Rain, pain, and then Christ

02 November 2006

THIS STORY begins in 1997 when I was faced with what to do in my sabbatical the following year. Quite by chance (a concept which most pilgrims agree doesn’t exist), I read an article in the Reader’s Digest about the re-establishment and the growing popularity of the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim journey in northern Spain.
I immediately knew that I had found what I wanted to do. Had I known the spell that this was to cast over my life, though, I would have thrown the magazine away.
The Gospels tell us that St James was the son of Zebedee, the brother of John. Tradition tells us that he travelled to northern Spain where he fulfilled his apostolic calling by evangelising the people there and establishing a church.
After his death, some of his converts are said to have travelled to Jerusalem to bring the body of James back to Spain, where he was secretly buried for fear of desecration. What is certain is that, from an early date, people began to travel to the church of Compostela (meaning field of stars or compost heap — take your pick), to pay homage to the saint. 
There are a number of ancient pilgrim routes to the church, but the most used and, traditionally, the most important is the Camino Francés. This begins in the southern Pyrenean town of St Jean Pied de Port.
The Camino takes in mountains, the meseta (the northern plain of Spain, which is flat, arid and exposed), forest, field, city, town and rural village. Asphalt, farm track, rock and grass will all be trodden on, while wind, rain, blistering heat and even snow may well be experienced in one journey.
In 1998 I managed to walk 500 of the 778km (480 miles) of the Camino Francés. Those who walk the Camino are known as “holy fools”. Pain, tiredness, even exhaustion, is likely to be the traveller’s lot, but there has to be limits to the foolishness. Five weeks in, my father (who was walking with my brother Brian and me) decided that he had reached the limits of his body.
What drew me back in 2004 was an incident in the town of O Cebreiro during the 1998 journey. The weather was appalling. A biting cold wind raced up the mountside so that even the chickens were huddled up against each other and a fence, like sheep, trying to keep warm in a blizzard.
As I walked to the refugio, I met a Frenchman who asked me a very common question: where had I started? I explained that I hadn’t walked all the way. We had done a couple of sections by bus, because of the amount of time that we had. He said, “You are not a real pilgrim.” The moment is etched on to my heart and soul. I left that encounter vowing that I would shove his words down his throat.
I have reflected over the last six years why those words cut so deep. I think it was because I owned them. I knew in my own heart that when I had set out it had been my intention to walk all the way. In the immediacy of necessity, I had buried my own disappointment.
It was only in May 2004 when I returned to the Camino, that I asked myself what the purpose was of undertaking such a pilgrimage. There are as many answers as there are pilgrims.
I had begun walking in order to make a Frenchman regret the words he had said to me. This was hardly edifying. Neither was it constructive. As I walked, I discovered that to prove a Frenchman wrong was an entirely negative purpose.
Yes, I did want to see and experience the bits of the Camino that I had not walked in 1998. I longed to see what had changed in the six years that had elapsed, and wanted to see what new friendships could be forged. But to walk just to prove a point of view to a stranger didn’t seem like the best of motives.
2004 proved to be a difficult pilgrimage because of the sense of isolation that I experienced. Very few British people walk the Camino and that seemed particularly true to me during that May and June.
I speak just a few words of Spanish with all that is implicit in that. Many of the English speakers with whom I really got on were either walking much more slowly, or more quickly than I was.
There were days when I had a walking companion, but much more often I was alone. Despite what the watch says, time goes more slowly when you are by yourself. Some of the long, boring stretches can sap the soul and test the walker’s resolve. This turned out to be an important lesson.
It is not the physical demands of the Camino that test the pilgrim. When the feet are sore, the legs ache, the sweat is rolling off your brow, and the road is long and boring; it is then that you face the real challenge of the Camino.
The physical pain you can put to one side; but what of the emotional, mental and spiritual weariness that comes with this? Is your well of spirituality deep enough to draw from it the life-giving water that the Camino requires? Here one truly begins to understand what it cost Christ to set his face towards Jerusalem.
There are, though, some benefits to walking alone. One early evening, I was wearily walking past the village of Villarmentero de Campos. It was long past the time when I should have been in the refugio. I heard church bells calling the faithful to mass, and so, with some uncertainty, joined the congregation. A companion would no doubt have counselled the wisdom of continuing to walk and also the foolishness of stopping. But with no companion with which to negotiate or argue, I felt it my privilege to join with the small band of faithful who received the body of Christ.
On the Camino, I realised to the depths of my battered and bruised toes that isolation can be liberating or depressing. Sometimes it seems to be both at the same time. It has the power to drive us to a closer walk with God, or into the darkness of fantasy and destruction.
The pilgrimage helped to crystalise and reinforce some other insights and beliefs. More so than before I began the jouney, I came away from the Camino knowing that to go on pilgrimage is to experience life in a microcosm. The joys, frustrations, spiritual insights and lessons of life are felt, perhaps more intensely than usual, in a compacted period of time and space. They are likely to be all the more vivid because of that. If we have the ears to hear and the eyes to see, the Camino will help us to experience our God more intensely.
AFTER Santiago, I walked for three days to the seaport of Finisterre. Legend suggests that it was here that James first landed in Spain. The fisherman came from the sea, the biblical place of chaos, and brought to the people of northern Spain the life, peace and meaning of the gospel.
As I stood on the headland that even in the ancient world was known to be the most westerly point of Europe, and hence the very “end of the world”, I experienced some of that for myself.
Revd Philip Wren is a Methodist minister in Woolton, Liverpool on the Liverpool South Methodist Circuit. For more information on the Camino de Santiago contact: The Confraternity of St James, 2 Blackfriars Road, London SE7 8NY; Phone 020 7928 9988 http://www.csj.org.uk



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