consider that “you are essentially a spiritual being on a human journey, not a human being on a spiritual one“.
On reflection, I think this captures the difference between the perspectives that Louis and I approached the conversation with.
“Blessed are those whose strength is in you,
whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”