I walked across Spain. Here’s what I learned.

The following op-ed appeared in the August 16, 2019 print edition of The Washington Post:

Life is overflowing with demands. Everything is urgent; every minute feels like it is booked. And yet, there’s no sense of direction. The what of life is clear; the why, not so much.

Sound familiar? I have a solution for you: Go walk a few hundred miles for no obvious reason. That’s what I did. Last month, my wife and I walked the ancient Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, across northern Spain.

Let me back up by about a thousand years. In the 9th century, the remains of Santiago (in English, Saint James the Greater — one of the 12 apostles) were discovered near what is today the city that now bears his name, Santiago de Compostela. A journey to the site quickly became one of the three great Catholic pilgrimages, along with those to Jerusalem and Rome. Over the past millennium, millions of people — often adorned with the scallop shell famed for signifying that one is a Camino pilgrim — have walked as much as 500 miles to the cathedral of Santiago.

There is nothing uniquely Catholic about this kind of pilgrimage. Nearly all major religions have them, including the Muslim hajj to Mecca and the Buddhists’ trek to Bodh Gaya (where they find the fig tree under which the Lord Buddha is said to have obtained enlightenment). Christian pilgrimages have generally declined in modern times, however. In the 20th century, walking the Camino became an esoteric interest, and modern pilgrims often struggled even to find the ancient pathways.

But then, something unexpected happened: The Camino became popular once again. According to the pilgrimage office in Santiago, a few thousand pilgrims per year in the 1990s became 179,000 by 2004 and 327,000 by 2018. Today, the Camino is hot.

Is this a resurgent Catholic fervor? Not really. My wife and I expected to find a community of fellow Catholic pilgrims, but for the most part, we didn’t. Masses along the way were sparsely attended; one priest cited a statistic that just 8 percent of pilgrims attend Mass during the time they walk the Camino.

This is a missed opportunity, if not for the pilgrims, then for the church. The Camino’s modern popularity should be the greatest occasion for evangelization in centuries. That opportunity is being squandered by the sleepy Spanish Catholic Church, which presides over the decline of faith in what is now effectively a formerly Catholic country. The church has left the Camino (like nearly everything else) to the government, which treats it like any other tourist attraction.

But the pilgrims still come, in larger and larger numbers. If not explicitly the divine, what are they seeking? There are definite worldly benefits to pilgrimage. Almost everyone loses weight, for example (although not like I did — starting my Camino on the heels of a bout of stomach flu and thus in a radically fasted state, I lost 10 pounds in a week). Some treat it like a physical-endurance challenge, such as the shredded and tanned couple we met in Santiago de Compostela who had completed the entire 500-mile walk, starting in France, in just 24 days.

Some seek relief from emotional torment, and there is evidence they can find it: A study published in the journal Psychological Medicine reported that those who went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, France, (another major Catholic pilgrimage destination) experienced a significant decrease in anxiety and depression, sustained for at least 10 months after the pilgrims had returned.

For most people I met, however, the motives were hazier. I asked why they were taking time to walk through the Galician countryside day after day, through boredom and sore feet and terrible roadside hostels. It’s no luxury vacation. Most were unable to give me a plausible answer. “I had time to do it” was common, which makes about as much sense as saying you eat lunch because of the existence of sandwiches. They sounded perplexed by their own objective, as if driven to make a pilgrimage by some inchoate desire.

A desire for what? A 2013 article in the journal Mental Health, Religion & Culture gives a clue. The authors surveyed Camino pilgrims about their motives. Two-thirds identified a “need for clarification” as their motivation. To me, this rings exactly true.

Imagine you are plopped down into a dense foreign city, with no GPS, and instructed to reach a destination that you have never seen. You wander, relying on nothing but serendipity to reach your goal. You crave a map or model, no matter how imperfect, that gives some clarity about where you are, where the destination is and how to get there.

So it is in our modern lives. They are dense with stimuli of intense urgency but dubious importance. We often can’t see our way forward or understand the past. Our days are spent bombarded with experiences and relationships of uncertain value. We crave anything that clarifies the chaos; a model from which we can stand back to understand life as something like a purposeful journey.

The Camino is just such a model. Every step is a rich metaphor for life itself, full of lessons to learn and remember. There is a daily realization that a destination creates a trajectory but is not the only reward; that the journey itself must be savored; that the bliss of the divine can be revealed in mundane details if one pays attention; that most of life’s problems are basically just, well, blisters.

No expression of the Camino as a metaphor for life surpasses “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage,” attributed to the poet, politician and adventurer Sir Walter Raleigh:

Give me my scallop shell of quiet,
My staff of faith to walk upon,
My scrip of joy, immortal diet,
My bottle of salvation,
My gown of glory, hope’s true gage,

And thus I’ll take my pilgrimage.

I will be processing my Camino for years to come. But I think I finally understand much of the change and turbulence in my own life, which is currently in transition. I have taken my pilgrimage and am at greater peace. I recommend it to you.


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