el camino de santiago

Pilgrims from Brazil, New Zealand and the United States take photos of a shell-shaped Camino de Santiago route marker about a day’s walk from the medieval Spanish town of Estella.

If such a thing as a spiritual bucket list exists, the top item on mine would be the Camino. Specifically, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It’s roughly 500 miles across northern Spain. I hope to cover those miles before I leave this earth.

Camino means ”walk” in Spanish, and walking is a foundational spiritual metaphor. Walking with God describes our journey of faith. We walk in another’s shoes to grow in compassion. We walk with Jesus on the road to Calvary whenever we suffer for our beliefs. The disciples on the walk to Emmaus, in the Gospel of Luke, travel all day with a stranger who turns out to be the Risen Jesus, which perhaps best expresses the life-changing illumination that happens whenever we walk with the holy. In Luke 24:32: “'Were not our hearts burning with us?' the disciples ask each other." When we walk with God, we know that fire.

The network of routes comprising El Camino de Santiago, or the Walk of St. James, became a site on the World Heritage List in 1993. For a thousand years before that, however, Christian pilgrims revered the Camino as a destination comparable to Jerusalem or Rome. That’s because at the end of the Camino is a tomb, discovered in the ninth century and believed to be that of the Apostle St. James the Greater. This made sense to the local bishop at the time because, according to St. Jerome, each apostle was laid to rest in the region where he had been sent to preach the Gospel message. St. James had evangelized the Iberian Peninsula. A cathedral was subsequently erected on the site of the saintly remains, which pilgrims today still visit.

The Camino de Santiago calls to me in a way that other holy destinations, say, Medjugorje or Fatima, do not. Parts of the route are reported to be as commercialized as any pilgrimage site in our modern times, but the pilgrimage itself requires no little effort on the pilgrim’s part. You must have the time to complete the journey, estimated at 30 to 35 days, although I’ve seen ads for organized tours that promise to cover certain sections of the Camino in seven to 11 days. You must have some funding to pay for food and hostel accommodations, although theoretically, you can embark on the Camino without a dime and you will be taken care of along the way by hospitable locals. You must have the endurance, both physically and spiritually, to walk (or bike, apparently) 500 miles or so. You must have the fortitude to carry your own supplies, including a sleeping bag. You must possess the social skills to eat and bed down and interact with pilgrims of many nations in an area and under conditions where spoken English is not a given. Depending on the time of year, you may cope with crowds or hot sun or even snow. I can’t explain why this rather unpleasant-sounding month is on my spiritual bucket list.

But the idea of walking across a country to a spot that the ancient Romans considered the edge of the world (and appropriately called “Finisterre”) has long appealed to me. Many pilgrims end their walk at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela and receive their certificate of accomplishment (the “compostela”), but I plan to go the extra mile. The extra mile is figurative; literally, there are an extra 50 miles, usually done in three days, to reach Finisterre, also called the Costa da Morte (Coast of Death), where Spain drops away into the Atlantic Ocean. It seems a more fitting end of such a formative undertaking.

The Camino beckons to those faithful who are searching for something, a spiritual connection, or an opening of the heart, or life guidance, or a month-long prayer retreat, or an act of penance, or all of the above, from medieval times to today. Every time I take a walk, usually with my three-legged dog, I figure I am in training for a greater walk. I have the shoes, and the time, and the passport. I’m ready, Lord. But even if I never experience the actual Camino, I’m still in training for whatever holy and challenging walks may lie ahead.

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