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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
14 comments »
  • June 30, 2014 at 4:44 amDan

    “A non-Catholic, I felt little affinity to the Judeo-Christian symbology around me.”

    I hope I would never feel like this. Fortunately 😉
    Besides, Santiago is really worth seeing place.

  • August 13, 2013 at 10:32 amHeather Conn

    Hi Wendy,

    Thanks for the offer to do another Pecha Kucha. I would love to at some point, but the next few months are going to be very busy for me. Therefore, I do not want to take on any more commitments right now.

  • August 13, 2013 at 10:23 amWendy Crumpler

    Wonderful, Heather. I feel a PechaKucha coming on here. Sechelt is next on October 10th, I believe, but I’d love to have you at the next Gibsons PKN.

  • August 2, 2013 at 2:32 pmHeather Conn

    Well said, Sarah. Great to hear from you and get your perspective. Yes, we can make every day the Camino. Keep smiling! Buen Camino to you too.

  • August 2, 2013 at 2:15 pmSarah Celani

    I do not know if it was your same impression, but what I realized on the Camino was that, whilst your mind is centred in keeping the body going , your heart is finally free to speak and to tell you stories. It is then up to you to listen to your heart following it or to just turn your head and keep going. In our daily routine we are so self centred and rationalized that we miss the whispers from our hearts. On the Camino my heart was shouting out loud finally free from any rational thoughts. I loved it! And I miss it. What I need to do in order to make my life a never-ending Camino is to keep listening to those whispers and to greet all the people I meet with a smile. I do it sometimes and it works. People are smiling me back lightening more and more the sparkle in my heart. Wherever you are and wherever your life is going to bring you Heather, Buen Camino!

  • August 2, 2013 at 11:07 amKitty

    Fabulous read, Heather. Lovely, uplifting thoughts on how a journey like this can affect your life. I can hardly wait to hear more details on your blog . . . . and in person when I come to Vancouver! Write on, my Goucher buddy!

  • July 29, 2013 at 3:46 pmStephanie Taggart

    Wonderful to read the first installment of your experiences on the Camino Heather. At the same time, very difficult for me because I had to cancel my plans to walk with you.

  • July 29, 2013 at 2:09 pmFrank

    This was a landmark journey, and to have spent the first few days of it in the Pyrenees with you was an absolute blessing. The little bit of time I was there reminded me how foreign places can and do provide insight into ourselves. Your journey, by any standard, is simply outstanding. I’m so glad you are willing to share your experiences, all of which point to the intimate nature of such a trek. Waiting for more, anxiously.

  • July 29, 2013 at 11:52 amGeorge Smith

    Hi Heather, Like Ray I too enjoyed chapter #1. I intend to follow your journey’s weekly instalments. I particularly like your juxtaposition of your journeys in India and on the Camino. Having spent time in India and intending to walk the Camino, I appreciate the comparisons you make in the initial segment. George

  • July 29, 2013 at 11:40 amHeather Conn

    Thanks, Rae. I appreciate your feedback.

  • July 29, 2013 at 11:29 amRae Ellingham

    Enjoying the read!

  • July 29, 2013 at 10:53 amHeather Conn

    Thanks, Pam. I feel the same way about our time together. Even when we kept saying good-bye, it seems that we were fated to reunite. You and Elke are wonderful examples of people who can find joy and appreciation in every day. That was a great gift for me to share. Thank you for keeping me uplifted with your positive attitude. I now carry that with me.

  • July 29, 2013 at 10:48 amPam

    Elke and I were so blessed to have you accompany us along part of the Way. My mind reels with images and sounds of the laughter and insights we shared. What a very special time it was: one that will stay with me forever and I’m so glad that the Way brought us together. I’m looking forward to reading your insights … now at least we’ll know what you were scribbling every night before going to bed :) Write on Shade-Runner!

  • July 29, 2013 at 10:29 amKaren Stein

    I look forward to every posting, Heather

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