We followed a yellow arrow for 31 days. Sometimes it was a sign or marker engraved with a scallop shell, pointing us in the right direction. We walked on natural paths, paved roads and rocky trails, crossed water on Roman bridges and stepping-stones. We trekked along vineyards and pastures, through suburbs, medieval villages and city streets. We visited cathedrals, monasteries and tiny village churches. On sabbatical last spring, we walked the Camino de Santiago.
We walked 500 miles of this centuries-old pilgrimage route, from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, allegedly the burial place of St. James the Apostle. The “Camino Frances,” the route we took across northern Spain, is the most well known one, but there are many. A pilgrim in times past didn’t fly to Madrid, take the train to Pamplona and take a taxi to St. Jean Pied de Port like we did. In medieval times, the route was out your front door!
The two of us had talked about doing this pilgrimage for years, and our “empty nest” finally made it possible last spring. We are still savoring, processing and even grieving the experience. It provides a lens through which we look at much of our life these days.
One of the biggest realizations was how little we really need. We carried everything on our backs – not much more than drinking water, a change of clothes, some rain gear and a little bottle of bath gel that served as soap, shampoo and laundry detergent. Staying at small hotels along the way, we didn’t have to carry camping gear. Nor did we carry much food, unless we knew we had a long stretch ahead. As is traditional for pilgrims, we took a stone from our garden at home to leave at the Cross of Iron. We also carried a few items that friends had given us: a couple of charms and a weightless origami peace crane, a Lego tennis player, and a tiny book of quotations from folks at St. Tim’s. Traveling lightly, we had everything we needed.
We did need our fellow peregrinos (pilgrims). For starters, we had each other. Walking together all those days was a great way to mark 35 years of marriage. We’ve been doing this for a long time: walking side by side, carrying each other’s burdens and sharing joys. But there were many other pilgrims too. We met a number of folks who were marking retirement or other transitions. Some were simply tourists or said it was on their bucket list. The Camino de Santiago is no longer solely a Christian pilgrimage. It is for spiritual seekers of all religions or no religions, and more than a few who aren’t looking for anything but company or simply a hike. Regardless, we were amazed at the depth of the bonds were that formed between us and our fellow travelers – some with whom we could barely carry on a conversation. Koreans, Italians, Spaniards, Germans – you name it, the young and the old, all were our companions on the road. We greeted one another with the words “Buen Camino.” But beyond the words was a deep awareness of our shared humanity as we shared the road.
Life was so simple. Get up. Pack up. Make sure we had our pilgrim’s passports stamped. Find a place for a cafe con leche and breakfast, and hit the road, following those yellow arrows and scallop shells. We knew exactly what we needed to do. The big daily decisions were where to stop for our second (and third, and sometimes fourth) cafe con leche, and when and where to remain for the evening. Life at home is not nearly as simple: Our respective parishes, the demands of home and yard, the endless options and long lists of things to do. The simplicity of our life on the Camino is probably what we miss most.
When we finally reached Santiago, our pilgrimage complete, we submitted our pilgrim’s passports, full of stamps from our stops along the way. Having thus proved that we’d walked the whole distance, we were awarded our Compostela, a Latin certificate of completion. But, as nice as it was to arrive in Santiago, it struck us that it is not the destination but the journey that matters. Truth is, Santiago was kind of touristy, the cathedral covered in scaffolding, and the famous Botafumiero (huge incense burner) wasn’t swinging at the pilgrims’ mass the one day we were there. It was all kind of anticlimactic, but reminded us that our life journey is not about “getting there” but what we experience, what we do, and what and whom we love along the way.
Perhaps the biggest lesson learned on the Camino was a reminder that life itself is a journey. It includes smooth roads and bumpy places, days of dense fog and breathtaking panoramic views. It is all about the journey. As our journey continues as parents, as priests, as peacemakers and as friends, we find ourselves grateful for all who have been our companions on the way, and for Jesus who is always here with us. “Yo soy el camino, la verdad y la vida,” said Jesus. “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
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The Rev. Nancy Hopkins-Greene serves as priest associate at Church of the Redeemer, Hyde Park, and her husband, the Rev. Roger Greene, serves as rector of St. Timothy’s, Cincinnati.