Holy Trinity Parishioner Receives Inspiration on Journey of the Saint James Way
By Jaime Gil
I recently came back from a trip to Spain where I had the privilege of visiting amazing and historic cities such as Barcelona, Pamplona and Valencia. The main purpose of the trip, however, was for my girlfriend Michelle, our friend Jayne, and I to get to a small French town where we would begin the journey of the Saint James Way. El Camino de Santiago, as I will refer to it in Spanish, is an ancient Christian pilgrimage that follows the steps of the Apostle James in his zeal to reach “the ends of the world.” Different routes have formed starting in the border between France and Spain all of which find their way into the city of Compostela located in Northwestern Spain where pilgrims reach their destination after a long walk that covers most of the country East to West.
People from all over the world and for all sorts of reasons engage in this adventurous path where they will be surrounded by immense beauty, experience physical strain, and will often be transformed by the unexpected blooming of new friendships and the power of prayer and silence. El Camino has gained renewed interest and popularity within the last few years. In our current world where most of us are constantly immersed in virtual reality, suffocated by anxiety, isolation, meaninglessness, and sedentary lives, El Camino is literally, and figuratively, a breath of fresh air. For many it has become a sort of rite of passage, a space for transitioning into a new stage in life. Many hope that El Camino will reactivate body, mind, and spirit, and will therefore be an opportunity for discernment, clarity and growth in confidence. If this doesn’t happen, however, it is still a great excuse for beautiful sight seeing and self-indulgence with amazing wine and tapas!
For several years my girlfriend Michelle has been wanting to do El Camino. Last fall she decided that the summer of 2018 will finally be the time to check this item off her bucket list. Michelle and Jayne began the preparation. They decided to do the whole walk which lasts roughly about thirty-four days. I had initially not planned to join them, but the circumstances aligned in such a way that I was able to walk the first three days. We opted for El Camino Frances which is one of the most popular routes. It starts in the magical St. Jean Pie de Port, a small French town embellished by the majestic Pyrenees.
Among the many reasons why El Camino has grown in popularity, two call my attention because they sort of open up a window and offer a view into the “joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age” (as expressed in the prophetic opening line of Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes) which seems especially true among young adults: The need for physical and spiritual awareness, and the consequential human desire to find and trust self, others, and the divine. In our technocratic societies where it is easy to disconnect and hide from reality and our deepest human desires, more and more we find ourselves living lives not our own, performing jobs we hate, buying things we do not need and engaging in relationships that make us feel alone, hoping that the next thing will finally bring us satisfaction. We instead end up tired, hurt, frustrated, empty, unfulfilled and disillusioned.
For many like me El Camino is a sort of rebellion, an alternative, a breaking away from the numbness of comfort and conformity. We could say that it is Spiritual Exercising much in line to the one taught by St. Ignatius of Loyola. El Camino is a pair of shoes and a backpack full of basic needs and overfilled with hope. It is a pilgrimage, an ongoing ritual, an intentional space for vulnerability and reflection. It allows the pilgrim to find the rhythm of his/her own life. One becomes spiritually aware one step at a time as we ascend a mountain or walk on a plane field. Each breath in the stillness and majestic silence of nature makes one fall into communion with the whole of creation. El Camino is also a coming together of peoples and cultures and an opportunity to rediscover our common humanity made explicit in the simple, yet powerful phrase: Buen Camino! which feels like a blessings and a soothing confirmation that yes, we exist, we are in this together! It teaches us to trust and venture into the unknown. With all these thoughts invading our minds and hearts, we walked over the Pyrenees and down to Pamplona in three days. As we approached the end of each day, our tired bodies and hungry spirits softened our hearts and we began to feel, perhaps a little deeper… and that is a good thing!
