By Fr. Ray Douziech, C.Ss.R.
As many of you know I completed the Via Primativa (The Original Route) to Santiago de Compostela on May 7th. The Original way is 325 km of walking if you don’t get lost. Most of us can add a few extra kilometers since getting lost is part of the pilgrimage.
Many readers are probably familiar with the pilgrimage to the tomb of St James especially with the movie “The Way”. The Original way is named after King Alfonso II of Asturias who was the first to walk the path to Santiago from his capital city Oviedo in 814. It wasn’t until the 900’s that the first pilgrims came on what is now the more popular French way. Today there are several routes that are designated as part of the Camino and the Spanish government has worked hard to mark the trails with the famous shell and yellow arrows.
Millions of pilgrims have walked these various paths to the tomb of St James where his relics are reported to rest. It is the most popular pilgrimage site after Jerusalem and Rome. I read that nearly 200,000 pilgrims walk at least 100 km to the site every year. People come from around the world and many without any religious affiliation. When you ask why they give a wide variety of reasons. For me it was a chance to connect with the spiritual yearnings of countless pilgrims over the centuries. It was something that David Cottingham and I had talked about doing together 15 years ago. We never did get the chance to do it together but David was very present in my thoughts throughout this pilgrimage.
This year I celebrate 50 years as a Redemptorist so this became a good reason to finally lace up my boots and head out. It turned out to be a wonderful experience of grace but much more difficult than I had anticipated. The weather was not what I would have wanted. I hit rain, lots of rain, fog, a snow blizzard, and yes some sun. However, the highlight was the people I met. I think of Lydia who had lost her job and was needing time to re-think her future; there was Michael, a Jewish fellow from New York who also wanted time to consider where his life was leading him; there was Patrice an atheist who felt a need to consider what it meant to grow old; Stan a non-believer — a generous outgoing young man who wasn’t sure why he was doing the Camino and Cory a non-denominational Christian who had all kinds of questions about Christianity.
Many had made the pilgrimage several times, some Europeans make a section of the pilgrimage as their yearly vacation, and others have tried several different routes. I met a couple from Quebec who had done the pilgrimage from the tip of Portugal and were trying part of the French route before heading home. The Camino taps into a deep desire to do something that challenges and moves us beyond our comfort zone that connects us with the spiritual dimensions within us. I found that we shared something powerfully healing as well as something that created a sense of solidarity and community.
I walked many kilometers in the cold, snow, rain and fog. At first I was upset but then it seemed to me the adverse weather held me and forced me to stay focused. There were few external stimuli so I had to maintain an “active contemplation”. I discovered a rhythm in the walking, the melody of the walking sticks, and an awareness of my breathing that created a meditative mood. It’s not that I had any great mystical moments or profound thoughts but there was a sense of serenity, of peacefulness, of calm. There was nothing pulling me outside with other pre-occupations. I just enjoyed the act of walking through quiet fields, trails, roads and a deep sense of gratitude for being here.
There were times when I was discouraged by the weather, the cold and the wet. However, there was no choice but to keep going. It was in this forward movement that things changed. I met people, we ate, we slept and there was another day. I confronted one of my big fears about being wet and realized I could survive. What had seemed so threatening no longer loomed large overhead. Perseverance, one step at a time and I reached my goal.
As a result I sense calmness within me, an acceptance of people and a reverence for life. I noticed how people struggle to survive. Husbands and wives working together in the fields – I remember one couple that appeared to have had an argument and thinking how difficult it must be to work together day in and day out on a little farm. I saw women driving equipment followed by their husbands in a truck and old people out in the garden hoeing.
I noticed that birds sing even in the rain, so many different kinds of birds with their unique chirping. Some days the sun shone and the vistas were magnificent. The smells of the farms from hay to manure filled the air. My nose was filled with the scent of flowers – most unknown to me. Chickens ran freely along with dogs – all of them looking like they could use a good bath. There were a lot of cattle in the fields and sheep grazing. The colours of green, especially after the rain, beautiful rolling hills and mountains filled the background.
I remember one day thinking about St James guiding pilgrims on the road. I had heard that there was a legend that James often came to the rescue of pilgrims. The thought sort of came and went as I was walking along the road. Almost out of nowhere I saw a man walking on the opposite side of the road. I greeted him with “Hola!” and he replied then said “Go right”. I walked ahead and saw the road on the right but there was no sign indicating that I should turn right. I stood puzzled – do I trust this man or do I continue on ahead. I looked at my notes and there was nothing. I looked up and the man was up the road but pointing to me to go right. I did and it was the right path.
Interestingly later on I met a man at a little coffee place who told me his tale of having walked an extra 10 km before he realized his mistake because he missed the turn in the road.
My last day was in rain which got worse the closer I got to Santiago. I was soaking wet. Yet the kilometers melted away and finally I was in Santiago. Then I saw the sign – another 5 km to the Cathedral. These seemed to last forever in pelting rain.
I arrived at the Cathedral and entered by a side door. People spoke of great emotion upon reaching the Cathedral – all I felt was a sense of relief that I was someplace dry. I was also grateful that I was there for the daily Pilgrim’s Mass which for me was a deep-felt act of Thanksgiving. The place was packed but I managed to find a place to stand and be part of this celebration with so many other pilgrims. We all had our stories, we all did it! Afterwards I lined up to give St James a big hug for a memorable experience. One I would do again with eagerness and joy!