Now that I have completed my Camino and have started to look back on my experience for a few days, I have come to realize that the most important and, in Idle’s words, “strange” part of my journey is just beginning: the journey of reflection.
One could fill a small library with books of people’s reflections on walking the Camino de Santiago. They vary tremendously from extremely earnest (Joyce Rupp’s Walk in a Relaxed Manner: Life Lessons from the Camino) to wickedly amusing (Bradley Chermside’s The Only Way Is West: A Once In a Lifetime Adventure Walking 500 Miles On Spain’s Camino de Santiago). Most of the books fit firmly into the genre of the Camino is like life and the lessons you draw from walking the Camino can be applied to life. It’s a time-worn cliché and like many clichés there is a ring of truth to it.
Before setting out on the Camino I spoke with a number of people who described the experience as “life-changing.” To be honest, I was skeptical. I was not embarking on the Camino because I wanted to change anything about my life. I have a loving and stable marriage to a brilliant and generous woman who deserves much better than me. I’m fiercely proud and in awe of our daughter, her incisive intellect, and her many accomplishments. We have a strong and loving relationship. I’m on affectionate and good terms with my extended family. I have a wide circle of close and supportive friends. I have a job I love and colleagues I like and respect. I’m a lucky guy and I know it. By accident of birth I have immense privilege, none of which I’ve earned. I don’t take any of it for granted, but why would I want anything to change?
When you are walking the Camino you have a lot of time to think. And, as I mull over my experience, there are a few lessons that stand out for me. I won’t be so presumptuous as to assume they will mean anything to anyone else, but I share them so that I can be accountable to myself for some of what I’ve learned and some resolutions I want to make as I continue on my strange journey through life.
Travel lightly and give up shame
I come with a lot of baggage. I mean this both figuratively and literally.
For a small fee, there is a daily luggage transfer service that will move your gear from one stopping point to the next along the Camino. The luggage limit for this service is one bag of no more than 20kg. Try as I might, I just couldn’t do it, so I paid extra for a second bag. Honestly, I’ve used just about everything I brought or shared it with others along the way, so no regrets.
However, I’ve also been using a daypack every day. On the first day I jammed it full of power bars, extra bottles of water, changes of clothing, and God knows what else. By noon, I regretted that choice. By the end of the trip, my daypack was just the essentials: a first aid kit, one bottle of water, and a chocolate bar, with nuts if I was in a health-conscious mood. Oh, if it was going to rain, some waterproof pants, if I wasn’t wearing them already. Because you know what, you’ll muddle through, you can get it along the way, or someone else will have what you need.
We all have figurative baggage as well, about which I thought a lot. For me it is shame. I won’t bore you with the details, most of which I’m too ashamed to even mention. Clearly, I have work to do.
Brené Brown speaks eloquently about how shame warps you and what to do about it in a marvelous TED talk.
So, my resolution is to try to travel more lightly and give up shame.
Accept what has been put in my path and navigate through it
Robert Frost’s poem “A Servant to Servants” contains the lines:
…the best way out is always through.
And I agree to that, or in so far
As that I can see no way out but through
I’ve always found the profound simplicity of these words deeply moving. They speak to a flinty New England practicality and fatalism. Practicality and fatalism are essential for walking the Camino.
Most of the trails making up the Camino are extremely straightforward and well-marked. They take no special physical prowess to navigate. However, some days there were a lot of stones on the road and sometimes even in my shoes.
My initial reaction was frustration and irritation. Why on earth, with literally hundreds of thousands of people walking the Camino, couldn’t someone groom this section more carefully? Did they really need to snake this trail across these sharp rocky stones? I know I tied my shoes carefully, so why then are these pebbles rattling around in them? Did the shoe manufacturer leave holes in the soles?
By the umpteenth time I faced a rocky trail, my reaction was much like the narrator in Frost’s poem: accept what has been put in my path and move through it. Don’t try to negotiate or assess responsibility. Some things just are. There is no way out but through and it is often the best way.
So, my resolution is to accept what is before me and navigate through it, cheerfully, if I can.
Make space for faith formation
I am a conventionally observant Christian. I don’t claim any special or deep relationship with God. We’re on speaking terms, usually when I am under duress. Mostly I embrace Christianity as a system of values and beliefs that help me shape my life.
Despite being a “professional Episcopalian” leading Episcopal Relief & Development, The Episcopal Church’s international relief and development organization, my practice is generally to worship only on a Sunday, at a full Eucharist, which takes place in community and is usually followed by a nice lunch with friends. I’m blessed that at my home church for the last 30 years, St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in New York City, we have had consistently excellent preaching and world-class musicians and singers. The liturgy is beautiful, the welcome is generous, and I am surrounded by friends. I look forward to it every week when I am not out of town traveling.
As I set out on the Camino, I decided that I wanted to make faith observance part of my daily routine and so undertook to read Morning Prayer each morning before I got out of bed. Thanks to Forward Movement’s terrific app, Day by Day, I could turn on my phone first thing and, with a few clicks, pull up a full Morning Prayer order of service with the correct readings and psalms all selected, sparing me the hitherto mystifying process of trying to figure it out for myself.