El Camino will provide! We heard this phrase over and over again like a mantra that began to permeate out thoughts. It requires trust and dependence in people but ultimately in God’s providence. Every single day and almost every hour peregrinos (pilgrims) have to trust the signs pointing them to the right direction. They have to trust that there will be water fountains to drink and refill along the way. Peregrinos depend on the locals for food and shelter. They will learn that when everyone experiences vulnerability and generosity it is very likely that the Story of the Good Samaritan gains new meaning and demands people to act differently, especially towards those in most need. We met Barry the first day of the Camino. As we stopped to get a drink of water, I noticed there was a pair of glasses left on the grass. I hesitated to take them with me because I did not think we would find the owner, what were the odds? Jayne, however said, “I will take them.” So she did. At our lunch stop, a few miles later, many pilgrims where gathered. Jayne walked towards a complete stranger and said: “excuse me sir, are these your glasses?” He looked at her with surprise and said: “Yes, they are!” I was shocked and couldn’t believe it because he was the first person she asked. I asked Jayne how she knew they were his and said to me, “I don’t know he seemed like he was missing them.” I think it was a combination of providence and Jayne’s determination and perceptiveness. Barry, a man from Scotland, was able to see clearly again and bought us lunch! Needless to say, he became our first Camino friend. This is only one of the countless stories the way provides. Unfortunately, experiences such as these are becoming more and more foreign to us. Our infancy depended on these two values. However, we invest most of our formative years learning distrust and self-reliance. Whereas these are two effective values for material success and our “American way of life”, isolated, they become incompatible with the Gospel and a hindrance to fulfilling lives.
El Camino also provides opportunities for intimacy, be it spiritual through prayer or by intentional interaction with other people. Perhaps being in a foreign country, not speaking the local language, and the soreness of physical exertion allows people to see with new eyes and feel with a new heart. At those times we perhaps become more empathetic and more appreciative. As I reflect on this experience, a few weeks later, Michelle and Jayne are still walking el Camino. My hope is that their friendship is getting stronger. Michelle and I keep messaging back and forth. She keeps me updated on their daily experiences. They are continually dealing with blisters on their feet which has made them take a few days off along the way. Providentially, they have found some great albergues (pilgrims’ hostel) where they have been able to eat and rest well. As I stay in touch with them, I find myself a pilgrim still. I am with them in spirit. It came to mind tough, that as long as we seek the face of Christ and desire to Make God’s kingdom present, we are true pilgrims here and now, much like St. James and the many who follow Christ today. Michelle and Jayne are expected to reach Santiago de Compostela on the feast day: July 25. They will attend mass and get a certificate proving that they have follow the steps of the Saint. I wonder what feelings and emotion will they experience as they enter that church.
In his latest Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate (Rejoice and be glad), Pope Francis shares this thought in the opening paragraph: “The Lord asks everything of us, and in return he offers us true life, the happiness for which we were created. He wants us to be saved and not to settled for a bland and mediocre existence.” This is probably the energy that drove me to write this reflection. We are hungry for true life and the happiness for which we were created! This is intrinsic and fundamental to the Church’s mission and raison d’etre. Leaders and ministers in the church are tasked to use their faith, talents, creativity, and academic and pastoral experience for this purpose. For us Christians, Jesus is the reasons for a life worth living for, broken and pour out for others. St. James knew Jesus and followed his command. May our lives’ pilgrimage lead us to God, our final destination.
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the one bringing good news, announcing peace, bearing good news, announcing salvation, saying to Zion, “Your God is King!”
(Isaiah 52, 7).
If you enjoyed reading this article and would like to learn more about it, please contact Jaime Gil at firstname.lastname@example.org If you want to know more about El Camino de Santiago watch the special documentary “The Way of St. James” found on your free parish subscription to FORMED, rent “The Way,” or watch the documentary “Footprints” on Netfilx.
This article was written by Jaime Gil as an attempt to reflect on his recent experience walking three days of El Camino de Santiago in Spain. Jaime Gil is the Director of Faith Formation at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Fairview Heights, Ill.