From our first day on the Camino, I’ve been impressed with the level of faith that sustains some of our fellow pilgrims through what for many of them is the toughest endeavor they’ll ever undertake. My worries about the annoying pain in my foot pale in comparison to the blisters and tendonitis and arthritis and extra pounds that plague other hikers, who come in every shape, size and (starting from a minimum of around 20 years old) age. While people seem to walk the Camino for all sorts of reasons, we’ve noticed that most folks are older, and typically the reasons these pilgrims are walking at least tangentially religious.
Even more broadly, I don’t think I anticipated how much weight many Spaniards, especially older ones, give to the Camino. Whether they’ve done it themselves or they’ve just seen it grow from the tiny trickle it must have been during their childhood in the early 20th century, their respect transcends language.
In Pamplona, a woman shook her fist at us from a hunched position over a set of braced crutches. Until this point, we’d gotten only chilly receptions from locals, so I expected more of the same – not the wishes of “Buen Camino!” and “Via con Dios!” that she yelled as we passed. Occasionally, we’ll walk into a restaurant, and thanks to my light hair, blue eyes, or, more likely, the slightly hobbled walk of an all-day hiker, we’re spotted as pilgrims and toasted or wish a safe journey. Or people who help us along the way take a second out of their workdays to make things just a little bit better, like the woman at the post office in Burgos who mercifully spoke more English than we spoke Spanish, spent 45 minutes with us as we sent extra clothing ahead, and gave us a fistful of postcards to remember our trip by. And sometimes, we’ll step into one of the Tuesday evening mass for the pilgrim blessing. Incidentally, the song they sang for our protection in Santo Domingo de la Cazada sounded an awful lot like “This Land is Your Land,” a tune that’s stuck with us for hours of hiking over the past few days.
The other day in a beautiful town called Estella, a woman stopped us in front of the ruins of an ornate 12th century church. She asked us if we were pilgrims, and when we said yes, she launched into (so far as we could tell as she was speaking in Spanish) the story of the church and how most pilgrims only stop to take a photograph and move on. When she realized we weren’t understanding much, she smiled and dropped her gaze from ours, then put her hand on my shoulder and wishing us well for our journey. As we left Estella, we were greeted by a pleasant surprise – a wine fountain provided by a few resident monks.
Of course, it’s important to realize this respect is for this path we’ve chosen to walk and the month of reflection it entails. I imagine also it’s a reflection of the place her faith has in the lives of those we meet along the way.
In many ways, my experience on the Camino has opened my eyes to the best of what religion can be. Community, discipline, thoughtful reflection – you find all of these benefits in some measure in most pilgrims you meet.
And yet it’s difficult to reconcile the sort-of personal purity we get to experience in these momentary interactions with the broader doctrine that Catholicism, and most faiths in fact, espouse. Yes, belonging to a church provides the opportunity to build community with like-minded folks, who are often pretty nice people. It provides the impetus for hard work and discipline, out of which accomplishment and success are often born. And I find myself truly missing the ceremony, the rituals and the practice of faith on a weekly basis that I had growing up in a church-going family.
But in someway, being part of a faith implies the tacit if not explicit acceptance of church dogma, doesn’t it? Throughout history right up through the present, that has translated into the exclusion/subjugation of certain groups based on gender, race, orientation, etc., the glorification of wars in the name of God for land or commodity or souls, and the exaltation of worldly materialism. And this from faiths whose very name comes from an inclusive pacifist who by all accounts was a communist (note the small ‘c’).
But here along the Camino, we’ve met pilgrims of faith who demonstrate the good parts of religion – taking each other based only on our shared humanity, absent the shackles of unacceptance that can come with doctrine. These are perhaps incomplete exchanges, as we don’t know much about the people we meet in these momentary interactions.
The institutions that we create as imperfect people aren’t in fact the perfect, unerring sages we hold them up to be. I remember a favorite priest growing up teasing my sister (but serious, in a way, as well) that she would be the first woman priest. This tiny act of dissent seemed to me to more closely follow all the teaching we seemed to be getting during mass. So too, many pilgrims I’ve met actually more closely follow the tenets of Christianity than the grand institutions, even the one (Catholicism) that has made this pilgrimage so important for more than a millennium. I suppose in some way it’s a good example of individual parts being greater than the whole.