I’m a walker.
I walk all over the place. As a teen, I walked almost two miles to high school every morning. I took up “city hiking” in my twenties, long before it became “urban hiking.” These days, I still walk and cycle.
At times in my life I get the feeling the Lord is calling me to walk a bit off the beaten path, which takes discernment. So I’ve simply learned to wait in my cloud of unknowing, as prayerfully as one might, until all is revealed.
That was certainly the case when I entered seminary armed with the words, “Thy will be done!” It was also the case in my various travels to South America, because for the life of me traveling to South America alone, no matter who was supposed to meet me where, was always a bit nerve-wracking. And while I’m not one to test the Lord, one certainly has to test ideas by fire to determine fully if they are from the Lord.
And so it was that when a priest friend and hiking buddy floated the idea of walking the Camino de Santiago, I decided to test the matter prayerfully. The desire was there. I had wanted to walk the great pilgrimage route since I was a child. And I could reasonably carve the time for it out of my schedule. There wasn’t anything standing in the way. I mentioned it to my parishioners, who all greeted the idea with such enthusiasm that I became suspicious.
But it was in those still moments before the dawn, when the world lies quiet, and the mists swirl gently about while the birds start to sing, that I kept feeling the warmth in my heart that I’ve learned to associate with God’s confirmation in my life. Little did I know what all of this would entail. But isn’t that usually the way when following the Lord’s will?
The Cross of Saint James
My friend Fr. Jimmy and I were in two altogether different places physically, spiritually, and mentally. He had just turned 50, was about to start a new assignment, and having a long time devotion to St. James, was looking forward to the physicality of a long walk to St. James’ resting place at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
I have my own devotion to St. James and even adopted his cross as a reminder to be strong in the Lord at an exceptionally difficult time in my life. At the time, I had no idea it was the Santiago Cross. Yet even then, I somehow knew that the Lord was bringing closure to that time in my life, and healing to my spirit. The Santiago Cross, the cross of St. James, became a symbol to me — a symbol of triumph.
As for the Camino, I had just celebrated 10 years as a priest. I had also recently thrown my knee out and, consequently, was completely sedentary at the time I started praying about the trip. We would have just under three weeks to complete the pilgrimage, and we would be walking about 200 miles over varied terrain.
I’m a walker! What could go wrong?
I watched the movie “The Way.” I joined online discussion groups about the Camino. I researched all things lightweight and journey-ready: which shoes were best, how much clothing to bring, and what to pack and what not to.
I did my best to be very present to my parishioners in the weeks prior to departure, and prepared as best I might. I spent weeks getting the supplies and packing them just right, all the time deep in prayer.
Before I knew it, it was time to go.
In the Beginning…
Being a priest is challenging at times, but it’s certainly not without its perks. We flew into Madrid and stayed at a residence operated by the Spanish Bishop’s Conference, and had a brief tour dubbed Madrid in Una Tarde – “Madrid in an afternoon.” Later, we discovered tapas. Around 9 p.m., we made our way to dinner. In Spain, late dining is the thing. The sun sets around 11 p.m., so there’s ample time for a leisurely meal.
Filled with enthusiasm and preconceptions, we set out early the next morning. We departed for Gijon, along the northern coast of Spain, where we would be starting the Camino del Norte. There are many different routes to get to Santiago de Compostela, but we chose the route along the northern coast, which is much cooler than the others in the summertime.
We found the tourist office in Gijon and picked up our credencials. The credencial is a small booklet that you present to have stamped — like a passport — at various stops along the route. When you arrive in Santiago de Compostela, you have documentation that you’ve actually walked the walk (or caught buses, trains, cabs, ridden a bike, a horse, etc.). Being able to present the credencial along the route at many different places also lets people know you are a pilgrim, a peregrino. To those who live and work along the route, it’s not too hard to tell who is a peregrino and who isn’t, but the credencial serves its purpose. By the time a pilgrim has completed the walk, the credencial has taken on a little of the flavor of all the places it has been, and some of the little booklets are truly beautiful by journey’s end.
Walking out of Gijon, we got lost within the hour as we headed toward Aviles, the next town over. The path wasn’t well marked, and we struggled to find our way, but we finally found a helpful local to point us in the right direction.
