Something inside you changes when you decide that whatever you need for living – apart from the hospitality of strangers – will fit in a backpack you carry day after day.
Something inside you changes when you let your feet (and mind!) wander on unfamiliar terrain in a foreign land.
And something inside you changes again when hills are steep, the sun is hot, the road is longer than you ever dreamed your legs could sustain you … yet a friendly fellow pilgrim’s face greets you with a smile as you straggle into a tiny town for a beer, a bite to eat, and a bed for the night.
Sarah and I experienced all these changes and more when we began walking across Spain in early fall, 2019 on the Camino de Santiago. I had been treated for cancer and was preparing to retire the next year. Hour by ever-changing hour, our spirits were renewed and we drew closer than ever to each other in forty years of marriage – particularly when misfortune struck. She fell one day and hit her head. I got sick and visited four hospitals seeking relief (fortunately we were in a large city that day). My setback cut short that pilgrimage. We flew home to the States with tears in our eyes and a vow to return.
Covid delayed us, though, until this past fall. Starting where we had stopped brought new awakenings, challenges and life lessons; but reaching the city of Santiago – the official goal of the walk – didn’t end the journey. In Miami, waiting for our flight to Raleigh, I said, “We finished the Camino, but the Camino isn’t finished with me.”
While Sarah attended to family obligations here, I flew to Spain again this past April. By then, my cancer had returned. I added pills to my backpack as another necessity, knowing they might sap some of my strength. Blessedly, they didn’t. After two autumn walks, the springtime vistas evoked new life – in the greening landscapes, and in me.
The Camino de Santiago has been a pilgrimage route for a thousand years or more. My preparation for it began, unknowingly, decades prior, when I read Three Mile an Hour God by Kosuke Koyama. The author reflects on ways God’s earthly presence is measured at that walking pace: approaching Adam and Eve in the Garden, accompanying disciples in Galilee, or providing spirit-enriching alternatives to the soul-crushing madness of our typical scamper from one thing to the next.
Long distance spiritual travel also helps me see that we have multiple ongoing pilgrimages in life – including my journeys with cancer. And each pilgrimage informs the others.
Along the Way, two sayings appeared, holding deep meaning:
“Pilgrim, there is no path; you make a path by walking.” (A. Machado); and
“Solvitur ambulando – It is solved by walking.” (St. Augustine)