The solitary reading of Morning Prayer every day was quite a change for me. During the first few days on the Camino the readings were from the Book of Jonah recounting the story of Jonah and the Great Fish (one of my favorites since I was a child) and the Acts of the Apostles, recounting Paul’s voyage through the Mediterranean, including along the southern coast of Crete, where I had been hiking just a few weeks before. Both the Jonah story and Paul’s experience resonated with me on several levels as I was starting out on my own pilgrimage.
Later on, the readings shifted to the Book of Ecclesiasticus and specifically to the Wisdom of Ben Sira. I’m embarrassed to admit that I was not familiar with the Wisdom of Ben Sira. To quote Wikipedia:
The teachings are applicable to all conditions of life: to parents and children, to husbands and wives, to the young, to masters, to friends, to the rich, and to the poor. Many of them are rules of courtesy and politeness; and a still greater number contain advice and instruction as to the duties of man toward himself and others, especially the poor, as well as toward society and the state, and most of all toward God.
Because I was not a regular worshiper at Morning Prayer, I had not read much, if any, of this part of the Bible. It offers thoughtful and practical guidance on how to live a “good” life, almost all of which is applicable to today’s world, which is saying something for a book written between 200 and 175 BCE.
The second lesson was usually from the Book of Revelation. Again, this is not a part of the Bible I know well. I’m not sure I know it better today than I did before engaging it through Morning Prayer, but being confronted with it first thing in the morning, before coffee, is a bracing way to start one’s day.
As I write this, I am working my way through the books of the prophets Joel and Malachi along with the Letter of James. I’m sure my Jewish friends and clergy friends are rolling their eyes, but because I am not a habitual reader of the Old Testament or a daily reader of the New Testament, I had not engaged much of this content in my own faith formation.
As I walked, I would find myself mulling over the lessons of the day, letting my mind wander into new and interesting places I had never been before using the daily readings as my map.
So, my resolution is to make more space for faith formation in my life.
Dwell in gratitude
Prior to walking the Camino, most of my memorable dreams were firmly in the anxiety category. Typically, they involved racing through airports to catch planes that I was about to miss. There would be complicated obstacles I would need to overcome and unexpected twists in the plots that would wake me with my heart racing.
An interesting thing has happened over the last 500 miles. The anxiety dreams have faded away and been replaced by what I would describe as gratitude dreams.
They often involve real situations in my life and my desire to express my gratitude to someone for a burden they have taken on, often on my behalf. There is still an element of anxiety in the sense that I urgently want and need to express my gratitude and sometimes there are obstacles to doing that. Overall, however, I wake up with a heightened sense of well-being and thankfulness, and let’s be honest, at my age, needing to go to the bathroom.
So, my resolution is to dwell in gratitude.
Support others as they make their own way
In preparation for and in the early days on the Camino, I had very fixed views about how to walk the Camino. You need to use this piece of equipment in this way. You need to prepare your body and mind in this other way. You need to deal with your blisters by doing this. You need to be sure you visited these places in this order. You need to wear this kind of shoe and you need to walk at this kind of pace.
No sooner had I walked out of St. Jean Pied de Port than all these rules I had very meticulously crafted fell apart. Everyone I encountered on the Camino had their own way of doing it. It made me very uncomfortable. If I or others didn’t follow this way of walking the Camino, surely disaster would strike. It did not.
I realized very quickly that my role was to support others in walking the Camino in their way. It was not to impose my way.
So, my resolution is to support those who are walking through life with me in their own way of walking and not try to enforce my way.
The strange journey ahead
These are just some of my preliminary reflections on my Camino experience. As I’ve said earlier, I don’t want to change my life. However, there are some things I want to change about myself. It’s too early for me to know what the impact of these resolutions will be or even if I can stick to them. I’m excited to see what the rest of my life will be like if I am able to
- Travel lightly and give up shame
- Accept what has been put in my path and navigate through it
- Make space for faith formation
- Dwell in gratitude
- Support others as they make their own way
When I was designing the fundraising element for walking the Camino, I called it “Walking the Camino for Lasting Change.” It was a play on Episcopal Relief & Development’s tagline “Working Together for Lasting Change” and was meant to inspire people to donate to support Episcopal Relief & Development’s work with children. (It seems to have worked. Thank you everyone for your generous contributions.)
I hadn’t intended “Walking the Camino for Lasting Change” to refer to change in myself. Yet, if I’m able to do just a little bit of what I have resolved to try to do I will indeed have walked the Camino for lasting change, if not necessarily in the way I’d initially thought.
This summer one of Episcopal Relief & Development’s board members, Mike Carscaddon, died from a very aggressive form of cancer. Executive Vice President at Habitat for Humanity International, he was beloved by many. He was one of God’s living saints on earth. I knew him only a short while and came to treasure his friendship and advice. He was unfailingly kind in all his interactions. I admired him deeply. Before his diagnosis, I’d entertained the thought of inviting him to walk the Camino with me and as I thought about him while I walked, I felt he was with me in a way. Selfishly, I grieve not only his death but also all the time he would otherwise have shared with me and many others.
As Mike was nearing the final days of his life here on earth, he said he wasn’t fearful about what came next. He was curious. I hope I can be that alive when my time comes to die.
Mike ended every email communication with the words of St. Francis of Assisi, “Pax et Bonum,” which roughly translated means “Peace and Goodness be with you.”
Thank you for accompanying me on the Camino de Santiago, and as I turn to the strange journey ahead.
Pax et Bonum.