Pilgrimage as Story

[Cross and birds]Walking the Camino de Santiago was possibly the most intense, the most real experience I’ve ever had. I suspect there are a number of reasons for this, and I’ll write about some more of them later. But I just had a revelation about one of the reasons, and that’s the one I want to write about today.

But first, bear with me as I detour away from the Camino, as I walk away from the yellow arrows to start. I promise it’ll all come together in the end.

I’m partway through reading a non-fiction book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years: What I Learned While Editing My Life by Donald Miller. (Note: The book is classified as a Christian book, but you can get a lot out of it whether you’re Christian or not. At least, I’m not exactly Christian, and I’m already convinced it has life-changing potential.)

The book follows Miller as he helps write a screenplay based on a memoir he’d written. In the process, he becomes convinced that the guidelines for writing a good story are the same as those for living a good life. As his roommate sums up, after a seminar on story with creative writing instructor Robert McKee: “A story is a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it.”

Looking back at my life (all thirty years of it so far), I realize I haven’t really had a lot of serious goals—things I wanted and overcame conflict to get. There have been things I kind of sort of wanted to do, at the moment, but nothing I’ve seriously gone after despite all obstacles.

The longest time I’ve dedicated to anything in my adult life was four years of working toward a B.A. in history. But really, I didn’t do that because I really wanted a history degree for any particular reason. It was because I didn’t know what else to do, and I sometimes enjoyed studying history.

Walking over 1,500 kilometres from Le Puy-en-Velay to Santiago de Compostela was one of the few serious goals I’ve had. One of the few things I’ve been determined to do despite all obstacles. One of the few times I’ve lived my life as a story. I knew when I got my Compostela certificate that it meant more to me than my university diploma. I didn’t know why—but now it’s beginning to make sense.

Almost every day on the Camino, I was (quite literally) taking a few more steps toward my goal.

Having a Direction

Toward the end of my Camino journey, I had to get a second pilgrim’s passport for stamps from the refugios along the way. I was talking to a friend as I filled out the basic information. All the instructions were in Spanish, and one of the fields said “dirección.”

“Direction?” I said to my friend. I had already been walking for two months. “Santiago—where else?”

And then I remembered that in Spanish, dirección means address, and we laughed.

But it just goes to show that while I was walking, I knew where I was going. I was following the yellow arrows to Santiago.

Bringing the Experience Home

I felt totally alive on the Camino—not all the time, but much more than I ever have in the rest of my life.

If I can understand why that was, maybe I can bring some of whatever-it-was back into my life in the ordinary world.

I imagine it’s somewhat different for every pilgrim. What each finds on the Camino depends on her own life, on what he’s lacking.

This is a new thought, in relation to the Camino, but it makes sense to me. Maybe one of the things the Camino tried to teach me—if I’d only been listening—is that I need a goal, something to pursue despite all obstacles, something that matters.

I need to live my life as if it’s a story, not just on the Camino, but at home, too.

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Posted by Anna-Marie Krahn at 9:20 pm
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