From the very first time I heard of the existence of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage in Spain, I was inextricably drawn to it. I started planning my trip to Spain within weeks after meeting with a friend who had walked the 800km from St Jean Pied de Port at the foot of the Pyrenees in France to Santiago de Compostella in Spain. It has now been eight months since I arrived at the cathedral in Santiago, where for many, the pilgrimage ends.
Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the experience. For 35 days I became a pilgrim. For the first time in my life I had given up all my luxuries and immersed myself in a journey that was not only spiritually focused, but physically challenging as well. Every morning I headed towards a new destination, not always knowing where I was going to put my head at the end of the day. I trusted the advice and accepted the kindness of complete strangers. I shared meals with fellow pilgrims, who, despite the fact that we had never met before this trip, felt like family to me. Our only immediate link was that we had all decided to step away from our ‘normal’ lives for a few weeks in exchange for life on the road. Doctors, artists, drifters, atheists, nuns and priests, we all headed in the same direction day after day, each filled with our own expectations.
The gift of hours spent just walking, and the possibility that it presented for introspection, enabled me to contemplate the deeper issues in my life. I was able to concentrate, undisturbed, on what I regard as the essence of my existence – my relationship with God. In nurturing and developing this all important part of my being, I have since discovered that every other part of my life in turn, is nurtured, grown and strengthened.
The freedom to spend quality time with the Lord, without the normal day to day distractions, is one of the main reasons why the idea of a pilgrimage remains so special to me.
People often ask me whether walking the Camino was a life changing experience for me. On reflection I have to say that it didn’t change my life dramatically but it confirmed in no uncertain terms the importance of having a meaningful relationship with God. Dedication, commitment and perseverance are all requirements for establishing such a relationship. It has to be a way of life and whilst walking in Spain I was constantly reminded of the importance of these attributes. If you're aiming for a destination that is 800km away and you have to reach it by foot, you are going to require quite a bit of dedication, commitment and perseverance!
I’ve also realized that I can never stop pursuing the knowledge and wisdom required to truly understand what the Lord’s plan for my life is.
Something happens on the Camino that can only be described as a ‘coming alive of sorts’. It transcends the normal day to day existence that we all lead. Personally, I felt an incredible peace fall within me. I can’t describe it in any other way. I felt as if a light was switched on somewhere inside of me. I met people who I can only describe as being akin to angels and I have come to realize that all the guidance we need to navigate this world is indeed to be found in God’s word. I found clear, simple and very personal messages on the pages of my little travel bible on a daily basis!
Along the way I encountered a myriad heart shaped objects and if you have read earlier posts on this blog you will know that the heart shape has become somewhat of a symbol to me. The words of Ezekiel 11:19 and 36:26 have had a profound impact on me and as heart shaped stones, flowers, cloud formations and carvings continued to catch my attention on a daily basis, I knew these were affirmations that I would understand. Verses that I had read in the months leading up to the walk became real to me as I had conversations with people along the way. Proverbs 3:5, Philippians 4:7, 1 Peter 3:15, Psalm 37:4, Psalm 51:10 all had a recurring theme and I couldn’t help but conclude that my little heart stones were indeed symbolic of the promises I kept discovering in my little bible.
After I had been walking for a while I somehow felt a very real need to dedicate certain days to people in my life. I would spend time praying for them and as some people had given me prayer requests, I was able to be very specific about this. I have loved sharing the experiences that I had on those days. Seeing someone react to things that speak to them via the photographs that I took on the day that I walked for them, confirms to me that God truly is at work in all our lives!
I quickly learned to accept things as they happened to me. Even the unexpected or the unpleasant did nothing to make me change my mind about walking all the way. Despite all my research beforehand I still had severe blisters on my feet for 31 of the 35 days that I spent on the road. Initially I was intensely aware of it, every step of the way! As the one set of blisters healed, another would form somewhere else on my feet. I had taken a pair of Crocs with me; the purpose of this was to have something to wear in the evenings. Crocs were perfect as it would not add a great weight to my backpack. Taking these shoes with me turned out to be such a blessing, as I was able to wear it on the days that I couldn’t get my feet into my walking shoes.
I soon learnt that even blessings often bring lessons of their own, as the Crocs eventually gave me new sets of blisters! I realized that even blisters carried very specific lessons. I have people in my life who deal with chronic pain, day in and day out. Yet I never hear them complain, in fact they are probably the most positive people that I know. My heart constantly went out to my mother, who has lived with rheumatoid arthritis for years and my friend Sonja, who is fighting a daily battle with a dreaded disease called MSA. In fact, my pilgrimage was dedicated to raising awareness of this illness, for which a cure is yet to be found.
Despite constant physical pain, these people in my life stand out head above water as loving, caring children of God who get on with life, despite their ailing bodies. They encourage others, they support, care for and love with a love that can never be questioned or faulted! I realized that God wanted me to acknowledge and learn from these amazing women. Once I understood this, I walked through the pain with a renewed strength and gratitude. It’s almost as if physical pain simply became a part of me – a reminder not only of suffering, but of so much more!
In conclusion – I am eternally grateful that I was given the opportunity to exchange my everyday life for that of a pilgrim, albeit for a short while. I am thankful that I was granted the grace to understand the special language that God uses to communicate with those who choose to listen. I am thankful for the message in Hebrews 13 that reminded me not to forget to entertain strangers, for by doing so I might encounter angels on the way.
Before embarking on my journey I read many accounts written by others who walked The Way before me. Some of them had that one undeniable life changing encounter with the Lord along the way, some had a few smaller incidents that really stood out for them and some were disillusioned, as they never felt the grand epiphany of sorts that they expected when they started out. I even read about someone who started out as a Christian and ended up being an atheist by the time he reached Santiago! Personally I was not quite sure what to expect, other than that I wanted to cultivate a very real relationship with the Lord. I knew that having a teachable spirit was essential if I wanted the Lord to work in me and through me. I did not doubt for one minute that He would guide me, what surprised me was how very specific and how undeniable His teachings were.
The yellow arrows that I followed on the road to Santiago led me to my final destination in Spain. The inner directions I received were so much more profound and should guide me for a lifetime! Life as a pilgrim has also shaped my testimony and for that I will be ever thankful. What a blessing and what an honour to be able to have the Lord speak to me in a language clearer than my earthly mother tongue!
The following scripture has taken on a new meaning for me after my camino and I know I will continue to call on these words for the rest of my life!
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
* A condensed version of this article appears in the latest printed edition of the Amigos magazine, the publication produced by the Confraternity of St James of South Africa.