I’ve heard—and read—the advice: don’t expect your second pilgrimage, whether it’s on the same route or a different one, to be like your first.
I may be getting ahead of myself here, since I haven’t actually set out on my second pilgrimage yet, but it seems to me what no one mentions is that there’s at least one way the second can be even better than the first.
The first time around, everything is new and many parts are wonderful. The second journey, even if it’s on a different route, might never feel completely new. But, in addition to having its own amazing moments (as I’m sure mine will), it brings back memories of that past pilgrimage.
For me, anyway, there can be something almost magical about connecting with the past, whether it’s my own history or much older worlds. And just preparing for my upcoming Vía de la Plata journey brings back so many memories of my walk along the Chemin du Puy and the Camino Francés.
They’re little things that happened over and over; feelings and experiences I didn’t appreciate at the time. I’d forgotten all about them, in fact, until I started going through the motions—and they really are motions—of pilgrimage all over again.
There are the calluses that developed on my fingers from pulling my bootlaces tight—and are starting to reappear.
There’s the huge difference a small adjustment makes to the feel of my pack on my back.
There’s going to the store and holding one object in each hand, closing my eyes sometimes as I attempt to detect a minuscule difference in weight.
Trying out my backpack with all my gear the other day brought back every morning on the Camino at once—putting the light objects at the bottom and the heavy ones against my back. And then deciding what should go on top: a sweater on a cold day; sunscreen on a hot one; rain gear if it’s pouring or the clouds look particularly grey.
I haven’t walked more than an hour and a half with my pack this time round, so I haven’t yet experienced total exhaustion. But I like to think that even in that I’ll find a bit of magic. It’ll bring back those afternoons on the Chemin du Puy when my feet ached and my backpack felt like I’d loaded it with rocks and I was sure I’d spend the rest of my life in France because I certainly was never going to move again.
And I’ll think: Oh yeah, I remember now, this is how it feels.
And I’ll know that I kept going once and can do it once again.
My sister Celena, who for some unfathomable reason would rather ride horses than walk. But there may be hope for her yet.
My sister Celena didn’t used to be interested in walking pilgrimages.
I once called her from a phone booth from somewhere on the Chemin du Puy—I think it was St-Côme d’Olt. I don’t remember exactly what we were talking about, but it must have been about the gîte d’étape accommodations or how far I’d walked that day.
“I’m so glad it’s you there and not me,” Celena said.
“Me, too.” The sincerity in my voice must have impressed her, because she still tells that story today. But it didn’t make her any more interested in pilgrimage.
For the past few months, though, Celena has been proof-reading the majority of my blog posts, and even allowing me to interrogate her afterwards. (“Does it really make sense?” “Are you sure it’s not too long?” “Are you absolutely completely positive I don’t sound whiny?”)
“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, in some ways that’s what my blog is about—trying to figure out why the Camino was so important to me. But I can’t just wrap up ‘my Camino lessons’ in a tidy box and hand them over. It’s something you have to experience.”
But Celena wanted to know more about those experiences—not just mine, but pilgrims’ in general.
I directed her to All the Good Pilgrims. Robert Ward does an amazing job of describing those little moments that are somehow important, I told her.
“Is there an audiobook?”
“Not as far as I know.” And that was the end of that. Celena is raising a two-year-old and running a horse training business. She doesn’t have time to read books these days: she listens to them while doing other things.
“You should talk to your blog readers,” Celena said. “Ask them what they learned while they were walking.”
So, what say you, gentle readers? Do you have any answers for Celena? What revelations, large or small, did you have while walking, or on some other adventure? What experiences mattered?
(If you’re reading this in your e-mail or a feed reader, please click through to the post to answer and/or see other responses.)
In the church at St-Alban-sur-Limagnole, along the Chemin du Puy.
A little while ago, I described two months on the Camino as “an eternity.” It made so much sense to me at the time that I didn’t consider the words. But a little later, I started thinking about them.
In non-Camino life, two months fly by the way cars speed past walkers.
But when I was walking, two months felt like forever.
I’m not talking about the dragging, glance-at-the-clock-ever-few-seconds time that’s so familiar to students in a dull class or employees in an endless meeting. Some might associate that sort of boredom with long walks—but those are rarely, I suspect, the people who’ve gone out walking.
A few years ago, I spent a fair bit of a summer reading about time. Not scientific time—that Stephen Hawking stuff goes over my head—but the human experience of time.
And one of the things I read was that when you experience the same things over and over each day, time feels like it’s moving more quickly. The science behind this idea had something to do with the circuits in our brain. If we use the same ones all the time, our brains stop really paying attention.
So in a weird way, we live shorter lives if we never break out of our routines. Because when it comes right down to it, it’s our experiences that count, not the readings on our clocks and calendars.
