Pilgrim Days

Camino de Santiago and the journey ahead.

When you read this, I will be within 100 km of the end of a pilgrimage for the second time. Together with my husband and three children, I’ll be spending this Easter walking the Camino de Santiago.

For my children, it will be a first. My husband and I were pilgrims in 2005 before our children caught up with us. We started on the French side of the Pyrenees and, over four weeks, walked approximately 800km to reach the shrine of Saint James. This time, we have a little more than a week, so our ambitions are humbler. We’ll be starting further west in the town of Sarria and walking about 16 km each day.

I was telling a friend these details recently and she asked if we were doing it for religious reasons. She’s Catholic and knows my Presbyterian roots, so I think there was an ecumenical curiosity behind her question. What inspires Reformed Protestants to make such a long journey to visit a saint?

In the footprints of saints

It is a good question. When we walked the route for the first time, I had been looking for time to consider some large next steps in my life. When talking about it, I used words like discernment and direction to point towards what I thought I needed then, and a long walk of faith seemed a very good place to get some of that prayerful work done. We also hoped, as a couple, that we’d be able to start a family soon, and this was the kind of adventure best done before babies. So, it wasn’t really about the saint or the destination; we wanted to experience pilgrim life on the road.

The Camino, like any pilgrimage, is a strong metaphor as well as a physical challenge. Hills, plains, tired bodies and travelling challenges all find their spiritual counterparts and deepen the experience. What lingered with me was a strong awareness of all those who came before and will come afterwards. The long road across Spain became a symbol for our shared traditions and the life of the Church.

Maybe that is part of the reason we wanted to walk the way again with our children when they were old enough and willing and able. I wanted them to find their own place among the communion of saints.

Companions on the road

At the end of the pilgrimage, you find the cathedral in the old city, its façade more ornate, more extravagant than any photograph. You can’t stop looking and thinking of all those who’ve looked before.

Ces Nooteboom, in his excellent book Roads to Santiago, describes this feeling: “I stand and look, but the eyes that see are not mine, they belong to the others, to those of the past. It is their gaze, the view is their reward for walking, risking their lives, believing that they had given all they had just to be with the saint for once in their lives . . .”

Seeing through their eyes, he feels the changes of history, the loneliness of years and he glimpses something of the longings in his own heart.

But the companionship I’m anticipating on the pilgrimage also runs perpendicular to this. I will be walking surrounded, accompanied by other saints: my family and strangers, those ahead of me on the road and those coming along after, those reading these written words and those waiting to welcome me home at the end. Please remember us all in your prayers this Easter, and may you, too, find courage for the road.


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