I committed to walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela on an impulse. A friend casually asked if I would be interested in walking it with him one day. Immediately, without thinking it through, I was hooked and determined to make it happen. This is not normal behaviour for me. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I think there was something of a tug from the Holy Spirit involved. Yes, there was an appeal to my sense of adventure, but the Camino is not just any old walking trail. This is a bona fide pilgrimage– one of the big three that date back to medieval times: Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. So perhaps I was also motivated by my love of history and connecting with ancient practices of discipleship. And yet I knew in some visceral way that my urge to go on pilgrimage was far more than an educational history excursion. It was to do with working out how I would follow Jesus right here, right now.
Getting ready to go took me two years. I’m sure others could manage to get themselves organised more quickly but that’s how it was for me. Those two years form the boundary between my ministry in the past and my ministry in the future. It’s been two years of realigning myself to a new call, and the Camino was to be a pivotal moment in that transition. When getting ready for a major pilgrimage, there are four major areas of preparation to be attended to. I’ll go through them one by one because each of these areas has direct relevance to disciplines and practices that may sustain and develop a missional life in our communities. I won’t tediously spell out specific applications of implied principles but I encourage you to make the connections that relate to your particular context.
Firstly, you have to prepare your schedule. That means clearing the necessary time in your diary. In my case that was five weeks – not an easy task! And it involves researching and planning your route. There are several Camino pathways. They all end in Santiago de Compostela but you can start in many different places. I ended up choosing to walk the 800-kilometre Camino Frances route, which starts in St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrenees. John Brierley’s Pilgrim’s Guidewas very helpful in planning daily stages. Preparing your schedule builds anticipation and resolve. As your imagination gets fired up you start enjoying the journey before you have even taken one step.
Secondly, you have to prepare your kit. I was not at all experienced in outdoor pursuits and had very little of the necessary gear. On pilgrimage, when you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t want to be lugging stuff you don’t really need. And you want whatever you do take to be efficient, light, strong, durable, multi-purpose and easy to use/wear. Some obvious life lessons to be drawn from that. My biggest surprise in this area was to realise the usefulness of walking poles. In my vanity, I thought they looked a bit silly and a bit unnecessary for an able-bodied man, so I almost didn’t buy a pair. That would have been a serious mistake.
Thirdly, you have to prepare your body. I had only a basic level of fitness when I decided to walk the Camino, so my body needed some serious training. My schedule for the Camino required me to walk an average of 27 kilometres each day. The first time I tried walking that distance in one go in training I really hurt myself. There was so much to learn about hydration, stretching, massage, blister prevention and so on. I began walking 5 kilometres daily in the boots I intended to wear on the Camino. I built this up to 10 kilometres per day over the course of a year, with the occasional longer walk. By the time I headed to Spain I was confident I had done the necessary preparation. I was wrong. Three days into the Camino I was in a lot of pain with dreadful blisters. If not for the help of the Spanish woman who ran one of the albergues I don’t know what I’d have done.
Fourthly, you have to prepare your soul. Well, maybe you don’t haveto. But if you want to approach the Camino as a pilgrimage and not just a long walk, some soul work is crucial. My processes for preparation were reading, praying and conversations. I devoured several books to get in touch with the issues. Martin Robinson’s Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths is full of fabulous quotes arranged around some thoughtfully crafted themes. In terms of soul preparation I was especially grateful for Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey. I can’t recommend that book highly enough. I also read through Exodus and spent many hours meditating on Psalm 84. My prayers centred on the question of what God wanted to do in me over the month I was away. Early on I was keen to be prepared to witness to others on the Camino but I became convinced this was not the first matter on God’s agenda. My soul work in prayer was to get to a place of receptivity. Conversations with a few people who had walked pilgrimages were useful, mostly for dispelling romantic expectations of Damascus Road experiences!
Exactly what makes walking the Camino de Santiago so impactful is hard to express. Part of it has to do with being away from the myriad of annoying little details that complicate normal daily existence. A decision has to be made about how ‘in touch’ one wants to be on pilgrimage. It’s a very personal matter, with no right or wrong. Apart from a phone call to my wife every few days, I chose to switch off all my devices – no phone, iPod or computer, no Facebook, Twitter or email – and I was very glad of that choice. Life became very simple on the Camino. It gave space to think, space to talk with others without the pressure of time or agenda, space to simply be. Another source of the deep impact is the earthiness of the experience. Walking is an effective way to get connected to a landscape and the people and culture embedded within that landscape. It’s a very different experience than travelling in a car or bus or train. And, of course, when walking significant distances you become very aware of your body – both the pain and the strength – which is an experience that gets pretty earthy. Engaging in pilgrimage as a deeply spiritual exercise is a powerful antidote to Gnosticism.
Walking through Spain on this pilgrim path creates wonderful memories, but the deeper value of it is in the personal transformation that takes place. No doubt this is slightly different for everyone who does the Camino, with, perhaps, some common threads here and there. What was the personal transformation that happened in me? I need to be a bit careful here because it’s too early to tell whether, in fact, I have undergone personal change or have simply become aware of areas of my life that are in need of transformation. I hope that at least a start has been made in certain aspects of my character. So, at the risk of setting myself up, I’ll have a shot at naming them. Something in me is shifting in terms of patience, perseverance, tolerance and acceptance of others, gratitude for simple things and resisting drivenness so I can manage my energy levels wisely. I cannot transform myself in these areas through the effort of will, but God’s Spirit can change me. The Camino has focussed my attention so that I am now tuned in to cooperate with his power at work on those things. It’s the process Paul was talking about in Colossians 1:29.