Walking the Camino

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Fireworks explode over the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, during celebrations marking the feast of St. James July 25. The cathedral is a major pilgrimage site and said to be built on the tomb of the apostle. (CNS photo/Miguel Vidal, Reuters) (July 27, 2009)

Late last year, 13 pilgrims from Australian Catholic University walked the last 115 kilometres of the famed Camino de Santiago. One of them, Dr John Ballard, reflects on the experience …

Pilgrimages have many starting points that all lead to a single destination. In October this year, 13 staff and friends of Australian Catholic University, including my three-year old son, participated in the University’s annual program to encourage deeper reflection through participation in pilgrimage.

This year we walked the last 115km of the historic Camino De Santiago through the beautiful rural hills of Galicia in the northwest of Spain from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. Our geographic destination was the tomb of St James (San Tiago in Spanish) the Apostle.

This was a structured program bringing people together with a desire and openness to walk the way or path, in Spanish the Camino. It entailed 13 days of guided pilgrimage including six days of walking this last portion of the Camino.

The legend of St James and how he got to Spain

On either side of the walk there were opportunities to explore Madrid, Santiago de Compostela, Finisterre ending in mass at the beautiful Church of Our Lady of the Boat in Muxia. It is a region and path steeped in history and symbolism.

We aimed for an experience that would enliven participants with the culture, sights and sounds of Spain and the symbolism and inner journey of pilgrimage. The priest, monk and mystic Thomas Merton wrote:

“The geographic pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.”

We strived for both.

The ACU pilgrims relax for the evening. Dr Ballard, the author, is holding his three year-old son, Byron.

Criss-crossing Spain and the whole of Europe are a network of pathways walked for a millennia leading to the tomb of St James, brother of St John, both of whom were among the first four disciples of Christ.

James was the first of the Apostles to suffer martyrdom in 44AD. The apocryphal story leading to the internment of St James in Spain, then Iberia, begins with the Apostle travelling from the Holy Land to evangelise in Iberia. On his return he was beheaded by order of Herod Agrippa.

It is said that friends, with the help of angels, carried his body by boat to the Iberian Peninsula where his remains were encased in stone. The stone was buried with St James on a hill in Galicia.

In the early ninth Century a shepherd is later said to have seen a light on a hill and discovered the cave that was the resting place of the Saint and this quickly became a destination for pilgrimage.

The town of Santiago de Compostela evolved on the site and throughout Spain and to a degree elsewhere in Europe, infrastructure developed to support the increasing number of pilgrims.

Who are the pilgrims?

A pilgrim strides along through the countryside in a scene from the PBS documentary “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago,” which follows pilgrims as they hike from southern France to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. The trek takes about 30 days. Santiago de Compostela is a famous Catholic pilgrimage site because what are believed to be the remains of St James were discovered there. Photo: CNS, courtesy CaminoDocumentary.org

People would walk the Camino for a host of reasons, historically as an act of pilgrimage, an act of penance, or as the sentence for a civil crime and today the range of reasons is broader still; some with deep personal intention, a faith commitment, in search of a spiritual experience or simply for the enjoyment of a long series of consecutive day walks.

Each pilgrim carries a ‘credential’, a passport that identifies them as a pilgrim and entitles them to stay at the albergues and refugios, the pilgrim hostels.

Along the way one needs to collect evidence that you have personally walked the Camino by collecting stamps from your accommodation, cafes and local churches. These are checked in Santiago before you can be issued a Compostela, the certification that you have walked the pilgrim trail.

You also need to “make the pilgrimage for religious or spiritual reasons, or at least an attitude of search.”  There is much latitude in the last condition.

Due to our time limitations we started our walk from Sarria as one must walk at least 100km to qualify for the Compostela and you must have at least two stamps a day to demonstrate that you have indeed walked the specified distance.

A pilgrim rests along the Way of St James in the northern Spanish town of Burgos. Photo: CNS, Felix Ordonez, Reuters

We were 13 staff and friends of ACU, some of whom I knew and some I met for the first time in Madrid. I grew to know each person in greater depth and was deeply touched by their camaraderie and support of me and of one another.

My wife and I were pushing our three-year old along with us and it was hard going. Our colleagues could not have been more supportive, volunteering to push and helping my wife negotiate her phobia of heights as we crossed a very high and narrow bridge.

On the day we were walking to Santiago I awoke with a chest infection and though a short walk with an early start, I was daunted at the prospect of pushing the pram up the very steep hill.

I spoke to my colleagues and assured them that I could make the hill but not in time to join them for the mid-day pilgrim’s mass. We would go to the 7:30pm mass that night.

They firmly informed me that they had met to discuss this and that no-one was to be left behind, we would enter the Cathedral together and they would push the pram in relay. I was deeply moved.

A pilgrim a rest on steps in front of the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, on 25 July, the feast of St James the Greater. Each year to mark the feast, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims make their way along an ancient path that leads to the cathedral. Photo: CNS, Miguel Vidal, Reuters

On our first night in Sarria, two of our colleagues, both experienced nurses, told us it was clear now why they were to be walking the Camino at this time.

A lady had suffered a stroke just outside of our hotel as they were approaching the entrance. They administered care, contacted emergency services and briefed the paramedics on arrival. I am sure that this contributed to a positive outcome for the victim of the stroke.

Galicia the Green

We ambled our days through rural Galicia, along Tolkienesque forest paths, bordered by fields or moss covered stone walls; up and down many hills, some harder than others.

There were belled cows herded along the track, beautiful eucalypt stands and elevated corn cribs. These structures were once a sign of family wealth and are beautifully distinctive.

Galicia is intensely rural and a major dairy region of Spain. The corn was often to feed the cows and the stone base of the crib elevates a narrow storage shed with tiled roof, topped with a cross and often a weather vane or other adornment.

The impact of walking through the morning mist and seeing one emerge in the field was exhilarating. The closer to Finisterre the greater the likelihood that the crib is built entirely of stone and the elevated plinths are mushroom shaped to stop vermin reaching the crib.

A shell hangs from a walking stick as a group of 200 pilgrims with disabilities walk the Way of St James in Burgos, Spain in 2010. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims were making their way to the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St James the Greater are believed to be entombed. Photo: CNS, Felix Ordonez, Reuters

The weather was mild – 17 to 22 degrees – and this lasted throughout the trip with occasional rain in the evening. Three days after we had completed our pilgrimage, it changed dramatically, dropping to 2-7 degrees and snow on the hills. We were very fortunate.

The benefit of walking in early October is that there are fewer people on this – the busiest – section of the Camino. We adjourned each night to comfortable accommodation, an evening Mass or reflection, a sumptuous meal and lively conversation. Where possible, we invited a pilgrim to join us as ACU’s guest and this enriched the evening.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela, attending the Pilgrim’s Mass, experiencing the theatre of watching the great 80kg Botafumeiro (the thurible) soar through an arc of 160 degree, whistling and trailing incense is exciting. It is a thing of the outer journey, a symbol of completion of the physical nature of the walk.

We have now returned home to our daily routines but for my fellow pilgrims and I, the Camino remains with us, along with a desire to find ways to enjoy the benefits of a slower, more reflective pace. The inner journey continues.

Dr John Ballard is Associate Vice-Chancellor of ACU