I’m an avid traveler, but my trips have usually centered around people rather than places. If I travel alone, I always find destinations where I can visit family or friends. This summer I wanted to challenge myself to become more comfortable befriending complete strangers, so I visited the traveled alone to community of Taizé and walked a portion of the Camino.
“The Camino” is actually many different routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. Since my schedule had me traveling during the high season around the feast of St. James on July 25, I decided to take the lesser-traveled Portuguese Way. I bought a guidebook on Kindle and booked my accommodations in hostels such that I would start in Tui at the Spanish / Portuguese border and finish the trip in 7 stages. I also planned it so I could arrive to Santiago (which means St. James in Spanish) a day before the feast of St. James and enjoy the town during their major festivities.
I prepared for the trip with some reading and reflection on what it means to be a pilgrim as opposed to a tourist. William Cavanaugh compares the mentalities of modern tourists with medieval pilgrims by observing, “in contrast to tourists, pilgrims did not travel to assert their freedom from necessity, but to respond to the necessity of their destiny in God. Humility, therefore, was the essential virtue of the pilgrim. Pilgrimage was a kenotic movement, a stripping away of the external sources of stability in one’s life.” He notes how ancient pilgrimages had a certain leveling effect between the wealthy and the poor because they underwent the same journey on foot to the same destination. Pilgrimage is also about cultivating a deeper feeling of dependance, trusting that God would guide the pilgrims and provide through the assistance and generosity of strangers.
I also prepared at the last minute by listening to a podcast by Rick Steves while I was on the train to my starting point in Tui. I was quite taken by this quote from his guest, the German comedian Hape Kerkeling, and I thought about it often as I was journeying.
“The creator tosses us into the air and then, to our happy amazement, catches us again at just the right moment. It is like the spirited game parents play with their children. The message is: Have faith in the one who’s tossing you, because he loves you and will quite unexpectedly be the one to catch you too. And when I think back on all that has happened along the way, I realize that God kept tossing me into the air and catching me again. We encountered each other every single day.”Hape Kerkling, I’m Off Then, p. 332.
The Camino far exceeded my hopes and expectations. I met numerous fascinating people. I saw many people repeatedly through out the trip, starting on my first night and finishing a week later in Santiago. Others I met once and never saw again. I would often wander the village at night, wondering if I could share dinner with anyone, and to my surprise, God placed fascinating people in my path. I also ended up dining alone many times, which was also a blessing to reflect on the joys of the day, recover my energy, and better appreciate the moments I had with others. At a minimum, I was able to enjoy a meal with interesting people at least once a day. I also had many insightful conversations with people from all over the world while I was walking, and the weather was nearly perfect.
I talked to many people about how unfortunate it is that the spirituality of the Camino is so difficult to find elsewhere. The simplicity of life with only a few pairs of clothes in our backpacks, the openness that people have to conversing with strangers, and the joy of exercising and appreciating nature all combine to make for a space where we have a heightened awareness of the depths of God’s love and the beauty of the world.