El Camino de Santiago
By Phileena Heuertz
“We see in these swift and skillful travelers a symbol of our life, which seeks to be a pilgrimage and a passage on this earth for the way of heaven.” (Pope Paul VI)
On a brisk early morning in May, my husband, Chris, and I awoke to the first day of our sabbatical. It was the beginning of a 33-day pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to El Catedral de Santiago (The Cathedral of St. James) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We detached from our work and determined to walk the ancient Camino.
We had committed to walking every day to cover the nearly 600 miles it would take to reach our sacred destination. For nearly 1,200 years, saints and sinners have walked El Camino de Santiago for all manner of reasons. In one way or another, most people walk the Camino to find themselves or to find God. Curiously, by walking this historic way, most are propelled further into their lifelong search for both.
Having never really even day-hiked before, Chris and I had no idea what we were getting into. Nevertheless, we laced our boots and slung our packs on our backs with eager anticipation.
Our first day out, we found ourselves climbing and descending the Pyrenees Mountains. We walked through various terrain and even more varied weather. We experienced a temperature fluctuation of 50 degrees. We passed through blazing sun, followed by dropping temperatures and a hail storm. After about five hours of this excruciating physical feat, I hit my first “wall.” Climbers and athletes of all kinds describe the mental and emotional wall one faces when reaching their physical, mental and emotional limit. Remarkably, the human spirit can break through these walls time and time again.
I don’t think I had ever hit this big of a wall before. Emotional breakdown number one hit me on the summit when a hail storm set in and the temperate dropped to hypothermic conditions. Somehow I kept putting one foot in front of the other and carried on.
As time went on and we had still not reached our destination, emotional breakdown number two hit. The storm had increased its rage with rain and snow, and the temperature continued to fall. I cried in agony and told Chris that I didn’t know how I could continue. He encouraged me, and remarkably I made it through. If I had stopped, we would have surely died of hypothermia.
Finally we began to descend. The rain and snow continued to fall, but as we made our way to lower elevations, the temperature started to rise and the snow turned to a cold rain. Unbeknownst to me at the time, we had lost the trail. Chris was carefully navigating our way, but in the storm we missed an important marker and took a wrong turn. We were descending, but off the beaten path. Our destination was still not in sight, but we had to keep moving.
As I wound my way through trees, brush and muddy earth, the rain fell harder. Despair set in because, after all these hours, we still had no idea how far we were from the end. With one more weary step, I slipped in a mudslide and landed flat on my backside. That was it! Emotional breakdown number three with a vengeance! The third wall was even bigger than the other two. My tears mixed with rain and mud, and I knew I couldn’t go on. Chris turned around to find me in my muddy mess and said, “Honey we can’t stop here. You can do it. It won’t be long.”
Somehow I got to my feet. We walked only about 500 feet more and, like an oasis in the desert, we spotted our destination!
We arrived at the ancient monastery of Roncesvalles on the eastern border of Spain. A gothic stone hall that held 100 pilgrims would be our shelter for the night. Marveling at the feat I had endured, I knew I wouldn’t have gotten up from the mudslide if it weren’t for Chris’ strong will, determination and compassionate care.
Attempting to shower and find dinner before the sun set, we realized we could barely walk. We wondered how we would rise the next morning and set out again. Sleep never felt so good – even with the cacophony of snorers from around the world sharing our medieval shelter!
Early the next morning, awakening to the sound of Gregorian chant, we discovered how remarkable the body is. As we slept, our bones, muscles and joints rejuvenated themselves enough that we could walk again, though not without significant pain – a pain that would become my companion every day on the Camino. What just the day before had seemed a romantic stroll through Spain quickly revealed itself as the ancient act of pilgrimage for purification and salvation.
Each morning we set out, we prayed that God would give us the grace to make it to Santiago. With each painful step, we found ourselves in the company of pilgrims from past centuries who bathed the way before us with their prayers and tears, injuries and sickness, pain and joy. In the company of these compañeros (companions), we were accompanied with grace.
“Grace, far from destroying nature, ennobles and dignifies it.”1
As the days progressed, the Spanish countryside rolled out before us as a grand display of the most exquisite art known to humanity. The expanse of the greenest green and bluest blue was before us as far as the eye could see. Vibrant red poppies and white daisies sprung up to line our path and tickle our senses. Once in La Rioja, the vineyards spoke to us of life and fecundity found in being connected to the vine.
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5)
Along the way, Chris and I laughed and cried, celebrated and grieved. Some of the most vulnerable places in our souls emerged to be embraced by the all-consuming grace of God. And by that grace we kept moving forward.
