The Camino: My Recent Camino
He Camino was one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. Everything was going smoothly until I got lost and fell into a river. More about that in a minute. I began, as most people do, in the tiny French Pyrenees town of St Jean Pied de Port. I’d been preparing for the past twelve months. What I wasn’t prepared for were the sleeping arrangements from the start. Even though we were staying in a hotel I shared a room with about 15 others, men and women. It is very rare for me to share a room, so I had to get used to it, which I quickly did. Sleeping like this, in bunk beds, sharing bathrooms, getting up at 6 am, really bonded people together; I formed friendships which were to last for the rest of my Camino.
The first days walk was the hardest because we had to climb to 1400 metres and walk for about 30 Kms. There was a long line of us all struggling up the hill. I had made good preparation for this and felt ok; walking up Mt Snowden had been that much harder. The views were spectacular, especially watching the sun rise and the rays breaking through the clouds onto the rolling hills below. Oh yes, this was worth coming for. On top of the climb we were in a beautiful land, lush green meadows, the occasional herd of sheep, horses with bells around their necks, vultures fling overhead; they looked like eagles to me but I was assured they were vultures. Eventually I reached the destination, a former monastery in a place called Roncevalles where I shared a small dormitory with three Italians.
Next day up at six, breakfast on the road after an hour sometimes two hours walk. Every day was different, as was the scenery; never as spectacular as the first day but always special. It was good to walk on your own in the silence of a dark morning, guided by the lights of other pilgrims. God speaks to us in the silence. A priest told us that the Camino teaches us two thing: 1. silence 2. Austerity; that no matter how important you are back home, how much money you have, how big your house is, on the Camino all you have is on your back. And for this reason it’s a great leveller. Another priest told us that it didn’t matter why you were on the Camino, what mattered was that you were on it.
I loved the walking. Tramping on my own or with others. It was the journey rather than the destination that most appealed to me. As I walked along I would sometimes catch up with someone and engage them in conversation. The first question would be where are you from, then why are you doing the Camino. The conversations I had were rarely of a trivial kind, I will remember them for a long rime. Many people didn’t quite know why they were doing this. Some were in some kind of crisis, others were looking for healing, some were walking for others everyone had a story. I had gone on the Camino with a view to vocations: I am the vocations’ director for my Order. We were told last year in Rome that pilgrimages were good for vocations. I met two young men who were searching, one from England another from Hungary. They were asking all the right questions; I was so impressed with their intelligence and openness. Who knows?
I will never forget a picturesque town called Najera, with its river and cliffs. I was by now ten days into the Camino. It was there that I got lost and fell into a river. I had decided to go off the beaten track to walk to a monastery and centre of Christianity dating back to the 6th century: St Millan de Caballo; a world heritage site. It was there that the modern Spanish language, Castilian, was first written The trouble with less beaten tracks is you can lose your way, which I did. It took me too close to a river. I crossed some rocks but lost my foothold and in I went! It was a foolish thing to do. I managed to get out and finding a safe place checked my cuts and bruises, fortunately I had brought plasters; I needed lots of them. I changed my wet socks for dry ones. Only later did I discover I’d lost my phone and my camcorder had been ruined by the water. I set out again, managed to find the right path, and tried to convince myself that everything happens for a purpose. I arrived exhausted at St Milan monastery, it was 7 pm and I’d been on the go since 6 am. However when I got to the door almost on my hands and knees there was a polite notice saying it was closed! St John of the Cross would not have approved of my reaction.
But that was the only negative on the whole trip, and even that experience turned around the next day, when I met one of the monks who showed me the ancient monastery, offered me lunch with the community and drove me to the bus stop, where I got the bus back to Najera. And so it went on for the next ten days or so. My premature destination came two days beyond Burgos. I shall always remember walking into Burgos with a young Japanese lady who was an actress and dreamed of coming to Edinburgh Castle with its connection to Macbeth; a play she evidently loved. The small remote town where I said goodbye to the Camino was called Castro Jerez. I made careful note of where I left a stone (taken from San Milan) and a conker, with a view to picking them up next year when I hoped to continue my Camino. I was sorry not to be continuing with the others who’d become my friends. I knew there would be tears of joy in Compostella when the pilgrims eventually arrived there thirty five days after starting out. I’ll look forward to that next time.
The Camino can be quite challenging. Many people get blisters but that doesn’t stop them. Some cry with exhaustion especially at the beginning. There were people from every nation and people of all ages; the youngest was a baby and the oldest was eighty five. All walking towards a goal (the baby in a special buggy): the tomb of St James. I know that the experience will change those who had come with the right attitude. What a blessing to be able to share it with so many people. As for vocations, that’s all in God’s good hands.