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Challenge and discovery on the Camino de Santiago

Joe Clifford discovers the real pilgrimage begins when the walking ends.

Photo by Max Kukurudziak on Unsplash

Pilgrimage is as old as religion; it is a component of many world religions. Perhaps something in the human spirit longs for a journey of discovery. In the Hebrew Scriptures, faithful Jews were called to make pilgrimage to Jerusalem – “aliyyah le-regel” in Hebrew, “going up on foot” – for three festivals: Passover, Shavuot (Jewish Pentecost) and Succoth (The Feast of Tabernacles). Today, Jews of the diaspora continue to make their pilgrimages to Israel, to the Wailing Wall and sites around the Holy Land. Muslims are called to make the Hajj at least once in their lives to the holy city of Mecca. Hindus have made the Kumbh Mela to the river Ganges since the second millennium BCE.

Christianity has its own pilgrimage history. The three most significant pilgrimage sites for Christians are the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, the traditional sites of the martyrdom of Peter and Paul in Rome and the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, the traditional site of the apostle James’ final resting place via the Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James.”

The cathedral in Santiago, Spain, is built upon the site where the remains of the apostle James rest. According to the “translatio,” a miraculous, unguided boat brought the remains of the apostle James from the Holy Land to northern Spain. Photo provided.

Who is James and why is there a pilgrimage route through Spain that carries his name? The Camino’s James is “James the Greater,” son of Zebedee, first of the apostles to be martyred. Acts 12:2 describes his death by the sword at the hands of Herod Agrippa in 44 CE. His remains are believed to be held in the Cathedral in Santiago, hence the pilgrimage.

There is legend concerning the Camino’s story, and there is history. The legend dates back to a Latin text from the sixth century CE, Breviarium Apostolorum, derived from an older Greek manuscript from the Byzantine period that describes the Apostle James preaching in Spain. By the mid-ninth century, many church documents speak of the “translatio” of James’ remains to Spain. According to the “translatio,” a miraculous, unguided boat brought James’ remains from the Holy Land through the Mediterranean Sea, around the Iberian Peninsula to the coast of Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where they were taken and buried. Legend holds that during the reign of King Alphonso II of Asturias and Galicia (792-842), under Bishop Theodemir, the long-forgotten tomb of James was rediscovered. Shepherds were led to it by a vision of stars gathered over a field, which Compostela translates as “Field of Stars.” The estuary was exhumed and a cathedral was constructed to house James’ remains, and the Camino was born.

Through the lens of history, we see the legend evolves amid the “Reconquista,” the Christian effort to reclaim the Iberian Peninsula from the Moors — North African Muslims who invaded in 711 and controlled the south and central parts of what we know as “Spain.” The evolution of the Camino de Santiago became a way to bring more European Christians into the Iberian Peninsula to halt the advance of Muslim forces and re-establish the region as Christian territory. The religious tradition that evolved alongside these historical events no doubt served a contemporary political purpose.

For the next thousand years, millions of people would make the pilgrimage from all over Europe and beyond, journeying to Santiago over dozens of different routes, through Portugal, from Barcelona or Madrid, along the northern Coast (Camino de Norte) and along the Camino Frances, the French Way. This is the oldest route, which begins in the Pyrenees in southern France and makes its way across northern Spain. The popularity of the pilgrimage waned for many centuries, but in the 1990s Galicia began promoting the Camino, increasing the number of pilgrims tenfold. In the 21st century, movies like “The Way,” starring Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen, expanded the pilgrimage’s popularity. Over the past ten years – with the exception of 2020 – over 200,000 pilgrims a year earn a Compostela, the certificate of completion for those who walk at least 100 km to Santiago.

… over 200,000 pilgrims a year earn a Compostela, the certificate of completion for those who walk at least 100 km to Santiago.

In October, Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, took 20 pilgrims on the Camino Frances portion of the Camino de Santiago. We walked the final 115 km from Sarria to Santiago, taking six days to navigate roughly 75 miles. Our journey began in the fall of 2019 when we reached out to recent “empty-nesters” in our congregation. We noticed that after children leave home, parents’ participation in the life of the church often wanes. We challenged them to consider this season of life an opportunity for spiritual growth. To that end, we invited them to join a pilgrimage group. Almost 40 people came to the initial informational meeting. Ultimately, 34 signed up to make our Camino in October of 2020. Although our start was delayed two years by COVID, we continued to meet monthly for study and prayer. We also had monthly training hikes to build our stamina. October 13-20, 2022, we finally made our pilgrimage.

Eugene Petersen defines faith as “a long obedience in the same direction.” During our days on the Camino we developed a new understanding of what this means. Each day, rising with the sun, we made our way along the route Christians have traveled for over a thousand years, a route Druids traveled long before that. Through the course of each day, one step at a time, we negotiated the 12-15 miles of that day’s portion, enjoying rest stops along the way. Each night we appreciated feasting together, sharing stories of our day, our lives and our faith. We laughed, we cried, we worshipped, we prayed, we sang and we walked. Repeating this rhythm each day, walking west toward Santiago, encountering the kilometer markers along the way became a metaphor of that long obedience in the same direction that is the life of faith.

The group from Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, held monthly training hikes to build stamina for the roughly 75 miles from Sarria, Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Photo provided.

