A much-celebrated pilgrimage is the Camino deSantiago, the Way of St. James. The main route leads from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port in France to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain, traditionally understood to be the tomb of St. James the Great, the martyred first Bishop of Jerusalem who had reportedly visited the Iberian Peninsula, preaching and baptizing in apostolic times. He died in Jerusalem in 44 AD. His relics were transferred to Spain in the early ninth century. The authenticity of the relics is disputed, but the missionary visits of James to Spain are not. During the early Middle Ages, Santiago became a much-sought holy pilgrimage site. Diplomacy and international relations at that time were given a boost as large numbers of pilgrims from all over Christendom would flock to Santiago. Kings would have to negotiate treaties so their subjects could travel to the place in safety.
The ideal for pilgrims is to walk the entire route, more than 700 kilometers of level roads, some hilly paths in the Pyrenees, and some treacherous dry stream beds. The challenge is the sheer length of the journey and the number of steps required. Some tour companies operate bus service along parts of the route, a choice for many pilgrims, especially those less capable of extended walking. I planned to walk the entire route at age 69.
I first learned of El Camino while reading a book by Brian Bouldrey in the early 90s. He had ridden a bicycle on El Camino after having lost a partner in the mid-1980s to AIDS. He rode to process his grief, and make sense of the world again. I was profoundly moved by his account, as it mirrored my own experience, having lost my partner in 1987 to the same disease.
In 1994, I was co-leading a spiritual support group for people living with HIV at my Jesuit parish in Manhattan, and asked Brian to come to talk with us when he was next in NYC. His presentation was so inspirational that I promised myself I would "do the Camino" someday in honor and remembrance of all those lost to AIDS. It took me 25 years, but I kept my vow in October 2019.
A friend who had made the pilgrimage recommended a tour-operating company called Santiago Ways. Once I had given them the dates I could travel, they planned the daily trips and nightly lodgings. They also transported my large suitcase every day from one location to another. I was very pleased with their itinerary and the distances between stops each night, usually 23 to 27 kilometers per day. A popular tradition is for pilgrims to stay at hostels along the way that provide a bed and limited amenities. I did not stay in the hostels, although I understand that most of them were fine. I opted to stay in albergues, small private hotels. Since I was turning 70 within 6 months, I needed a guaranteed place with my own bed to sleep and a hot shower every night. The travel company Santiago Ways carted my one large suitcase from one inn to the next everyday while I hauled my 20-pound backpack.
I traveled in the cooler early autumn, when there were fewer pilgrims, and places along the way were less crowded. I attended Mass at least once a week, not always on Sundays. It depended on the town where I stayed, and whether the local parish had a Mass at a convenient time. There are lots of churches along the way where one can stop, pray, and light a candle. I was surprised to discover that some were closed due to Spain’s severe priest shortage. Many parish churches have been consolidated.
Among the treats of El Camino are the people one encounters on the journey. I had been advised that, if I really wanted to maximize my experience, to do it "solo." This makes it easier to engage with others, and forces one out of a comfort zone; to open up to new people and experiences. I would not do it any other way.
I met a 48-year-old man from the Amazon basin in Peru. Married and father of three, he worked to support his family. The first day we walked together, he told me his name. When I asked why he was making the Camino—a standard question each walker would ask as they met someone new—all he said was, “I am here to face my fears." The next day, we bumped into each other, and walked together for about five hours. On that walk, he spoke of his life, how wonderful it was, how full of love it was, and how fortunate he and his family were. But he was literally paralyzed by his fear of death. He had been seeing a therapist for a couple of years, and was on prescription medication to relieve anxiety and depression. He could not enjoy life and his many blessings.
It was then that I recognized exactly why I had been on this journey, and why I had met him. When I was roughly the same age, I had basically been told, "Get your affairs in order. If you survive the next 20 months you will have beaten all the odds." I had determined at the time that, rather than hide, I was going to seize life, celebrate it at every turn, love life and all that I encountered. When my time was up, at least I would have lived it. I told him that I was on this journey right then to announce to him that he would do better to stop fearing death, and to really start living life; run with this gift called life for as long as he could. I had survived a fatal illness and a heart attack at age 67 known as a widow-maker. Now I was walking 700 kilometers in Spain on a spiritual quest. I heard from him after we both returned home. He was so changed by his Camino that he has vowed to do it again with his wife.
Another time, I met a young father who was walking with his 7-year-old son. They would need several years to do the entire Camino together, but by the time the boy is in his mid-teens, the father and son will have created an incredible bond from trekking the Camino together. I also met a woman who was doing the same thing with her 8-year-old daughter.
I met young people on the Camino doing it for all kinds of reasons: some on a sort of spiritual quest, some preparing to start a new job, some as a rite of passage to a new phase in their lives. I can say that everyone I met was looking for something deeper in their lives, something of more consequence. It gives me great hope for the future.
Two events impacted me significantly.
