Walking for five minutes or five hours, there’s one recurring question we ask each other. Why are you walking the Camino? Usually in life, maybe standing by a bus stop, there aren’t any easy ways into conversation, and most of us, en route to work maybe, are too lost in our own thoughts or anxieties to want to talk. But on the Camino you’re a big exception if you don’t acknowledge someone with at least a ‘buen camino’, and you may well walk together a little while, and that question will always come up, in one guise or another.
And the answer? Spiritual, religious or personal? Maybe it’s simply the challenge, a bit like walking the three peaks in the UK (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) for the hell of it, often against the clock.
The spiritual and religious blur into one another. This blog is inspired by Zen, but also firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. Walking the Camino with an open mind, and finding peace and serenity, and rejoicing each morning as the dawn turns into day – that experience is the same, whether your Christian, or Buddhist, or simply ‘spiritual’, in the best sense of that all-encompassing term.
When asked why I was walking the Camino I’d say my reasons were personal, spiritual – and historical. I love the tradition, that sense of others walking before me for the last 1200 years.
In medieval times you’d be looking for the church (the Catholic church) to grant you absolution from your sins, and the pilgrimage to Santiago was a uniquely powerful way of achieving that. The journey mattered as much as the destination, as a pathway to merit. You couldn’t take a plane to Santiago, or walk the last five days from Sarria, and receive a certificate, as you can now. Wonderful churches, on a scale which would have left pilgrims agog with wonder, grew up along the route, and the hospitals, hostelries, provided care and shelter. This was the Christian gospel in action, in a marvellous way, and even if our faith is not as theirs was, we can pick up on something of their experience, and be inspired by it.
In the movie The Way James Nesbitt plays Jack, an Irish travel writer who, reacting against his upbringing, refuses to enter churches, but come Santiago, he’s there, in the cathedral. Religion as it should be is both celebration and sanctuary, and the pure Romanesque of churches at Torres del Rio, Villalcazar and Fromista, to quote just three examples, reminds us of that. Maybe it influenced Jack (OK, I know he’s fictional!) as it influenced me.
Walking over 500 miles you find your prejudices challenged. All your petty grumbles and bigotries in time come to seem rather absurd. So too with the church, and I’m thinking of all denominations. Too often in ordinary life it mirrors our own human failings, even encourages them. On the Camino it rises above them in a very literal sense – the churches, the great cathedrals, and a path a millennium old, often climbing up ahead of us, as it does onto the meseta, beyond Burgos.
For me, Santiago, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, they’d been companions and support and inspirations for pilgrims a thousand years ago, and they were for me this October. I’m not suggesting they had a literal presence for me. But I walked with an open mind, and set myself to connect with how pilgrims from another very different age must have experienced the Camino.
An open mind requires stillness and, walking in the pre-dawn with the crescent moon behind and stars ahead, you are walking into the stillness, and it takes you over.
‘Be still, and know that I am God.’