It’s easy to find out how to start off on the trek along the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. There are lots of inspiring pictures showing happy pilgrims making those final steps toward the Cathedral’s double stairway at the end of their pilgrimage. What happens between those two milestones? I’d like to tell you how to handle that intermediary period, the days when you are working toward your physical, mental, and spiritual goals.
This is when the pilgrim’s initial commitment and enthusiasm start to be tested by some challenges and difficulties. This is the period when you realize that although you are trying very hard to live up to your ideals, you don’t feel very peaceful or even satisfied with your progress. This is the point where you need to wrestle with yourself, asking the 3 important questions necessary for growth (if not sanity):
- Where am I going?
- Where have I been?
- Who am I?
Everybody has to come up with their own answers, so I am not going to “tell” you my answers. I am going to “show” you some of my pictures.
The first question
Let’s start with the easy question: “Where am I going?” My answer seemed straightforward enough: I was going to walk to Santiago de Compostela from Sarria.
I was going with a distant member of my extended family; she planned to do the walk as an inexpensive hiking holiday. Although I was hoping to get the completion certificate for the spiritual seeker, I didn’t want to suffer “too” much. We would try out the pilgrims’ dormitory on the first night, and then switch to little hotels or guesthouses; basically, we wanted rooms with showers and possibly TV. As for food, I wanted to sample all the foodie delights possible, stopping at every major café, market, or restaurant en route. My companion wasn’t fussy about Spanish food, and just wanted “un bocadillo de jamon” (a ham sandwich) for every meal.
Along the way, we changed. I changed. I didn’t count on the friction between us; we seemed to be from different worlds… on a collision course. She wanted to hike at a fast clip and arrive at the day’s destination point by early afternoon; I wanted to walk at a moderate pace, pausing to look at points of interest and to take photos of everything and everybody. We didn’t walk together, and every hour or so she’d stop and wait for me to catch up, with mounting annoyance.
Mixed with the anticipation of finally arriving at Santiago, was sadness at our deteriorating relationship. As I walked along and noticed the ad hoc shrines set up by pilgrims, I found myself being moved by the religious overtones of the experience. I realized it was becoming more than a hike; it was becoming a true pilgrimage for me. Since these sentiments were not shared by my companion, I didn’t talk about it. I started photographing the churches and the sunlight bathing the countryside.
The second question
“Where have I been?” Ten years ago I was on an organized hiking trip through parts of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in southern Spain. Somebody from the tour company told me that I should “do the Camino”. I worked through a walking program and a reading list to prepare for my Camino last year. I read through many wonderful books describing other people’s experiences on the Camino (Spanish for “road”). One of my favorite authors, Paulo Coelho (“The Alchemist”) had walked the Camino in 1986.
There was an amazing diversity in their experiences and writing styles, from “magical” or “mystical” to the purely social; from humorous to historical /documentary. There was one thing that the authors all agree on, and that was “You don’t walk the Camino; the Camino walks YOU.” I was skeptical about that, and so I spent the first few days in Spain fighting with the Camino about who was walking whom. (Spoiler alert: the Camino won.)
I had pre-planned a “theme” for each day. The idea was that I would try to “fit” that day’s experiences into the theme. Boy, that did not work out at all! Monday (Day 1) was to be “In tune with Nature” day. That day it rained, and I was only “in tune” with my heavy backpack and sore knees.
Tuesday was to be “Camaraderie Day”, where I would continuously meet pilgrims and talk about our experiences. That day, everyone I saw seemed very introspective and indicated that they preferred to walk alone, in silence. OK, so Wednesday was to be “Contemplation Day”, where I would be peaceful and holy and receive insights. That day, I woke up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag and was really grouchy all day; the only insight I had was that I was acting like a control freak and possibly blocking the benevolent influence of the Camino. I gave up on my “themes” and just started looking at the beauty in all the little things I saw around me. Then I noticed the flowers, the different types of houses in the towns, the variety of paths and roads, the expressions on the faces of the other pilgrims.
