First thoughts on the Camino de Santiago

Around the beginning of the year while flipping through a travel book on Spain, I turned to the Way of St. James, the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. As has happened several times before, chills ran up my arms and down my back at the mere thought of this ancient pilgrimage route. The 465-mile (735-kilometer) trail from the Pyrenees to western Spain was calling me again. Since the ninth century, pilgrims have walked from their homes in all parts of Europe to the burial place of the bones of St. James the Elder, the brother of Jesus and the one who, Spanish tradition says, converted Spain to Christianity.

On May fifth, I leave to walk that route traveled by millions, including St. Francis of Assisi. Every walker has his or her own reason for making the pilgrimage, not the least of which in the Medieval days was a plenary indulgence, the complete remission of your sins in preparation for immediate entry into heaven. This free pass is still available to those who walk The Way in a Holy Year, a year when St. James' feast day, July 25, falls on a Sunday. 2010 is the next one [updated 2/2008]. Many travel the Camino just for the long distant walk. Others walk to take in the history and the architecture of the religious and secular buildings along the way. Still others take the walk as a retreat or a vision quest. Some walk simply to follow the path of the third most holy Medieval pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome. Most, like me, wrap several of these reasons around themselves before they set off.

As I travel the Way and other parts of Spain this spring, I'll try to post updates here now and then as I have the opportunity and inclination.

What am I seeking along the Camino?

In my youth, I wrote out lists of things I wanted to do sometime during my life. Among the items on those lists were these three: go on a retreat of more than a month duration; spend an extended time moving slowly through the highlands of Spain; go on a walk that exceeds 200 miles. The Way of Saint James meets all those criteria and more.

I am walking the Camino to discover the cause of those ever returning goose bumps and chills that set in every time I read about this path along a major Roman highway. That said, I see this walk as a retreat, an epic walk, and a pilgrimage. I also see it as an opportunity to assimilate some of the Spanish countryside, culture, and language.

As a retreat, the Camino will provide time alone with self and with God within and without. It's solitude provides an opportunity to explore my innermost regions and darkest corners. I want to try to connect with the creative core who makes and sustains us. And maybe I'll have time to get in contact with and cajole my inner committee into more harmonic interactivity. I seek religious, spiritual, and metaphysical realization of the oneness of all. I have surely entered this region in the past. And although I know each has to find this realization for him or herself, I seek an experience I can use to lead others to finding it for themselves. I seek no less than the core of life's experience and meaning. It is time for this aging person to get down to the business I am here to do. This search is indeed, in Native American terms, my vision quest.

As an epic walk, the Camino will give me some 465 miles (737 kilometers), more than enough to walk through a transforming wall several times. I look forward to literally be walking through life a step at a time. I do not want to be goal oriented in this, but I am out to walk a lot. How does 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) look as a goal before returning? No. That may sound like a "neat" number, but that's not where I want to put my efforts. Rather, I want to go deep within, to dive down into self and reality (whatever they are) and keep swimming lower and lower beyond the depth where I fear the "bends," beyond the light filtering in from above. I must use the lights provided by the depth to explore that region. And I must have no thought of returning or I will fear challenging the farthest depths. I'll return if I am meant to return. I must use my strength to go as far and deep as the dive will carry me. I will then use what I find there to carry me back--or I will not come back. Nonetheless, I expect to come back, and to come back very different from what/who I was when I left. The long walk should give me the time and environment to attempt this exploration. In these depths of the walk, I will be in the same precincts as I will be in the retreat.

As a pilgrim, I'll be taking myself to the third most revered destination in the Christian world--the tomb of St. James the Greater, the brother and apostle of Jesus, the converter of Spain, and the killer of Arabs (Matemores)--lots of them. The last appellation makes me uneasy because it's sanctifying killing. ("It's ok for us but not for 'the enemy.'") But that title is already providing bounteous fodder to be winnowed in my unending search into the universal questions of good and bad, right and wrong, creation and destruction, all questions I have come to believe are not questions of opposites at all, but rather of unities that reflect two sides of the same coin, sometimes flipped this way and sometimes that. I need to continue looking into the non-dichotomy of these dichotomies.

So in this pilgrimage, as I reflect on the Saint who is my physical destination, I once again am carried into the same deep waters of the retreat and walk.

And as almost a pilgrimage sideline, I carry prayers for peace and reconciliation (and relief from the effects of diabetes) to Santiago along with the prayers of friends and colleagues who cannot make the walk.

To help me assimilate some of the Spanish countryside, culture, and language, the Camino carries me through mountains, valleys, cities, villages, and plains, all deep in the heart of northern Spain, Basque country, and Galecia. National history is everywhere mixed with a thousand thousand personal histories happening now. I may be going through places with histories going back 5000 and more years. But I'll also be passing people whose histories are 10, 20, 30, 40, ... years old, people who are working many hours a day to put bread on their table and a roof over their families' heads. I'll be passing real people with real stories (histories), histories more vital to them than the story of any of the buildings I'll see--unless that building is tied into that person's life.

As for language, it is the tool a person uses to relate to himself or herself, to other individuals, to other peoples. So by learning some of the language, I learn about the people, the place, and the culture. I learn how they talk to each other, how they tell their history.

In walking through the land, I'll walk through the crucible in which the country and the people were melted down and smelted in, and out of which they were poured into the mold of the very same land to be shaped and reshaped for life by its mountains, valleys, planes, rivers, heat, and cold.

In summary, I will be listening closely to the Camino, the countryside, and the people and all their whisperings. But at some point each individual has to stop listening to the words and writings of others, no matter how brilliant or insightful they are, and listen closely to him or herself. That is what I want to do for a while--especially during this pilgrimage. Santiago is not a goal. The Journey is the goal.

To learn more about the Way of Saint James visit one of these sites. Both have extensive links: El Camino de Santiago (Spanish). And if you want to learn still more, type in "Camino de Santiago" at and you'll have more than enouth choices.

When I have finished walking the Camino, if I ever finish, I'll probably visit the Arab centers of Cordoba, Seville, and Grenada and maybe Quixote's La Mancha before returning July 14.

Click here to contact me. I expect to have significant periods of time away from any computer, much less a connection to the Internet, so I may not get back to you soon. But when I stop in at an Internet cafe, I'll try to answer any messages I find.

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