Way of St. James gives time for spiritual reflection

WCR editor Glen Argan and his wife Nora Parker walk the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona, Spain, in early October.

WCR editor Glen Argan and his wife Nora Parker walk the Camino de Santiago near Pamplona, Spain, in early October.

November 23, 2015
GLEN ARGAN
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER

My wife Nora and I walked the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) from Lourdes, France, to Santiago de Compostella, Spain, from Sept. 28 to Nov. 5, following a route to the alleged tomb of St. James the Greater that is more than 1,000 years old.

Over 39 days, we walked about 850 kilometres and took buses and trains for about another 100 kms. The pilgrimage is physically demanding - Nora, who is younger and in better shape than me, kept walking with shin splints.

I'm a tall guy and, while using the most suitable backpack I could find, still ended up carrying all of its weight on my shoulders, instead of on my hips where it would have been immeasurably more comfortable.

Despite these and many other hardships, we found the Camino to be an overwhelmingly positive experience. We were awestruck with the beauty of southern France, were inspired by the hospitality and simple lifestyles of villagers in both France and Spain, and met several people who became more than friends - their lives inspired us.

Here are my 15 reasons - with lots of input from Nora - for recommending the Camino to others:

Time for prayer and reflection: We don't make enough time in our daily lives for these two important things. Prayer and reflection on the road to Santiago will change your outlook, if not your life.

Simpler lifestyle: To complete the Camino de Santiago, you can only take what you need and can carry, which for me was about 20 pounds plus daily allotments of food and water. Doing so made me question why I need so much other stuff in my "normal" life.

Cross-cultural experience: I have lived my whole life in Canada, mostly the Prairies. Encountering those who live in a much different way has, I hope, made me more tolerant and understanding of cultural differences.

Physical fitness: I trained and reduced my food intake for seven months before our Camino and lost close to 20 pounds. On the Camino, I ate like a horse, drank lots of fluids and lost another 10 pounds. I think I am more fit now, but have lost some strength.

Sharing the pain: Before we left on our Camino, a parishioner told Nora, "You will experience hardship." Everyone who makes the Camino suffers, at least physically. Sharing experiences on the trail let me know I was not alone in my suffering and also helped me find humour in trying experiences. It further led me to think about those who experience chronic pain or who are disabled.

The large numbers of farm animals we encountered, especially in France, were one aspect of our feeling closer to nature.

The large numbers of farm animals we encountered, especially in France, were one aspect of our feeling closer to nature.

Growth in gratitude: I did not always agree with the attitudes and approaches of people and institutions, including the Church, in Spain and France. That helped me appreciate some aspects of Canada more than I had in the past.

Learning to receive: I like to be in control of situations and not dependent on others. On the Camino, I constantly had to ask for help, such as in finding the right direction in which to walk. As well, many people offered advice that was unsought, but badly needed. The Spanish and French people, especially in the villages, are gracious hosts.

New friends: Nora and I made many friends from many parts of the world who broadened us with their insights and experiences. They brought joy to our trip.

Draw close to nature: Spending much of the day outdoors and in the countryside drew us closer to the rhythms of nature than is normal in our technologically-oriented society. Especially in France, we were frequently close to farm animals such as cows, horses, sheep, chickens and donkeys. The sounds of roosters crowing and cowbells clanging will long remain in our memories. The scenery, especially in France, was at times breathtaking.

Go when you're ready: Walking is a simple means of transport; you just walk out the door and keep going. For Nora and I, the contrast of that simplicity with the frustrating time we spent going through airport security, customs, and waiting on tarmacs and railway sidings is one of the strongest images we retain.

Wider experience of Church: The Camino is irrepressibly Spanish, has a centuries-long history and draws people from around the world. These gave us a broader experience of Church and, often, a greater appreciation for the Church in our own backyard.

Strengthen your relationship: Although our Camino was not without a few minor spats - mostly when we were tired - getting to spend a huge block of uninterrupted time with each other increased our love and appreciation for each other. Conversely, if you have doubts about whether you have met a suitable life partner, spending 30 or 40 days walking the Camino with them should clarify that issue.

The most popular Camino route begins in southern France and winds its way for 800 kms through northern Spain.

The most popular Camino route begins in southern France and winds its way for 800 kms through northern Spain.

Religious experience: All of these aspects of the Camino helped to deepen our relationship with God. Some people also seem to have religious experiences which transcend those of daily life. We had the former, but not the latter.

Celebration: We ended the Camino soggy and grumpy, celebrating being the last thing on our minds. By the next night we were ready to celebrate. Along the way, we also found many significant milestones to which we raised a toast.

A new vision of life: The Camino continues upon the return home. It has sparked in me a new vision - or at least a clearer and stronger vision - of how we as a people and myself as an individual can and should live. So far, I am better able to articulate the societal vision than the dimensions of my own personal renewal. However, I know for sure that the Camino will not leave me unchanged.

MANY CHALLENGES

Despite all these positives, the Camino carries many negatives. We slept in different, often uncomfortable, beds almost every night, rubbed shoulders with people whose behaviour we found grating, were bored at times, were harassed by unwanted insects, always had to have an eye open for the nearest bathroom, endured overpowering odours of animal waste and fermenting silage, and were sometimes unable to find food when we needed it.

We also found the Spanish veneration of St. James overdone - relegating Jesus to a back seat - and the portrayal of the saint as one who killed Muslims and supported the conquistadores as morally offensive.

MEDIAEVAL PILGRIMS

Our hardships were far less than those of the millions who walked the Camino during mediaeval times. We had daily hot showers, and access to facilities for washing our clothes. We wore well-designed boots, backpacks and rain gear.

For the most part, pilgrims today don't have to deal with robbers, wild animals or epidemics. And, when we finish our pilgrimage in Santiago, we take an airplane home, instead of turning around and walking the enormous distance we originally walked to get there.

The Camino is not for the faint of heart, but it did have many joys for us and was an unforgettable experience.

(An earlier version of this article appeared in my blog about our pilgrimage. You can read that blog on the Internet', glenargan.wordpress.com.)