The third question
“Who am I?” When we are in our normal, familiar environment, we tend to answer that question in terms of what we have; “I have a name, a house, a family, a job, lots of clothes, a list of To do’s.” When you are schlepping around in a foreign country, the answer seems less certain. “I have a name. I have a small (but inexplicably heavy) backpack containing a change of clothes, some books, a quart of shampoo, and a paella-stained menu from that great café in Lestedo.”
When you are on a pilgrimage, you have one goal (to get to Santiago). You have total freedom on what you will do each day, which becomes a problem when you don’t “feel like” doing what you need to do to get there. I started to think thoughts like “I’m not at work, so I must be on vacation. If I’m on vacation, I should be having fun! Why am I doing this? Why am I here [instead of sampling tapas in Madrid]?” It’s easy to sink into a “dark night of the soul”, even when it’s a bright sunny day. (Maybe it should be called “the bright sunny day of the soul”?) All I know is that I started wondering how the Three Questions could be applied to my pilgrimage and to my life.
As I was trying to remember if any of my favorite Camino authors had provided quick but definitive answers to these questions, I passed by an old dog chained behind a fence, surrounded by its owners’ junk. The poor dog was half-blind, but it was looking at me. It reminded me of a storyline in Paulo Coelho’s book The Pilgrimage. At different parts of his journey, he keeps getting attacked by dogs. He cannot complete his quest until he subdues a large rabid dog with his bare hands. I confronted “my” dog by saying “Nice doggy!” and taking its picture, with tears in my eyes. (“Who am I?”)
Meanwhile, my traveling companion had had enough of my dawdling and had sprinted on ahead. I found her waiting for me beside a tree. I said, “Hey, let’s stop at the next café we come to. I need coffee.” She took off without a word. When I arrived at “the next café” it was filled with tables crowded together and lots of pilgrims chatting loudly. (And it wasn’t even “Camaraderie Day”!) I found her sitting at a table far away from the door.
After I got a coffee and joined her, my eyes adjusted to the light. I noticed that it was a very unusual café. Every inch of the walls, tables, chairs, and even the ceilings (!) was covered by graffiti left by passing peregrinos.
Our table had been repainted, and the new paint was covered with words of encouragement in many languages. Directly in front of me, one very small square on the table had not been repainted- it showed the original picture of a witch, a man, and a dog. A dog! Just like Paulo’s story! Suddenly it hit me- it could be Paulo’s picture!
To prove to myself that my guess was correct (and more importantly, that I wasn’t completely crazy) I asked the owner of the café if Paulo Coelho had passed through and made the drawing. He got all excited and said “YES!” Then he showed me their autographed photo of Paulo. It was not just that he had signed it; he had written graffiti all over it, words of encouragement for future pilgrims. I went back to my companion and told her the story behind the Brazilian author’s drawing of the dog. I kept saying to her, “Thank you for choosing this table! Because of you, I found something that meant a lot to me! Thank you!” She winked at me and said, “I don’t know what they put in the coffee here, but I like it!”
Back on the Camino, I was sure that my pilgrimage was starting to come together. The Camino was indeed “walking me” and showing me things that were important and wonderful. At one point, I walked into a small chapel and I felt a deep connection with my Source. Then, I knew that the difficult places I had been through in my life were actually a gift to me, illuminating both my Camino and my ongoing Path. Now it is up to me to make my life beautiful, meaningful, and connected with the Divine.
By asking those 3 questions, I am sure that every pilgrim would arrive at Santiago de Compostela with a clear picture of where they have been, who they are, and where they are going.
Many thanks to Mary Segall for this great post.
I love hiking, backpacking, and camping. From the Camino de Santiago to the West Highland Way in Scotland or simply a great day hike on the weekend. Hiking refreshes me, my mind, and keeps my body reasonably fit. So far I have walked three Camino routes and many other long distance hikes in the UK, Canada, and around the rest of Europe. One of the best was my hike up Ben Nevis.