The Camino de Santiago is an approximately 500-mile path through Northern Spain, and though it is over 1000 years old, has been recently popularized through the writings of Paulo Coelho and the 2010 movie, The Way. For many, the Camino is a physical challenge, fun adventure, social interaction, religious experience, bucket list item, and/or a sightseeing expedition for nature, beautiful churches and monasteries. Over my 40-day walk, I savored the simplicity, solitude, daily exercise and nature – the incredibly varied scenery – the sense of change over the 500 miles -from mountains to mesas to verdant near rain forest, and weather from stifling heat to snowy blizzards was astounding.
My Camino became a silent meditation, a very personal, spiritual journey. I chose to largely shut myself off from the outside world and from many of my fellow pilgrims walking the Camino. I created a ‘bubble’ returning to my own center – and learned much from that place of Solitude. Embarking on this pilgrimage for over a month was qualitatively different from a much shorter trip; the experience became a part of who I am rather than a break from who I am.
The Camino I experienced was a place of love and soulful connection and acceptance – how is it possible that in the same planet we have wars, conflict and strife? The brief glimpses I got of “World News” seemed completely surreal and bizarre. Looking at Facebook, I was shocked and disturbed by the level of angst and negativity. Not for a moment questioning the sincerity or disagreeing on most of the issues posted, I came to the realization much of our reality is what we choose to experience and focus on. While we can strive to do great service in the world, hopefully we are also not consumed by those problems we are addressing.
Though I’m not Catholic or Christian (and find much to be concerned about in all institutional religions), the Camino certainly didn’t bring me closer to any religion. After a while on our journey, the beautiful, incredibly ornate churches felt more like symbols of hierarchical power and massive amounts of wealth and resources spent in buying indulgences with funds derived from oppressing serfs in the Middle Ages. I found it strange that a religion which is theoretically about something greater than humans spends so much effort venerating human saints. However, I was constantly reminded of people’s desire for answers, meaning and belief in something greater than themselves.