Heather Conn Blogs

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The Camino: Blisters and bliss on The Way

me with group and cathedral low-res

With Camino friends in front of the cathedral in Santiago, Spain (I’m the one on the left)




“The law of love could be best understood and learned through little children.”

—    Mahatma Gandhi


This is the first in a series of weekly blog posts that will address my journey on the Camino de Santiago route in May and June this year. I welcome your comments.


Seated on a narrow wooden pew in the cathedral of Santiago, Spain, I was one of hundreds of global visitors attending a daily “pilgrim’s mass” at noon. A non-Catholic, I felt little affinity to the Judeo-Christian symbology around me. Crosses and sculptures of a suffering Jesus? They barely seemed to touch my heart. So, why was I sitting here listening to a bishop talk about God, the Saviour, and so on, in Spanish? And I was crying!

The day before, I had arrived in Santiago, my final destination after completing the 800-kilometre Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, which had begun in France 34 days earlier. After this demanding walk of blisters and bliss, I felt both proud and exhausted. Although I embrace eastern philosophy and mysticism, feeling more drawn to Taoist and Tibetan Buddhist concepts than Christian beliefs, I had joined in an archetypal journey, one that required faith in one’s body and soul to succeed. This Way of St. James might be Christian-based, but “The Way” is also a translation for the Tao, or “middle way” of living in harmony with the flow of life.

cathedral interior low-res

The interior of Santiago Cathedral with the St. James cross, a symbol seen throughout the El Camino route, visible in the upper right

For 2,000 years, millions of people have walked this path called the Camino Frances, from the Romans who constructed early portions of the route to Christian pilgrims who have come to this cathedral for 13 centuries to see the remains of the Camino’s honoured patron, Saint James.

A Catholic friend wanted to know how my Camino journey compared to my seven months of solo spiritual exploration in India more than two decades ago. The biggest difference was the overriding sense of community on the France-Spain route. In India, spiritual seekers for centuries have chosen a path like mine, but I was not sharing it daily with others. Alone, I had no defined route. With periods of extended meditation in India, I was choosing stillness and solitude, rather than constant movement and companionship.

On the Camino, the path’s two ever-present way markers—the scallop shell symbol of St. James and a yellow arrow—link all pilgrims on the route in a powerful, unifying goal: to keep moving forward on the path. It’s a global village on the go, so to speak, and that’s a heady force to draw from.

On the Camino, I usually walked between 20 to 30 kilometres a day. This provided form, structure, and a logical sequence for each day. In India, I had no such limits except those I imposed myself. In this Asian nation, I felt closer to timelessness; I could wake up and go to sleep as I chose. The Camino fits closer to a routine; the albergues or pilgrim hostels require all visitors to be gone by 8 a.m. and most close by 10 p.m., requiring silence and lights-out by then. Normally, I’m one who disdains routine but on the Camino, I welcomed it. The albergue life provides sanctuary, a bed of relief from exhaustion, and a global community of potential friends.

For me, the Camino trip was more externally based than my India questing; it required more attention to physical needs. Although each journey required keen awareness of my footing to avoid accident or injury, the Camino walk prompted more physical pain and suffering. This ranged from shooting pain caused by a blister to sore joints that sometimes delayed walking. While in India, my pain was more internal; I was troubled and confused about many things and trying to let go of negative habits. On the Camino, I often felt at peace, providing a listening ear and support to others.

waymarker low-res photo 372

An example of the Camino’s many waymarkers bearing the scallop shell icon and yellow arrow

Any spiritual growth often requires some level of suffering, especially when progressing to a less-reactive self. How will I choose to respond to any challenge? What can I learn from this encounter? How can my level of awareness deepen my connection with my surroundings and those who I meet along the way?

Both my time in India and on the Camino allowed me to immerse myself in nature, finding moments of profound oneness in the sprawling beauty of landscapes.

In Santiago, I was delighted to see a live sculpture in one of the busy tourist plazas near the cathedral: a bald man with glasses, wearing sandals and a draped cloth, painted head to toe in white, stood motionless on a platform, looking like a Mahatma Gandhi mannequin. This appearance of an Indian icon, one whom I admire tremendously, felt like a validating touch of eastern welcome amidst this city of Catholic gatherers.

When I dropped some coins in the young man’s small bucket, he reached into a pocket and asked me if I preferred Spanish or English. He pulled out a tiny scroll of white paper, less than an inch wide, tied with a fuschia-coloured piece of wool.

“A small piece of wisdom from Mahatma Gandhi,” he said, handing me the scroll. Later, I unrolled it, and read the quotation about children that appears at the top of this post.

gandhi statute low-res

Every day, we can find blessings anywhere—not just on the Camino. We need only to keep our hearts open to receive and to overcome biases about what form these tiny miracles might take.


NEXT WEEK: Trust and the Camino



July 29, 2013 at 9:25 am Comments (14)