A group of 16 students completed the Walking Pilgrimage, following ancient routes, to Santiago de Compostella where the apostle, St James, is buried. Setting off from Vigo, we set off each day, not knowing where we were going to stay, what we were going to eat, who we were going to meet, how we would get along, and what would befall us.
Battling the grit in the boot, the rub of the blister, the heat of the day, the snoring of the night, the laughs and the tears, the weariness and the elation, we all arrived together, rejoicing that we had come to our journey’s end, somehow changed by the whole experience.
Here, our roving reporting, Lisa Vallente-Osborne writes up the experience of a lifetime: ‘When people told me the Camino was life changing, I have to say I didn’t believe them. It was a long walk; how could that really change someone?
The week before we set off, the crisis happened began. I realised I was terrified. What if I couldn’t do it? What if I couldn’t keep up? What if mentally it wasn’t for me? What if I didn’t like the person I was to become? So I prayed... and this voice responded.. ‘what’s wrong child? It’s just a long walk with me, like I did all the time with the disciples’! I will be there, you won’t be doing this alone’.
The Camino took us through the extremes. Beautiful valleys, hideous industrial estates, peaceful countryside and busy towns. The contrast on the senses was unique. As your ears settled to one sound, they struggled to adjust to another. The smells! Once your sense became accustomed to the country, you could smell you were coming into a built up area because of the smell of decay, drains, bins and lots of people.
The sleeping arrangements are quite unique and character forming! Sharing rooms in hostels, often with 40 or more people of a night. It was freeing walking with your world in your backpack, not knowing where your next bed was going to be, or who would sleep beside you! Yet, there was a sense of awe at night as you listened to the sounds of breaths changing (and the odd bit of snoring) because you knew that every single person here tonight, as was last night and will be tomorrow night- a pilgrim; walking the way of the Lord. We are that one body that St Paul talks about, moving forward in the way of love.
The Camino mounds you. Every step you take impacts the last, and your joints and feet ache. You have to find a way and a focus, keeping one foot in front of the other, finding strength from yourself, others and prayer. It’s in this pain and at times despair, that your mind focuses on the intention. Why walk this way? For personal gain? Or something far more? Like a flash mine came through, my walk was for my Godson, who at the tender age of 10years has Duchennes Muscular Dystrophy. He has experienced more pain that I could ever imagine. My pain was for the duration of my walk, his for the the rest of his short life, as each muscle wastes away till eventually his heart and lungs simply won’t work. It’s for those that can’t do this, that we walk. Giving ourselves entirely over in a physical prayer and offering, uniting body, soul and spirit.
The Camino gives you an new appreciation for your God given physical body. As each kilometre passes, you become ever increasingly grateful, that this physical being has and is still carrying you through this walk and life. So many times we are stuck in our heads, too busy with life, we often forget we have bodies. They are an annoyance, something to cover up or abuse with drugs, food, or starve; yet He made us in His image. The media is very good at making us dislike our physical form; lumps and bumps not quite in the right place; but the Camino forces your to celebrate it, warts and all. Once you realise that your body is a God given gift, you look at others that you pass on the walk in a while new way; giving increasing respect and compassion to that 70 yr old couple, the woman in her 90’s that you keep overtaking, the young couple with the baby in a buggy. We are all images of God, and what a diverse and beautiful image we are!
By the time you reach the square at Santiago de Compostela you’re empty. The last day’s uphill stretch is relentless, and then the last part through the town is difficult. Your tired, sore, hot and trying to dodge people going around their everyday life. It’s noisy, overstimulating and smelly. You arrive in that square with mixed emotions and the shedding of tears is common. You’re elated that you got this far, but saddened as this journey ends. But to see the Cathedral of Santiago it all its glory is magnificent!
Walking into the Cathedral, it like a long cool and much needed embrace. We joined the pilgrims queue to hug St James the Apostle, to hand over our Camino intentions.
Whilst hugging a cold lump of gold may look and seem stupid, there is a finality in the motion. With your arms around the statue, St James reminds you of the thousand of pilgrims who have done this, who have walked this way. Billions of intentions lay on these shoulders, humanity’s plea for something better for someone suffering. It’s a humbling and stark reminder that we are not the same people who set out in this road. Every passing hour, every passing kilometre has a changed us, made us look at life in a new way, made us look at others in a new way. This body has ‘emptied’, and in the process has made space for the new wine, the divine wine. It’s is this losing of the ‘self’ that you stop fighting, and let God in.
The pilgrims Mass is a celebration. All walks of life, all nations together, to celebrate in worship and prayer. If you’re really lucky you get to see the ‘Botufumeiro’- the thurible the size of a mini flying across the nave of the church bellowing our it’s sweet aroma! Whilst in the past it had been used to ‘fumigate’ the church due to the smell of well travelled pilgrims, now it’s just a showpiece. But if you look away for a moment from it’s display and look around you, what you see are the faces of God’s children shining, gleefully smiling in defenceless joy.
So, has walking the Camino has changed my life? Yes! (Said with certainly). In the process, I didn’t find ‘me’ but God certainly did! The challenge now is to walk the rest of my life’s Camino, in the same spirit!