Finding the courage and the stamina to continue on the Camino each day grew more and more difficult. Only 15 percent of all pilgrims actually make it to Santiago. Some give up having decided this way is not for them (at least not at that moment), and other pilgrims die en route. Many days, as our packs weighed down on us and the pain intensified, our gazes turned down; staring at a dirt path and our boots was rarely motivating. At those times, we would encourage one another to keep our heads up, to keep looking around and ahead. In this way, we abandoned ourselves to our surroundings, to the horizon, and to God and found the strength to keep moving.
BECOMING MORE ALIVE
Before setting foot on the Camino, I was deeply convicted that pilgrimage is not a round trip. I knew that we would begin at one point and end at another. We would not go back and retrace or relive our steps. Each moment would be lived and let go. By way of the Camino, we would make a passage through time and into the next season of our lives. As we walked, our pilgrimage was indeed becoming a passage.
I had no idea that making such a passage would bring so much pain. Neither did I anticipate the depth of joy and love we would uncover. Indulging our senses in the beauty of creation, finding encouragement in the company of ancient and modern pilgrims, and experiencing many Spanish culinary pleasures filled the empty and dry places in our hearts. As we walked and embraced both the pain and the joy, we were being changed. With each step, we were becoming more alive.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said St. Irenaeus in the second century. On the Camino, we were invited into new depths of what this means. Being fully alive requires a way in which to live. All along the Camino (Spanish for “the way”), we were beckoned to the One who is The Way. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
A PURIFYING WAY
Jesus also said that the way to life is narrow, and few find it (Matthew 7:14). This narrow way is often filled with aridity and pain. And sometimes it burns like fire as the prophet and psalmist bear witness to:
“From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones. He spread a net for my feet and turned me back. He made me desolate, faint all the day long.” (Lamentations 1:13)
“My heart grew hot within me. I meditated, the fire burned.” (Psalm 39:3)
St. John of the Cross describes this spiritual purgation by fire:
“…this purgative and loving knowledge or Divine light whereof we here speak acts upon the soul which it is purging and preparing for perfect union with it in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself; for material fire, acting upon wood, first of all begins to dry it, by driving out its moisture and causing it to shed the water which it contains within itself … And, finally, it begins to kindle it externally and give it heat, and at the last transforms it into itself and makes it as beautiful as fire.”2
The suffering is worth it. The cost is worth the reward of transformation. I can understand how some pilgrims pass the last miles of the Camino on their knees. It is a joy to suffer because of the purification and transformation it offers.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Jesus taught the value of suffering when He said,
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
Can we follow the One who claims He is The Way, no matter what it might cost us? Do we believe that the narrow way leads to being fully alive, that ultimately we could be the glory of God?
On our 33rd day on the Camino, when Chris and I walked hand-in-hand into the early-morning city of Santiago, we could scarcely believe we had really arrived. As we turned the corner, El Catedral de Santiago jutted up before our eyes. Its weathered, westward gates gave us a tired, over-extended welcome. As we drew nearer, the massive structure looked down on us as it had on countless pilgrims through the centuries.
We were the only pilgrims in the plaza at that hour – just Chris, me and the ancient church welcoming us. We marked the moment with a warm embrace and took our personal thoughts to silence. We had arrived. We had made a sacred passage. Our presence would be announced in the afternoon pilgrims’ mass – “Two pilgrims from Nebraska made it to Santiago by foot!”
Journal entry June 5, 2007:
We really did it! We made it to Santiago on foot as we hoped and prayed and cried we would…In addition to the very concrete destination of the cathedral, El Camino de Santiago leads to an internal place. The way is transforming for the body, mind and soul. And the internal destination is a place of peace – a peace that is found by the way in which we journeyed – open, abandoned, dependent, broken, stripped, humbled, receptive, loved.
LIFE IS PILGRIMAGE
Yes, we made it to Santiago, but the journey is just beginning in many ways. We made a passage through time to reach one destination, only to commence the next part of the journey. We are inspired anew to press on, walking in a way that is marked with the celebrations of intimacy, obedience, humility, community, service, simplicity, submission, brokenness, and yes – even suffering. Truly these qualities mark our lives as a pilgrimage. For as the Scriptures remind us, we are aliens here passing through (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Life indeed is a pilgrimage. Embrace it. Endure it. Live it well. n
1 E. Allison Peers, Dark Night of the Soul: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism.
2 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1990, 1959), p. 127