The Journey: Walking the Camino de Santiago
by Fr. Michael Brehl, C.Ss.R.
As many of you may remember, I had long dreamed of walking the Camino de Santiago, at least the medieval path in Spain. This is known as the ‘French route’ because it comes down from the French Pyrenees into Spanish Navarra. In fact, I had made plans to walk in autumn 2010 when my third mandate as Provincial came to an end! Instead, I was elected to Rome and had to put these plans on hold for 13 years!
Thanks to the generous decision of our former Provincial Charles Duval, and Regional Coordinator Mark Miller, I was able to begin planning in November 2022 to undertake this pilgrimage in May 2023! My excitement and enthusiasm at the prospect of fulfilling this dream was also tinged with some realistic apprehension given my age and somewhat diminished physical stamina. However, I was encouraged by family and confreres. A confrere in Spain, Alberto Eseverri who had been my Vicar General in Rome, offered to help with all the planning – though his bad knees meant that he couldn’t commit to make the journey with me.
Finally, May 2nd arrived, the day to leave for Madrid. Alberto wrote that his knees had been cleared to at least begin the Camino with me and see how the knees would hold up. I planned to walk 417 kms in a total of 21 days, and to carry everything I would need for the trip in a backpack.
On May 5th, we headed to Pamplona to begin the Camino. And thus began one of the best experiences of my life! Although I had long dreamed of this adventure, it surpassed anything I could have anticipated. I had prepared spiritually as well as physically, and I expected to be surprised by God’s grace and presence as Alberto and I began our own ‘Emmaus journey’ in the Easter Season. God outdid anything I had imagined! We planned to arrive in Santiago for Pentecost weekend, and we were nourished each day by the Easter liturgies and readings – the journeys of St. Paul, and the Gospel of John.
Each day we began to walk before sunrise, accompanied by early morning birdsong and the growing light of a new day revealing the incredible beauty of rural Spain in spring. We averaged 25 kms per day, with many ups and downs as we traversed the foothills and a few mountains of northern Spain – across Navarra, Rioja, Castiglia, Leon, Bierzo, and Galicia. We averaged 6-7 hours of walking each day. After two hours, we would stop for a café con leche and croissant, then two more hours and a draft beer and snack, and finally we’d arrive at our destination for the day.
We stayed in hostels and ‘albergues’ – small inns, often with good home cooking. After a shower and brief rest, we’d head out for our main meal of the day at a local inn or bar. In Spain, the main meal is usually between 2:00 and 4:00 pm, with a light supper at 8:00 or 9:00 pm. Although we ate very well each day, I managed to lose 2 kilos over the month.
In the late afternoon or early evening, we’d visit the local town or village and finish the day with the Pilgrim’s Mass in the parish church and a very light supper. Not only did we walk about 400+ kms on the ‘official’ Camino, but we also walked another 200+ kms exploring the towns and villages along the way. We didn’t have any trouble sleeping at night!
The Camino is a remarkable spiritual, cultural and physical experience. Physically, the Camino is very challenging. Walking 6-7 hours a day with a backpack weighing 7-8 kilos, and climbing significant inclines followed by sharp descents, is an extraordinary physical experience. Like long-distance running, the very physicality of the Camino clears the mind and opens new horizons for feeling, reflection and conversation.
I felt incredibly alive and present to my surroundings and to the people we encountered along the way. Each morning at 5:45, walking out into the darkness of the hour before sunrise carrying my backpack, listening to the vibrant birdsong, and watching the first rays of dawn illuminate the paths, fields, and woods, brought an intense feeling of freedom, and life, and gratitude.
The Camino also opens a doorway into a remarkable historical and cultural experience. It helped me enormously that I can now speak Spanish! Growing up in a modern, multi-cultural city like Toronto, embarking on the Camino was almost like travelling back in time to another age.
Visiting churches, castles and museums many of which dated back to the 11th and 12th century (and others to the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries), deepens my appreciation for a history and culture which has helped to form and shape so much of the Western world. We were immersed in this reality.
Walking through villages of stone houses some of which are a thousand years old, eating local food from crops and recipes that have been prepared for hundreds of years, and following the same paths trod by pilgrims for over a thousand years is an extraordinary experience.
But above all, the Camino is a spiritual experience. We began each day with morning prayer, and we prayed together often on our walk. Like the disciples on the road to Emmaus, we talked about all that has happened, and we met ‘strangers’ with whom to share as well.
Each day, there was some experience or encounter which both surprised and filled us with gratitude: the incredible beauty of fields and hillsides bursting with spring blooms; a chance encounter with someone deeply touched spiritually by the Camino when they were only expecting a challenging physical experience; an encounter with a L’Arche community walking slowly and side-by-side, helping one another and full of joy. Each day ended with the celebration of the Eucharist in very different circumstances, from cathedrals to chapels and sometimes to a simple table in a sparsely furnished room. Gratitude was often my final thought before falling asleep, which never took very long at the end of the day.
The Camino is more about the journey than the destination. That became clear early in our pilgrimage. It was as if the destination hardly mattered – until we arrived in Santiago de Compostela, and so many feelings welled up from deep within: joy and fatigue; relief and nostalgia; hope and longing; aches and pains …and above all, gratitude and blessing.
The Camino is life, and life is Camino. And I look forward to the next stages and steps in this remarkable Emmaus journey. As we heard so often during this month: “Ultreia!” The familiar Camino greeting which simply means: “Forward with courage!” A message of hope in these challenging times…