Lessons of the Camino: What I learned from secular seekers on the way to Compostela
I once walked 500 miles to attend a church service. Although I am by no means the kind of hardy person one might envision going on such a long, arduous journey, my physical achievement was not the most amazing aspect of this venture. Nor was it the fact that I, an ordained Mennonite minister, was on a pilgrimage, a practice normally associated with other parts of the church. Nor was it the fact that the route, Spain’s Camino de Santiago, is rapidly growing in popularity, with tens of thousands of sojourners undertaking it annually. Nor was it even that many, if not most, of those “pilgrims” profess no religious faith or affiliation. No; the most astonishing aspect of my journey was the way these secular seekers made me think about God.
Theology came up often, but in unexpected ways. Initially I thought there would be lengthy conversations about God with the other pilgrims, but I had few such interactions. On my very first day, I met Jean-Louis, a retired engineer from France, two decades my senior. He had already walked 500 miles to get to where I began, and his blistered heels proved it. He politely inquired about my occupation. When I explained that I teach theology, he not so politely turned his head and dismissed me with a disdainful, “Phut!” Agnes, a German, volunteered to help me find a hospital when my bagel-sized blood blister required emergency room tending, and soon. As we sat and talked in the hospital hallway, she was startled to learn my occupation: “You mean you’re a priest?!” Neither struck me as particularly devout, but Jean-Louis and Agnes were both Roman Catholics.
Of all the religious affiliations I encountered, Catholic was the most common. (I never encountered another Mennonite.) This is hardly surprising, since this route—prominent since early medieval times—is most closely associated with the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet many of the pilgrims told me that their faith was nominal or nonexistent. François, a Frenchman with an impressive ability to snore, said that he was “only a little Catholic.” Rosa, a bookseller from Spain, counted herself Catholic but did not attend church. Vio, also Spanish, served in a community with mentally handicapped adults and spoke regularly of her devotion to Jesus, but she had little use for church hierarchy or institutions. To be sure, there were devout Catholics, including Brother Paul, a Dutch monk, Cindy, a nurse from Ohio, and Hisako, a Japanese surgeon. I eagerly compared notes with all these good people.
Religious, Spiritual or Other
On the Camino, it is customary to carry a special “passport.” This identification establishes that you are a pilgrim, authorizes you to stay in hostels and—if stamped daily—qualifies you to receive a much-coveted certificate from the Cathedral of Santiago at the end of the journey. In acquiring a passport, pilgrims designate their motives as either “religious,” “spiritual” or “other.” Pilgrims on the journey for prayer or penance fall under “religious.” I confidently claimed that category. “Spiritual” is more vague, less than traditional but more than secular. Many in the “spiritual” crowd told me they were “spiritual but not religious.” As for “other,” that catch-all included pilgrims who just wanted to hike, were looking for an economical vacation, or were at loose ends in life. It was as mixed a group of motivations and characters as those in Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.”
The “spiritual” and “other” folks intrigued and engaged me the most, partly because they raised unexpected questions, but mostly because I heard God through them. They were the ones who most reliably pointed me Godward on my pilgrimage.
Even pilgrims who professed to be walking for secular reasons often spoke of the Camino as if it were a divine entity. Coincidences and synchronicities elicited the oft-repeated phrase, “Well, that’s the Camino!” Many alluded to the Camino’s personal qualities: “The Camino will teach you what you need to know.” When some wondered whether to undertake the journey again, the rejoinder was: “If you need to walk it more than once, then you did not get it.” Still, one Camino veteran keeps returning and says: “The Camino is not done with me yet.”
It may seem perplexing that even those who profess no belief in God mystically read spiritual forces into a simple dirt path. Yet these are vital signs of a religious longing that persists in a thoroughly modern culture.
The Camino at Work
Simon was unchurched and not a believer. A twentysomething Swiss architectural student, he was between semesters and decided on a whim to walk the Camino. He liked long-distance hiking and living with only a pack on his back. Yet everywhere he went, he was reminded of God; the closer he came to Santiago, the more he initiated conversations about faith. To his surprise, he discovered an important spiritual aspect along the way.
Such developments are not uncommon. An anonymous pilgrim who walked the Camino before me wrote: “I did not set out on a spiritual or religious journey—but it ended being that way—accident? I don’t know.... Maybe that is just the Camino de Santiago at work.” I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s pilgrimage poem, “Little Gidding”:
And what you thought you came for,
is only a shell, a husk of meaning.
The route’s rapidly growing popularity is striking. In 1986 there were 2,491 official pilgrims; 10 years later the number had jumped to 23,218. The year I walked (2005) there were 94,942. But in 2004, a Santiago Jubilee year, there were 179,944.
The Camino is a focus of religious and spiritual longing. It attracts an array of pilgrims who seek “something more,” even those who express unconventional doctrinal viewpoints. Rachel, a former nun, told me that she no longer affiliates with Christianity. She rejects, for example, claims of the unique divinity of Jesus because “We are all God.” Many fellow sojourners told me that they are “beyond church” or even that they are “anti-church.” Yet here they were on a pilgrimage based in Christian tradition and sustained and promoted by churches.
