El Camino de Santiago

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared on the site One Peter Five back when they were desperate for content.

“In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will direct your path.” Proverbs 3:6

I’m a walker. I walk all over the place.

And, 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 learned to simply 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 fully determine if they are from the Lord.

And so it was, that when the idea came to walk the Camino de Santiago, via a hiking buddy who is also a Priest, that I decided to test the matter prayerfully. I had certainly wanted to walk the great pilgrimage route since I was a child. And I could certainly at least try to carve the time into my schedule. I mentioned it to my parishioners, who all wanted me to go so enthusiastically 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 which 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 St. 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 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, had thrown my knee out, and was completely sedentary at the time I started praying about the trip. We were to have just under three weeks for the pilgrimage, and were to be walking about 200 miles. I’m a walker! What could go wrong?

I walked 2 miles to high school every morning, took up ‘city hiking’ in my 20’s, long before it became ‘urban hiking’, and still walk, cycle, and… well that’s about it to be honest. But I had to prepare for the trip.

I watched the movie “The Way”. I joined online discussion groups about the Camino. I researched all things lightweight. What shoes to wear. How much clothing. What should I bring?

I did my best to be very present to our Parishioners in the weeks prior to departure, and prepared as best I might. I spent hours, days, weeks, trying to pack as light as possible… all the time deep in prayer.

And then the day came, and we departed.

In the Beginning…

Being a Priest is challenging at times, but it’s certainly not without it’s 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”. Later we discovered tapas, and then around 9PM we had dinner. In Spain, late dining is the thing. The sun sets around 11:00pm, so there’s plenty of time for dinner.

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, and the route along the northern coast is a much cooler route than the others in the summertime. It’s literally cooler, by 20-30 degrees F.

Filled with enthusiasm and armed with preconceptions, we set out early the next morning.

We had found the tourist office, and gotten our credencials in Gijon. The credencial is a small booklet which you present along the route, and have stamped, so that when you arrive in Santiago de Compostela you have some type of proof that you’ve actually walked the walk (or caught busses, trains, cabs, ridden a bike, a horse, etc.) Also, you present it along the route at many different places, which lets people know you are a pilgrim, a peregrino.

In retrospect, it’s not terribly difficult for anyone to tell that you are a peregrino. But the Credencial is an important document, and some of them are truly beautiful.

Heading Out!

Walking out of Gijon we got lost within the hour as we headed towards the next town over, Aviles. The path wasn’t well marked, though someone pointed us in the right direction.

It was then that we first saw the traditional markers of the brass scallop shells in the pavement. In Gijon, and in the Asturias Region of Spain in general, the edge of the shell always points towards Santiago de Compestela. (That changed abruptly mid-trip, which cause a bit of initial confusion.)

We walked and walked, and walked some more. Pilgrims on the way. People said “Buen Camino!” The sun rose gently and smiled upon us. We saw a few other pilgrims and let forth a hardy “Buen Camino!” as well.

The time passed gradually, and we walked on and on. The sun rose ever higher in the sky, and started to be a bit hot. I drank all of my water, got sweaty, and felt a bit faint. I ate a chocolate bar, found some more water at a local tienda, and rested a bit. Life was still good. We were already in Aviles, after all, having walked about 17 miles.

Aviles is a beautiful medieval town, with streets of marble. Many peregrinos stay there; sensibly so. But we were out for mileage. Fr. Jimmy wanted to walk to a little town a bit farther on, San Juan de la Arena, and I fully agreed. And so we went, walking along the beautifully marbled streets of Aviles.

It was walking out of town that we got separated, and then I got lost. I remember exactly where it was. Fr. Jimmy was ahead a few blocks, and I didn’t see the shell which was in the wall along one street. The shells were no longer in the pavement, but had transferred to the walls. At this intersection, for the life of me, I did not see it. But I did see a yellow arrow (another common marker) which led down a different street.

After a good two miles I knew in my soul that I was lost in Spain.

I backtracked and eventually found the trail. I walked through some woods, then some more woods, then some more. There was never any water, and the time stretched on from two, to three, to four, to five, to six pm. Soon it was eight pm. I never passed through a village, never saw a store, never saw a water faucet which was not behind an impressive set of locked gates.

