I walked the Camino de Santiago for the first time in May 2008 along the Frances route. My principal reason for making the journey was to cope with mixed emotions about retiring from a very satisfying career in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. A long distance runner for over 32 years I also yearned for the physical challenge and as a practicing Catholic I also wondered if I would receive any religious or spiritual benefit.
Well, I received all I was hoping for and more particularly on the religious front. Most of my life I had been a faithful observant Catholic going to mass regularly and praying on occasion. And the majority of the commandments were followed to the letter. But after my wife and I divorced after 30 years of marriage I talked myself into justifying a string of affairs which were serious relationships but hardly moral. I had not been to confession for many years because in the back of my mind I did not want to confront this reality.
However, I was about to marry a wonderful woman, Jane, and I felt that it was time to clear some air with God. Luckily I found a strict priest from Toronto in the early days of the camino and he convinced me of the error of my ways in confession. The rest of the journey I was full of joy as I met my God on a different plane, overwhelmed by the magnificence of His creation and determined to lead my new life in marriage and retirement in accordance with his wishes. I didn’t know it at the time but this is a natural outcome of a good confession – metanoia – establishing a new relationship with God.
By the time I reached Santiago I was in a religious sense a renewed person.
On my return to Canada, I found volunteer service which brought me great satisfaction, a consequence of allowing my love of God to prevail over lesser instincts. Yet I yearned to return to the camino to see what new insights might be in store for me and to experience that closeness to God which comes with prayer and meditation in solitude and rhythmic movement surrounded by natural beauty. I chose the Via de la Plata for its length and its isolation from the main group of pilgrims along the Frances.
I still had not resolved in my own mind what the Camino de Santiago was all about. I had carefully studied the history of the pilgrimage and was in little doubt as to the historic record. But I was a trained historian with a doctorate and I could not take seriously the provenance of the story of St James and his relics resting in the Cathedral in Santiago.
Then one evening I ate dinner with Gilberto, an architect from Italy who is also a lay associate in the Order of St Dominic. We have been on the same route for several days but never had really spoken because his two languages are Italian and German and mine are English and French. So our only common tongue was Spanish. Over a very fine dinner we had a long conversation about the meaning of the camino and the place and purpose of the pilgrims as an entity and as individuals.
This led us to stimulating discussion of the path to salvation through Jesus Christ to God and really, not just metaphorically, where the camino fits in this plan. It meant a lot to me because I have been puzzling over this whole issue for a long time and wondering how St James fits into this. We came to the conclusion that the legend of St James is the occasion for this experience and for centuries it had inspired Christians to seek Christ through a journey of sacrifice. Whether his bones are really in Santiago is rather an incidental and not a critical factor for the camino.
Moreover, those of us who are believers in the Christian message and the Catholic church in particular receive great rewards and spiritual benefits from the camino particularly in the Holy Year. But from those who receive much, much is expected in expressing the message of Jesus in the world.
But we also discussed the many, perhaps the majority of hikers who undertake the camino without any religious inclination or very little. We both had observed that many of these people who began the walk as a physical challenge mentioned in conversation that they experienced a feeling that there was something more to it than a mere journey. One middle aged woman with no religious persuasion who had walked several caminos had told us that she felt a closeness to Saints James, Francis of Assisi and Clare that she could never have anticipated. Others were more vague but still felt that there was a special spirit of the camino.
Another category of pilgrims were those who sought guidance rather than religious or physical satisfaction. Many of these brought profound problems which life had thrown at them and with which they felt difficulty in coping. Often these persons found guidance and relief and were inclined to attribute this to some influence beyond their normal experience.
Within the religious and philosophical framework which guided Gilberto and me, this was God at work through Jesus who loves all on earth equally and finds a way to reach all in a certain way. This is why we are all on the path to salvation and why the camino is a unique manifestation of that path.
For myself, there were many other insights into God’s work within the world and within each individual as I travelled for 45 days. I will mention only one and that is the sense of discipleship. I read the New Testament at the end of my daily walks and somehow this mission as reflected in the Bible kept leaping off the pages. I now know that I am meant to rededicate myself to Christ’s work through my chosen path of helping those in palliative care in my region and the poor overseas.
So that is my final word on my Via de la Plata camino on this blog.
I wrote the manuscript of a book on my first camino journey along the Frances route for which I have not yet found, and probably never will find, a publisher. If anyone wants a copy of this manuscript send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will forward an electronic version.
Via con Dios y buen camino!