What amazing contrasts and contradictions!
I’ve loved interacting with all the other peregrinos on the road to Santiago de Compostela and am intrigued by a landscape and route so heavily steeped in centuries-old Christian tradition. How remarkable that literally millions during the past thousand years have made the pilgrimage to the same fabulous Roman Catholic cathedral that is a shrine to St James the Greater, an apostle of Jesus Christ.
Whenever the Day of St James – July 25 – falls on a Sunday it is regarded as a Holy Year and last year attracted a record 280,000 pilgrims, around 100,000 more than expected for 2011. The next Holy Year will be in 2021!
It was in this region of Spain that the mortal remains of St James were apparently rediscovered centuries after his death and it seems that his compelling story lies somewhere between legend and fact; and between superstition and belief.
Some make the pilgrimage earnestly believing their sins will be forgiven and the slate wiped clean, while others walk for a multitude of reasons, many to gain fresh perspectives and to find deeper meaning in their own lives. It is also a great way to get fit and a surprisingly cheap holiday. Whatever the reasons for walking I feel sure the Camino always delivers special gifts.
How intriguing though that every hamlet along the way boasts an impressive church, although so many are now locked and inaccessible to pilgrims other than during mass or formal services. Instead the innumerable bars, cafes and restaurants lining the Camino routes have become the informal meeting places for peregrinos.
Today I’m exhilarated to be beginning a new pilgrimage and leaving 95% of my beloved fellow pilgrims behind as I walk less-travelled paths to Finisterre; following in the footsteps of ancestors who navigated by the stars to what they believed was the end of the Earth. All of my close Camino friends ended their adventure at Santiago and I relish the contrast of a more intense, solitary experience and an opportunity to integrate all the insights and lessons of the past month.
Allocating three days to cover around 63 miles (100km) my big surprise arrives on the second day when I find myself staggering in high winds that threaten to topple me over, while driving rain penetrates everywhere. I’m utterly exhausted and my hands so cold they barely function.
I enter a bar, leaving a wet trail to the counter, and order a hot drink; only to discover my hands are too numb to tear open the sachet of drinking chocolate, spilling much of it. Then I lack the co-ordination to stir the drink and eventually just cup it between my palms, gratefully enjoying the warmth.
Why not book into the albergue next door, the proprietor wisely suggests – and it’s the best idea I’ve heard in ages. I didn’t realise there was a pilgrim hostel nearby and recognise that I’m in poor physical shape although still cheerful. I’ve walked only 14 miles (22km), planning to go another 10, but appreciate the logic in getting warm and dry. And in allowing four days to reach Finisterre instead of three! Four other pilgrims have a similar idea and we build a fire to generate enough heat to dry our clothes and then have a marvellous shared meal of vegetable soup, pasta, bread and a local wine.
The next day I head out feeling revitalised and walk 21 miles (34km), enjoying each step and hardly noticing the weight of my pack. Even the familiar pains in my feet are diminished. It’s a high point and the best is to come on the final day when I reach the town of Finisterre and then eagerly stride on another 2 miles (3km) to the lighthouse at the tip of a rocky promontory jutting into a wild, windswept Atlantic ocean.
It’s the final countdown and I reach a mileage marker that reads 0.00km where I photograph a young couple alongside it, who return the favour and click a couple of images on my pocket camera. The setting is doubly emotive as it’s the most beautiful spot I’ve seen in Spain and reminds me of South Africa’s celebrated Cape Point, which prompted navigator Sir Francis Drake to enthuse: “The fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth”.
Ignoring a wind that makes standing at the edge of the cliffs dangerous, I suck in fresh salt sea-air and ponder the insights and lessons of my 34-day, 636 mile (1,018km) odyssey.
A fundamental problem of our modern world, I decide, is the disease of disconnection. We’ve become disconnected from each other, the natural world and the Creator, whether we call that God, the Great Mystery or simply Life. We’re mired in materialism.
I reconnect every morning when I go solo and in silence into the healing balm of Nature; or any time I go deep within during meditation; or when I experience the unconditional love which is most easily accessed when I’m with my daughters Bonnie and Tammy – in reality or in my mind.
It is when I feel that love and joy bubbling up and spilling over that I’m overwhelmed with a sense of peace and beauty. Love, joy, truth, peace and beauty are simply descriptions of the Divine and ultimately are all that matters. The love starts within ourselves and radiates out into the world, although each of us can access it in different ways, one of which might be music, be it Mozart or a classical rendition of Ave Maria.
I remember that one of the most hauntingly beautiful experiences on the Camino was in the pre-dawn darkness when I heard ethereal music floating towards me from a roadside shrine in a tiny village shrouded in darkness. It was breathtakingly beautiful and totally unexpected as I knew the village was not connected to the electricity grid, and wondered if the recording was made possible by stored solar or wind energy.
I think many pilgrims expect a profound mystical experience, perhaps seeing a bright beam of light from the heavens as they enter Santiago – and maybe it is like that for some. For me it was about the spark of divinity I recognised in others and the love given and received so spontaneously.
A friend commented that his lesson had been that everything he needed was offered on the Camino. He had food, water, shelter, companionship, inspiration and had also unexpectedly discovered love and romance along the way.
It was confirmation also that a simple life can be utterly joyful and inspiring.
More than anything my Camino was about a state of consciousness and raised awareness, or as one friend so aptly said: “It is a moving Findhorn with so many like-minded souls seeking a common objective.”
Whatever the question, love is the answer.