By Gerald Schmitz

Giving thanks to the Camino in the journey of life

The restless heart is the starting point of pilgrimage. Everyone harbours a longing that impels him or her to leave behind the indifference of everyday life and the narrowness of habitual surroundings. . . . All the paths along which humankind advances point to the fact that life is a path, a way of pilgrimage toward God.
— St. Augustine, from Peter Müller and Angel Fernández de Aránguiz, Every Pilgrim’s Guide to Walking to Santiago de Compostela, London, Canterbury Press, 2010

The Way is for all but each will discover there oneself. That is one more reason to take the journey through it.
— Jean-Christophe Rufin, Immortelle Randonné: Compostelle Malgré Moi, Paris, Gallimard 2013 (my translation)

It is in the nature of pilgrimage that it involves both an outward and an inward journey. Both are equally important. There are different ways to do the Camino but only in taking the time to walk it are these most mutually supportive.

In his bestselling Marcher, une philosophie — published in English this year as A Philosophy of Walking, Frédéric Gros observes that: “Walking is the best way to go more slowly than any other method that has ever been found.” More than ever in these hyper-connected times we need sometimes to slow down, to think, to contemplate, to liberate ourselves from the pressures of short attention spans, to “unplug.” That is why treating the Camino as a race or competition to get to the next place is to defeat its purpose. Walking requires a humble and sustained personal effort beyond an “are we there yet?” mentality. Yes, as I found out, its rigours can be painful. But ultimately its benefits are good for body and soul. That is reason enough to give thanks.

Gros calls his book “a manifesto for putting one foot in front of the other.” Earlier in this series I cited Jean-Christophe Rufin to the effect that an initiation in the secrets of the Way comes by “day after day putting one foot ahead of the other.” Born in the same month as I, June 1952, Rufin is a founder of Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders), former French ambassador to Senegal, and a member of the Académie Française. Several years ago he walked the northern Camino route that follows the Spanish coast. More than the mysticism of Brazilian Paul Coelho’s 1987 Diary of the Magus (published in English as The Pilgrimage: A Contemporary Quest for Ancient Wisdom), or many subsequent books on the Camino, I find Rufin’s illustrated account cited above — with photos taken by a Québécois Marc Vachon — to be the most profound meditation I’ve read and the one closest to my own reflection even though he followed a different route most of the way.

Immortal Journey: Compostela In Spite of Myself isn’t available in English but allow me to share a few of its insights. In the history of Christian pilgrimage, Santiago de Compostela became a third holy place centuries after Jerusalem and Rome. In contrast to these latter two, the westward Way of St. James toward the ends of the known world became a journey, along defined paths and stages, that was as important in itself as the final destination. In the modern era the Camino is no longer necessarily a Christian pilgrimage. But to really take hold it requires a break from our usual habits and routines. Perhaps this could be described as a walking retreat or even a period of “zen” detachment. There is a kind of spiritual connection to the natural world that arises from mind and body in slow steady motion. Along the Way as well there are places like monasteries conducive to serene meditation. Santo Domingo de Silos and Samos were such places for me, and a reminder that the Camino loses its significance if it becomes just a long walk or a touristic enterprise.

In the chapter Vespers in Zenarruza, Rufin recounts his mixed experience entering the ancient Romanesque church of a Benedictine abbey. In observing the monks’ Gregorian chant he writes: “The heady magic of the prayer seized everyone. It’s one of the particularities of the Way that it offers to the pilgrim, whatever his or her motivations, moments of unexpected religious emotion.” He describes this as a “pure ecstasy” in the presence of a simple chant, prayer and encounter that overcomes the body and “liberates a soul one had thought lost.” But then these reflections were rudely interrupted by a large group of older Spanish tourists in holiday attire and snapping photos. Some made perfunctory signs of the cross or genuflections. After a few minutes they left en masse having ruined the atmosphere. Rufin discovered that the group was actually there for a yoga retreat. Unlike the walkers staying in a rudimentary dormitory, they and their heavy luggage were accommodated in a modern residence with all the comforts. The ever-practical monks had learned to adapt to the trend for such travel. In comparison the pilgrims appeared as wandering beggars. Indeed, reports Rufin, curious tourists took pictures of them as if they were part of the local wildlife!

Elsewhere Rufin describes what he calls the “Mochila Express” — mochila is Spanish for backpack or rucksack. It is increasingly common to find services that will transport these from one place to the next predetermined stop, or organized Camino tours that require little walking or effort. Sometimes these “pilgrims-lite” — if they can be called pilgrims at all — take spaces in the modest albergues that should be reserved for those doing the Camino the hard way. In busy seasons that can mean pressuring serious walkers into leaving as early as possible or rushing their pace in order to find a place to lay their heads at night.

Gerald Schmitz at the pilgrim monument, Fisterra, Oct. 14, 2013. “It is in the nature of pilgrimage that it involves both an outward and an inward journey. Both are equally important,” he writes of the Camino.

All of which runs contrary to the spirit of pilgrimage. Indeed the growing popularity of the Camino could lead to its undoing if the travel trade introduces services and attractions that distract from its essential meaning and transform the experience — as when a pristine area of beauty becomes a crowded vacation destination. This hasn’t happened yet, at least along much of the Way outside major centres. Still, like Rufin, I found myself resenting tourist intrusions or folks breezily passing me carrying little as if out for a Sunday stroll.

Walking the Camino is something that one lives intensely, an immersive experience that allows one to be open to unplanned epiphanies and encounters with the eternal. Don’t think of “doing” the Camino as a holiday or another check mark on a bucket list. And I’m wary of “pilgrim junkies” too — those who seem caught up in a contest, if only with themselves, of how far, how fast and how many times.

One can undertake the Camino with others, as I did with my Breton cousin Bernard. But it’s important to find one’s own way of walking that isn’t driven by an external need to keep pace. Ottawa journalist Robert Sibley, author of The Way of the Stars: Journeys on the Camino de Santiago, did the Camino a first time alone and a second time with his son. He speaks of the virtues of a “constructive solitude” and an acute sensory awareness that marries the physical journey to an inner consciousness and search for meaning. He writes that he “gained no sudden spiritual transformation” while on the Camino yet in attempting to maintain the “pilgrimage mindset” he changed his approach to life — “I was able to retain one of the great gifts of the Camino: the ability to slow down physically in order to slow down mentally.”

One of the blessings of my Camino was precisely those periods of slow exertion or tranquil reflection that felt almost timeless, not driven by schedules or lists of “to dos.” It’s then that one appreciates most fully in mind and body what is important in the journey of life. These moments don’t happen often enough. Thanks be to the Camino for the experience and the memories that keep it alive.

Schmitz walked the Way of St. James from September to October 2013.

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