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A Group Walk through Spain

When I first did the pilgrimage to Santiago-de-Compostela on my own in 2001, it was the most beautiful experience I had ever had.  I returned to the Camino (‘Way’) with a group of clients and friends in June 2003… at first I was disappointed and compared the two (very different) experiences, but as the group synergy increased and sharing became more open, the journey proved to be equally as wonderful… if not better.

I had done the 750 km walk across North Spain once before and it had been the most fabulous Journey of my life.  That inspired me to take a group of clients and friends through the ‘field of stars’, starting in the Castillian capital of Leon and walking 320 kms to Santiago-de-Compostela.  The intention of facilitating such a spiritual programme was to bring out the greater richness and depth of the 1,500 year old pilgrimage.

The group came together easily and consisted exclusively of women –  ranging in age from 25 to the mid-sixties.  Most of the participants came from Cape Town, although I met Sophie (not her real name) on a workshop I was running in France – the night before our meeting she had been instructed by her guides to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago, not knowing that I was to embark on the journey just five days later.

The women were from varying backgrounds – from the film and fashion industries, mothers, therapists – but all wanted to walk their talk, for the pilgrimage to mark a transition in their lives.   We started processing in the Gothic cathedral in Leon.  One of the most impressive buildings I have visited, it has exquisite rose windows that are truly healing mandalas.  The theme for the programme was Gnosticism – since it is such a fine blend of Paganism, Esoteric Christianity and Mysticism – and it seemed the most appropriate approach since the Order of the  Knights Templar defended the pilgrim’s route in the Middle Ages.

I knew from experience that one’s personal issues came out in a very concrete way on the pilgrimage – either in the form of people encountered, physical challenges or emotional reactions due to changed environment – so I wondered how it would all work out with a group of strangers.  On my 2001 journey, I learned an enormous amount from the challenges brought up by Brian, who was my shadow in a nutshell.   This ‘microcosm-effect’ results from the intense energies of the Camino (with thousands of years of spiritual significance) as well as the total change of lifestyle and habits (it’s not often that one gets to be totally free).  The processing programme would obviously intensify an already-potent cocktail.  I discovered that it is precisely this challenge (when approached consciously) that brings out the richness of the experience – in 2003 it seemed to me that too many people were following the yellow arrows (guiding the way to Santiago) as a cheap or alternative holiday.

For the first few days of walking, we passed through the flatlands of Castilla – staying in pilgrim’s refuges in towns like Hospital de Orbiga (preparing for a mediaeval festival at the time) and El Acebo, perched high in the mountains, with typical houses made of stone and slate roofs. Cruz de Hierro was the background for our first major process – an Earth-element purification.  It involved the dropping the pebble brought from home representing past blockage.  After intense group work, we let go of our virtual-baggage on the eight metre high pile of stones that used to be an altar to the god Mercury.  The group energy shifted as of that moment, and the challenges became more clear.  Sophie, for example, was complaining that she did not understand our South African English, but this represented the general lack of communication in her life, especially with her estranged and domineering husband.

In Villafranca, beside a broad river winding its way through mountainous forests, we worked with the element of Water, bringing up deeper emotional issues.  One group member had a severe chest infection and Sophie was becoming difficult – increasingly demanding, she had violent mood swings ranging from in-your-face euphoria to complete despondency.   Despite these off moments, the group dynamics were a lot easier than I had expected, especially considering that 11 strangers had to share the pain of long walking, blisters, muscle aches and pilgrims refuges where privacy (and sometimes hot water) were lacking.

By the time we reached El Cebreiro (one of the highest geographic points of the pilgrimage), which is home to a Grail that worked miracles in the late Middle Ages, the ‘spiritual group’ was beginning to stir some interest.  Word had spread fast among other pilgrims and our large sharing circles in forests or outside churches had become a familiar sight.  Some pilgrims were interested, some giggled at us, but the general response when a member of the group said he/she was from South Africa, was: ‘oh, you’re with the spiritual group’.

Group members were beginning to have very interesting experiences – Clare said she was literally carried by her soul when she felt sick and could not walk.  Another pilgrim, who tended to isolate herself, was finding great support and nurturing from other members.  Jane – usually very together and organised – kept getting lost or arriving very late… she was just enjoying being able, as a woman, to walk or sleep in fields without having to fear for her safety.

Near the sprawling town of Melide we found a spot in a forest where we did a group breathe, lying around a massive old oak tree.  Part of the process was to drink an ‘elixir’ from an ancient Greek recipe, which had no narcotic ingredients, but seemed to get people even deeper into their process – some participants gained crystal clear insight into their lives, others felt profound peace or had out-of-body experiences.

By the time we reached Ribadiso, we were only two days away from Santiago… the time seemed to pass all too quickly.  It was here that unspoken resentment reached boiling point within the group…  It all started with an under-staffed restaurant, where food orders were either botched or took impossibly long.  Sophie was winging and people expressed their impatience with her – she was the only group member that was consistently difficult.  An argument also started between indecisive vegetarians (something almost unheard of in rural Spain) and other impatient pilgrims.  This tension was exacerbated by authoritarian hospitaleros (volunteers running refuges) who treated pilgrims like children (or worse)…

But the rift was sorted out amicably and gave way to the joy of finally reaching Santiago-de-Compostela – a small city filled with monumental buildings in the very ornate Baroque style.  Our arrival co-incided with a great flourish of church-bells, a fitting welcome after a long walk. Having settled in, we went to the pilgrims mass (with the giant ‘Bottafumeiro censer), collected our Pilgrim Certificates (written in Latin), took our separate trains out of Santiago and returned to the life of comfortable beds and private bathrooms… but the experience lives on and one’s life can NEVER be the same after completing such a spiritual journey.  For me, the experience of doing the pilgrimage in a group was even more powerful and beautiful than doing it alone, especially when one can clearly see the growth and flowering in each individual.