Dear Family and Friends: You have all expressed interest in my Camino journey: why the Camino, what was the Camino walk like, what I learned during the Camino, how did the Camino experience change me. I will try to give you some thoughts and reflections in the categories mentioned above.
-Why the Camino?: Since fully retiring in 2015 (a significant life change for me), I have been attempting to sort out what I am being called to do with the days remaining for me - a process of discernment. I first encountered the Camino when I got a copy of Shirley Maclaine's book on her Camino experience at a book exchange party about 2 years ago. While some of the mystical experiences she had were a bit 'far out' for me, her descriptions of walking and the time to think and reflect were very appealing. About 18 months ago, I saw Emilio Estevez'/Martin Sheen's movie, The Way. That solidified for me that the Camino was the discernment avenue for me. I am a very active person and find it hard to sit still; so, the walking and reflecting was the perfect way for me. I bought two books on the practical aspects of the Camino: Pilgrim Tips & Packing List by Sybille Yates, and Camino de Santiago - Practical Preparation and Background by Gerald Kelley. Reading and studying those books, I decided that the time for me to start the Camino was in the late Winter-early Spring. The weather at that time of the year is reasonably good and the number of pilgrims on the Camino is at its low point. What I did not realize until on my Walk is that the lower number of pilgrims walking the Camino means that many of the pilgrim hostels (albergues) are closed. So, you have to do either a shorter or longer day than one typical of 34-day journey of the Camino Frances route to find an open lodging place. The good news is that there is usually a municipal or region albergue (very cheap, but often Spartan) that is open in most stopping towns.
-What was the Camino walk like?: I started the Camino on 17 Feb 2017 at St Jean-Pied-de-Port, France (the typical starting point for the Camino Frances route). There were about 20 pilgrims there when I started. I had the good fortune (perhaps God ordained it?) to meet two Spanish pilgrims at St Jean with whom I walked the Camino. The local authorities had closed the route over the Pyrenees for the winter months (not opening it until March because of concerns about snow). As it turned out, the morning of our departure (17 Feb) we encountered a pilgrim who had made the trip backwards to St Jean the previous day. He assured us that the route over the Pyrenees was doable and clear except for a 1-2 km section where the snow was still knee deep. My two Spanish colleagues (Jose - 59 and recently retired, and Gaspar - 24 and recent medical school graduate) and I decided we would risk going over the Pyrenees. That decision cemented our relationship as fellow travelers for the duration of the Camino. Jose had made a plan to complete the Camino in 31 days because of family commitments; Gaspar & I agreed to that plan and to form a team to support each other along the way.
The actual Camino path is composed of very rocky, steep hills and descents; sections of gravel or packed dirt paths; sections through wooded areas; and some sections that are on local paved roads. For me, climbing and descending the Pyrenees and other steep hills along the way were brutal and VERY hard work! There were very long sections (especially in the Meseta area) where we walked for 3-4 hours (12-15 miles) in open country without seeing a house, person, or any place for refuge.
In the majority of the days' walks there would be a small town or village every 3-6 miles...and an open bar/cafe where we could get a coffee/soda/beer and snack.
Walking 5-9 hours (12-20 miles) a day every day for 31 consecutive days is very hard on a person's body, even if you're a young and fit person. (Even for those of us who did some training walks beforehand, the first few days walking stress muscles, ankles, and joints until one's body adjusts to the rhythm of long walks with a 15-20 lb backpack each day for an extended period of days.) By the time I arrived in Santiago, I was 'bone tired' and worn out, my ankles were swollen, and I had developed a couple of nagging blisters that hadn't quite healed.
-What did I learn on the Camino?: Unlike Shirley Maclaine's mystical experiences or Martin Sheen's character who gained peace by doing the Camino for his dead son, I did not have a great revelation or major insight. The things I learned on the Camino were smaller in comparison and more common.
God surrounded me with two marvelous companions who encouraged me when I was flagging; checked to see that I was ok when I dropped behind on hills or in the latter stages of a day's walk; bound my wounds or provided medicine or suggestions on how to care for blisters or sore muscles/joints; provided translations and help in ordering food or getting directions; and provided insights on the culture/history of the various regions and major cities we passed through or stayed in. So, the value of companionship was the first of the blessings God provided.
While the three of us traveled as a group, we would meet fellow pilgrims at rest stops or in the albergues at the end of a day's walk. Those occasions were time for sharing experiences of the day, sometimes sharing food and drink together (most towns had a very inexpensive (~10 euros or less) pilgrim menu that consisted of 2 courses plus desert and wine!). Of the ~20 pilgrims we started the Camino with, six of that original group completed it with us after 31 days (Sun, 19 Mar). The others had work or school commitments that caused them to stop after a week or two. There were other
pilgrims who started their Caminos in towns closer to Santiago and ended up at the same albergues as we did. So, there was a changing group of about 15 of us who bonded in fellowship along the way and competed on 19 Mar. The value of fellowship was the second blessing God provided.
As I mentioned in the previous section, walking a significant time each day for 31 days was very hard work for me. The third blessing God provided was determination. Each morning whether I was aware of it or not, God provided the strength or encouragement from my 2 colleagues so that I could start and complete the day's walk.
A fourth blessing was God's presence each day. Before starting the Camino, I had a mantra of several prayers I tried to pray each day. That mantra plus intercessory prayers for family, church family, and others helped me to forget the tiredness and soreness during the long walks. I do have to admit that on many days my prayers seemed to be on 'autopilot' - God was far removed from my thinking, though in retrospect the loving presence was always there (the poem 'Footprints in the Sand' comes to mind!).
A fifth blessing was companionable silence. My two colleagues (Jose & Gaspar) and I were very comfortable walking together in silence for hours at a stretch. Even though not a word was said, I felt encouraged, supported, and blessed by their presence; I trust they found the same feelings from me and each other!
A sixth lesson God gave me was learning to let go of some preconceptions I have about myself. So far in my life I have been blessed with good health - I have had few illnesses, only one broken bone, and few hospitalizations even though I am entering my 70th year. Through the Camino experience, God showed me that I am not a 50- or 20-year old person any more. I learned that I need to accept the limits on physical activity or other areas that naturally occur as one grows older. I must listen more carefully to my body: honoring it with exercise and rest; but, not pushing it to or over its limits.
-How has the Camino experience changed me: In the few times I was able to still my own thinking and allow space for God to 'speak to me', following are several things I feel called to work at.
First is to try to be better at receiving help, support, etc. from others and not feel that I have to always be the 'giving' one. There is great joy in giving to others; it is Important to allow others that same joy by accepting their gifts.
Second is to be more forgiving. I must open my heart and truly forgive (not necessarily forget) the wrongs I feel have been done to me. I need to release myself and those with whom I have enmity from the anger and resentment so that we can move to reconciliation and more joy in life. On
the flip side for those whom I have wronged, I need to acknowledge the wrong I have done (actually say I'm sorry...and mean it) and be more genuine in seeking their forgiveness and reconciliation.
Third, I believe God calls us to use our talents and work in areas that give us joy and fulfillment. While there are many needs in the communities in which we live, we need to recognize that we cannot do everything. Each individual in a community is blessed with differing talents and skills. For me, the pastoral care areas (intercession; visiting and bringing the Sacrament (Eucharist) to the sick, home bound and dying) give me the greatest joy, renewal, and refreshment. So, I will continue and become more involved in those areas.
-This has been my Camino experience. I am thankful that God planted that seed in my heart and gave me companions and the strength to complete the journey. As a postscript, I would be happy to discuss my Camino experience with anyone who would like to delve further.
Shalom and many blessings, George