Many people today believe that certain settings have extraordinary energies, like the New Age community around Sedona, Ariz. In the British Isles, Glastonbury and Iona attract multitudes because of their connection to an ancient Celtic past. In the parlance of New Age faith, these places are “thin,” because the dividing line between earthly and spiritual realities is flimsy there. God is met on the ground.
A Focal Place
The philosopher Albert Borgmann speaks of “focal realities”—a thing, place or practice that is shaped by three qualities. It has a “commanding presence” that requires effort and discipline, skills and habits. It makes wide-ranging connections with other people and with history, nature and God. Third, it emanates a “centering” or “orienting power” that helps us recognize our most important priorities.
The Camino is in every sense focal. First, it is engaged only by walking hundreds of miles, taxing muscles and moving at an unaccustomed pace. Second, it connects the pilgrim with other pilgrims past and present; with Spain and its Catholicism; with the people who offer hospitality along the way; and, of course, with the geography of mountains, trees and forests. Finally, the Camino is a place where priorities are often reoriented.
Once abundant, focal places like cathedrals or vast expanses of wilderness are rapidly being displaced by lifestyles that revolve around technology and gadgets. The writer John Howard Kunstler speaks of the “geography of nowhere” and Georges Benko of “non-places” to describe landscapes dominated by retail strips, shopping malls, big-box stores and major highways. As focal places grow rarer, their power to attract becomes that much more compelling.
Borgmann contends that when existence seems shallow, focal realities can “center and illuminate our lives.” They move, teach, inspire and reassure. “Focal reality gathers and illuminates our world,” he writes. A life with focal realities at its center poses a telling contrast to the aspects of our lives today that “lead to a disconnected, disembodied and disoriented sort of life.”
We know something is missing. The theologian Eugene Peterson cautions that “the wonder has leaked out” of our lives. We are aware of a sense of hurry in our culture; and we complain of being too busy, not having enough time for the things we value most. In my last church, congregants identified busyness as their key spiritual issue and asked the elders for help. The elders agreed but then took two years to address the issue…because they had so much to do!
It is no coincidence that when people are so overworked our culture evinces a deep interest in spirituality. Evidence abounds. When I was in the seminary in the early 1980s, I wanted to write about “prayer and peacemaking,” but only two courses were offered on prayer. Now I teach at that school and one can obtain a degree in spirituality. Note the shelves of spiritual materials found in even the most secular bookstores, or television shows and films that deal with heaven, hell, angels, demons, healing and God.
Our culture of distraction, along with the scarcity of focal realities, drives people’s interest. The longing for “something more,” a sense that there must be a better way, propels individuals on spiritual quests.
Interest in spirituality reflects familiar longings: to be home, whole, integrated, centered. Christians recognize such desire as a need for God. As St. Augustine famously prayed: “You made us for yourself O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” There are other ways to understand and interpret innate longings for God. Yet psychological or biological or cultural explanations do not fully convince, as important as these insights are. As Augustine suggests, our deep desires point to the One who created us.
The Camino is not only a place where people feel drawn to God. It is also a locus of conversion, of transformation. Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16); if divine realities are true, then we can expect them to produce concrete realities, here and now.
Often my fellow pilgrims and I discussed what was missing or amiss in our lives. We raised questions about lifestyles, jobs and relationships and resolved to live differently once we returned home. We discussed vocational discernment. A 500-mile walk, with ample periods of solitude, prompts such soul-searching.
Marcus, of the Netherlands, complained that while he imagined his job would serve the needs of others, he spent most of his time dealing with red tape. Susanne of Austria considered finding new work that would allow her to live closer to family and friends. Hendrika of Belgium saw that her job did not contribute to the wider well-being of others. So the Camino became a context for pondering priorities. It was no surprise to learn of impressive changes that fellow pilgrims made after this journey.
Raul was a Spanish factory worker who took a month off to walk the Camino. Something about the journey captivated him. He quit his job, purchased an old stone building on the Camino and began refurbishing it as a place of hospitality for pilgrims. Veronika from Germany was walking one day through a remote valley on the Camino and heard a flute playing at a nearby hostel. She parked her pack there and never left. Now she tends to passing pilgrims. When Jon returned to the United States, he took early retirement to devote himself to pursuing art. Each exemplifies the courage and clarity that can come from the Camino. Their bravery inspired me to look carefully at my own life.
I was brought up in a church community, ordained after my seminary studies, served as a pastor for years and now teach at a seminary. When I embarked on this traditional pilgrimage, I had no idea that God would speak in such unconventional ways. Yet I discovered God at work far beyond the brick and mortar of institutions, in people who have spent far less time in church than I have. Along the Camino I encountered the most convincing evidence for God I have seen in a long, long time. That was certainly worth a few blisters.
View a slide show of images from Arthur Paul Boers journey along the Camino.