No one comes to any of life’s journeys in a vacuum; we come carrying all the burdens that life has laid upon us. We do not come to any pilgrimage devoid of the ways in which our journey has shaped who we are, who we have become, and who we might, by God’s grace, grow into. We carry with us the truth that God’s blessing is imprinted upon our very soul. Our deceptively simple task is to favor that blessing, to allow it to become our primary narrative about ourselves and about others. This, I believe, is the calling of pilgrimage. The task of the pilgrim is to spend time and energy allowing that blessing to become the focus of our lives and to let the scarcity mindset of the world fall away. Along the ancient path that is the Camino, this is summed up in the saying that one hears over and over again: “the Camino provides.”
I experienced this on my Camino, but none of it looked like I thought it would, which, of course it didn’t, because that’s not how any of this works. And, honestly, I thought I knew that before, but like any journey to which one shows up authentically, the truth that things don’t work out how we think they will has changed me. I’ve been changed by this journey precisely because it did not turn out how I thought it would. I’ve been changed precisely because I let it take its own path. I could not have imagined how my Camino played out, but I knew that my task was to pay attention to God’s grace and to listen to the ways in which my Camino needed to take its own turns.
Ancient pilgrims would begin their journey to Santiago by literally walking out their front door, through the edges of their villages and down the path that would eventually become a well-worn road. On the second night of the Camino just across the border between Spain and France, I met two young women, one who began her pilgrimage in Germany and one in Switzerland, both beginning from their homes. After eleven hours of hiking, I laughed in disbelief. But then I remembered that so much of my conversation with my therapist in preparation was about how my Camino equally began long before I stepped foot in Saint Jean Pied de Port, where most pilgrims, including myself, begin the Camino. The reality is that there is no one way to do the Camino, even among the handful of well-worn trails with markers and signposts, The Way molds itself to the pilgrim, not the other way around.
The truth is that it would be a heck of a lot easier if there was a definitive starting point and a conclusive ending, but even the traditional end, the Cathedral of Saint James in Santiago is not really the end anymore. Many pilgrims walk on to Finisterra or Muxia, and I met one pilgrim who, on her first Camino, walked the Camino Francis across Northern Spain and then just kept walking on the Camino Portuguese. The reason there is not a clear beginning and end is because pilgrimage is never just about where and how one moves their body, but is instead about the inner work; it’s about how one is different at the end than they were at the beginning.
And this, I believe, means that the pilgrim has to figure out when they begin and when they’ve reached the end. The well-worn paths can be a guide, but they can never determine for the pilgrim the length of their journey. For me, I knew one week into my Camino, that my pilgrimage would not look the way other’s did and it wouldn’t even look like the neatly organized day-to-day itinerary that I provided to all my friends and family. I knew, in a very short amount of time, that the Camino was going to crack me open, and not just because of its difficulty, but because of the disappointment awaiting me in the changes that were becoming increasingly needed.
By the grace of God, I listened for the Camino that I needed. My Camino began long before I stepped on to a plane to head to Spain, and my Camino, or at least the walking portion, ended so much sooner than I had anticipated. I’m so proud that I listened for the Camino I needed, and I’m confident that my pilgrimage took me on the journey that God intended, even if it wasn’t the one I would have picked. Because I’ve had a long and twisty enough spiritual journey to know that the best paths are the ones we would have been too scared to pick if we knew how they would end.
The best and most important task is to listen to your Camino, wherever you might be walking; listen to the ways in which you need to be changed by walking through this world as a person of faith and one who wants to leave this world better than you found it. The best advice I can offer to anyone, Camino or otherwise, is to listen. Listen with compassion for all that your body and soul have been through, listen with delight at the way God’s blessing threads through your life, listen with an intention to respond to what you hear in yourself and in others. Listen, listen, listen.