During 2012 and 2013, I spent 72 days walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile ancient pilgrimage in northern Spain.
Although the Camino is rooted in Christian tradition, I was first drawn to it because, over the past 15 years, it has been reborn as a nondenominational spiritual rite. Many people walk because they are in a time of transition — recently retired, just out of college, in between jobs, going through a divorce, grieving a lost loved one — or simply need a space to decompress. Surprisingly, many pilgrims begin the journey alone. It is one of the few places where strangers from all over the world gather to connect on an intimate level regardless of socioeconomic status, citizenship, religion, or race.
Rob, a pastor I met in the Aubrac region of France, described the “language people use to speak about the Camino” as the same they use when “speaking about God.” Often in conversation you will hear people say, “The Camino will show me the way. I came to the Camino to find myself or solve this problem.”
How does the Camino help these people looking for answers? Some see it as a return to childhood, because there is the time and headspace to reflect without the responsibilities of daily life. Though that is part of it, I see the Camino’s power in creating a space for the community and connection that our societal structures withhold from us. Everyone is there to walk, eat, connect, drink, laugh, sleep, repeat. At a single dinner table you might find a 65 year old Austrian woman, a teenager from South Korea, a family from Spain, and a recent college graduate from the United States. There is a unique wisdom born in these diverse mealtimes.
Along the Camino, there is a small village named Rabanal del Camino that sits on a steep hill in the León province of Spain. A single cobblestone street rises past the shops, bars, dogs, and hostels. The road levels out in front a large abbey that overlooks the humble hills of the region. This is the home of Father Pius, a retired German priest who speaks with pilgrims every day. He also offers the abbey as a refuge for those in need of a few days rest.
In his words, “The pilgrimage is a chance for our ‘global village’ to meet each other from many countries and cultures that were once considered enemies. They learn to appreciate each other here. As they walk, friendships grow across boundaries and offer a new experience of a living church. Thus, the Camino becomes a way to make peace among men.”
If you attend a mass along the Camino, the priest will ask those of non-Catholic faith, or no faith at all, to signify their status by crossing their arms during the individual blessings. The priests adapt for every individual — a Catholic church open to everyone from Buddhists to atheists.
These congregations, totaling in the thousands, are different every day as walkers continue along their path. Pilgrims’ burdens are relieved through meaningful conversation, physical exertion, and a Universal Church. The Camino is proof that to find peace, to find God, we must connect across our boundaries, not block ourselves off.
Since my time on the Camino, I have held the experience up as a beacon for the future. It is the place in my heart where I find the most faith in humanity.
Einstein tells us that, “our problems cannot be solved with the same minds that created them.” I see the Camino as a new hive mind, capable of showing those who live in fear that culture and policies born out of racism and xenophobia are toxic to humanity.
Life is our longest pilgrimage; an endless march towards inner peace. There is an evolving social narrative that says we should wall ourselves off from each other, that our fellow pilgrims are monsters, and we should bar them out of our churches, homes, and communities.
After walking the Camino, I know the “other” is not a monster at all.
The other is me.