On the first Saturday of the Camino, I could discern rain off in the distance. There were pilgrims ahead of me, so it seemed like a typical day. I stopped at 10 for my morning cafe con leche to warm up, dry out a bit, and get some energy to continue the journey. By the time breakfast was over, the rain had started. Leaving the cafe, I could not see any other pilgrims ahead of me. For the first two hours, I trekked along even though I was drenched, on my own to find the yellow markers designating the trail. The rain continued as the clouds were starting to descend as fog.
I found a yellow marker apparently pointing toward some farmland. This was very unusual for a Camino path, but there it was, so I headed into the pasture. It was 10:30 on my watch. For five hours I continued forward on this path, not spying another yellow marker or human being. There were no cars, no sign of humans or even animals anywhere as I continued to follow the trail as it branched off into smaller and smaller paths. By 3:30 I was very concerned. It was still raining. I could not see the horizon, and was totally drenched. The fear of spending the night lost in the fields was terrifying. No one knew where I was or would even miss me.
Finally, off in the distance I could make out a church belfry. I headed directly toward it. When I arrived, I found the church had been closed, but there was a little settlement with a few houses. I saw one with a small truck parked outside so I knocked on the door. A man in his late 60s opened it. I tried to explain that I was lost, and needed to find the Camino. He tried to explain the directions, but my Spanish is so poor that I could not understand. He then stepped out onto the porch, picked up my backpack, placed it in the back of the truck, and drove me to where I was supposed to be for that evening. I had walked more than 10 kilometers out of the way. When I offered to compensate him at least for gas money, he just shook his head no, smiled, and wished me Buen Camino. I remember him in my prayers to this day.
A most impactful event happened a few days later. It was my first real spiritual epiphany of several that would happen. A friend had recommended that, when I reached the city of Burgos, I visit the Cathedral. Reluctant to veer off the essential route, I was going to bypass it, but I had promised her I would go. I made plans to see it first thing in the morning, and then be on my way. I arrived at 9:15. The Cathedral was closed until 10:00. Forty-five minutes I could have been walking El Camino, I thought, but I waited.
At 10:00 I entered, and immediately ran into a priest. I asked him when daily Mass would take place. He said it would begin in ten minutes, and directed me to a nearby chapel. I walked in, and went toward the altar. When I looked up, I saw the most compelling crucifix I have ever seen. The body of Christ was depicted with purple welts covering His entire body, the result of the beating He had received from the soldiers the night before his crucifixion. It reminded me of all the Kaposi Sarcoma lesions that had covered my partner’s body. I was transfixed. I could not stop weeping. At the end of Mass, I wandered, dazed in the Cathedral for 4 hours in awe and amazement. I felt as though I had somehow been transported to the city of God, and I was walking among the citizens of Heaven.
The most difficult physical event of the journey happened on Halloween. I was scheduled to end that day in Portomarin, an ancient town that was once situated in a valley. After WW II, the Spanish government relocated the town to the top of a neighboring hill, built a dam, and flooded the valley. To get to the new location, the government built a wide 52-step staircase with no handrails. It had been raining most of the day. At 6:15 in the evening, dusk was descending as I climbed this staircase, having walked about 32 kilometers that day. I was exhausted when I reached the top step, and tripped. Thank God I fell forward. Had I stumbled backward, it would have been all over.
I fell right on my forehead. As I started to get up, three fellow Americans with whom I was walking said I should stay still because my head was bleeding profusely. One was a nurse. An Italian couple coming up the stairs just happened to have a first aid kit with them. The nurse patched me up, and everyone escorted me to my lodgings for the evening.
As I was checking in, the receptionist encouraged me to call an ambulance, and go to the ER which was 28 kilometers away. I said I would go upstairs to my room, and wait until morning to make my decision. I bled all night because I am on blood thinners due to my previous heart attack.
The next morning, I decided to continue the Camino. I was only four days from finishing; nothing was going to stop me at this point. The morning receptionist at the hotel had some previous medical experience. She patched me up with a clean bandage, and made me promise I would go to the ER when I got to my next night's destination. By the time I got to the new town, word had filtered out to all the pilgrims. As I walked with my bandage, I received standing ovations for my determination to finish. At the ER, the doctor cleaned the wound, put in two stitches, and sent me on my way to finish El Camino.
On November 4th, at approximately 2:30 in the afternoon I arrived at the plaza in front of the Compostela Cathedral. Pilgrims gathered there because the Cathedral was closed while undergoing extensive renovations. Personnel in a nearby office told me where to go to receive my Compostela, the certificate of pilgrimage completion, the next morning. Afterward, there would be a 9:30 Mass in English for all those pilgrims who had just completed the Camino. I picked up my Compostela, and attended the English Mass with about 70 other pilgrims from India, Australia, South Africa, and Brooklyn, NY.
What do I remember most about my experience? The incredible kindness and generosity of all those I encountered on El Camino. Perfect strangers extended themselves many times to provide support, encouragement, and shout Buen Camino numerous times daily as I walked.
I undertook this adventure to fulfill a 25-year-old vow, to think about retirement, and to see where God is calling me in the autumn of my life. As I face the future, I am reminded of the prayer of Dag Hammarskjöld.
"For all that has been: Thanks.
For all that will be: Yes."
With gratitude and optimism, the path will become clear.