For a thousand years, the Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James” has brought pilgrims from all corners of Europe across the north of Spain to Santiago de Compostela. They come to pay homage to the Apostle St. James at his final resting place in the city’s beautiful Cathedral. Walking the Camino has become a modern day “rite of passage” and life-changing experience for countless pilgrims from around the world – including me!
I was inspired by the 2011 movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen in which he walks the Camino Francés, the most popular of the Camino routes. Martin’s fictional character Tom is an irascible American doctor (in his 60s) whose son dies during a storm while crossing the Pyrenees at the beginning of his Camino trek. Tom goes to France to pick up his son’s remains and decides to walk (completely unprepared!) the full 500-mile Camino in honor of his son.
What Tom doesn’t plan on is the profound impact the journey will have on him and his “California Bubble Life.” On his Camino, Tom meets three other pilgrims, each with their own issues and looking for greater meaning in their lives. Over time, this “unlikely quartet of misfits” creates an everlasting bond and Tom is transformed, discovering the difference between “the life we live and the life we choose.”
The Impact of the Camino / Why This Post
Yes, the Camino journey can have a profound impact on the pilgrims who walk its path! I walked my “half Camino” last September (2016) as a typical pilgrim, covering 230 miles over 19 days with my 20# backpack. It was an amazing experience that I’ve written about in my blog post entitled Tales from a Successful Pilgrim.
In that post, I answered the common questions about my Camino, focusing more on the physical journey and “day in the life” details. However, there is also a much deeper “journey of the spirit” that pilgrims experience, whether conscious of it or not. The Camino often provides pilgrims with many blessings and gifts, deep friendships, challenges and lessons, clarity and spiritual insight, transformation and more.
I want to focus this special blog post on that second topic – a pilgrim’s inner journey, the journey of the spirit. If you’re thinking of walking the Camino someday, I hope this will provide you with a fuller picture of the pilgrim experience. After returning home, friends would often ask if the Camino was a “spiritual experience” for me. I didn’t really have a good answer at the time as I was still processing it all. Writing this post has helped me gain clarity!
Reasons Why People Walk The Camino
Today’s pilgrims walk the Camino de Santiago for a myriad of reasons, possibly as many reasons as the number of pilgrims. Despite walking along much of the same route, every pilgrim’s journey – “their Camino” – is different and uniquely theirs. Everyone walking the path is called a pilgrim, regardless of whether they’re doing it for religious or spiritual reasons or just want a nice outdoor adventure. Common reasons include:
- Religious – want to make a classic pilgrimage to Santiago
- Desire a “spiritual experience” (defined differently by each person)
- A scenic walk/hike through beautiful Northern Spain (landscape, villages & towns, culture)
- The sheer physical and mental challenge of walking so many days and kilometers
- Chance to meet fellow pilgrims from around the world & the friendly local Spaniards
- Saw a movie, read a book or learned about the Camino through a friend – and just felt personally called to do it (even if they can’t articulate exactly why)
- Celebrating a key life milestone – like a special birthday, graduation, or retirement
- Walking in honor of a loved one they may have lost – such as a spouse or child
- Health or physical challenges – perhaps overcoming cancer or still battling it
- The need to take a “time out” to breathe, reflect & gain new perspective on their life
- A few will come with their life a total mess (like in The Way) with the hope that the Camino will sort them out and transform their life
- Just want the Camino’s overall “Pilgrim Experience” (with all of the above)!
Why I Decided To Walk “The Way”
So, what were MY reasons for walking the Camino? Like many Americans, I must credit The Way with planting the seed way back in 2011. In the movie, I was struck by the beautiful scenery of Northern Spain and the transformational aspects of the story. Right after the movie, two pilgrims who had walked the Camino several times did a fascinating Q&A with the audience.
They shared what made the Camino de Santiago so special and what kept drawing them to return. It is so much more than a long walk! The Camino gives you an opportunity to step outside your normal life and your comfort zone – to learn about yourself in new ways and become an even better version of you. Luckily, this happens while being lovingly supported by an incredible pilgrim community all along the way – as you become part of this fun, new Camino family.
