I’ve recently returned from a pilgrimage with my husband on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain.
The Camino is an ancient Christian pilgrimage, with many routes, all of them leading to the cathedral in Santiago. We walked the Camino Ingles, an 85-mile route from the port city of Ferrol to Santiago.
Over the last nine centuries or so, Christian pilgrims from all over Europe and the Middle East have made their way to Santiago seeking the promise of forgiveness of sins that came with completing the pilgrimage.
While few pilgrims walk the route these days for religious reasons, the process is nonetheless a deeply spiritual experience.
In making this journey, modern travelers take on the curiously antiquated title of “pilgrim” (or in Spanish, “peregrino.”)
A pilgrim is on a spiritual journey, seeking to be open and alert to the presence of God in the world around them. As a tourist, I love to take in all the sights—exploring the culture, customs and cuisine of a given place.
However, when I shift my personal reference point from tourist to pilgrim, I start to pay attention to different things.
Rather than taking in the “sights,” I start to notice the sunlight, the expressions on faces, the beauty of the earth and of life itself. From such a perspective, frustrations and fatigue seem to fade, making way for gratitude, wonder and joy.
Of course, any designated pilgrimage becomes a metaphor for the ways we live the rest of our lives.
As I have returned home, I’ve tried to put on my “pilgrim hat” more often, shifting my perspective, intentionally noticing and giving thanks for the beauty and goodness that surrounds me.
The “work” of a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago is simply to take the next step.
The Camino is well-marked, guiding pilgrims with official cement guideposts, and helpful yellow spray-painted arrows. With each step, one need only follow the route that centuries of pilgrims have taken before you.
The guideposts become a source of comfort and assurance. It seemed every time we grew a bit little anxious that maybe we had strayed from the route, a comforting yellow arrow would appear.
The days were often long (we averaged 17 miles a day, with backpacks), but the community of pilgrims, along with cafe con leche breaks, seemed to always buoy tired bodies and renew our spirits.
While we all walked the same route, each person’s journey was different. Some make this pilgrimage for spiritual reasons—to discern a “next step” in life, to celebrate a birthday or anniversary or simply to check it off a “bucket list.”
Whatever one’s reasons for walking, as we walked through villages and towns, seeing locals and other pilgrims, the greeting was always the same: “Buen Camino!”—blessings on your journey.
On our last morning on the Camino, with only ten miles to go, we found ourselves lost for the first time.
We had been looking for a guidepost for several blocks, and not seeing one, we stopped to consult our map.
Across a four-lane busy roadway during the morning rush hour, we heard a man shouting to get our attention. He got off his bike, laying it in the dirt, and made started to make his way across the busy road.
Once across the road, he took our guidebook, showing us that we were off the Camino. His deep concern for our journey was almost that of a mother hen, desperate to get her chicks to safety. He instructed us to follow him back across this roadway, where he picked up his bike, and walked us about a half a mile up to a reassuring guidepost and back to the safety of the Camino.
As we thanked him, and returned to the Camino, we found ourselves grateful for having gotten lost, so that we could be found, redirected and inspired by the kindness of this stranger.
Whatever your journey, I hope that you will find signs of beauty and reassurance, the companionship of strangers and loved ones, breaks for rest and renewal, and the courage to take the next step in faith, gratitude and joy.
The Rev. Dr. Amy Aitken is pastor of Riviera United Methodist Church. She is married, with a young adult daughter, three dogs and a cat. She can be reached at email@example.com.