Walking the way...
Its hard to imagine when embarking on a 950 kilometre pilgrimage what it will be like. Reflecting back on 38 days of walking, reflection, prayer and conversation it in some ways feels like it never happened and in other ways it changed me for good.
Each day brought with it it's physical, mental and spiritual challenges. Physically it is the relentless nature of the walking that finally takes it's toll. Each day the distance covered, 25k on average, doesn't seem so much but over the 5 and a half weeks, feet, knees, backs, hips, arms, everything infact does start to grumble! The terrain and weather add to the unpredictable nature of the Camino with cold nights, hot days, storms, mountain ranges to cross and days on end of long flat roads which seem to never end!
Just simply dealing with the every day of the Way meant waking up at 5am to beat the heat, being able to think at least one meal in advance, packing up and sleeping in a new place each night which I soon realised meant having to offer up many of our usual daily concerns and simply trust to providence that all would be well. For us in our modern and convenient world this is a difficult lesson to learn.
The other pilgrims truly make the Camino what it is and that is why each person will have such a different experience. There is a real sense of community with people sharing the little they have. It was common to cook and eat with other pilgrims sharing tales of what had happened that day. The same faces start to pop up over and over again so friendships are formed and this is what really carried me through. There were days when I could be the person offering encouragement and a listening ear but there were many days when I was greatly in need of this from others.
The opportunity to grow in faith is incredible. I managed to get to Mass most days, confession in English was harder to find but opportunities did present themselves. Walking for hours lost in thought means there is ample time for prayer and self reflection which can be quite confronting to have so much time to think through life and the decisions that have been made along the way. Many people go through a myriad of emotions and are facing their past for the first time. It was not a surprise that all the priests and religious we saw were always surrounded by hoards of pilgrims wanting to talk to them and receive help, guidance and love.
Arriving into Santiago was wonderful, I had a few tears when I got to the square and when I got to the tomb of St James away from the chaos that was the cathedral above, I realised what an incredible priviledge it was to have walked this ancient Camino route that so many have walked before. Our 'hardships' were nothing compared to those early pilgrims who literally risked their lives to get to Santiago and having struggled so much myself I am in awe of what they managed to do.
The camino continues even once it is long finished. The lessons learned do stay with with me and our prayers are being answered. I would encourage anyone to do the camino. There is no one too old, too sick, too unfit. We met many retired people walking, some had walked from Rome, Holland and France. We met people walking with chronic illnesses and many people who were at a major crossroad in their life. If this is an experience you would like to have don't let anything get in your way, the rewards are very great!