That evening, the movie and testimonials led me to state: “Hmm, the Camino definitely looks interesting, I just might do it some day!” Well, in 2015, I made the decision to go for it and booked my Spain flights – one full year out so I could use frequent flyer miles. I was now committed!
The reasons I ultimately said yes were many of those listed above. I wanted to see Spain’s beautiful countryside and its charming villages and meet pilgrims from across the globe. I also wanted to experience Camino life as a pilgrim with its rich history and face the challenges that would certainly “stretch” and grow me. Lastly, I desired to have a “spiritual experience” and inner journey, whatever that might look like.
The Camino Changes People – The Spiritual Inner Journey
Here’s what I learned from walking the Camino. It is so much more than the physical journey and the kilometers you walk. It’s also the interaction with other people along the way, with nature, and with yourself. The Camino becomes deliciously simple – you become free from life’s everyday worries – as you follow the daily pilgrim routine. You get to unplug from normal life, email, Facebook and the news for a while!
You become more appreciative of – and get back in touch with – the simple joys in life, like the amazing peace and beauty of nature. Of course, you are challenged and sometimes pushed to your limits. But meeting and rising to the challenge is what allows each of us to discover our inner strength, resilience, creativity, and our sense of humor. And, in doing so, we realize we are capable of so much more than we give ourselves credit for (especially us pampered “first-worlders”)!
Certainly, the typical pilgrim experience – walking lots of kilometers day after day, carrying an 8-9kg (18-20#) backpack, and sleeping in shared dorm rooms at pilgrim hostels – puts all of us squarely “outside our comfort zones!” Yet, we do it and survive just fine – and soon it becomes routine, is actually fun, and makes great stories for sharing with impressed friends and family!
The Camino Provides & The Camino Teaches
On the walk, you may hear the phrase “The Camino Provides.” It generally means things always seem to work out for each pilgrim, such as the right person or support showing up just when they have a physical or emotional need.
The other phrase “The Camino Teaches” refers to “life lessons” brought to a pilgrim, such as situations for learning patience, trusting more, or being less judgmental of fellow pilgrims. My own frequent prayer was “Please Spirit. May My Lessons be Gentle”!
Pilgrims often do (at least at first) the Camino like they “do life.” For example, some people may be driven, laser-focused on a goal, and need to always be the best. In fact, the pilgrims who suffer the most physical problems (like tendonitis or blisters) are often those who push themselves to go farther or faster than they should each day. They haven’t yet learned the Camino is not a race but a journey to be experienced and enjoyed. However, the Camino and their body will help teach them!
“Camino Voices” – Sharing the Pilgrim Experience in Their Own Words
Camino Voices is a wonderful, inspiring book I want to share with you. I was blessed to meet Camilla Dryden, a delightful 50-something pilgrim from the UK at dinner my first night on the Camino. I spent a lot of time with her over the next four days, and learned that her artist husband Iain had a newly published book about the Camino.
It’s a fun story. Camilla walked the Camino the year before (in 2015). Physically unable to walk with her, Iain drove his beat-up van along the Camino route, occasionally meeting up with Camilla. Mostly, he parked the van along the path and made cool sketches of the Camino, speaking with pilgrims as they passed by. Some would stop and share their experience and impressions of the Camino journey with Iain. And he would jot down their insightful words.
Camino Voices is the magical end result – a soulful book filled with Iain’s cool drawings, his own astute and humorous observations, and comments from hundreds of individual pilgrims.
There is no better way to really understand the deeper journey of a Camino Pilgrim than by sharing some of the great quotes (and Iain’s sketches) from the book. These pilgrims say it much better than I ever could. Hope you enjoy these “Voices from the Camino“…
The Supportive Pilgrim Community / The Camino is Very Social
- I’ve met people from all over the world and from every walk of life, it’s incredible.
