Finding the courage and the stamina to continue on the Camino each day grew more and more difficult. Only 15 percent of all pilgrims actually make it to Santiago. Some give up having decided this way is not for them (at least not at that moment), and other pilgrims die en route. Many days, as our packs weighed down on us and the pain intensified, our gazes turned down; staring at a dirt path and our boots was rarely motivating. At those times, we would encourage one another to keep our heads up, to keep looking around and ahead. In this way, we abandoned ourselves to our surroundings, to the horizon, and to God and found the strength to keep moving.
Before setting foot on the Camino, I was deeply convicted that pilgrimage is not a round trip. I knew that we would begin at one point and end at another. We would not go back and retrace or relive our steps. Each moment would be lived and let go. By way of the Camino, we would make a passage through time and into the next season of our lives. As we walked, our pilgrimage was indeed becoming a passage.
I had no idea that making such a passage would bring so much pain. Neither did I anticipate the depth of joy and love we would uncover. Indulging our senses in the beauty of creation, finding encouragement in the company of ancient and modern pilgrims, and experiencing many Spanish culinary pleasures filled the empty and dry places in our hearts. As we walked and embraced both the pain and the joy, we were being changed. With each step, we were becoming more alive.
“The glory of God is a human being fully alive,” said St. Irenaeus in the second century. On the Camino, we were invited into new depths of what this means. Being fully alive requires a way in which to live. All along the Camino (Spanish for “the way”), we were beckoned to the one who said “I am the way and the truth and the life” (Jesus in John 14:6).
A Purifying Way
Jesus also said that the way to life is narrow, and few find it (Matthew 7:14). This narrow way is often filled with aridity and pain. And sometimes it burns like fire as the prophet and psalmist bear witness to:
“From on high he sent fire, sent it down into my bones. He spread a net for my feet and turned me back. He made me desolate, faint all the day long.” (Lamentations 1:13)
“My heart grew hot within me. I meditated, the fire burned.” (Psalm 39:3)
St. John of the Cross describes this spiritual purgation by fire:
“…this purgative and loving knowledge or Divine light whereof we here speak acts upon the soul which it is purging and preparing for perfect union with it in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself; for material fire, acting upon wood, first of all begins to dry it, by driving out its moisture and causing it to shed the water which it contains within itself … And, finally, it begins to kindle it externally and give it heat, and at the last transforms it into itself and makes it as beautiful as fire.”2
The suffering is worth it. The cost is worth the reward of transformation. I can understand how some pilgrims pass the last miles of the Camino on their knees. It is a joy to suffer because of the purification and transformation it offers.
“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:2-4)
Jesus taught the value of suffering when He said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it” (Luke 9:23-24).
Can we follow the teacher who claims he is the way, no matter what it might cost us? Do we believe that the narrow way leads to being fully alive, that ultimately we could be the glory of God?
On our 33rd day on the Camino, when Chris and I walked hand-in-hand into the early-morning city of Santiago, we could scarcely believe we had really arrived. As we turned the corner, El Catedral de Santiago jutted up before our eyes. Its weathered, westward gates gave us a tired, over-extended welcome. As we drew nearer, the massive structure looked down on us as it had on countless pilgrims through the centuries.
We were the only pilgrims in the plaza at that hour – just Chris, me and the ancient church welcoming us. We marked the moment with a warm embrace and took our personal thoughts to silence. We had arrived. We had made a sacred passage. Our presence would be announced in the afternoon pilgrims’ mass – “Two pilgrims from Nebraska made it to Santiago by foot!”
Journal entry June 5, 2007:
We really did it! We made it to Santiago on foot as we hoped and prayed and cried we would…In addition to the very concrete destination of the cathedral, El Camino de Santiago leads to an internal place. The way is transforming for the body, mind and soul. And the internal destination is a place of peace – a peace that is found by the way in which we journeyed – open, abandoned, dependent, broken, stripped, humbled, receptive, loved.
Life is a Pilgrimage
Yes, we made it to Santiago, but the journey is just beginning in many ways. We made a passage through time to reach one destination, only to commence the next part of the journey. We are inspired anew to press on, walking in a way that is marked with the celebrations of intimacy, obedience, humility, community, service, simplicity, submission, brokenness, and yes – even suffering. Truly these qualities mark our lives as a pilgrimage. For as the Christian scriptures remind us, we are aliens here passing through (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Life indeed is a pilgrimage. Embrace it. Endure it. Live it well.
1 E. Allison Peers, Dark Night of the Soul: A Masterpiece in the Literature of Mysticism.
2 St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul (New York: Image/Doubleday, 1990, 1959), p. 127