It was then that we first saw the brass scallop shells embedded in the pavement. These shells are the traditional markers of the Camino, though their exact significance is lost in several possible meanings. One thing that pilgrims rely on about the shells is that in Gijon — and the Asturias Region of Spain in general — the edge of the shell always points toward Santiago de Compostela.
We walked. And walked. And walked some more. We were at last pilgrims on The Way. People who saw us would smile and wave, wishing us a “Buen Camino!” The sun rose gently and smiled upon us. We saw a few other pilgrims and let forth a hearty “Buen Camino!” as well.
The time passed gradually, our paces falling into a rhythm as the miles passed underfoot. The sun climbed ever higher in the sky, and the temperature rose with it. I drank all the water I had with me, but continued to sweat as we walked. Before long, I felt a bit faint. I ate a bar of chocolate, and then, mercifully, found more water at a local tienda, where I rested a bit. Life was still good. We were already in Aviles, having covered the first 17 miles of our journey.
Aviles is a beautiful medieval town, with streets of marble. Many peregrinos stay there, and sensibly so. But we were out for mileage. Fr. Jimmy wanted to keep walking to San Juan de la Arena, a little town a bit farther on. I fully agreed. And so we went, walking along the beautifully cobbled streets of Aviles.
It was while walking out of town that we got separated. Then I got lost. I remember exactly where it happened. Fr. Jimmy had gotten ahead of me by a few blocks. In that area of the town, the shells leading the way were no longer in the pavement but had been transferred to the walls. At one particular intersection, I lost track of them. But I did see a yellow arrow (another common marker) that led down a different street. So that was the way I went.
After a good two miles or so, I knew in my soul that I was lost in Spain.
I backtracked and eventually found the trail. I walked through a seemingly endless run of forest. There was no water to be found, and the hours ticked by. We had separated about six hours earlier, and the time was now approaching 8PM. I never passed through a single village, never spotted a store, never saw so much as a water faucet that was not behind an impressive set of locked gates.
While I was relieved and thankful that walking comes so naturally to the human body, by 9 p.m. I was very tired. But worse, I was incredibly thirsty. I had been scanning the woods, eyeing possible places to camp for the night, but I couldn’t settle down without water. I also needed to get in touch with Fr. Jimmy. My phone, which I had activated for international travel, was not yet working. And the sun was still up. There was nothing for it. I had to keep going.
I wasn’t quite desperate yet, but I determined finally that if I saw a hose, a faucet, anything…I was going for it. Jesus I trust in you! If I saw someone, I would beg for water. Over and over in my mind I rehearsed a simple Spanish phrase: “Señor? Señora? Por favor, necesito agua.”
To my delight, I soon came across a man watering his garden. With a garden hose! As casually as I might, exhausted and dehydrated as I was, looking every bit the peregrino, I sauntered over and spoke my carefully rehearsed phrase, relief welling up within me.
But he said no!
My mind clouded over, and parts of my life flashed before my eyes. I reconsidered everything I had researched about the Camino. I questioned my existence.
Off and on during the day I had gotten caught up in the grand struggle of “Why?” Why are we trying for so much mileage? Why am I here? Why don’t I just go home? Why didn’t I just stay in Aviles, which was so charming? Why? Why? WHY?!
But as the man kept speaking and gesticulating, a dim glimmer of perception started to form in my mind. Amidst my existential crisis, he was pointing me down the road, and from what I could tell, he was saying something about it being not too far away.
“Gracias,” was my reply. I soldiered onward, trying my best to look, and feel, optimistic.
Forty feet later I had my first experience with communal faucet, just past his house. I sat down, drank my fill, slaked my thirst, and loaded up with about 4 liters of water – quite heavy to carry, but starting to seem worth the extra effort.
I rested and rejoiced, and my prayer of petition turned to one of thanksgiving.
I set out walking again. Soon it seemed I was getting into a village, but the trail snaked back interminably into the woods. And, as is always the case on the Camino del Norte, it went up.
Up, up, up, and over. I saw a field and considered sleeping there. I saw a large tree and considered sleeping there. I saw another, nicer field and imagined how my little tarp would provide me with such a good shelter as I slept like a true peregrino, a pilgrim roughing it on The Way. I saw an abandoned country school and considered sleeping there, right on the porch.
