Life as camino

Archbishop Paul S. Coakley

On Aug. 10, I set out from Oviedo in Spain with my friend and fellow pilgrim, Bishop James Wall, to walk the ancient Camino Primitivo. Over the next 14 days, we would cover 212 miles as we made our way toward Compostela. The Camino Primitivo is the oldest of the network of pilgrim ways that make up the Camino de Santiago (Way of Saint James), which for the past 1,100 has carried pilgrims to the tomb of Saint James the Greater in the cathedral of the city that bears his name, Santiago de Compostela.

In fulfilling his apostolic mandate to announce the Gospel to all nations, Saint James had traveled to the end of the known world, all the way to Galicia on the Iberian Peninsula in what is now Spain. He returned to Jerusalem only to become the first of the 12 apostles to be martyred for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Later, his mortal remains were carried back to Galicia where they were buried, forgotten and subsequently rediscovered. During the Middle Ages, the pilgrim journey to Compostela to venerate the relics of this son of Zebedee became one of the defining elements of the notion of Christian Europe and the European consciousness. It was this experience of pilgrimage, then and now, that gave a unique and concrete expression to the unity of peoples from different nations, backgrounds and languages joined through a common expression of faith.

As we set out on our pilgrimage and began to experience the breathtaking beauty of the Asturian and Galician landscapes with their towering mountains and deep green valleys, I was struck with a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to walk this ancient way. It is one of the least-traveled of the various Camino routes that lead to Santiago.

Consequently, it afforded plenty of time for solitude, prayer and just enjoying the people we met and places that we passed through each day. A day or two into the camino, I breathed a prayer of praise and gratitude to the Lord. It went something like this: “I am so blessed! All I have to do today is walk!”

I was thinking that this was such a welcome relief from the ordinary pressures and challenges of my daily life with its administrative, pastoral and personal challenges and concerns. But, a few more days into the camino experience, as the miles added up and my knees and feet began to feel the effects of just walking, my reflection and prayer began to become more of a complaint! “All I have to do today is WALK!” The camino is a good teacher. It was indeed teaching me important lessons. The camino is not only about getting to our destination. The camino is the destination. The grace is in the journey. The camino is life. One of those important lessons is the importance of learning to live in the grace of the present moment rather than living in the past or worrying about the future. It’s simple, but not easy.

I was surprised again and again by the way the Lord’s loving providence manifested itself along the way. This usually occurred in seemingly chance encounters and conversations with strangers and fellow pilgrims.

On one occasion it was an old woman who came to our assistance when we had lost our way. It was the end of a long day’s walk and we needed a place to sleep. She could read the expressions of physical weariness and disappointment in our faces and our weary bodies, and took it upon herself to pack us into her little car and guide us back to a town where we could rest for the evening and start again fresh the next morning. Time and again it was as if we were being guided and accompanied by a loving Presence. Indeed we were. The camino is Jesus, who says “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The camino is about learning to walk in his way: the way of discipleship, the way of conversion, the way of communion. It is the way that leads to holiness.

Over the centuries there have been many saints who have walked the Way of Saint James. Among these some of the better known are Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Bridget of Sweden. But, the camino is not primarily for saints. It is especially for sinners. Often pilgrims would undertake the Camino of Saint James as a way of doing penance for their sins. A confessor might send a penitent on pilgrimage as the penance for the sins he or she confessed and for which he or she had received absolution in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. I began to find it easy to embrace the penitential aspect of the camino accepting the little pains and difficulties of the daily walk as an expression of penance for my own past sins and indeed for the evils and injustice of our world today. It was an experience of solidarity with the sufferings and struggles of our brothers and sisters.

The camino is for saints and for sinners. Today, it seems that relatively few of the people walking the Camino de Santiago are walking it for explicitly religious motives. We met many who acknowledged that they are “spiritual, but not religious.” These are the seekers. Like many of us, they may not know clearly what they are seeking. Nonetheless, they are being drawn by grace, by a restlessness in their hearts that will only be satisfied when their hearts find rest in the heart of Jesus. One of the joys of my camino was the recognition of grace at work in my own life and in the lives of fellow pilgrims. Even when we might seem lost, God does not lose sight of us.

Walking the Camino de Santiago is like being plunged into the flowing waters of a great river. It is the river of our common humanity created by Love and created for love. We arrived in Santiago and celebrated the completion of our pilgrimage with Mass in the Cathedral and at the tomb of Saint James.

It is truly a deeply moving experience to gather in prayer with these fellow pilgrims from around the world and to see our prayers rising to heaven like incense as the smoke pours from the great Botafumeiro, the huge silver thurible that hangs from the ceiling of the cathedral and swings like a pendulum across the sanctuary of this great church.

The most familiar greeting exchanged by pilgrims when they meet one another is “Buen camino.” But, another is perhaps more poignant: “Ultreya!” “Onward!” The camino doesn’t end when the pilgrim reaches Santiago. Hopefully, the experience of the pilgrimage has prepared the pilgrim to continue to live life in the spirit of the camino, the way of Jesus Christ. Ultreya!