Alison Raju begins her guide book, The way of St James, with the following dedication, ” For all those who begin their journey as a long-distance walk and end it as a pilgrimage.” When I first read this prior to heading off to France, I liked the sentiment, but I knew that it didn’t apply to me. I was not heading out on this trip to find a faith or religious conversion of any kind.
In Le Puy en Velay when Gord and I checked into the Convent of St Francis we both felt somewhat fraudulent. That feeling lingered as we attended the Benediction for the Pilgrims at the Cathedral and received a blessing for our journey. We were undercover, on what we believed to be a largely Catholic experience. Donning the scallop shells to further strengthen our disguises as modern day pilgrims, we headed off on our way.
By day two I was still feeling dishonest when I asked Gord to take this photo of me on Rue des Poseurs. I can’t date when the feeling finally left me, but it began to fade and was replaced with a wonderful sense of community along the Camino. As we met our fellow travelers it became obvious that everyone had their own reasons for making the trip, and my own, were equally valid. By stepping out of work and modern daily life I was seeking to experience a simpler daily routine and learn whatever lessons the experience could bring me.
The Camino takes you away from the craziness of modern life and delivers you to a world suspended in time and culture. Walking into the towns each day we were time travelers entering a 12th century world where all activity centers around the church and monastery. Here, in this world we are not our 21st century selves. Whether it is by our imagination, faith, mindfulness or delusion we have been transformed into pilgrims. Alison Raju knew this would happen and now as I reread her dedication I can’t help but smile and appreciate the insight held within it.
Along the Camino Gord and I often attended mass at the churches and even received a ceremonial foot washing from a priest at Lascabanes. At Conques, the monks were openly welcoming to pilgrims of all faiths and their warmth and non-judgmental acceptance of all of us was one of the best lessons of the Camino. We tried to experience all of these these things with respect and gratitude and even though we did not share in the same belief system, we were honored guests in a community. I can show people beautiful pictures of this trip, but none of them capture the human spirit of the camino.
Over the years, I’ve participated many traditional forms of religious pilgrimage, as well as modern secular ones, and trekked through the accounts of a wide range of travelers throughout history. I’m convinced that pilgrimage is still a bona fide spirit-renewing ritual. But I also believe pilgrimage is a powerful metaphor for any journey with the purpose of finding something that matters deeply to the traveler. With a deepening of focus, keen preparation, attention to the path below our feet, and respect for the destination at hand it is possible to transform even the most ordinary trip into a sacred journey, a pilgrimage. … What legendary travelers have taught us since Pausanius and Marco Polo is that the art of travel is the art ofseeing what is sacred.