In his upcoming book From Plague to Purpose, Joshua Taylor writes, “The pilgrimage discipline, at its heart, is an intentional journey to a liminal experience of unknowing, discomfort, and reorientation for the individual pilgrim.” He cites the work of Dutch anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, who describes pilgrimage in three stages: separation, ordeal and re-integration. Indeed, pilgrimage begins with a separation from the world we know. For us, this meant leaving the comforts of home, and separating from family, friends, work, news and smartphones. This was essential to achieving the separation necessary for pilgrimage.

Our group was intentional about creating space between our lives in Charlotte and our time on the Camino. We gathered in Madrid in the days leading up to our walk. We did things tourists do, taking a bike tour of the city, a tapas tour, exploring the Prado and the Reina Sofia and learning something of the fascinating history of Spain. After that liminal time, a six-hour bus ride to Sarria facilitated the transition from the separation phase to the beginning of the ordeal, from being tourists to being pilgrims.

Our group was intentional about creating space between our lives in Charlotte and our time on the Camino. 

Our first day began in Sarria, in the dark and the rain. We added a pilgrim to our group. Her name was Yola. Originally from Bolivia, she moved to New York as a young woman and had lived there for over 50 years. Her adventurous spirit was evident from the moment we met her. In 2019, she and her husband resolved to walk the Camino together. Tragically, COVID took his life in 2020. She faced her own separation and ordeal, a pilgrimage not of her choosing. Now she was resolved to walk the Camino in her husband’s honor. We invited her to join us, and she graciously accepted. After crossing an ancient Roman bridge, our journey began. Fourteen miles and four long climbs later, we arrived in Portomarín. The ordeal had begun!

A group from Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, posing by a mile marker on the Camino de Santiago. Photo provided.

For the next five days, it continued. From Portomarín to Lestedo, from Lestedo to Melide, from Melide to Arzúa, from Arzúa to Pedrouzo, from Pedrouzo to Santiago. Each step we took was a step away from what we were before the journey, and a step toward what we would be at its conclusion. Each day began with stretching, prayer and song. Scripture from Luke’s Gospel describing events in Jesus’ life “along the way” guided us spiritually. We walked in a relaxed manner, taking as long as nine hours to walk 15 miles. Sometimes we walked together, other times in small groups, sometimes in pairs, other times alone. We met pilgrims from around the world with whom we shared very little in common, save the shared experience of walking the Camino. That made us fast friends. The “ordeal” was actually filled with joy! When we came into the plaza of the Cathedral de Santiago, with Galician bagpipes playing, amid the delight of arriving there was sadness the ordeal had ended.

With the end of the ordeal comes the work of re-integration. I strive not simply to return to life as it was, but to integrate what I learned from the pilgrimage in hopes of shaping what life will be. I am still processing this journey, and I pray I will be for the rest of my life. As many pilgrims say, “When the walking ends, the real Camino begins.”

What did the Camino teach me? In many ways, it helped me discover gifts that have guided my life’s journey. Having walked with the church through COVID, I’ll confess I was worn out. I wasn’t sure I could keep going in ministry. The Camino called forth my resilience, a grit that has carried me through many challenging seasons in life. Returning from the Camino, I find the challenges ahead don’t seem as daunting. I trust God to give me the strength to make it through. That was surely true on the Camino, and it will be for the rest of my earthly journey.

I am still processing this journey … As many pilgrims say, “When the walking ends, the real Camino begins.” 

The Camino also brought into clearer focus God’s amazing grace. Through the generosity of colleagues who carried a heavier load while I was away, through the hospitality of strangers we met who became our friends, through the unrelenting beauty encountered along the path, God’s grace flowed forth for us each and every day. I have a new understanding of the famous quote of Frederick Buechner, “Listen to your life. See it for the fathomless mystery it is.

The scallop shell that is painted on walls, tiles or Camino mile markers will help those on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, find their way. Photo provided.

In the boredom and pain of it, no less than in the excitement and gladness: touch, taste, smell your way to the holy and hidden heart of it, because in the last analysis all moments are key moments, and life itself is grace.” The Camino guided me into the depths of this truth. Indeed, life itself is grace.

Such grace has called forth a deeper gratitude in me. On our next to last day on the Camino, my wife and I took ten minutes for a guided gratitude meditation. “Consider one thing you’re grateful for,” the meditation began. My mind was flooded with images of our journey, the stunning landscapes, the joy-filled feasts, the summits with their breathtaking views, the hours walking with my spouse and thoroughly enjoying the time together. There was so much to be thankful for in my life. How could I focus on only one thing? I was thankful for my health, for the ability to take on this challenge. I was thankful for my colleagues, who faced an unusually high number of pastoral emergencies while I was away. I was thankful for the wonderful people with whom I shared that journey, for the privilege of time away from the world’s demands to enjoy it.

I begin most days by reciting e. e. cummings’ poem, “i thank You God.” Its effervescence challenges the realist in me to be more hopeful. Reciting the poem has been more aspirational than evident, an effort to see the world through the poet’s eyes and let his vision shape mine. On the other side of my Camino experience, “the leaping greenly spirits of trees and a blue true dream of sky,” along with “everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes” have become more apparent to me, more present. As re-integration on the other side of the pilgrimage continues, “the ears of my ears” and “the eyes of my eyes” are awake and open in ways I never dreamed they could be. I thank you, God, indeed. Buen Camino!