I read that there is a billboard somewhere along the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James, that reads, "Why do I deal with the dry dust in my mouth, the mud on my aching feet, the lashing rain and the glaring sun on my skin? Because of the beautiful towns? Because of the churches? Because of the food? Because of the wine? No. Because I was summoned!"
I never saw that billboard when I walked the Camino in April, or maybe I did and just didn't recognize it in Spanish.
But that's exactly how I felt about my decision to travel to northern Spain, become a pilgrim and follow in the footsteps of those who have taken this journey for centuries.
There are times in life when a very powerful need arises in a person's soul, and it should be heeded. That happened to me.
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Within a two-month period, my mother's six-year journey through the quagmire that is Alzheimer's ended and, at age 50, my best childhood friend's heart stopped after running a mini marathon.
My heart was broken and I found it hard to breathe. But like most type-A personalities with myriad responsibilities, I barely stopped to let things register. Deep inside, something kept nagging at me. I finally gave in, bought some hiking shoes, enlisted the companionship of a dear friend and headed for the Camino.
The Camino de Santiago is a centuries-old path that ends at the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northern Spain. The most popular route is the French Way: 500 miles beginning in St. Jean Pied de Port in France.
Legend has it that this route follows the footsteps of Saint James, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ. Continuing the legend, James' body was found in a boat washed ashore in northern Spain thousands of years ago. Because his body came in from the sea, the symbol of Saint James, and the Camino — which means "the way" — is the scallop shell. Every pilgrim wears a scallop shell on his or her backpack (most pilgrims carry all their belongings, but the group I was with required us to only carry what we needed for the day), and the old markers along the path include an imprint of the scallop shell.
James' body was moved inland, forgotten about, and then was rediscovered in the 9th century when a farmer followed a "field of stars" — translation: campo-stela — that led him to the ancient, forgotten tomb, according to the legend. The parallel between this story and that of the life of Jesus Christ is clear.
James' tomb is now the center point of the glorious Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
Catholics began walking the Camino as a penance, a way to have their sins forgiven. These days, people walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons. Regardless of the reasons, the centuries-old rules are followed. To earn your Pilgrim's Certificate, you must walk at least the last 100 kilometers (a little more than 60 miles) to Santiago. Stamps from churches and bars are collected on your pilgrim passport along the way. When you reach Santiago, you report to the Pilgrim's office where your passport is traced along a map and, if proven true, you are awarded an official certificate worded in Latin.
Then, you attend the Pilgrims' Mass where the priest prays for the pilgrims from every country who have arrived in Santiago on that day. And finally, you make your way to the statue of Saint James at the altar where you hug him and ask him for whatever is in your heart.
I learned about the Camino on one of the afternoons while I was sitting with my mother so my dad could have a break from caregiving. In her pre-Alzheimer days, she traveled all over the world, so we watched the travel shows on KET every Saturday. The first time I saw the piece about the Camino, I knew I would do it one day.
On the last Saturday my mother was alive, there was a repeat of the Camino episode. And the weekend after my mother was buried, the movie The Way, Martin Sheen's tribute to the Camino, opened in Lexington. I went to see the movie by myself and cried all the way through it.
Two weeks before I left for the journey, our preacher at Georgetown Baptist Church talked about the movie in his sermon. He talked about taking down your defenses and opening up yourself to the complexity of humankind and "making yourself vulnerable on purpose."
Coincidence? Maybe. But maybe not. It felt more like a "summoning" to me.
Walking, it has been said, is praying with your feet. What my soul was yearning to do was to stop long enough to take a spiritual journey with my mother, my friend, and my God. I walked the last 120 miles to Santiago with my friend Ann, and with nine other American pilgrims as a part of Fresco Tours (Frescotours.com.)
The rain, the rocky streams, the cow manure, the symphony of frogs we heard one day on the Camino as it meandered through a wooded area, the seemingly insurmountable hills and the sheer natural beauty were a perfect allegory of my daily walk in life.
Sometimes we walked alone; sometimes with one another. We plowed on even when we couldn't go another step. We sang for no reason: Baptist hymns and Lady Gaga. We prayed; we quoted poetry. We cussed; we encouraged one another. We struggled and bled and bandaged our toes. We laughed. We remembered. We lost our voices and cried as the young ladies in the pilgrim's office asked us simple questions to verify our journey.
We encountered pilgrims from all parts of the world and we wished each other "buen camino," the universal greeting among pilgrims that means have a good road; a good journey.
And when we had completed the journey, we went to the pilgrims' Mass, took each others' hands or kissed each other on the cheek and said "Peace be with you" in a multitude of languages.
We became vulnerable to one another on purpose, regardless of our nationality, our religion or our reason for our pilgrimage. We were a fellowship, united in a centuries-old tradition.
It was the hardest thing I have ever done. But there was great beauty and healing in it.