Rev. Donald Bolen walked the Camino August to September 2016, as he prepared to take up his appointment as Archbishop of Regina. (Photo by A. Moquin)
Walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela is many things. It is, first of all, a very long walk; in this instance, almost 800 kilometres, starting in the village of St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in southwest France and following along the north of Spain.
It is to encounter the incredible beauty of the villages and countryside of this part of Spain, at a slow pace. It is a pilgrimage — next to Jerusalem and Rome, the most walked pilgrimage of the Middle Ages — to the tomb of St. James the Apostle (in Spanish, Sant’Iago); and is to engage in what was one of the three principal forms of penance in the Middle Ages.
It is a test to the body, especially the feet, knees, and a network of muscles you didn’t know you had, but which make their presence known when you walk 20 to 25 kilometres a day, every day, for weeks on end. It is to prioritize walking over all other activities, often praying as you walk, and to adopt a simpler rhythm to life on the days of the pilgrimage.
The Camino is marked out by little yellow arrows. For 800 kilometres you get up and follow the arrows which call out, like the prophet Isaiah, “This is the way, walk in it.”
When I first scheduled this trip, with two friends and three family members, it was with much of this in mind. But by the time the dates rolled around I had been named the Archbishop of Regina, so the pilgrimage was also about making the transition from one diocese to another; it was about getting ready to say goodbye to a ministry and a people I have loved, and which was so life-giving; and about getting ready to return to my home diocese, preparing for a new beginning, starting over. In this time of transition, walking the Camino has been a great blessing. Indeed in all ways it has been a time of blessing.
In a short space, perhaps the best I can offer as a glimpse into the Camino is a litany of images and experiences: walking from the first crack of dawn; simple greetings and encounters with other pilgrims; steep climbs and incredible views; fields of sunflowers in bloom; gentle paths, rugged paths; elegant stone bridges; hills of grass; old vine-covered trees; little shrines to Our Lady; picking wild blackberries; hot and sore feet; praying at places where people have prayed for over a thousand years; stork nests on church steeples; hot dry sunny days on end; faces and places of welcome; the joy of finding kindred spirits; wonderful red rioja wines; blisters demanding attention; good conversations with loved ones; pilgrim meals; my travelling companions making animal sounds (cows, crows, dogs, chickens, roosters) and our delight when the local animals moooed, caaaawed, barked, and clucked back; fields of hay and corn; old splendid stone houses; all shapes, ages, sizes and nationalities of pilgrims; gruelling descents; grumbling knees and the need for “vitamin i” (Ibuprofen); dirty socks; the daily washing and hanging of laundry; days when you think you can’t go on, but put the right foot in front of the left; history and tradition at every turn; coming up against one’s limits; making wrong turns; humbly retracing one’s steps; lighting candles in a small stone church; pilgrim’s blessings; the cruz de ferro (iron cross) and place of pardon; Spanish masses; moss on stone walls; summer turning to autumn, greens turning to yellows; the gift of family and friends; so much beauty; Christ in a thousand faces.
These are all part of the Camino, and most of them are part of life’s camino. You do not need to go to Spain for the most important of these things. We only need to slow down, take time to walk, and open our eyes to what we walk through daily but don’t see very well, in this magnificent creation, this blessed life.
As I write this, we are two days from Santiago de Compostela. We have been walking for 37 days. Soon it will be time to reach our destination, say one more set of prayers, and come home. And get to work. And try to live a little more intentionally and prayerfully, a little more attentive to and grateful for the beauty and blessing all around us. Thank you for your prayers!
Bolen is Apostolic Administrator, Diocese of Saskatoon /Bishop elect, Archdiocese of Regina.
*for more coverage of the congratulatory issue for Archbishop Bolen, see the print edition.