El Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage route existing for over a thousand years to modern day. Stories say that Saint Santiago (St James in English) brought Christianity in the land of Galicia and having returned to Jerusalem, he was martyred there. His disciples brought his body back on a boat and buried him close to the Atlantic coast, to what they believed at that time to be finnis terre, the end of the Western land. His remains were said to be discovered around 800 AD and the church that holds the relics is now where Santiago de Compostela is.
The route of pilgrimage is now called El Camino Frances starting in south of France, crossing the Pyrenees, the Basque Country all the way to Galicia.
They pass the cornfields, the vineyards, groves of olive trees, cross the mountains, face the rainy north of Spain, harsh winds coming from the Atlantic and scorching sun. Back in the day not many survived the road and those who did, arrived in more suffering hoping to be saved by the sanctity of the Saint. For a thousand years churches and locals opened refugios and hostels to the pilgrims, offering food and supporting their endeavour.
At the end of it all pilgrims arrive at the impressive cathedral in the center of Santiago where they are given the compostela, the certificate to prove their success and having their sins pardoned by the Catholic Church.
Religious reasons to walk the route may still exist, however what drives more than 200 000 pilgrims every year to take the road and walk more than 500 miles? Photography, being in nature, solitude or on the contrary, solidarity with others, the thrill of a challenge. In the end, it’s more than a physical effort. It’s an exercise of discipline and bearing with one own’s mind. I’d call it the Vipassana of walking 🙂
I can see how this is a spiritual journey not for its roots in Catholic faith, but for the mental relief it brings along with sore muscles.
Out in the nature it’s a practice of presence and mindfulness. Having to set little targets, move from one refugio to another, find one’s way in the mountains and fields is truly an effort that questions everything. Happiness is no longer having more, but less – a lighter rucksack, the perfect walking shoes, no blisters. Beauty is no longer a beautiful face in a magazine, but the richness of green fields and villages on the way. And gratitude comes not only when the target is reached, but every good meal, good sleep and stunning landscape.
I don’t know how those who took the road must feel, but I can only try to imagine comparing it with our daily journey called life. I imagine those pilgrims, those in suffering, those in hope for a bit of consolation from the Saint taking the road. Like Christianity teachings, they must have felt the difficulties of the journey as the initiation they must pass in order to receive salvation. The utmost metaphor for suffering in this lifetime to achieve heaven in the next one, right?
Upon the arrival in the city, the poor, the suffering are struck with the magnificence of the Cathedral and the buildings. The tall, imposing stone walls, the towers, the big squares buzzing with people gave the feeling that they’ve arrived in a safe place. That the Church or God had seen their effort, their pain and their commitment and bestowed upon them its magnificence in the form of architectural beauty.
Truth is I didn’t know much about this topic before arriving in Santiago de Compostela. I went there on business, focused on the things I needed to get done and hoping that it wouldn’t be very exhausting after a whole week of working.
But as my wonderful host, business partner and guide told me: ‘No solo de cortinas vive el hombre!’ (translated approximately into ‘Not only of curtains does one make a living’). Indeed, not only of business talk and money and strategy does one make a living of, but of experiences, soul enriching moments spent in good company and beautiful places.
As I prepared this post I read some other blogs and articles of people having taken this road and as expected, most of them have given a spiritual meaning to the whole journey. No, not the religious one. Many took the journey as atheists and came back as such, but in this quest for magic in our lives no heart remains untouched by this experience. And reading their testimonials gave me the understanding that El Camino is, first and foremost, a journey to oneself.
El Camino is a personal pilgrimage, after all. It can be done in a group, with a partner, spouse, friends but it’s quite like the journey of life itself.
It teaches that every step we take, the things we see around us and how we perceive pain is nothing but an individual perspective of the experience.
It may offer the fulfilment and sense of gratification when the destination is reached, but there are gifts to be found way long before arriving – the gift of solitude, the mental relief of everyday stress, the community built, the nature, the time taken with oneself for introspection. Some may take on a pilgrimage of weeks to discover those, some may find it on a yoga mat or inside a church and some may find it while cooking or during their morning run. But in the end we are all looking for the same things, aren’t we?