CSgt Shaun James
I committed to walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in my late Father’s name and for the charity unicef. Although I still can’t fully explain it, I think there was something of a tug from the Holy Spirit involved. Yes, there was an appeal to my sense of adventure, but the Camino is not just any old walking trail. This is a bona fide pilgrimage, one of the big three that date back to medieval times; Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. So perhaps I was also motivated by my love of history and doing something different.
Getting ready to go took me two years, due to the COVID-19 lockdowns my pilgrimage was cancelled twice, that was just bad luck for me, however, it made the experience all the more special. When getting ready for a major pilgrimage, there are serious considerations that need to made.
Firstly, you have to prepare your schedule, which means clearing the necessary time in your diary, in my case Easter Monday was always my goal for the end at the great Cathedral so I had to work backwards to my starting point Sarria, the final leg and minimum requirement to claim the Compostela Certificate.
Secondly, you have to prepare your kit, military training helps here! On pilgrimage, when you’re carrying everything on your back, you don’t want to be lugging stuff you don’t really need and you want whatever you do take to be efficient, light, strong, durable, multi-purpose and easy to use/wear. My biggest surprise in this area was to realise the usefulness of walking poles. In my vanity, I thought they looked a bit silly and a bit unnecessary for an able-bodied man, so I almost didn’t buy a pair, which would have been a serious mistake.
Thirdly, you have to prepare your body. Not being a serious walker my body needed to be conditioned to the demands of the Camino, so I needed some serious training. My schedule for the Camino required me to walk an average of 30 kilometres each day. There was so much to learn about hydration, stretching, massage, blister prevention and so on and the realisation no amount of training can prepare you for this pilgrimage.
Fourthly, you have to prepare your soul. Well, maybe you don’t have to, but, if you want to approach the Camino as a pilgrimage and not just a long walk, some soul work is crucial. My processes for preparation were reading, praying and conversations. I devoured several books to get in touch with the issues. Martin Robinson’s Sacred Places, Pilgrim Paths is full of fabulous quotes arranged around some thoughtfully crafted themes. In terms of soul preparation I was especially grateful for Charles Foster’s The Sacred Journey, and of course the classic film The Way. Connecting with people that had completed the Camino also gave valuable information to what was needed and taking on-board special tips.
Exactly what makes walking the Camino de Santiago so impactful is hard to express. Part of it has to do with being away from the myriad of annoying little details that complicate normal daily existence. A decision has to be made about how ‘in touch’ one wants to be on pilgrimage. It’s a very personal matter, with no right or wrong. I chose to switch off all social media and devices for two days to clear my mind, life then became very simple on the Camino. It gave space to think, space to talk with others without the pressure of time or agenda, space to simply be. Another source of the deep impact is the earthiness of the experience. Walking is an effective way to get connected to a landscape and the people and culture embedded within that landscape. It’s a very different experience than travelling in a car or bus or train and of course, when walking significant distances you become very aware of your body, both the pain and the strength, which is an experience that gets pretty earthy. Engaging in pilgrimage as a deeply spiritual exercise is a powerful one.
Walking through Spain on this pilgrim path has created wonderful memories, but the deeper value of it is in the personal transformation that takes place. No doubt this is slightly different for everyone who does the Camino, with, perhaps, some common threads here and there. What was the personal transformation that happened in me? I need to be a bit careful here because it’s too early to tell whether, in fact, I have undergone personal change, but due to the moments of personal solitude I found the important answers I was searching for and made many friends on route who were also treading this ancient pilgrim path.