I just returned from walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. Humans have been walking the Camino for hundreds of years. My people. Your people. Our people. Five hundred miles, from St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees to Santiago in Northern Spain. Three hundred thousand people walk the road every year, or at least the final seventy miles or so, the distance required to cover if you want to get an official certificate at the end. But the imprinting on the soul that occurs on the Camino means more than a piece of paper.
In St Jean we began in the loving hospitality of Joseph’s Beilari hostel. Every day in the season, from about the middle of March to the end of October, Joseph and his community welcome up to twenty five pilgrims about to begin their journey. One or two will have walked the Camino before, and know what they’re doing; the rest will be in a mixture of excitement and nervousness. The next morning they will begin a walk of five hundred miles. Most of them will never have done anything like that before.
Joseph invited us to introduce ourselves with name, place, and “the movie you are living in right now”. It was a playful question, but the answers were rich. Everyone was on a journey toward, or away from, or into something. The dinner bonded us to each other. Three weeks later we were still walking with the same four people we had met that night. Once strangers at the gateway of a road, now pilgrim friends for life.
On the Camino there are yellow arrows every few hundred yards, showing the way. Everywhere. (The photo above shows that even gas stations can be sacred.) It’s hard to get lost on the way. Someone repaints the arrows; and on the rare occasion when you might miss one, there’s always a local person who will wave you in the right direction. You stay in hostels called “albergues”, for about ten bucks a night. You’re sharing rooms with between four and a hundred people. Everyone walks around in their underwear, because there isn’t time to worry about how you look, and that’s not what the Camino is about anyway.
People were smiling, greeting each other with “Buen Camino!”, helping each other when we stumbled, sharing meals and equipment, not pushing, rushing, or fighting. Sometimes it was quiet, and sometimes noisy, sometimes there was dancing, and sometimes tears. On two occasions shopkeepers took less money than the price asked, waving me away with generosity because I didn’t have enough change. Once we bumped into a Brazilian man sitting on an old bridge, who invited us to stay the night in his guest house. At the time I was listening to Krista Tippett’s interview with Paolo Coehlo, who is also Brazilian. Of course we stayed there, weary travelers welcomed by more rooted pilgrims, people from other places beguiled by the journey.
In the air, there was a sustained whisper of goodness. We’re living in a time of conflict between two stories: one of ugliness and separation, the other of beauty and connection. The whisper I heard invited me to reflect on a deep truth, that might sustain us amid the tiredness many of us feel, and the uncertainty of today’s path. A better story is unfolding on the Camino, and for me, it looks something like this:
People really are the same everywhere. Love really is stronger than death. Kindness really is always ready to be called forth. It just needs someone to go first.
If you’d like to talk more about how we can live a better story, wherever we are, check this out.