But where was Fr. Jimmy? My phone still wasn’t working, and I needed to let him know where I was, and that I was okay. Was he in the town ahead of me? There was no way of knowing. I needed an Internet connection.
Suddenly and without warning, the path swooped down to a roadway. In about 20 minutes, I saw someone working on a car.
Again, as casually as I might, as if this were an everyday occurrence — because God forbid I should look out of place hiking around at 9 p.m. in Spain — I sauntered over and asked about a hotel.
“Ah, señor,” he said. Yes, there was a hotel close by, but it was “very expensive.”
My heart didn’t sink a bit at this news. I said, “No es importante. A donde?” And sure enough, it was “up.”
I envisioned $450 being forever lost from my bank account, but I figured it would be worth it and I would just have to be frugal for the rest of my life anyway. What difference did it make at this point? I needed some rest, man! I was wiped! And me, a peregrino.
One thing you learn with unusual certainty on a pilgrimage is the truth of the adage, “God provides.” The hotel was a converted palaccio. As I walked in at 9:45 p.m., soaked with sweat, the woman behind the counter looked up and said, “Ah… you are a peregrino. We have a special rate.”
It was a marvelous place, and it only cost about $80US. It was an exquisite and surprisingly beautiful ending to the day. It was also the first of many examples of God’s providence on the Camino, and the first of many reminders that the Camino has lessons for us to learn.
I had a hot bath and soaked my well-worn legs. I emailed Fr. Jimmy, and he responded soon thereafter, so we made plans to meet up the next day. He had caught a cab and rode around looking for me, even calling the local hospitals, as he remembered how I had felt faint in the heat of the day. Thank God for good friends. Thus assured that things were back in place, I fell into a deep, blissful, slumber that only broke well after the dawn.
That first day I had walked over 30 miles.
And So It Went
And so it went for our walk through Spain. The next day I walked 12 miles, Fr. Jimmy walked 22, and we met in a little town called Soto de Luina. Tired of tapas and ravenously hungry, I had my first truly hearty meal in Spain: a dish called fabada asturianas. A rich stew made from beans, pork, chorizo, and other delicious local ingredients, it was to die for.
The Camino sort of re-forms you as you walk. My preconceptions fell away quickly as the mileage racked up. My twisted knee never once bothered me and hasn’t since. Yet I developed terrible blisters, the likes of which I haven’t seen since I was a Tenderfoot in scouting.
There were days when each step was agony. And with each aching step some mortal sin from the past came to mind, and I begged for forgiveness. On and off various intentions that people had asked me to pray for came up as well, and I offered them up.
I repented of my sins, examined my ways, and grew in an understanding of simplicity that had never really been quite so clear to me as it became on the Camino. There’s only one goal, which is to walk to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Whatever distracts from that just falls by the wayside. And isn’t that exactly how our journey to Heaven should be, as we work out our salvation? As we strive to live in heroic virtue?
There were days when I wondered why on earth I had ever thought to undertake such an outing. What could the Lord possibly have been thinking? What could I possibly have been thinking?
How could I have considered that this was a good thing to be doing with my time? My feet were killing me. I had responsibilities at home, obligations to meet, people to support. I have a good strong bed that’s long enough for my tall frame. A good prayer room. A comfortable chair behind my desk. A wonderful church where I say Mass and pray. A laptop and internet access. What more did I want? Why was I walking through Spain? And not only walking, but walking. And walking and walking. Fr. Jimmy and I, longtime friends used to hiking together, experienced ups and downs in our friendship, passing several days without speaking or wanting to see each other at all.
Yet in all of this, my mind always went back to Scripture and prayer. What was important was the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. And what was important as well were the prayers, the relationships, the friendships, along the way.
It’s always in the middle, in the midst of things, that faith weakens. I made a firm decision to amend my ways and to walk on no matter what. Fr. Jimmy and I mended ways. My feet started to heal.
I prayed the Rosary. Fr. Jimmy and I prayed together often, and at Mass. I delighted in meeting new people who were having their own Camino experiences, learning where they were from, and what had brought them along. The food was delicious, the company grand. My spirit lifted, my mind cleared, my soul sang songs of joy…usually.
