This week, Phileena Heuertz of the Gravity Center will be sharing her two part series describing her life changing pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago in Spain.
“We see in these swift and skillful travelers a symbol of our life, which seeks to be a pilgrimage and a passage on this earth for the way of heaven.” (Pope Paul VI)
On a brisk early morning in May, my husband, Chris, and I awoke to the first day of our sabbatical. It was the beginning of a 33-day pilgrimage from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, to El Catedral de Santiago (The Cathedral of St. James) in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. We detached from our work and determined to walk the ancient Camino.
We had committed to walking every day to cover the nearly 600 miles it would take to reach our sacred destination. For nearly 1,200 years, saints and sinners have walked El Camino de Santiago for all manner of reasons. In one way or another, most people walk the Camino to find themselves or to find God. Curiously, by walking this historic way, most are propelled further into their lifelong search for both.
Setting Out to Camino
Having never really even day-hiked before, Chris and I had no idea what we were getting into. Nevertheless, we laced our boots and slung our packs on our backs with eager anticipation.
Our first day out, we found ourselves climbing and descending the Pyrenees Mountains. We walked through various terrain and even more varied weather. We experienced a temperature fluctuation of 50 degrees. We passed through blazing sun, followed by dropping temperatures and a hail storm. After about five hours of this excruciating physical feat, I hit my first “wall.” Climbers and athletes of all kinds describe the mental and emotional wall one faces when reaching their physical, mental and emotional limit. Remarkably, the human spirit can break through these walls time and time again.
I don’t think I had ever hit this big of a wall before. Emotional breakdown number one hit me on the summit when a hail storm set in and the temperate dropped to hypothermic conditions. Somehow I kept putting one foot in front of the other and carried on.
As time went on and we had still not reached our destination, emotional breakdown number two hit. The storm had increased its rage with rain and snow, and the temperature continued to fall. I cried in agony and told Chris that I didn’t know how I could continue. He encouraged me, and remarkably I made it through. If I had stopped, we would have surely died of hypothermia.
Finally we began to descend. The rain and snow continued to fall, but as we made our way to lower elevations, the temperature started to rise and the snow turned to a cold rain. Unbeknownst to me at the time, we had lost the trail. Chris was carefully navigating our way, but in the storm we missed an important marker and took a wrong turn. We were descending, but off the beaten path. Our destination was still not in sight, but we had to keep moving.
As I wound my way through trees, brush and muddy earth, the rain fell harder. Despair set in because, after all these hours, we still had no idea how far we were from the end. With one more weary step, I slipped in a mudslide and landed flat on my backside. That was it! Emotional breakdown number three with a vengeance! The third wall was even bigger than the other two. My tears mixed with rain and mud, and I knew I couldn’t go on. Chris turned around to find me in my muddy mess and said, “Honey we can’t stop here. You can do it. It won’t be long.”
Somehow I got to my feet. We walked only about 500 feet more and, like an oasis in the desert, we spotted our destination!
We arrived at the ancient monastery of Roncesvalles on the eastern border of Spain. A gothic stone hall that held 100 pilgrims would be our shelter for the night. Marveling at the feat I had endured, I knew I wouldn’t have gotten up from the mudslide if it weren’t for Chris’ strong will, determination and compassionate care.
Early the next morning, awakening to the sound of Gregorian chant, we discovered how remarkable the body is. As we slept, our bones, muscles and joints rejuvenated themselves enough that we could walk again, though not without significant pain – a pain that would become my companion every day on the Camino. What just the day before had seemed a romantic stroll through Spain quickly revealed itself as the ancient act of pilgrimage for purification and salvation.