“As you start on the Way, the Way appears.” (Rumi)
While Jerusalem and Rome were the primary pilgrimage destinations for Christians beginning in the third century, either to walk in the footsteps of Jesus or to visit the tombs of the most prominent apostles, Peter and Paul, a third pilgrimage began to gain momentum in the tenth century. It was the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where a baroque cathedral reputedly holds the remains of James, another leading apostle and the first to have been martyred, decapitated by King Agrippas. James’s head is located under an altar in Jerusalem where he was martyred.
The story of the life of Saint James is littered with controversy, but after his martyrdom, it seems that his disciples attempted to transport his remains by sea back to Iberia, where he had been preaching prior to his return to Jerusalem. The boat crashed along the Galicia coast of Spain, after which the marble casket with his remains was carried to Santiago de Compostela. There it was forgotten for 800 years until angels appeared in a dream to a hermit named Pelagius to show him the way to the tomb. Since then, it quickly became a primary destination for Christian pilgrims. In 2016, more than 278,000 pilgrims received their Compostela certificates by walking at least 100 kilometres (or 200 kilometres by bicycle) to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
Initially, I wanted to do this pilgrimage to be able to walk with others, especially to walk with others in an exotic setting. Most of my hiking life has been spent in solitude, so I wanted to be among others who shared a common purpose and destination. But since making the decision to go, I have been reading more about the Way of Saint James, personal stories of people who have walked the path, the miracles that people have purportedly experienced during their walks, and generally why people even choose to participate in that distinctive cultural form of walking known as pilgrimage.
The most common question asked on the Camino is, “Why are you doing this?” And surprisingly, the most common answer seems to be, “I don’t know.” People are drawn to this pilgrimage, for religious or spiritual reasons, to be absolved of sins, to seek health for themselves or a loved one, to give thanks, for reasons they can’t articulate, or for no reason at all.
For myself, I intend to go on this pilgrimage with no expectations, so any wondrous thing will be a delight and a surprise. I want to practice being a better traveler, by which I mean I want my journeys to be more sacred, more soulful, through daily acts of intention and attention. The more I travel, the more it feels like a routine, so I want to recover that feeling of wonder and curiosity, that sense of deep mystery I once had when exploring. To see beauty and magic in my wanderings requires practice. And what better place to do this than on the Camino, enveloped in the lingering energy of the soulful millions who have walked before me?
I also want to take the opportunity on the Camino to think about what I want to do next in my life. My purpose is rather simplistic – to serve. My career thus far, composed of long stints in the military and in healthcare, has been spent in the service of others. Now I want to think about how I can best serve others in another way. What will be my new (or continuing) mission? What will be my message? How will I bring my message and talents to others? Where do I want to focus my creative energy? Perhaps the Camino will be the catalyst that helps me clarify my next steps.
There are many popular paths to Santiago de Compostela. The one I have chosen to walk is called the Camino Frances, or the French Way. It is the most popular route, the one used by more than 60 percent of the pilgrims, starting in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and following a well-trodden path marked by golden scallop shells – the scallop and pilgrim’s hat are Christian symbols of Saint James – for nearly 800 kilometres to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostela. I will be walking with some companions from Quebec at a pace of about 25 kilometres per day, and we are considering continuing along the Camino beyond the cathedral for five days of walking to Cape Finisterre, known as The End of the World, the easternmost point of Spain. We’ll see how everyone feels once we’ve reached our primary destination. Although I will have my faithful tent with me, we will primarily be staying in simple pilgrim hostels, called albergues.
In his book, The Art of Pilgrimage, Phil Cousineau argues that the purpose of pilgrimage is to create a more meaningful life. “Through sacred travel, individuals can find the path to the divine, the ultimate source of life.” The essence of the pilgrimage is “tracing a sacred route of tests and trials, ordeals and obstacles, to arrive at a holy place and attempt to fathom the secrets of its power.”
I will no doubt face ordeals and obstacles, blisters and pain, and general discomfort on this journey. It is normal for a walking adventure of such length. And while I may never truly fathom the secrets of this great path, I do hope that my life feels more meaningful as a result of my walking it.