This past summer, I set out on a pilgrimage across Spain with my friend Chelsea. We walked along the El Camino de Santiago, in English “The Way of Saint James,” a total of nearly 500 miles. We walked over mountains, in the desert, along rivers, and through so many wonderful Spanish towns. The Camino de Santiago is casually referred to as “the Camino” or “the Way” and attracts pilgrims from all over the world. I noticed a considerable amount of Italians and Germans on the Camino.
People have been walking the Camino for over 1,000 years. Early pilgrims would walk from their home villages all the way to Santiago and then all the way back. Santiago de Compostela is said to be the burial place of the apostle Saint James, and it is this belief that gives the city its religious significance. The Catholic Church encouraged people to go on a pilgrimage so that through their suffering and work their sins would be forgiven. St. Mary’s church actually defines pilgrim as someone who tried to obtain salvation of his or her soul through a physical journey.
There are five main routes that pilgrims take to get to Santiago which are the Northern Way, the French Way, the Silver Way, the Primitive Way, and the Portuguese Way. Chelsea and I chose the most popular route, the French way starting in St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, a small French village a stone throw from the French/Spanish border.
Everyone I met on the Camino was walking for different reasons. Some were trying to forget about an old girlfriend or boyfriend, others were looking for a cheap way to travel, and others a few like me were walking for religious reasons. I wasn’t really that interested in reaching Santiago, seeing Europe, or even going on an adventure. I just wanted to walk for a while. I wanted to spend time away from schedules and all the worldly responsibilities that demand my attention day to day. I wanted to experience God in a new way, and that I certainly did.
As I walked, I began to see more and more how the Camino is like a metaphor for life. Everyone who walks the Camino has his or her own independent journey, just as all of us lead different lives. Sometimes you walk alone, sometimes you walk with others, but you are always literally moving forward. I noticed on virtually the second day how the Camino also was a metaphor for my walk with God. I was able to experience him personally and in community. As I watched the sunrise each morning and saw him in the world around me I grew closer to Him. One morning we got up so early to walk I could see what looked like the entire galaxy above me. I remember looking up in utter awe of the universe and gratitude that the God who created all of this would bother to care about me. I saw God in the other pilgrims I met along the way too. Community seemed to organically form as we waked together, ate together, and treated our blisters together. The second day on the Camino, Chelsea and I met some Italian pilgrims who ended up making dinner for us that night. My heart was so full eating with perfect strangers who so generously fed us and invited us into community with them.
Before getting to Santiago I had heard stories of people breaking down in front of the Cathedral and crying. I wondered how I would feel upon arrival. I got a rush of excitement when I first saw the top of the Cathedral as I approached the city but once I found myself actually there I just wanted to walk more. Chelsea and I continued on to Finisterre, the once thought to be edge of the world. As I looked out into the abyss, I reflected on my journey, all the friends I had made, and the truth that God revealed to me along the way.