That is one of the oddest titles I have ever written – I couldn’t resist it.
Here’s what happened: during August I walked the Way of Saint James or the Camino de Santiago to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Northern Spain. The route follows the Milky Way and is one of Europe’s most ancient and significant pilgrimages. There are starting points all over Europe, but I set off from Saint Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees in France which meant in total I walked about 850km.
Why? Why did I do such a thing? There were two reasons, firstly the physical challenge. I’ve done a lot of long distance walking but never for more than two weeks. These 850km took me 30 days and there were times when I struggled, particularly in the blazing heat of the Meseta, but by the end I was fitter and healthier than I have ever been and I was easily walking 40km most days. My weight loss was pleasing.
The second reason was because The Way of Saint James is a spiritual journey. Now I’m of the old-school opinion that believes that discussing sex,
religion or politics in public is usually inappropriate but it’s hard not to mention the R word when you are on a pilgrimage.
Before I left I had a number of preconceptions about spirituality and pilgrimage, the first to be blown away was that I would spend hours sitting cross-legged on the side of a mountain communing with nature. I should have known better. I have an English degree. The awe of nature and the sublime is a Romantic idea, Pilgrimage pre-dates that, it is a Medieval concept. Remember Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and that plethora of people? Pilgrimage is as much about community as it is about the individual. Each person who is walking the ‘camino’ is doing it because they want to experience something more profound than just a holiday. Together we formed a loose-knit community. That mass of people, each persons’ highs and lows, became almost as important as my own individual journey (not quite though – I retained some of my selfish/self-preservation streak I wouldn’t have got through it if I hadn’t!).
My second understanding about pilgrimage was that what you do physically is mirrored by what happens to you mentally and spiritually. You carry few possessions, anything that is too heavy can’t be kept. You pare things down to what is really important, slowly this happens to you internally too and the clutter of the everyday falls away. The French Medievals called it thérapie de l’espace, which is a bit like saying ‘blue sky thinking’, the big ideas come when you have clarity of mind. Now I am back in London I am bemused by all the fuss about nothing. Why?
The third stage of my camino was perhaps the hardest. I had to let go of home and live in the moment. I didn’t want to do this, I have family and friends whom I love very much. I didn’t want to leave them behind. But events conspired that I had to. Other pilgrim’s had problems with their feet, (I learnt to say blisters in four different languages) or their knees and there was something called tendonitus which sounded very grim, although I’m not sure exactly what it was, as for me I had problems with communication.
I had wanted to maintain Chocolate Chilli Cupcakes, my beloved blog, while I was away. However uploading in an internet café whilst shovelling euros into the slot proved impossible. (I’d even had a lunatic idea that I would Twitter my pilgrimage as I walked – thank God I never pursued that one.) I found that my regular e-mail address was inaccessible and then, one blazing hot day just outside Burgos, I lost my mobile phone. That shook me badly. I was out of touch.
It took me a while to realise that I needed to do this. That I needed to disengage from London and that I would feel the intensity of the pilgrimage experience all the more if I wasn’t getting texts from friends letting me know the latest news. I had to let go of my friends and family and they had to let go of me. It made me more open to new people, it pushed me to overcome language difficulties and to talk to people whom I might have shied away from if I could simply have ‘phoned a friend. It made me live in the moment more.
In total I was away for forty days (appropriately Biblical I thought) and when I came back I was refreshed and pleased to see people, particularly my loved ones. I appreciated their familiar faces and their foibles all the more because I had been so far away.
These three factors: being part of a community, a physical stripping down mirroring a mental/spiritual cleansing and disengagement from the norm are all a part of the spiritual journey but they are not the goal in itself.
I heard it said that if you had any religious doubts or are just vaguely agnostic then walking the Camino de Santiago will sort your conviction out one way or another. In fact I met a man who was questioning his Catholicism and by the time he reached Santiago de Compostela (one of the greatest Catholic Cathedrals in Europe) he decided that he definitely wasn’t a Catholic.
I had a number of religious questions that I was wrestling with before I left and I did resolve them as I walked but now my dislike of discussing sex, religion and politics is kicking in again and I’ve decided that my thoughts on religion are between me and my God and are nobody else’s business, so I’m not going to write about them on this blog.
There are two greetings used by pilgrims, the first is ‘Buen Camino’ which literally means ‘Good Way’. At it’s simplest it is like wishing someone a ‘Bon Voyage’ but it is also an acknowledgement that a person is not just on an external journey but is looking for some kind of internal growth. The second greeting is ‘Ultreia’ which is Galician for ‘walk further’ or ‘reach higher’ and is often accompanied by a hand raised with the for-finger pointing towards the sky. It is an encouragement to strive forward, to have conviction, to take a risk, and that means both physically and spiritually. Now I am back in London I am trying to keep that Camino spirit alive within me. I walk as much as I can and I try not to let the clutter of the every day drain my good mood. It’s hard though and sometimes I think that perhaps I could just slip away…
To find out more about the Way of Saint James visit: