The Power of Pilgrimage
“Why am I doing this again?” – I thought as I packed my backpack with a few essentials and laced up my trainers. I had walked exactly the same route two years ago, and yet again my soul was calling me to walk the Camino de Santiago. The call for pilgrimage came at a time of transition in my life, filling me with an urge to cross over 400km of difficult terrain in order to purify and renew my soul.
The act of pilgrimage as a spiritual practice has been around for thousands of years. People of all faiths and cultures journey to sacred sites to cleanse their soul and reaffirm their faith. There’s Mecca, the Wailing Wall, the Ganges among many others, and in Europe there is the road to Santiago de Compostela where supposedly lie the remains of Apostle St James. There are several different routes into Santiago, with their own character and level of difficulty. The one I chose to walk is Camino Primitivo, the Original Way through the mountains and forests of Asturias and Galicia. It is one of the most challenging routes and also the most rewarding.
The Camino is very well marked with well developed infrastructure and special pilgrim accommodation. It is probably for this reason that the Way has become very popular recently not only as a pilgrimage route but also as something of a tourist attraction.
Its recent popularity and rich history has attracted people who walk it as a sport or a sightseeing expedition. But for me the camino is a deeply personal and spiritual journey.
When I set off on this pilgrimage I had a prayer, an intention that came to me a few days before. I wanted to find faith in myself, in my path, in God. And slowly the Camino started teaching me, clearing the shadows and revealing the truth.
There is something very healing and regenerative within the repetitive motion of walking. The mind starts to settle and becomes more calm and ordered. As I walk alone through forests, across hills and small villages I enter into a meditative state. In communion with nature around me I start to find peace, balance and wisdom. My soul starts talking to me, reminding me of the truths that get forgotten in daily life. A deep sense of trust and faith in something greater than myself starts to envelop me, filling me up with love, reverence and deep gratitude. I enter into a state of flow, touching something eternal, divine, immeasurably powerful. The road teaches me exactly what I need to learn at this time. Sometimes the lessons come with the people I meet or experiences I have. Other times they come down as divine downloads while I walk.
The road carries my prayer and teaches me what I need to learn. The sweat, pain in my feet, blistering heat, the weight of my pack, steep climbs and descents are all agents of purification. Day after day they remove layers of psychological weight. It is also for this reason that long walks are often suggested by psychotherapists for people with depression or burnout. It has an incredibly healing effect on the psyche.
During pilgrimage my life is reduced to taking care of my basic needs: eat, shower, wash clothes, sleep. Then get up and walk, walk, walk. There have been days when I didn’t want to get up in the morning, my body still achy from yesterday’s walk. Those mornings I would miss the comfort of my flat, wondering why on earth I am doing this “completely pointless” walk. And then I would start walking and after half an hour in the fresh morning air my grumpiness and resistance would melt away, replaced by inner peace and a deep connection to the road, to the nature around me, to myself, to God.
This time the camino has taught me to take care of my needs and be clear and assertive in communicating them to others. I was also reminded that however big a challenge may appear at first it can be handled one step at a time. Some mornings I would look at the mountain I would have to climb that day far in the distance, feeling overwhelmed by the challenge. And step by step I would find myself walking across that mountain, taking in the beautiful views from the top.
Finally walking into the city of Santiago with its busy streets, bars and gift shops was a bit of an anticlimax to the whole journey. For me the pilgrimage is not about the destination. If I simply wanted to get to the city of Santiago I could’ve flown there directly and got a guided tour. It is the tough journey on foot through uneven terrain that constitutes a pilgrimage, presenting us with challenges, gifts and lessons we need to learn.
I have decided to continue my camino to the ocean, to a place called Finisterre or Land’s End, carrying my prayer to where the sun sets over the water. As I walk these last few days I am filled with gratitude for the lessons, the healing and strength this pilgrimage has given me. May it continue to offer its magic to everyone who is open to it.