For the first 24 days of the Camino I read slowly through the gospel of Luke, one chapter per day. I expected that my different context would cause me to come to the text from a different angle. But I was not prepared for the degree to which this was the case. It was as if I had never read this gospel before; there were new insights and perspectives popping out at me every day. The most impactful and enduring of these was a fresh appreciation of how direct Jesus was in his dealings with people. There was no beating about the bush. He was, as we sometimes say, “in people’s faces”, with challenge, confrontation, even provocation. To my middle class, western sensitivities he seemed a bit rude at times – lacking in tact. Yet I felt drawn (and disturbed!) to consider how I might emulate this aspect of Jesus character. That was not a comfortable thought at all.
At the same time I was reflecting on the conversations I was having with people along the road and being convicted by the Holy Spirit about my tendency to be judgemental of others. Later I shared this with one of my friends in the UK and she said, “Rick, that can’t be right. I’ve never known you to be judgemental.” Well, that just shows how cleverly I hide my inner thoughts. But there’s no pulling the wool over God’s eyes. He sees it all very clearly. Anyway, being challenged about being less judgemental and more direct at the same time put me in a bit of a tangle. I realised that my way of being more direct with people usually involved a dose of being judgemental along with it. And I could work on being less judgemental, but that would usually result in me being less direct as well. I can see that Jesus was both non-judgemental and direct at the same time, but I don’t see that in me. Plenty of room for growth then! Then I realised this is simply a restatement of John 1:14, that Jesus came full of grace (of which non-judgement is a part) and truth (of which directness is a part). This has been a personal paradigm for ministry practice and character development for me for well over ten years. Here I am STILL working on it! Lord, help me to make some progress.
I was able to have spiritual conversations with others doing the Camino every single day, and several times each day. This is not my normal experience in day-to-day life. I would think I’m doing well if I have a spiritual conversation with a stranger once per week. Why was it such a rich time of deep conversation? There are several factors. Firstly, the Camino de Santiago is consistently presented as a spiritual pilgrimage, both by those who offer support services for pilgrims and also in the literature. Over a thousand years of history lies behind this walk, and those who follow the route can’t help but be affected by that history of religious devotion. Secondly, physical pilgrimage – taking a long walk – is a very apt metaphor for the inner journey of spiritual seeking that is common to all human beings at some point in their lives. These first two factors, taken together, explain why pilgrims will routinely ask one another, “Why are you walking?” The question makes perfect sense and drives immediately to the inner journey for which the outer journey is a symbol.
And I think there were other conditions, not general ones like the two I’ve mentioned but particular ones relating to my experience, which helped me to have so many spiritual conversations. I was practising being non-judgemental. I’m sure that opened some doors. I was not seeking to ‘sell’ my point of view. I was having genuine, mutual interactions with people whose stories and perspectives were of real interest to me. At the same time I was prepared to ask fairly blunt questions of others. You could call it being nosey, but my conversation partners were up for it. It was as if they had been longing for someone to open up these lines of discussion. Further, I was trying to be as honest and vulnerable as I could about my own uncertainties and frailties. I was not saying, “I’m a Christian and have it all together and wouldn’t you like to be like me?” Finally, I was trying out some different language. If I had said, “You know, God really loves you”, that would have been dismissed as religious claptrap. Instead I tried saying things like, “The universe is a friendly place, don’t you think?” I found this engaged people far more readily and we would be away into an interesting chat within seconds.
The people who were so open to have spiritual conversations with me on the Camino, had only days before been in another setting and undoubtedly were not nearly so open to have those conversations. On the Camino the right conditions were created that put people in the sort of headspace (heartspace?) in which they were ready to talk. Now I’m asking myself if those conditions can be replicated away from the Camino. The first two factors above – the environment that reflects a history of devotion and participation in the powerful metaphor of walking – cannot be readily reproduced in daily life. However, I do think that if I am non-judgemental, have a respectful, listening stance, take the chance to ask probing questions, am willing to be vulnerable and carefully choose my language to use interesting turns of phrase that avoid religious jargon – if I do these things, then perhaps I might have more Camino-type conversations in my daily life.
Arriving into Santiago 30 days after setting out, my feelings were mixed. My heart was yearning to be with my family and friends once again, and yet I had come to love the road. There was a sense of accomplishment, but that was swallowed up by the prospect of a new beginning in which I wanted to weave the best of my pilgrimage experience into my everyday way of life. I went to the midday Mass they hold for pilgrims at the Cathedral. I was touched by the hospitality shown to me and all the other non-Catholics there. Technically, I don’t think they are supposed to offer communion to us, but they don’t ask questions and all are invited. I didn’t participate. Not because of any problem between the Lord and me or because of any negativity toward Catholicism on my part. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but something was not yet finished.
With a few days up my sleeve, I took the bus out to the coastal village Finisterre, a place name which means, ‘the end of the earth’. In medieval days pilgrims would burn their clothes at Finisterre in a cleansing ritual. Those threads were probably so dirty, worn out and flea-ridden that’s all they were good for! These days many pilgrims still burn something they have worn on the Camino, or leave it behind under a rock when the weather is so cold, windy and wet that they can’t get a fire started (which is often). The most common items burned or left behind are shoes/boots. That might be less about cleansing and more about exacting revenge for the pain that footwear has inflicted. Glorious weather prevailed the day I was there and as I sat on a rock overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, I experienced a sense of being initiated into the next season of my ministry. The transition of two years was complete, and I stood up released from the past and ready for the future.
Arriving back into Santiago on a Sunday morning, I had a few hours left before my flight back to the UK. I had just enough time to attend a service at the Baptist Church near the bus terminal. What a delight to gather with this small but lively bunch of disciples! It was their first service in their brand new facility and the place was full of joy. On my way inside I saw their sign, which reads, ‘Iglesia Bautista: Jesus Es El Camino’(Baptist Church: Jesus Is The Way). I was hugged and kissed and fussed over and had multiple invitations for lunch even before the meeting began. Six adults who had been baptized the day before were welcomed into membership. I had just enough Spanish to get the gist of the preaching – a message about living hospitably. When it came time for communion I was eager to celebrate the end of my Camino with these folks with whom I share the same passion for living on The Way.
Not everyone can go on physical pilgrimage. But if you can possibly manage it, I encourage you to give it consideration. Of course, the heart of Christian pilgrimage is not essentially a matter of geography but a matter of walking with Jesus. Yet I have found that getting out on the road has opened up a fresh imagination for that journey of divine companionship.