Last week I joined my friend Pastor Angela Shannon for an 115 kilometer (about 70 miles) walk through Northern Spain on an ancient pilgrimage route that begins known as the Camino de Santiago or The Way of St. James.
The bible says very little about the twelve disciples of Jesus after the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ.
Old legends tell of the world being divided up and each disciple taking the Gospel to a different part of the world.
According to ancient tradition, the Apostle James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula (what is now Northern Spain) and brought the Gospel to the people there. He returned to Jerusalem where he was martyred and those whom he converted in Spain came to Jerusalem to retrieve his bones and bring them back to Spain where they were buried in a secret place in the woods.
In 813 A.D. a hermit discovered some bones which were acclaimed to be those of the Apostle. A shrine was built there and then a church and eventually, a Cathedral was established. Soon Santiago (St. James) became a major destination for pilgrims in the middle Ages. Santiago, with Rome and Jerusalem, is one of the three great Christian pilgrimages.
While there have been years of fewer pilgrims, the pilgrimage to Santiago has continued since the 9th century. In the last 20-30 years it has seen a resurgence of popularity and now people of all faiths from all over the world walk it for spiritual, cultural and recreational purposes.
There are many routes to the Camino, but the most popular is the French way which begins at the French border just before the Pyrenes. Many people walk the last 115 kilometers from Sarria like Pastor Shannon and I did.
We walked 15 miles some days, 10-12 miles others through beautiful hills and valleys, forest paths, through small old medieval villages, by fields, and along roads. It was hard work and painful at times but also peaceful and healing to have no other task but to get up each day and walk. We met many people along the way, people from different places, different languages, different faiths, walking for different reasons, but we were all on the same path.
There are few rules for undertaking this journey but the most important one is “You walk your own Camino.”
You walk your pace, your way, for your reasons. No one can tell you that you are doing it wrong and you don’t judge others for how they walk their Camino.
Is this not a metaphor for life? For embracing grace?
Life is not a race. There are difficult hills to climb. Everyone has to climb them in order to continue. Sometimes you have to just put your head down and power through. Sometimes you have to rest. Sometimes you talk and laugh with others. Sometimes you are silent in prayer.
Another saying is “The Camino provides.” It sounds like a cliché but I don’t know anyone who ever came back from this pilgrimage that did not find this to be true.
The Camino provides what you need whether you know you need it or not.
We met Sylvia at a Café early in our walk the first day. She was from Argentina and spoke very little English. We spoke even less Spanish and yet somehow we made a connection.
Later on in the day, we noticed her ahead of us with only a plastic bag for her things that was clearly slowing her down as she would stop and change it from one shoulder to another. Angie realized she had a small backpack in her pack and so when we caught up with her Angie gave the bag so she could carry her items on her back rather than struggle with the plastic bag. She was so happy she nearly danced.
The Camino provides.
The Camino provided again when the cheerful Sylvia showed up again during the last 5 miles of our walk that first day when we were tired and sore and losing steam.
She indicated she wanted to sing. So Angie taught her “We are Marching in the Light of God” and we sang it together. Singing gave us new energy and made us forget our sore feet.
She asked us to sing it over and over again. Honestly, we were getting a little tired of it after several verses. But then she pulled out a recorder and played it perfectly!
The Camino provides.
We ran into Sylvia several times during our pilgrimage. Sometimes we used Google Translate to communicate. Sometimes she would just chatter on in Spanish and we would answer in English, not really sure what we were saying, but yet communicating.
She was younger and walked a faster pace than us. Often she would go on ahead of us but then later she would catch up to us from behind while we rested at a café. The odd ways she would show up here and there made us think perhaps she was not a real person and we began to call her our Camino angel.
We didn’t see her on Friday the day we arrived in Santiago and thought sadly we had seen the last of her. But Saturday when we were just strolling through the Cathedral square we hear someone shouting behind us and who do we see but Sylvia running up to us, hugging and kissing us and chattering excitedly in Spanish. She had been eating at a restaurant, saw us walk by the window and jumped up, leaving her food behind to run out and chase us down.
We tried to exchange telephone numbers and social media contacts, which was more of a challenge than we expected. I have a feeling we have not seen the last of Sylvia from Argentina.
The Camino provides.