From the first that I heard about walking the Camino de Santiago, (and the Camino Frances in particular) I understood it to be a unique spiritual experience and one I would actually dream about for 20 years. This means that the inner preparation for the pilgrimage began decades before that cool and wet March morning in 2018 when I departed St. Jean Port-de-Pied, bound for Santiago, 500 miles and 35 days away.
I knew the walk would be physically challenging since I was planning to average 15 miles per day and was going to carry my 16-pound pack every step.
I knew it would be emotionally challenging; I was going solo, putting thousands of miles and an ocean between me and my large, close-knit family and community of friends at home. I would have to confront a “long loneliness.”
Those physical and emotional challenges would be melded into a larger spiritual challenge that would become one of the most profound of my life.
Anyone who walks this pilgrimage is crossing a sacred landscape, the characteristic that separates it from other long hikes. The Camino has a peculiar “magnetic” draw on people, which makes the individual part of a unique community of pilgrims. Ironically, the majority state at the outset that they are neither spiritual nor religious.
I did a great deal of reading about the Camino, my favorite being the book The Way is Made by Walking, by my friend Arthur Boers, which he gave me in 2008. Arthur’s book, full of his rich spiritual experiences, had further clinched my own desire to walk it, but that hope and dream would have to wait another decade. During that time, I did other, shorter pilgrimages in Europe, to whet my appetite and satisfy a deeper, inner longing. I traveled in particular to holy places such as Glendalough, in Ireland, and Iona and Lindisfarne, in the UK, in 2015 and 2016.
In 2017 I sensed that my current work was nearing an end. I was too young to retire, but felt it was time to “downshift,” to slow down the pace of my life and find an inner renewal. I made plans to leave my job in early 2018 and made plans to finally realize my long-held dream to do a pilgrimage to Santiago.
I made plane reservations for late March, set my date of departure and focused both my physical and inner preparation. As I read, prayed and meditated about my upcoming journey, I distilled my thoughts into a list of seven simple principles that I intended to follow as I walked:
1. I will try to go about 25 kilometers (15 miles) a day.
2. I will make no reservations for lodging. I will simply accept whatever accommodations are available when I reach a destination.
3. I will not be in a hurry (and will remind myself of this continually).
4. I will carry my pack the whole way. I will be forced to keep the contents light.
5. I will walk the entire way—no taking taxis or buses between towns.
6. I will make it a priority, since I am not in a hurry, to slow down and listen for the voice of God speaking around me or through those I meet. These are the “signs.”
7. I will accept, within reason, whatever is offered me, as a gift from God.
These “rules” or principles were all essentially spiritual in nature.
For example, maintaining the pace of 15 miles per day, and insisting on walking only, became the inner discipline of perseverance. I would have to keep moving, avoiding the temptation to quit. Along the way I could pause all I wanted, but I would not stop until I came to my selected destination for any given day. This might mean walking in cold, snowy or uncomfortable weather (which in fact, I did), which might me to take a bus or taxi. The pace meant I needed to keep my focus on the final destination, which at first seemed impossibly distant. Keeping moving meant that I was a pilgrim and not a tourist.
Not making reservations was a spiritual discipline of abandonment: I would have to accept whatever came my way. In retrospect, this meant that I was forced to stay in some rustic places that were not my first choice, like the municipal albergue in Zubiri, which was in an old school without much heat. It meant staying another time in a town which had no open restaurants and eating apples and yogurt for supper, instead of a nice, hearty pilgrim meal. Learning to “let go” is a hard thing for someone who always likes to be in control.
Not being in a hurry—which, to some, might seem to contradict my pace—would enable me to observe my surroundings and listen deeply to those I encountered. Coupled with the inner discipline of solitude, slowing down was perhaps the most important thing I learned on the Camino and led to some of my most profound encounters with others.
Leaving my plans open also meant being open to give: maybe to help with a physical need, or maybe the emotional need that someone else had for companionship, even just a companion to walk with in silence.
Keeping my pack light meant the spiritual discipline of simplicity, learning to live with less—a lot less in fact. It was a stark, and welcome, change from living in a house full of stuff.
The discipline of accepting whatever I was given was a discipline of humility; I would have to admit my own need, my own poverty, either physically, or of my own poor choices or planning.
As I look back on it, I am grateful for that inner preparation, which served me well, and yielded a rich experience that remains one of the most significant of my life and which still guides me on a daily basis.
Please read my book, The Walk of a Lifetime for more about how I experienced these principles of my six week pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.