Sons of Thunder
Just as I had experienced that with every final destination there was an uphill climb, so it came to be that one of our last long days was a 25-mile walk that seemed to never end. On and on it went, until it eventually came to rest in a small town with one of the worst hotels in Spain. God bless them. It was nothing if not eccentric.
We met there a wonderful group of Scots who were on the final leg of their 5-year-long Camino. Walking with them was a pleasure as they sang hymns together along the way.
But the Camino was drawing to a close. And as we drew closer to Santiago de Compestela, and the 0 kilometer marker, each step was a bit lighter. Every face shone a bit more brightly. Every ache and pain grew less noticeable.
The final walk into Santiago de Compostela was an entirely beautiful thing. We only had 6 miles to walk and practically breezed in, despite the pouring rain. As we approached the great cathedral, all pain fell away, every unpleasant experience melted into nothingness, and a remarkable feeling of peace came into my heart.
After Mass I asked the good Sister who was the sacristan if we could concelebrate again the next day. She assured me that it was all right and said that they were going to be using the famed Botafumiero the next day, which would be very exciting. And so it came to be, and before it swung through the great cruciform nave, I had the honor of being one of the priests to put incense into the great and historic thurible.
The Kingdom of Heaven
Arriving in Santiago de Compostela after the long walk through Spain is like it must be arriving in Heaven after the long walk through life. The Camino demands a sense of simplicity from you. You have to lighten your burden as you walk (literally by tossing things out, or mailing them ahead if you’re carrying too much, as I was despite my weeks of planning). You have to accept circumstances as they present themselves, and you have work through challenges, situations, and relationships.
But most of all, you just have to keep going.
I was struck in many areas by the spirituality along the Camino. A lot of different artifacts of faith line The Way. In some places, these are deeply Catholic, in others, New Age. There are telltale signs of hippies who have walked the path, as well as of those whose mode of expression might best be characterized by saying, “I want to check out Spain and figure out life.”
For all of us as pilgrims, we were formed by the journey as we sought the destination.
Symbols and Shells
The greatest symbol of the walk is the scallop shell, which can also be used for scooping up water, and wine (and for baptizing, of course). But the many lines along the back of the shell converge into the end, symbolizing the many routes which converge from across Spain, and across Europe, into the town of Santiago de Compostela. The lines also symbolize the many different paths which we all walk each day in our lives, and which all lead us to our end in Jesus Christ.
I was struck by what a beautiful opportunity the Catholic Church offers, and has offered for centuries, via the Camino de Santiago. While some say the routes have their origins in pagan walks, research shows that the paths were, in fact, forged by devout Christians making their way to the final resting place of the remains of St. James the Apostle, so far from his native land.
It struck me along this great and noble route that so many people are still walking it after all these centuries, seeking to know Jesus Christ more and more. There were many devout Catholics to be found along the way.
Others had a spiritual vagueness. To me they seemed like a line along a scallop shell which had no end: “Though they have eyes, they cannot see, and though they have ears, they cannot hear or understand.” The richness of the Catholic spiritual tradition, in all of its gruelingly penitential splendor, vibrantly and resoundingly grand all about them, and yet they could not fully comprehend it.
Still, it touches them. The fragrance of Christ abounds.
Settling Down to Earth
I’ve read that it takes awhile to come back down to earth after the Camino. And I’ve found myself taking a bit more time to do things, and being a bit more gentle with myself when papers start collecting on my desk.
I spend a lot of time stretching my legs and back. I try to spend more time with everyone who crosses my path. And is it really true that I don’t have enough time in the morning to squeeze an orange or two into a nice little glass? Or to make a cafe con leche? Or to walk a bit more often? I am a walker, after all.
I pray in thanksgiving to God for the opportunity to have experienced the Camino. It was there for all of Christian history prior to my arrival, and, God willing, it will be there long after I am gone. It demanded much more from me than I expected, and yet I already find myself wondering how I might do it again one day. I learned things about simplicity, about penance, about beauty, about joy, about friendship, and about our faith. Most of all, I learned even more to trust in the Lord.
“The heart of man disposes his way: but the Lord must direct his steps.” Proverbs 16:9
I’m a walker. In all my ways I acknowledge Him, and He directs my paths.
Father Kenneth Allen is a priest in the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Louisiana.