In May of 2018 I finished walking the 500-mile Camino Frances. it took me five weeks to walk, but I was gone from home for a total of six weeks. It was the longest I had been away from my home and family since I had gotten married, nearly 38 years earlier. As the title of my book states, it was “the walk of a lifetime.”
I gave a presentation this past week on the Camino, and signed copies of my book. As is often the case, I was asked, “what did you learn from your pilgrimage?” My book is full of what I learned–writing is a good way to process such an experience–but the question got me thinking about how to put the lessons into a nutshell. In writing my books, I have intentionally taken a great deal of time in the past year to reflect on the experience and it deepens the farther it recedes into the past. Putting it into a few words is hard, but just today I came across something I had written just a few months after returning [now over a year ago] when the experience was freshest in my mind. It’s a pretty succinct statement and it came in a free-form sort of list, which I thought it said it well:
I learned that I love to step out into the fresh, cold morning air, strap on my pack and head west with the sun coming up behind me, a long shadow forming a guide down the center of the road in front of me.
I learned that I love the early morning solitude of the trail, where my head is clear and my senses sharp and I have no more cares than where I might stop later for coffee.
I learned that I could walk alone and like it.
I learned that I could meet new people and strike up conversations, with no effort.
I learned to listen for God in the smallest and least-expected of ways.
I learned that the red earth of La Rioja is beautiful in the month of April.
I learned that I could carry all I really needed in life in a 38-liter backpack that weighed only 16 pounds.
I learned that I could easily go to sleep in a room full of people, some of whom were strangers, but most of whom were strangers no longer.
I learned that to receive can be harder than to give.
I learned that when you have companions to share the road, you will really lack for nothing.
I learned that when the road ahead that day is long, you can really only focus on the next kilometer.
I learned that to wake up in the morning in a new place and to greet the day by saying, “it’s a great day to be alive,” is good for the soul.
I learned that I could walk 31 kilometers in a day and it didn’t kill me.
I learned the joy of meeting companions in unexpected places and unexpected times.
I learned that a person is only as rich as what they can afford to leave alone–which is why it’s good to have a small backpack. [that’s a paraphrase from Henry Thoreau]
I learned that in the long periods of solitude I could pray and sense the presence of God in my life.
Of course I learned much more–about the community of pilgrims, about the beauty of Spain, about the spirituality of a pilgrimage, about the simplicity of a clothesline and clothespins and a simple hot shower–there is so much that it’s hard to stop. But that’s why I wrote my book, to make the experience more than just something in the past, something that lives on and informs my present and my future.
A pilgrimage changes a person and we have a responsibility once we experience that change, to live it and to share it. That’s much of what my life is about now, and it is as fulfilling as the pilgrimage was itself. As a wise hospitalero said to us one evening, “Once you walk the Camino, you will walk it every day for the rest of your life.”