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Article in the Washington Post: I walked 500 miles across Spain...

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kelleymac

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
March/April 2015, Late April 2016, Sept/Oct 2017, April 2019.



Life is overflowing with demands. Everything 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.

Read more from Arthur C. Brooks's archive.
 
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debra

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
VdlP 2010, Frances 2010
Via Francigena 2014 bicigrino
Way of St. Francis 2017 bicigrino
Thanks for sharing I had not problem reading with out an account.
 

Mike Savage

So many friends to meet . . . so little time
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Francés,Inglés
Muxia/Finisterre
Português Coastal
Português Central
Sanabrés
The link worked well for me too with no account required.

Thanks for sharing.

Mike
 

TonyC

Geriatric
Camino(s) past & future
(2014) Frances Pt1
(2015) Frances Pt2
(2016) Portuguese, from Lisbon
(2108) Frances in Sep/Oct
I'd be interested to hear what the people who have read it think of the article.
 

Davey Boyd

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
Again, soon as possible!
"Over the past millennium, millions of people — have walked as much as 500 miles to the cathedral of Santiago".

The article is ok. Except for something that really annoys me, that is yet again putting out the idea (or inferring) that the camino starts in St Jean. If you want to start there fine, but it is hardly historical. St Jean is not the first town on the Camino Frances, it is the last (major) town on the via Podiensis. In short, there is no 'start'. Start wherever you want, no need to follow Hollywood.

I have actually been told (by US pilgrims) that I was 'doing it wrong' by starting in Switzerland!

Sorry, just a personal gripe
Davey
 

kelleymac

Veteran Member
Camino(s) past & future
March/April 2015, Late April 2016, Sept/Oct 2017, April 2019.
"Over the past millennium, millions of people — have walked as much as 500 miles to the cathedral of Santiago".


I have actually been told (by US pilgrims) that I was 'doing it wrong' by starting in Switzerland!

ARGH!
 
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Camino(s) past & future
Francés: Sarria-Santiago (2013)
Via Podiensis: (2014-17)
Via Tolosana: Arles-Lodève (2018)
Thank you for sharing! I had no problem reading it without a WP account.
Well I can't read it. :( The WP no longer even allows me to read even a single article a month even thought I get spam calls from them regularly requesting that I subscribe.
 
Camino(s) past & future
Francés: Sarria-Santiago (2013)
Via Podiensis: (2014-17)
Via Tolosana: Arles-Lodève (2018)
Sorry but I am blocked. I haven't been able to access articles from them for several years now. I get an automatic message to subscribe. Maybe because I was once a subscriber.
 

Opa Theo

Member
Camino(s) past & future
Camino Francais to Santiago
Thanks for sharing this. My wife and I walked the Francais route last October. Like the author I looked for every opportunity to experience masses and churches. My wife is a CE {Christmas/Easter} Catholic was surprised to be moved by the religious experiences.
Everyone's life is a pilgrimage. The Camino was a chapter in my pilgrimage. As a fisherman I was touched how the Camino is like a river. Wake up and join the flow towards Santiago.
 
Camino(s) past & future
Spring 2016: Camino Frances, Finisterre and Muxia
April 2019: Frances, Salvador, Primitivo
Thanks for the copy and paste. Someone sent me a link to it earlier and I somehow only had 3 articles allowed this month which I had used.

I always enjoy reading people's experience on the Camino. I have to say I agree with him about missed opportunities of the Catholic Church on the Camino.
 

Bradypus

Antediluvian
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
I have to say I agree with him about missed opportunities of the Catholic Church on the Camino.
To some extent I agree too. The Catholic Church in Spain has lost a lot of its prestige and influence in the 30+ years of the Camino revival. The 1993 Holy Year marked a major change in the nature of the Camino: what had been up to that point mostly a fairly low-key and improvised church and volunteer-run exercise was quite suddenly co-opted by provincial and local government as a tool for increasing tourist numbers. Galicia in particular saw the potential benefits and set out to develop them very systematically. One of the fruits of that 1993 campaign was the creation of the first Xunta albergue network. A brave investment which has paid off spectacularly but notably a secular and government one rather than a church or voluntary project. For a long time the religious and secular interests in the Camino have run in parallel. And the way the Camino has been perceived has also changed: from being principally a Catholic religious or spiritual exercise (albeit one open to others like myself) to a much less clearly defined and more generic spiritual or cultural experience. Did the Catholic Church drop the ball or was it taken from them? I think there may be a bit of both.
 
