When I started the Camino, someone told me the first third is about the body, the second is about the mind, and the last is about the soul. And indeed, the early days were a crash course in one’s physical capacities and the toll taken by so many miles, so little rest. And the long middle stretch across the Meseta became an intriguing laboratory of mental states under conditions of relative environmental emptiness.
And now it is time for the soul. I have finally reached the foot of the snowy mountains that a week ago were first only visible as a distant horizon. Tomorrow I ascend to the highest point on the Camino (nearly 5000′), where an iron cross rises out of a great pile of stones left by pilgrims over many years. Some stones were brought from home, others were found along the way. Some represent prayers or blessings for others, some denote burdens or tired stories that need to be left behind, some symbolize an offering of self. It is one of the central rites of the Camino.
There are many along this road who began it as a form of athletic challenge or youthful adventure or unusual vacation. And many will finish it that way. But in talking with those who profess no religious intention, or who are dismissive of Christianity as something they outgrew, I still hear the spiritual language of pilgrimage breaking through the verities of secularism. One has lost a job and is trying to discern a meaningful alternative. Another is trying to listen to her life from a place of unknowing. Another has no answer to the question of why he is walking, but still presses on to Santiago. To borrow a phrase from the great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, every pilgrim is trying to arrive at a place we know not by following a way which we know not.
As we move together into the final phase, there is less idle chatter, more silence, and an increasing sense of shared participation in something deeply meaningful that eludes or exceeds our attempts to put words to it.
Tonight many pilgrims attended compline in the beautiful village church next to my hostel (see photo), and we were blessed with a prayer asking that Christ “be a companion for them on the way, a guide at the crossroads, shelter on the road, shade in the heat, light in the darkness, and comfort in their weariness, so that they may arrive safe at the end of their way and, rich with grace and virtue, return home healthy and full of joy.”