My daughter and I just finished the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (the Way of St. James). I went because she invited me. I’m glad she did.
The lore of the Camino describes three stages: physical, mental and spiritual. The physical for us meant walking more than 600 with a 23-pound backpack from Somport at 5,500 feet in the Pyrenees snowpack down valleys, up ridges and over plateaus to Santiago and beyond, Muxía and Fisterra on the coast.
The countryside was gorgeous, with panoramic views and bright spring colors. The local people offered adequate accommodations, good food and plentiful wine. But the many ascents were exhausting, and the descents were painful and treacherous because of the constant need to slow momentum while balancing backpacks on rocky and slippery terrain. The cold, wind, rain, heat and mud taught us to pay attention to our bodies, endure hardships, enjoy nature and gratefully accept the hospitality of the people.
The mental stage involved addressing the boredom that comes from long days on the trail. Pilgrims become part of a nonelectronic social network that operates up and down the Camino. They help one another, pass information and motivate each other with the greeting ¡buen camino! But eventually we had to address our inner demons instead of just talking while walking. We learned to let go, give up control over events, trust everything would turn out all right and just keep walking. Antonio Machado’s refrain became ours: “Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar.” (Wayfarer, there is no way; you make the way by walking).
Spiritual experience depends on each pilgrim. An elderly Italian said his mother couldn’t do the Camino before she died so he was doing it for her. A friendly Englishman described the emotional catharsis he had on his first Camino as his reason for doing it a second time. Some sought natural highs, others expiation. The prophet Micah (6:8) tells us what the Lord wants: only to act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with our God.
Like everyone, believers struggle daily with justice and love in their dealings with others. But they also are called to walk humbly with their God. The Camino provides plenty of opportunity for walking. Realizing what humility means is another matter.
The recent train wreck outside Santiago de Compostela on the eve of its patron St. James’ feast was a poignant reminder of human life’s fragility and unpredictability. For the victims and their families, walking humbly meant suffering and death. Despite not being pilgrims in the traditional sense, they are part of our Camino community. As fellow pilgrims, we welcome them and extend our condolences in their awful tragedy. As people of faith with the hope that comes from faith, we wish them ¡buen camino!
Edward Sunshine, Miami Shores