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Camino(s) past & future
Spring 2016: Camino Frances, Finisterre and Muxia
April 2019: Frances, Salvador, Primitivo
To some extent I agree too. The Catholic Church in Spain has lost a lot of its prestige and influence in the 30+ years of the Camino revival. The 1993 Holy Year marked a major change in the nature of the Camino: what had been up to that point mostly a fairly low-key and improvised church and volunteer-run exercise was quite suddenly co-opted by provincial and local government as a tool for increasing tourist numbers. Galicia in particular saw the potential benefits and set out to develop them very systematically. One of the fruits of that 1993 campaign was the creation of the first Xunta albergue network. A brave investment which has paid off spectacularly but notably a secular and government one rather than a church or voluntary project. For a long time the religious and secular interests in the Camino have run in parallel. And the way the Camino has been perceived has also changed: from being principally a Catholic religious or spiritual exercise (albeit one open to others like myself) to a much less clearly defined and more generic spiritual or cultural experience. Did the Catholic Church drop the ball or was it taken from them? I think there may be a bit of both.
Yes, I think you are right, both/and. Having walked twice, I met up with quite a few people who were not Catholic or even particularly religious who wished for more open churches and more Masses.

The Camino has so many centuries of history and it's still/always evolving. It will be interesting to see how all of the changes on so many levels unfold.
 

Kathar1na

Member
Camino(s) past & future
Santiago and beyond (own way - voie de Tours - camino francés - Biskaya - Manche)
Having walked twice, I met up with quite a few people who were not Catholic or even particularly religious who wished for more open churches and more Masses.
But would these people then continue to go into open churches and attend mass or, if they are not Catholic, at least attend other Christian church services when they return home? Because that is what the writer means when he says that the Camino’s modern popularity should be the greatest occasion for evangelization in centuries. I doubt that they would. You only read about people mentioning too many closed churches along the caminos but they rarely write about whether their attitude to institutionalised religion changed after a camino trip.

I don't know where the statistics come from that one priest cited as just 8 percent of pilgrims attend Mass during the time they walk the Camino but I think it is right to say that mass along the way is sparsely attended by pilgrims. I sometimes get the impression that those that are popular and even get recommended in books or online forums serve more as a kind of eagerly anticipated "camino experience background" or a vaguely spiritual or "feeling good" background than anything else. But then I am STILL annoyed about the people who left the short 30 minutes service at Rabanal after about 15-20 minutes because it was presumably not what they had been told to expect ... I'm often reminded of a scene in Brian Sewell's camino series. He goes to mass in Santiago, he's moved to tears but I as far as I know it did not get him back or discernibly closer to his faith than before. There is a nice anecdote in an obituary: “We’ve got you down as an atheist,” a Sister in the hospital told him the night before an operation. “No, no,” Sewell protested, “I’m an agnostic. But if something goes wrong, you must call a Roman Catholic priest.”

I think in this respect the observations in the article are quite accurate. Yes, it's a so-so article but I think if it had been the usual more compelling and more moving camino article I would not have bothered to finish reading it ... 😇
 
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Portia1

Active Member
Camino(s) past & future
Frances 2009, Portuguese 2012
Frances 2016, (Frances 2019)
My experience was that most churches were locked up tight. Masses were not offered the particular night I was in town (residents said not enough priests so shared among towns). As I am an Episcopal priest, I also knew I was not welcome to receive communion (only Roman Catholics are supposed to receive) so I was attending to be a part of a community of prayer. I did attend mass in Roncesvalles, Samos, Viana, and two other towns (besides three times in Santiago) but can’t remember their names. Rarely were there more than 15 or so present and often no other pilgrims—at least not recognizable except in Roncesvalles and Santiago. Even in Santiago, I was told I had to come back to pray because only tour groups were being allowed in. I am delighted that there is now an Anglican presence in Santiago as it was hard to go more than a month without the Eucharist.
 

Bradypus

Antediluvian
Camino(s) past & future
Too many and too often!
I am delighted that there is now an Anglican presence in Santiago as it was hard to go more than a month without the Eucharist.
At the end of my second Camino in 2002 I met two English priests in Santiago. The Anglican vicar of a parish in the west of England and his Roman Catholic colleague and close friend from the same town. Both following their respective church's eucharistic discipline and refraining from receiving communion from each other. In the Anglican tradition a priest should not celebrate a eucharist at which he or she is the sole recipient of the sacrament. So the Anglican had neither celebrated a eucharist or received the sacrament during their journey together. Together we three shared an Anglican eucharist in a hotel room in the Rua do Vilar - the Catholic priest joining as far as he could in good conscience. I wrote to the bishop of the Diocese in Europe at the time and raised the possibility of a seasonal Anglican chaplaincy in Santiago. It took a while and some energetic action by some very dedicated people more recently to actually bring the idea to fruit though.
 

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