Four years ago, this very week, I was part of a pilgrimage group walking the final 120 kilometers of the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, in northern Spain. In many ways it was an experience of a lifetime.
Our guides explained the very few rules of this pilgrimage that people have been making since the 1200’s. There are three approved methods of travel: you may ride on horseback; you may pedal a bike; or, you may walk. You cannot skip any part of the trail that you are following. This means that when you start back up in the morning, you have to begin at the point that you left the trail the evening before. You actually get a “Camino passport” booklet that you must get at least two stamps in each day from sites along the trail to help show that you did indeed cover your intended route. The final bit of advice was more of an expectation than a hard and fast rule, and that is you should greet anyone you encounter on the trail with a hearty, “Buen Camino”, meaning “have a good walk”.
Our guides were pretty much along just to keep track of us and ensure that everyone was accounted for at least twice per day – at the midpoint of the day’s intended distance, and at the end of the day’s intended distance. Otherwise, we were on our own. That proved to be just fine as it is pretty easy to follow “The Way”. At least once every kilometer, there was a marker that held a scallop shell design, the scallop shell being a symbol of a pilgrim, usually painted in bright yellow and turned in the direction that you should go. There was also a small bronze plaque that displayed the number of kilometers yet to journey to reach the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago. Occasionally there would be additional markers in-between the kilometer posts such as a yellow arrow painted on the side of a building, or even painted right on the road, if that section of the trial was paved.
Although I was with a larger group, a dozen of which I knew fairly well, I made the trip on my own. As my wife explained succinctly when asked why she was staying at home, “Walking twenty miles a day doesn’t sound like much fun to me.” Well, that was a bit of an exaggeration as we only walked twenty miles one of the days; most days it was between fifteen to eighteen miles per day. I am a full-blooded introvert; I am comfortable with myself and my thoughts, and I intended to spend the days in contemplative prayer, so the idea of walking all day, mostly alone, was attractive to me.
I expected to have a powerful encounter with God, and I had several. He always manages to surprise me with his generosity. Most of those experiences are for other stories and other days. The one encounter, or rather many encounters I had each day with that simple greeting, “Buen Camino” are what I would like to share in this essay.
I was surprised how easy it was for me to greet others. You quickly come to appreciate that exchanging “Buen Camino” immediately reinforced a sense of community, of shared experience. It was common that a shared greeting led to a conversation. I usually find talking with people I don’t know difficult and a bit awkward, but knowing that you were both on The Way provided a natural starting point.
I found it interesting that many of the people I walked with, however briefly, were not motivated to walk the Camino for religious reasons. I spoke with people from most European countries and found that the younger folks consider this a rite-of-passage experience; many of the younger people I spoke with had just completed their education and were walking before they settled into a job. Even many of these, however, spoke of being surprised to have discovered a greater sense of peace and purpose. I smiled. The Holy Spirit speaks to every heart and never overwhelms.
I also had extended walking conversations with a couple of fellow pilgrims that were exclusively about faith. One was from Australia, the other from Ireland. The give and takes were enlightening and refreshing. I found at dinner with our group one night, the priest who was our spiritual director for the pilgrimage, talking about this extraordinary conversation he had that day with a young lady from Australia. It turned out to be the same person. I described her to him and the others at our table as a “walking homily” from the many spiritual experiences she shared. I have found however, that four years later I haven’t used any of her stories in a homily, as they were deeply and personally her experiences. Hers were the kinds of stories that can only be told from the first-person perspective.
The third type of shared greetings were those from the old people in the many little villages that you walk through. It was not uncommon to find an elderly man or woman simply sitting in a chair, outside their house where they could greet pilgrims as they walked by. I remember one whiskered gentleman, seated in a wooden chair, hands propped out front on his cane and obviously enjoying the warmth of the morning sunshine. He wore a very appropriate beret and black wool coat. His eyes were deep and smiling. “Buen Camino” he said as he nodded. “Buen Camino” I responded. This man was not walking The Way. In fact, I suspect that it took a great deal of effort for him to get from his house to that chair. But still I recognized him as a fellow pilgrim.
He grounded me in the reality that the simple greeting, “Buen Camino” is not only about the journey to the Cathedral of St. James. It is about our life journey. Each of us makes that journey surrounded by others, but we must make our own way. Occasionally special people draw near and walk alongside us for part of the journey – they lighten our hearts. But each one of us has to find purpose, find direction, and find God for himself. Those who do, have a most successful pilgrimage because their steps are guided by love.
Don’t miss the metaphor. Pack light. Wear sturdy shoes. Take your time. Enjoy the journey. Greet others warmly. Pray.