Everything that happens now is colluded in my memory as far as the actual clock-time goes, Walking 28-32 miles in a day after some travel induced all nighters can do that to me.

While I was relieved and thankful that walking comes so naturally to the human body, by 9PM I was tired. And so thirsty. I had been scanning the woods, eyeing possible places to camp for the night, but I needed water first. I also needed to get in touch with Fr. Jimmy; my phone was not yet working in Spain. And after all, the sun was still up.

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: “Senor/Senora, Por favor, necessito agua.

Soon enough, I saw 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.

And he said No!

My mind clouded over,  a thousand curses arose in my heart, and parts of my life flashed before my eyes. I reconsidered everything I had researched about the Camino and questioned my entire 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 got my first experience of a communal faucet, just past his house. I sat down, drank my fill, slaked my thirst, and loaded up with about 4 liters of water (which is quite heavy to carry.)

I rested and rejoiced, and my prayer turned to Thanksgiving.

And then, I set out walking again. Soon it seemed I was getting into a village, but the trail snaked back endlessly into the woods. And, and this 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, on the porch.

But where was Fr. Jimmy? My phone wasn’t working in Spain and I had to let him know where I was and that I was OK. Was he in the town ahead of me? I just didn’t know and I needed an internet connection.

Suddenly and without warning, the path swooped down to a roadway. And in about 20 minutes I saw someone working on a car.

Again as casually as I might, as if this were an every day occurrence, because God forbid I should look out of place hiking around at 9PM in Spain, I sauntered over and asked about a hotel.

Ah senor“, 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”. (Everything after an endless walk, is “up”.)

I envisioned $450 being forever lost from my bank account, but figured it would be worth it and I would just have to be frugal for the rest of my life anyway. What difference at this point did it make! I needed some rest, man! I was wiped! And me, a peregrino.

God surely did provide. The hotel was a converted Palaccio. The woman behind the counter said, as I walked in at 9:45 pm wet with sweat, “Ah… you are a peregrino. We have a special rate.”

It was a marvelous place, and cost about $80US. It was an exquisite and surprisingly beautiful ending to the day, and was the first in many lessons that God will provide on the Camino, and that the Camino has lessons for us to learn.

I had a hot bath and soaked my well worn legs. I e-mailed Fr. Jimmy and 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 knew I felt faint in the heat of the day. Thank God for friends. I fell into a deep, blissful, slumber which 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 starving, I had my first truly hearty meal in Spain, a dish called Fabada Asturianas; 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 bother 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 which 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 which 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 takes away from that just falls by the wayside. And isn’t that exactly how our journey to Heaven should be, as we work our salvation out, as we strive to live in heroic virtue?

There were days in the middle of things 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 and hiking buddies, were up and down 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. And my feet started healing. 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 legs of their 5 year long Camino, who completely agreed with us. 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 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 a 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.

We had left around 8:00am, walked through wind and rain, and at Noon we were in the Sanctuary, concelebrating Mass amidst the ancient splendor of the great Cathedral.

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 alright, 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 I was actually one of the Priests putting incense into the great and historic thurible.

The Kingdom of Heaven

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela after the long walk through Spain, must be like 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 or mailing ahead if you’re carrying too much, as I was despite my hours of planning.) You have to accept things as the present themselves, and you have work through things, 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, or the Way as it is sometimes called. A lot of different spiritual expressions are there. In some places deeply Catholic, in some, New Age; in some a hippie vibe, and in others there is just an ‘I want to check out Spain and figure out life’ vibe.

But in all of it, 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 forged by devout Christians walking to the tomb of St. James the Apostle, in Santiago de Compostela.

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.

And that’s another thing which struck me along this great and noble route, that so many people are still walking it while seeking to know Jesus Christ more and more, with many devout Catholics along the way.

And yet many simply had a spiritual vagueness. To me they seemed as 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 it’s gruelingly penitential splendor, vibrantly and resoundingly grand all about them, and yet they cannot 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.

And I pray in Thanksgiving to God for the opportunity to experience 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 from me, 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, 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.

The Rev. Kenneth Allen