The Physical Pilgrim

[Pilgrims walking toward Villafranca del Bierzo]

Pilgrims walking toward Villafranca del Bierzo.

I recently spoke with a woman who’s writing a thesis on pilgrim experiences on and after the Camino de Santiago. She said many describe the pilgrimage as more spiritual than physical.

I told her that wasn’t my experience.

When I think back on my time on the Camino, I’m not always sure how to separate the spiritual—whatever that really means—from the physical or even the social aspects of my pilgrimage. They’re all bound up together into one beautiful, messy story.

At home, I spend too much time sitting in front of a computer. I spend too much time in my head. Walking the Camino brought me more in touch with my physical body—in part through pain and my body’s limitations.

And partly by helping me overcome those limitations. I’ve always done a fair bit of walking, especially during the large chunks of my life when I haven’t owned a car, but I’ve never been athletic. I’ve never expected my body to be capable of great physical feats, but I discovered while walking that it can do more than I imagined. I’m not sure “spiritual” is the right word to describe those experiences, but they are some of my most vivid Camino memories.

There was the time, about two weeks into my trip, when I had my first blisters and was walking farther than usual and was completely certain I couldn’t walk another step. But I did. I walked one step, and another, and another, for several more kilometres.

There was the day, after five weeks of walking, when instead of plodding laboriously up hills, I practically flew over them.

And then, weeks later, a friend and I walked about 37 kilometres over a mountain. Two months before, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to even consider such a feat. But that day, I just felt giddy and a good sort of tired as I walked into Molinaseca, and rather proud when the hospitalero looked at our credenciales, stared at the two of us, shook his head, and muttered something about locas. Crazy women. Maybe we were.

These leaping-over-mountain moments weren’t spiritual experiences in the usual sense of the word. Spirituality is often defined in opposition to the physical or material world. But maybe that’s based on a false premise; maybe our bodies and our spirits aren’t completely separate.

There was something profound in feeling that instead of my mind dragging my body along, the two were really working together for the first time I could remember.

Maybe there’s a spirituality that comes from inhabiting our bodies more fully.

This reminds me of something Robert Ward said in his wonderful book All the Good Pilgrims. He was talking to some Canadians who were making a documentary on the Camino, when, in his words:

… the interviewer leaned towards me, lowered her voice so the viewer would know that this was a moment and said:

“This must be a very spiritual experience for you.”

My response came so fast, it surprised even me. “No,” I said, “it’s a very physical experience.”

She looked disappointed, but what could I say? It wasn’t my spirit that was doing the walking, it was my feet. And my feet hurt. Not to say that the Camino was all pain, but it was all, or mostly, sensation. Heat, weariness, pain, thirst—not to extremes, but well beyond what my body was used to. And then relief. The rest in the shade, the cold drink, the breeze that sprang up from nowhere, the sting in the mouth of sheep cheese, the gasp as I plunged my face into a cold fountain.

If there had been anything spiritual about my Camino to that point, it had come through the senses: the cessation of discomfort, and with it the unfocused reflex of gratefulness, that impulse to give thanks even when it was not clear to whom. Maybe that’s where spirituality begins.

* * *

I find when I try to chop my Camino experiences into pieces—physical, social, spiritual, cultural—I start second-guessing myself. Maybe I didn’t take as much advantage of the spiritual opportunities as I should have. Maybe I spent too much time socializing. Maybe too often I let the pain in my feet interfere with getting out and seeing a town.

But that kind of thinking isn’t helpful. My Camino was what it was, and it was wonderful.

Pilgrims have journeyed to Santiago de Compostela for many years for a wide variety of reasons: religious, spiritual and secular. We’ve travelled in different ways, but many of us have walked.

And the common denominator between all of us walking pilgrims over the centuries has simply been this: putting one foot in front of the other.

* * *

Many thanks to Robert Ward for permission to use the excerpt from his book. All the Good Pilgrims: Tales of the Camino de Santiago is a wonderful Camino memoir that I’ve read several times and highly recommend. You can learn more about Robert Ward’s books and pilgrim journeys at

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 11:21 am
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