* * *
Eternity isn’t some later time. Eternity isn’t a long time. Eternity has nothing to do with time. Eternity is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out. This is it. And if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere. —Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth
One of the reasons children experience time as moving more slowly is because they’re always encountering new things.
I heard an interview with psychologist and philosopher Alison Gopnik on one of my favourite radio shows the other day. Gopnik said young children are much more conscious and aware of what’s going on around them than we adults tend to be.
Adults’ attention, Gopnik explained, is like a spotlight: we look at what we think is important and tune out everything else. Young children don’t know what’s important and what’s not, so they notice everything.
It is, in many respects, a wonderful way to be in the world, but it’s not efficient. Young children spend a lot of time sleeping and crying as they try to process all they experience. They’re not so good at getting important things done.
But, Gopnik said, adults can recapture some of that feeling through travel. When everything is new and different, we notice so much more. We become more alive. Travel isn’t the only way to reach that state, of course, but it can really help.
And I suspect that’s a big part of why time slows down on the Camino.
But it’s not only that, at least for me. I’ve done a fair bit of non-Camino travel, and time, then, didn’t slow to the same extent. I think the speed of Camino time also has something to do with the slower pace, the way life shrinks when you’re rarely thinking more than 30 kilometres ahead.
Maybe that’s part of the reason some of us get addicted to walking pilgrimages. We’re more awake when we’re walking. We live more deeply. And time stretches out toward eternity.
* * *
What do you think? Did you experience time differently while you were walking, or at any other time in your life?
Climbing the Alto del Perdón, soon after Pamplona, Spain.
A week or two out of Le Puy, a Swiss pilgrim named Sascha told me he preferred walking uphill to down.
At the time, I thought he was crazy.
I wasn’t in particularly good shape when I set out, and the Le Puy route starts out with the cruelest terrain of the journey to Santiago: a few weeks full of steep ascents and descents.
Going down wasn’t a lot of fun, particularly on rock-strewn paths where the wrong step could send you slip-sliding away, and quite possibly end in a twisted ankle. But with a good walking stick for support, the descents were manageable.
The ascents—particularly the steep ones out of places like Monistrol d’Allier, Conques, and even Cahors—were the worst.
If you’re twenty-eight years old (as I was then), it’s seriously embarrassing to have hordes of French retirees pass you with ease, leaving behind only the echo of the click-click-click of their trekking poles.
You tell yourself it’s because the bulk of their luggage is in a van on its way to the next gîte d’étape while yours is all on your back, and besides, those trekking poles seem to give ordinary people super-human endurance.
But you don’t really believe it, so you push on and on, even though every cell in your lungs is screaming for air.
And then, of course, you end up looking like a fool anyway, when you finally have to stop and your breath comes in shuddering gasps.
If you’re alone on the trail, you take it a little easier: two or three steps, stop, gulp some oxygen, repeat. All the way to the top.
The descent into Monistrol D'Allier, near the beginning of the Le Puy route.
But the nice thing about walking for hours each day is that you do eventually get into shape.
I began to understand what Sascha meant around week five. Going up hills was still physically tough, but I could actually breathe rhythmically as I did it. Ascents became a bit of a challenge—sometimes even fun—instead of nearly insurmountable obstacles that might kill me.
After you’ve spent six weeks walking up to them, even climbing the Pyrenees isn’t so bad.
And Sascha was right—the knee-jarringly steep descents really are a lot worse.
Now, I wish I could tell new pilgrims that that’s just how the Camino is: it starts off physically difficult, but it’s all downhill (or uphill, as the case may be) from there.
Alas, it’s not that simple.
It did work like that, for me at least, in terms of being able to walk over hills and mountains. But there are other factors.
Between Manjarín and El Acebo, in November.
I thought if you got blisters on a hiking trip, they were supposed to come at the beginning, and then fade away as your foot hardens.
It didn’t work like that for me. My blisters (an matched pair on each heel) arrived on the way out of Cahors, a few weeks into my walk.
And then there’s this lassitude that in my experience—and from what I witnessed in others—descends on many pilgrims, often after weeks of walking. It can last for periods of anywhere from a day to around a week.
I figure it’s at least as much mental as it is physical. Even though your body is perfectly willing to sprint up mountains, every action somehow feels like twice as much work.
It may only hit you once, or maybe a couple of times for relatively brief periods. Everyone is different. I also suspect it’s more common among people who are doing longer walks than the Camino Francés.
Of course, the converse of those periods are the times when everything comes together, and each action seems twice as easy and filled with joy besides.
There are a lot of ups and downs—in more ways than one—when you set out to walk the Camino.
Abraham’s Path (the Masar Ibrahim al Khalil in Arabic) is a walking route in the Middle East that, when the first stage is complete, will run some 1,200 kilometres through many places traditionally associated with Abraham (Ibrahim) and his children. At the moment, people can—and have—walked sections in Jordan, Palestine, Turkey and Israel.
