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Pilgrimage through the “Field of Stars”

Is the discomfort of walking blisters as painful as lugging your past for your entire life?  This is a not-so-obvious but pertinent question when it comes to pilgrimage.  Putting one’s life on hold in order to become a pilgrim has long been perceived as an act of faith, a means of walking one’s talk.  It is also seen as a process of sacrifice, purification and devotion.  Pilgrimage certainly does involve letting go of old ways – and a certain amount of faith and endurance are also needed to complete it – but for me,  the journey to Santiago-de-Compostela was simply the most beautiful experience I have ever had.  Walking for a month across the Spain is not as difficult as one may expect.  This process also has the benefits of allowing one to stand back and see one’s life in perspective as well as tasting true freedom…

Santiago-de-Compostela is a small but holy city in north-western Spain.  Its magnificent cathedral houses the relics of the evangelist St James (Santiago) and was until a few centuries ago the leading destination for Christian pilgrims (along with Rome and Jerusalem).  The route or ‘camino’ followed by pilgrims is said to be an earthly reflection of the Milky Way: the name ‘Compostela’ is a word of Latin origin meaning ‘field of stars’.

Before moving to France in 2000, I promised  myself I would do the pilgrimage to Santiago, but did not know when.  Circumstances allowed me to do the camino less than a year later, so after a few weeks of (mental) preparation, I started my walk from the town of Puenta-la-Reina, where the three routes that pass through France meet as one.  I checked into the first ‘refugio’ or pilgrims’ refuge, where I was given a bed in a dormitory and issued my ‘credencial’ (a passport proving one’s pilgrim status, which is stamped at each stop offers and various benefits).

I soon learned that all I needed to do was follow the yellow arrows painted on walls or roads that point the way to Santiago-de-Compostela… only about 700KMs away.  I travelled as lightly as possible, taking a small backpack of clothes and essential items (and even that was too much).   If, according to the Little Prince of St-Exupéry, the essential is invisible to the eyes, the pilgrim needs to remember that one’s essence is NOT in the baggage – the essential is in the way one approaches the camino that crosses the ‘field of the stars’.

After my first week’s walk, I was struck by to extent to which Spain looks like the cowboy-movie images we hold of Mexico (obviously it’s the other way around). Meeting people was no problem and I started walking with other pilgrims who followed the same itinerary as I.  We felt like a group of nomads on a common adventure of self-discovery.  We laughed and sang and shared our life-stories along the way: people from all over the world brought together in a spirit of unconditional acceptance and human kindness.  Everyone was searching for some inner light – be this spiritual inspiration or just clarity about certain issues.  The pilgrimage is thus an inner process and not specifically Christian or Catholic in orientation.

By the second week, we were walking through the arid heart of Spain, which reminded me a bit of the Karoo.  I had developed the most common ailment suffered by pilgrims – blisters and swollen feet.  I hobbled along the 25KMs I set out to do every day.  The pain was at times excruciating, but the beauty of the countryside, the charm of the towns, the spiritual atmosphere of the churches and the touching spirit of friendship kept me going.   The refugios were always a relief at the end of the day.  A place to wash clothes, shower, relax and catch up with other pilgrims.  Some  refugios were in beautiful monasteries or converted palaces, but the most magical was San Nicolas (just after the city of Burgos), a former Templar castle.  The ‘hospitaleros’ (people running the refugio) sang to pilgrims as they arrived and washed their feet in a ritual of purification.  That night we played mediaeval music and I felt very far from the twenty-first century.

By the third week we passed into Galicia, which apart from being mountainous, is culturally distinct from the rest of Spain – it maintains a strong Celtic influence, with the town of El Cebreiro housing a Holy Grail and in the forests close-by there are Stone Age monuments like ‘Merlin’s Throne’.  By the time we reached these mountains my body had adapted to my circumstances and walking became a pleasure.  At the Cruz de Hierro it is customary to drop a pebble brought from home that symbolises the release of the past.  After I let go of mine, many of my personal issues that had been brewing exploded into my outer reality.  This was often confusing but problems have a way of sorting themselves out along the camino – everything (even my backpack) seemed lighter.

As we neared Santiago-de-Compostela – the end of the camino – the reality set in that the pilgrimage would soon be over.  Whereas before we were counting the days to get to our destination, a feeling of not wanting the experience to end became overpowering.  I really saw how the journey of life is most important, not the rushing towards a destination.  The camino made this spiritual lesson poignantly clear to me. On the second last day of walking I was carried by a force that allowed me to walk 45 kilometres without any trouble.  Finally seeing the spires of the holy city was very moving – the architecture is exquisite and the atmosphere charged.  Everywhere in Santiago there were pilgrims and preparations for the Festival of St James on the eve of 24 July.  We were issued our pilgrim’s certificate and did the traditional rounds in the cathedral, which included meditation in the crypt housing the relics of St James… and then the journey was over…

To return to the question at the beginning of this article: the walking blisters are nothing when compared to the beautiful experience of the pilgrimage and the sense of relief, openness and hope it brings.  For months after doing the camino I was incredibly moved whenever I thought of it.  I longed to be on the camino again and went into a time of mourning.  My life did change in drastically after the pilgrimage, in ways I could not have imagined.  Many of the goals I set came my way subtly, but even now, more than a year later, I know the full effect of the camino has not worked its way into my life.