- I was lonely until this walk, now I’ve made friends for life.
- You meet so many types [of people] that after a while you stop being critical of others. Beneath the exterior, we are all the same.
- Conversations on the Camino are special, not superficial, they’re from the heart. That makes everyone who touches you deeply, a jewel.
- I love the way most people help one another. It’s so magical, if only society could be like this.
- Locals along the way are kindness incarnate. They help with joy, they smile with feeling.
- You can find yourself becoming a Camino snob. They [pilgrims on tours] taxi their luggage ahead, stay in hotels, taxi over the hard bits. But hey, why judge, we’re each doing our own Camino!
Enjoying Peace & the Beauty of Nature Along The Camino
- Our lives are cluttered with noise nowadays. On the Camino, your ears are bathed in silence, interrupted when you pass a bush bursting with birdsong. The wind carries away your thoughts, healing your soul.
- This is what the Camino is about, lingering when something catches your heart, be it a bird, a view, a person, or an emotion.
- Walking, after a while, puts you in the present.
- Every day is different.
- Day after day of letting your thoughts pass by, the landscape settles you into a place of peace.
- Walking gives you a sense of freedom, it’s addictive, you can see why some people become serial long-distance walkers. You tune into the landscape in a way you can’t in a car. You feel a part of it.
Finding Oneself / “Camino Therapy” is Free
- I was born a jewel but became a stressed out achiever and now through walking, I’m back to who we all are deep inside, but forget.
- What I’ve found is me. That’s better than a lover, better than everything.
- I’ve unplugged from all expectations of myself.
- I realize now that looking good is more about how you feel about yourself. For me, that’s a huge lesson.
- My child died this year and I needed to do something to strengthen my heart.
- I spend 150 euros a week on my shrink, but the Camino works better and it’s free!
The Camino Is a Challenge
- People are out of their comfort zone.
- Lifting your pack first thing in the morning, you ask why are you doing this to yourself?
- You have to be nuts to walk The Camino.
- It’s an endurance test and I hated most of it, but I came out better.
- I can’t wait to get into a new set of clothes, six weeks wearing and washing two shirts and trousers has had its day!
Freedom From Stress Of Expectations & Normal Daily Life
- When asked about there being lots of single women walking the Camino, a woman responded: Yes, there’s so much (put) on women. We have to perform better than men at work to prove we’re OK. We’re expected to be great lovers, inspiring friends, perfect wives, loving mothers AND we have to look good! El Camino is a time to be ourselves without pressure. And it is safe. AND you can do it alone without a guy! Where else is that true?
- I have disconnected from everything.
- I get up, pack, walk. It’s like my job.
- I’m a financial controller of a very large company. They gave me two months leave so I could walk the Camino. I am a changed person. The simple things are the most satisfying. There are lots of business people on this walk. And it is changing them too.
- It’s hard to imagine life exists beyond the Camino.
The Camino Is a Spiritual Journey / A Time Of Transformation
- The whole Camino has been a lesson in what you don’t need – physically, emotionally and mentally.
- It is a spiritual journey, a reconnecting with all that matters.
- A meditation retreat lasts 2 to 7 days. This goes on and on and it changes you, if you allow it to.
- For me it began as just a walk. But it evolved into an inner journey.
- I came expecting nothing but a long walk. If anything, I’m more inclined to admire nature than a god, but I’ve been touched and who knows by what.
- Don’t know what I’ve learnt, but something profound has happened. I can’t express it, although I’ve tried to write it down. That means it’s deep, beyond normal consciousness. I know it’ll come out later.
For More of My Blog Posts on the Camino, Check Out:
- Spain’s Camino de Santiago: Tales from a Successful Pilgrim
- Walking Spain’s Famed Camino: My Upcoming Pilgrimage
- My Camino: The Magic of Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone
COMMENTS: Are you thinking of walking the Camino one day? What would be your reasons? If you’ve already walked the Camino, what were some of your greatest gifts/ lessons / transformations?