What does God call us to do? A pilgrimage, by design, is supposed to take us out of our comfort zone. So why would a large group of people choose to spend their vacation on a rigorous journey across Northern Spain? Click on the picture to read more.
That is a question many of us, some complete strangers, asked ourselves as we faced physical, emotional and spiritual challenges while traveling along parts of the Camino Francés de Santiago. Twenty St. James parishioners joined up with eleven other pilgrims in September 2014 to take a journey organized by Worldwide Pilgrimages, Inc. and led by Reverend Orion Davis and Debbie, our local guide. All had various reasons for coming -- some for the physical activity and touring opportunities, some for spiritual and personal reflection, and most for a combination of the two. Many in the group had been on pilgrimage trips before, but this was the first time for some. The pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella was unique because every pilgrim had a different experience. We discovered that everyone would be taking their own personal Camino, but sharing different views, thoughts and reflections with the group deepened our experience.
The Camino Francés is 780 km (almost 500 miles) starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, France and ending at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The journey takes 30-35 days, but our group had only 10 days to complete the pilgrimage. So the trip was broken down into hiking segments, touring segments, and long rides on the bus in between. The scenery changed dramatically throughout the trip and views of the French and Spanish countryside and cities were spectacular. We traveled across rugged mountains with lush meadows, farmland, forests with meandering rivers, vineyards and harsh plains. We observed sheep, horses, cattle, birds, many dogs (even an ostrich!) and we met and conversed with the locals along the way. We quickly learned to cherish the much-needed breaks in small cafes and taverns along the Camino, enjoying cafe con leches, ham and cheese sandwiches, local beer and wine. City highlights included touring Pamplona, the historical capital of Navarre, famous for the annual running of the bulls during the San Fermin festival; Burgos, the historic capital of Castille, famous for the remarkable Burgos Cathedral which is a World Heritage Site; Leon, the capital of the province of Leon, famous for the historic Basilica of Isidoro and Leon Cathedral; and Santiago de Compostela, the end point of our pilgrimage.
God called us to remember our friends that were homebound and in pain. We held two of our St. James friends who missed the trip (due to an unexpected injury) in our hearts and carried them with us in symbolic form. The form took shape in two larger-than-life-sized cardboard cut-out heads that traveled in our backpacks (see photo on left), along with a personal possession of each that many of us took turns carrying. The cardboard heads became an opening for many pilgrim travelers along the way to question what they represented, and sharing their story made their presence very real among us. One member of our group created a daily diary of events that he emailed back to our absent friends, making our experiences real for them at home. Pilgrims we encountered along the road shared their stories with us and the feeling of camraderie was symbolized in the frequently heard pilgrim greeting "Buen Camino", which remained with us long after the trip ended
God calls us each to carry our own cross. Many of us found unexpected challenges along the way, sometimes requiring difficult choices. Those of us that carried the personal possessions of our homebound friends felt anxious about losing the items -- resulting in frequent and frantic checking. The good result of this anxiety was that we remembered our friends each time we touched their items. Those who chose not to hike were forced to wait (endlessly!) on the bus for the slower hikers to arrive. All of us were challenged physically. The reality of being able to finish some demanding hikes without needing medical care led to difficult decisions. In the end, everyone was able to meet these challenges. Whether it was tapping unkown wells of patience, the thought of a loved one, or the desire to ensure the that the tokens of our good friends made the entire journey, there always seemed to be an inner source of strength that drove everyone forward -- sometimes in the dark, often exhausted, dehydrated and with blistered feet.
God called us to help a stranger in distress. Nearing the end of a 34 km (22 mile) hike across the harsh and desolate Meseta, we stumbled upon a pilgrim seated on the ground by the side of the road. Her hiking boots were off, and she was tending to her many blisters. We were able to converse with her in French although she was Romanian. She was scared and alone, fearing that she had missed the path to the nearest Aubergue (Pilgrim hotel), knowing that a storm was imminent. We checked our map and assured her we were on the right road, and hiked together until we reached our destination, the town of Hontanas. The storm arrived shortly after we reached the aubergue.
God Calls Us to Remember Him. One of the truly powerful aspects of a pilgrimage is to celebrate our communion with God in different places. Different, yet familiar, as pilgrims have celebrated in many of the same locations for centuries. Like those before us, we truly were following in the footsteps of God in the most litteral sense. On this journey, we remembered God when we celebrated the Eucharist together at Castroieriz, and at the end of our trip at Finisterre, and when we renewed our baptismal vows by a beautiful river near Tricastela. The familiar liturgy helped us feel at home even though we were in a foreign land.
God Calls Us into Community. Our journey on the Camino, unlike any other pilgrimage any of us have been on, was truly an individual experience as we realized we each had our own "Camino". However, in the end, we always ended up together to share our stories during a meal, and a glass of wine. We suffered together on the long bus rides and elbowed each other to get first dibs on the wine fountain at Irache. We worried when the laggards were home after sunset, and cheered when they straggled home. We carried each other when necessary and spent every evening trying to reconcile our differences. We came home bruised and battered, but stronger for it, and have formed bonds in commune with God that hopefuly will never be broken.