By Fr. Mick Fleming, C.Ss.R.
First, let me introduce you to the four Amigos…myself, Stewart, Bishop Don Bolen and Andre (pictured at right), this was our team for the first three weeks of the Camino. Later, on Aug. 24th, we would be joined by Bishop Don’s sister Judy and her husband Bob (pictured below).
Let’s back up, what is the Camino and how did I come to go?
The Camino is a pilgrimage journey of nearly eight hundred kilometres from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in France and ending in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. A pilgrimage that began in medieval times in honour of St. James, the son of Zebedee who preached the Gospel in Spain. They would leave their homes and walk from all over Europe to Santiago.
Today, pilgrims like myself and my companions can begin from the port town of St. Jean and walk, cycle and even horseback at certain points until you reach Santiago. Our journey lasted forty two days including one rest day a week.
How it all began for me was with an invitation from my bishop Don Bolen of the Diocese of Saskatoon. Not knowing what the Camino involved, I did some research and what I read appealed to the adventurer in me. Therefore, I gladly accepted his invitation.
Just before our scheduled departure, my bishop was appointed by our Holy Father Pope Francis as the new Archbishop of Regina. His grace was able to work things out and so the journey was on.
Early in the morning of August 8, I caught the 5:00AM flight to Toronto and later in the day joined my team on route to Madrid. From Madrid we bused to St. Jean only to be greeted by some wonderful volunteers at the pilgrim office, officially checked in, received our first of many (sellos) pilgrim stamps in our pilgrim’s passport or credentials. These stamps, I learned were necessary to receive along the journey in order to be awarded a Compostela – a certificate from the Cathedral of Santiago at the end our pilgrimage.
After a good night’s sleep, we were ready to begin our climb through the Pyrenees of France. While I trained in preparation for the journey, I discovered, that no amount of walking the flat trails of Saskatoon had prepared me for the Pyrenees. As I was ascending up the mountain with my twenty pound backpack, my lungs were burning, my heart pounding, I thought maybe, I should have gone to some beach in Florida to begin my sabbatical year. Such thoughts didn’t last long because as we continued our climb, the vastness of the mountains, the amazing views, the large number of sheep and shepherds, horses grazing the surrounding hills and greeting fellow pilgrims along the climb, made for one awesome day.
In her reflection called, “Walking in Nature “ Michelle Courtney, a fellow Camino pilgrim wrote, “I’ll always be grateful to the fellow pilgrim that first day who reminded me that God makes us lose our breath so we will stop and appreciate the view.” And there were many beautiful views to see.
We set off early the next morning to continue our climb and before crossing the border into Spain, we visited the Biakorri Virgin – the protectress of the shepherds (pictured at left).
After a short visit, we continued our climb towards the little pass to the west of the peak Leizar Athena, and soon arrived at the Fountain of Roland – the last water source until Roncevaux. Here we crossed the border into Spain.
Upon arrival into Spain, the rhythm of the Camino for the next number of weeks began to emerge, early rising, brisk morning walking, pilgrim chatter, coffee stops, slow hot afternoons, time for silence, and each day ends with the same routine: find an Albergue for the night, take a hot shower, do laundry, then you attend Mass where possible and conclude with each receiving the pilgrim’s blessing. Now it’s time to relax, rehydrate and connect with fellow pilgrims over dinner, then it’s off to bed because check out time is at 6:00AM to begin another day.
Little did I realize that when I left my team coming out of Villa Franca Del Bierzo and headed for the mountains what a day it would turn out to be. Truly a mountain top experience. As I began my ascent up a very narrow pathway I had to deal with two dogs who resented my being there and came after me. The encounter didn’t last long as my walking stick left a few reminders for them to stay away from a pilgrim like me.
The climb was very good though steep at times, but then there was a good spell where the climb was most enjoyable. After a few hours into my climb I realized I was totally alone having not seen a pilgrim since leaving Del Bierzo. The silence was so profound, here I was alone with nature and the Lord, such peace came over me. Walking along a level pathway, I saw I wasn’t alone, a few butterflies were tagging along. It seemed that when I stopped for a rest they did as well. I remembered how my mother loved butterflies and saw in them the beauty of God’s creative hand. I might have left my team to walk the lower trail but here on this mountain in the awesomeness of creation, small though I might be, I felt safe and loved. Then came the sight of smoke up ahead rising high into the sky. Where was it coming from, was I facing a forest fire ahead of me? I needed to find out as I may have to turn back. Ahead of me I could see two higher peaks, I was certain that from there I could get a read on the situation.
After another short climb I found that the fire was on the mountain side, on the other side of the highway far below. As I watered and took some photos, over my head came a helicopter with a large water bag on its way to the fire. So much for the peaceful solitude, but such is the life of a pilgrim.
The descent down the mountain side took a few hours, while tough on the knee it had been an awesome day alone but never lonely. However, I was happy to reconnect with my team and enjoy a cold beer, a good meal and a comfortable Albergue (pictured at right) to rest my head for the night.
There were many highlights in our six week pilgrimage walk to Santiago de Compostela but one of the most exciting for me was a finding Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church in Astroga. I went to Mass there and had a good visit with one of the confreres afterwards before continuing my journey.
The Camino has to be experienced in order to appreciate what an adventure it truly is. The vastness and beauty of nature, the mountain climbs, the breath taking views, the rugged routes, the enchanted forests, the rural farming areas, the amazing pilgrims you meet along the way, the running of the bulls at festival time, and the many visits to little country chapels and century old Cathedrals, all make for an experience of a life time.
I truly owe a deep thanks to Bishop Don and his family and gratitude to the Province for this time of Sabbatical and the Camino Pilgrimage was an awesome way to begin my period of renewal. Special thanks goes out to my family back home whose generosity enabled me to purchase all the equipment needed for a safe and wonderful Camino journey.