It’s not an ancient pilgrimage route, but it is based on 4,000-year-old stories. And these tales of Abraham are part of the shared heritage of more than 3 billion Jews, Christians and Muslims around the world.
There are a number of stories about Abraham, some more ambiguous than others. But most importantly for the Abraham Path Initiative, Abraham, who walked across part of the Middle East with his family, was hospitable to strangers who showed up at his home.
According to William Ury, who came up with the idea for Abraham’s Path and has walked parts of the route, many villages along the route that offer incredible hospitality—and they associate it with Abraham’s tradition.
Stories are important.
The story of Abraham, Ury says, can help create a shared identity among the peoples of different faiths and nationalities along the Abraham’s Path. And the path is starting to bring tourism, which has already created jobs and will lead to a shared economy.
As Ury says, it not a solution to conflict in the Middle East, but it is—literally—a first step.
* * *
Of course, stories aren’t inherently positive.
The same story that brings one group together can cause dissension or violence between groups. In Medieval Europe, the story of Saint James (Santiago) inspired Christian countries to war.
This was the era of Santiago Matamoros, or Saint James the Moor-Slayer, who helped unite the Christian armies and symbolically led the reconquista—the Christian “reconquest” of the Iberian Peninsula from the Arabs who had lived there for several centuries. He is commonly pictured on a horse, holding a sword and trampling the dark-skinned “infidels” underfoot.
It’s not a pretty picture.
But there was an ideal of peace associated with earlier medieval pilgrimage.
A poem recorded in the La Pretiosa manuscript says about the Roncesvalles abbey, where monks tended to pilgrims for many centuries:
Its doors are open to the sick and well,
Not only to Catholics, but to pagans also.
To Jews, heretics, beggars and the indigent,
In brief, to both the good and the profane.
The Camino today is far closer to that ideal than to the other. At its best, maybe, it doesn’t even draw firm boundaries between the good and the profane, and really does “embrace all as brothers [and sisters],” as an apparent mistranslation of the hymn reads.*
A French version of Santiago Peregrino.
In any case, modern pilgrims seem to have chosen Santiago Peregrino, the pilgrim who’s always ready to lend a helping hand, to represent us, and largely banished Santiago Matamoros to the past.
Which is not to say that we pilgrims are perfect.
Far from it. We’re human, after all. We can be grumpy and petty, irritable and competitive. Some of us loathe each other.
Then again, some of us get over it, at least some of the time. I have fond memories of sitting in a meseta bar with a German pilgrim for hours—me drinking wine and him drinking beer. We admitted we’d disliked each other since we met a few days before. By the end of that afternoon, we were friends.
On balance, when I was on the Camino I saw far more of the goodness of people than I do in everyday life.
This is partly, I suspect, because I—and a lot of other pilgrims—needed help then far more than we do in our everyday lives. That gave people a chance to be kind.
* * *
William Ury says terrorism involves treating a stranger as an enemy, while Abraham’s legacy is the opposite: treating a stranger as a friend.
And the walking is part of that. As Ury points out, it’s harder to fight when you’re travelling in the same direction, side by side.
That’s an oversimplification, but there’s still a lot of truth to it. Maybe another part of the reason for the camaraderie between pilgrims on the Camino is because, even though our motives and experiences might be totally different, we’re all moving together toward a common destination.
I’ve been talking with a lot of pilgrims lately, over the phone or by e-mail. I haven’t met most of them in person, but I feel an immediate connection with them.
Walking the Camino was one of the most important experiences I’ve had, and they know what that’s like.
We share a story.
* * *
When I was walking the Camino, I met a white-haired Italian named Angelo in the kitchen of a Pamplona refuge.
None of the rest of us at the table spoke Italian, and he didn’t speak English or French or Danish, but a French Canadian woman talked with him—and translated for him—using a few Italian words mixed with Spanish and French.
Angelo, through his Canadian translator, waxed enthusiastic about the pilgrimage. All the world’s leaders, he said, should have to walk the Camino. He was sure it would lead to peace.
I have to admit I was rather dubious about sleeping in a bunk next to, say, a snoring George Bush (this was a few months before the last election) or Canada’s own Stephen Harper. But maybe Angelo had a point.
Maybe he was saying the same thing William Ury says in his talk about Abraham’s Path.
After you’ve walked beside someone—once you’ve shared a story—it’s harder to see her as the enemy, and easier to see him as a friend.
* Regarding the translation of the hymn from La Pretiosa, I found the Latin version: “Porta patet omnibus, infirmis et sanis, non solum catholicis verum et paganis, judeis, hereticis, ociosis, vanis, et, ut dicam breviter, bonis et profanis.” My own knowledge of a few Romance languages and a tiny bit of Latin, together with help from on-line dictionaries, unfortunately suggests the translation I use is more accurate than the “embraces all as brothers” line.
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 www.RobertWard.ca.