By Fr. Mark Miller, C.Ss.R.
My brother, Steve, his good friends, Will & Diane Boegel, and I began our pilgrimage in Pamplona, a lovely city renowned for the running of the bulls. We walked 300 kms of the Camino de Santiago de Compostells in two segments. The first was from Pamplona to Santo Domingo de Calzada in 6 days (185 kms), after which we took a two-night/one-day break in Santo Domingo. We then caught a series of buses to get to Sarria (437 kms west) to do our second week, walking for 5 days (115 kms) to Santiago de Compostella. The first week was through wine country and rolling hills; the second through farms, forests, and more hills. We stayed in hotels and had our main luggage transported ahead of us. Most of our days we walked under 25 kms. But on three days (two in a row during the first week), we walked about 30 kms – and those last five kms in the sun and, often, on the concrete as we came into a town, were a real challenge.
I was frankly stunned at how physically demanding the walking was. After the first day, I was so tired, I lay on my bed in my hotel and fell asleep on the second page of my breviary. I was also amazed at how a relaxed evening, a good supper and a good night’s sleep refreshed us for the next day.
We started each day in the cool morning (often just at the crack of dawn) and the mornings were the best part of the day; we were fresh, we talked (sometimes together, sometimes with a partner; occasionally we walked alone). By 11 am or 12 noon, however, the sun was hot and the rest of the day rather tiring. We got into the rhythm of walking relatively quickly at the start of each day but then learned to just keep walking in the heat.
What surprised me was how focused I became on walking. I had been treating the pilgrimage like a retreat, planning to walk my 20 kms or so and then have time to read and pray and maybe visit some of the sights in the town. However, each day upon arrival, it was all I could do to prepare myself for a shower, say a few prayers, relax a bit with a beer before supper, and then enjoy supper itself. Then, to bed and start over the next day. What little prayer I managed on the trail was either in churches where we stopped or the Rosary when I was by myself.
The break in Santo Domingo de Calzada was perfectly timed and most necessary. Not only did we miss the worst of the rain, but we had time to recuperate. Even the bus ride the next day, which was tiring in itself (as we headed to Sarria and the second week) was recuperative. The second week was easier than the first, except for Steve whose knees began to hurt rather badly (until he received treatment from Will that got him to Santiago). Did I mention that both Steve and Will are retired podiatrists? Always take a podiatrist along!
In a very surprising way, the walking on the Camino was almost like a survival experience – just keep going; don’t quit. Truthfully, I did not know what to expect when I arrived on the Camino, but what I received was very different than anything I anticipated.
Once we reached Santiago, however, the spiritual blessings began to dawn on me. To begin with, we saw no TV, no newspapers (I did have to keep in touch by email each evening) and I was amazed at how I did not miss them. Indeed, I think that their absence contributed to the sense of peace and focus on the Camino.
And that was the big surprise for me at the end – how peaceful and whole I felt. Others told me I looked more rested than I had in years. Looking back I also had a sense of how present God was through the entire journey – in the surrounding countryside, in the people I walked with and met, in the graciousness with which life (meals, hot showers, conversations) filled my/our world. It is hard to put into words, but I felt like I had been enveloped in God’s gentleness, presence, and courteous love. There were no trumpet blasts. But the weeks felt wondrously harmonious and synchronous with life; and the Pilgrims’ Mass in the Cathedral of Santiago, for all the times I have attended Mass, was still a wonderful moment of blessing, an encounter with God in Jesus as he wants to be present eucharistically in our lives. A bonus was that this particular day was a festive day, so the Botafumeiro was lit and the incense filled the church as this massive incensor swung back and forth across the transepts of the church.
Looking back, one of the great gifts of the Camino was the time I spent with my brother, Steve, as well as getting to know Will & Diane Boegel. We are all committed Catholics and the sharing of faith in daily life was encouraging and renewing for me. Meeting others on the Camino (especially a number of very committed Catholics) was also a hi-light for me.
It is amazing how words fail me now. The pilgrimage was an adventure, a hard but marvelous experience, a form of ‘retreat’ from my daily life and busy-ness such as I had never experienced before. And it included a camaraderie and unity for which I am most grateful.