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Does pilgrimage have a place in the modern world?

by Kathryne Burns

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People have been walking El Camino de Santiago – The Way of Saint James – for over a thousand years. For many decades, the pilgrimage was made by Christians to honor Saint James. These days, people from every religious, cultural, and ethnic background come from all over the world to make the journey to Santiago de Compostela, the resting place of Saint James. Although there are many paths that meander through Europe and converge in northern Spain, the Camino Frances is the most popular route. It spans roughly 500 miles and is marked by yellow arrows and conch shells – the symbols of the Camino. The surrounding villages and towns have supported the pilgrims passing through for generations. This summer, I was given the chance to become a pilgrim (or ‘peregrina’) myself and make the journey to Santiago.

Everyone walks the Camino for a different reason, some grieving the loss of a loved one, others walking on behalf of a charity, and many trying to find new purpose in their lives or to quench a thirst for adventure. As I embarked on my own Camino, I was grateful that my reasons for walking The Way were simply to make an intentional journey and to just “be.” I knew going into this adventure that there would be many unknowns, like where I would sleep each night, how many miles I would walk each day and who I would meet. But I was certain I would have a lot of time, which is something that is rare in the hustle and bustle of our everyday lives.

So I decided to bring my friends’ and family’s intentions with me and use the opportunity to think, reflect, and pray on their behalf. Before I left, I sent a message to my loved ones to explain my journey. I told them that I wasn’t walking to put a tough phase behind me, but I had been given the gift of time and my life circumstances allowed me to do something I may never have the chance to do again. I asked them, if they were willing, to send their intentions. I received many responses – some were well wishes for my journey, but most were meaningful intentions for me to carry along the way. It was powerful to read through each one, and empowering to know they had been entrusted to me.

So far, I’ve walked about 340 miles in 19 days and I expect to walk 215 more miles over the next 12 days. I’ve walked with friends and I’ve walked alone. Every day has been an adventure in a different way, but most days I reach a point where I find total peace and/or total desperation (for water, food, shade, a bench, etc.). It’s at those points that I most often think of the intentions of my friends and family back home.

The Camino is a spiritual journey for everyone, whether you believe in a greater being or not. I believe in the power of prayer, but I’m also a firm believer in the power of community. I don’t think we can walk this journey from life to death alone. That’s why I carry these intentions and reflect on them as I walk. I find strength in that place – taking my mind off of my current state and focusing my energy on another person. And even though I’m thousands of miles away, I hope my friends and family feel the love.

I've met people from at least 24 countries, and each from a different background. No matter the age, gender, nationality, or religion, it's easy to find common ground with each person. The Camino draws a similar type of soul, and the human connection is natural.

Just as we’re not on this journey through life alone, you’re never on the Camino alone. There is a sense of family here and you share a lot along the way – food, water, aches, pain, bandaids, silence, song, laugher. So far, I’ve met people from at least 24 countries, and each from a different background. No matter the age, gender, nationality, or religion, it’s easy to find common ground with each person. The Camino draws a similar type of soul, and the human connection is natural. I’ve walked over 175 miles with a wonderful woman from Italy. In no time at all, she has become like family. She is my Italian sister and I am her American sister – las hermanas del Camino. As we were walking and reflecting on our time today, she said, “I think the Camino erases all borders.” I think she’s right.

Life is simple here. We carry what we need on our backs, we often cook communal dinners, we sometimes sleep in hostels (or ‘albergues’) with 90+ beds, we always share a greeting to all that we pass. “Buen Camino!” Every day we wake up early and put one foot in front of the other. I think this has grounded me a bit, and helped me to remember what’s really important to me. I’m reminded of a letter my great-grandfather wrote to me shortly before he passed. With his 92 years of wisdom, he said, “Do yourself a favor as you walk through life. Take time to really see what’s going on around you, right where you are. You may be missing something wonderful.” That message is more powerful now than ever. I hope that this state of mind, this existence, this Camino, will continue long after it’s finished.

The day before I left, my older sister said to me, “I hope that you find your soul’s happiest existence on your Camino.” What a beautiful wish. With the sun at my back, my Camino family by my side, the amazing Spanish country side stretching out in front of me, and my loved ones in my heart, I think this must be it.

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