THE CAMINO DE SANTIAGO is a pilgrimage like no other, defying conventional wisdom about what constitutes a pilgrim, and about the supposedly unavoidable schism between religion and humanism.
The Camino de Santiago across the mighty pastoral breadth of northern Spain is no normal pilgrimage. Nonbelievers match if not outnumber the religiously inspired on this epic journey (camino means "journey" in Spanish). But regardless any theological disputes, participants are united by more than what divides them. I heard people continually lament the same problems and trappings of modern society, and of undertaking the Camino to gain thinking space amid the tumult.
"If you live today, you breathe in nihilism, it's the gas you breathe," wrote American novelist Flannery O'Connor--and that was in the 1950s.
The Camino is a shared countering of such nihilism for pilgrims, although at the same time the experience proves markedly different for each person.This isn't surprising given the scope of experiences and emotions that can happen on a route extending for about 900 kilometers east to west if you begin at the most popular starting point just on the other side of the Pyrenees in Frances Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, then push on through the city of Santiago de Compostela--technically the end of the pilgrimage--and continue for another eighty-five kilometers or so to the logical terminus at the town of Finisterre on Spain's Galician coast. Santiago de Compostela is claimed as the resting place of Saint James, for whom the pilgrimage is named.
The experience is also colored by each person's motivations for doing the Camino--mine were a mixture of the secular, alluded to above, and the more religious: I'm a cradle Catholic. So I was there for both sides of the party. To give you a better idea of how this played out beguilingly beyond any of my expectations, here's a snapshot of my Camino: golden wheat fields and vineyards stretching to the horizon; the rising sun over my right shoulder and backpack; needing the toilet after overhydrating each morning; recurring tendinitis; cerveza con limon (a deliciously refreshing mixture of beer and lemon); lots of candles in churches; far too much Spanish red wine (especially at lunchtime); hangovers; lust, inspiration, bitterness, and regret during long meditative stretches through the arid Meseta plains; nuns walking across town plazas; Bruce Springsteen lyrics looping through my head; and topics such as abortion, gay marriage, Vatican II, and clerical child abuse debated with young American men considering becoming priests, with lesbian atheists, with those appalled by the church--all of whom shared the deepest yearnings of humanity. Such was the epic scale of sights and sentiments. It often...