Some readers will remember an article by Janet Nightingale "Prepare the Way" in the Winter 2000 edition about her walk from Le Puy in France along the pilgrim way ("Camino") towards Santiago de Compostela. She described how three years previously she had been diagnosed with lymphoma and given a poor prognosis but she ended: Recent tests have indicated an improved prognosis for my Lymphoma...The second half of my walk has been delayed for me to have radiotherapy. I hope to walk the Way from Pamplona to Santiago next spring (2001)."
By that time she had died, from pneumonia and a stroke picked up when weak after chemotherapy in March 2001. But not long after her death I seem to remember being with our children, David, aged 26, and Katherine, aged 25, and David saying: "we must finish the walk for her". It seemed the obvious thing to do, even though we would never have started the walk for ourselves. At the funeral service her staff was handed over to David on our behalf. Fortunately we were able to find five weeks from the last week in August to the end of September to make the trip together On August Bank Holiday Monday we took the train from Waterloo to Pamplona via Paris and Irun. The following day the walk began.
For me the next 20 days were taken up largely with the mechanics of walking. We averaged almost 16 miles a day and my pack weighed about ten kilos. It was extremely hot. We learned later that the temperature on the first day was 40 degrees centigrade. We learned to start well before dawn and cover as much ground as we could before the heat of the day, and, as Janet had told us, to keep drinking repeatedly. On arrival at a hostel we tried to do our washing as soon as possible and hang it out to dry for the next day. After rest we might feel like a bit of sightseeing, fellowship with other pilgrims, cooking a meal or eating out and maybe, if there was one, going to a service for pilgrims.
Priorities changed. The state of one's feet became of great interest and a fitting topic for conversation between friends. I was fortunate to have nothing but a few small blisters and an occasional twinge in the back or tendons. Others had many more difficulties and a few had to drop out. We became careful to reduce weight. In most of the hostels there were tables covered with items left behind by previous pilgrims, food, books, clothing. We might use them there and then but were rarely tempted to take them with us! It was hard to plan too far in the future; getting to the day's destination was enough. I found that the physical effort sometimes seemed to make my mind shut down; I failed to remember or think ahead. It's interesting that the word journey comes from the French "journee" meaning the amount of ground that could be travelled in a day. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.
There is a tremendous feeling of fellowship between pilgrims. Their timetable differs from that of most other people in Spain. They get up and go to bed early. They stride purposively. They were packs and carry staffs and shells. Usually they are greeted warmly, occasionally laughed at. Sometimes they walk together for a time but often they separate to walk at their own pace and with their own thoughts. They come from all over Europe and some from Latin America. Goethe is reputed to have credited the pilgrimage (which has been going for over a thousand years) for having created a sense of Europe. At the end of the day we would often meet up sight-seeing or in restaurants or buy and cook and share our meals together. Conversation would use many languages - jig-saw puzzle in which every one had a piece.
One of the questions which sooner or later and very naturally emerged was: what brought you to walk the Camino? The answers were fascinating. Usually people had some definite and personal reason. Often they had heard about it and something drew them to it. Sul, a social worker from Norway approaching retirement, saved up time and money for the trip for some time. Often people were at a turning point. Perhaps they had finished a course or a job, retired or were looking for a change of direction. Sometimes it was the history and culture that drew them. Sometimes - as we did - they wanted to remember people who had died. Above all there was a spiritual quest, a sense of choosing and being chosen, which people were unashamed to mention however difficult they found it to express. In the final service at Santiago Cathedral the preacher referred to this search; perhaps God has been with you not only in helping you along tghe way but on bringing you to the way itself.
David, Mary and I do not think completely alike, any more than any of us had always agreed with Janet. Our journey was not all sweetness and light; the first argument was about who was going to have the editorial rights over the video that one of us was producing! If Janet had been present the argument would have got even more heated! We often thought about Janet would have reacted to particular people or places. She would have got on famously with Marie-Francoise, a diminutive French grandmother who was doing the journey in small stages in memory of her Domincan brother, singing as she went and, though without of a word of Spanish, possessed of enough taste and aplomb to insist that the rough house wine was replaced by something better free of charge. As we thought of Janet we were amazed that she had traveled further than we had and almost as fast, in spite of her lymphoma and its side-effect of taking away almost all her saliva. Her tips about travelling light and taking life a day at a time became true in our own experience. We derived deep satisfaction from being together at the final service at Santiago Cathedral and being our "Compostelas" - documents written in Latin indicating that we had completed the journey for spiritual reasons and in memory of Janet.
The Camino has elements of the mirror of dreams in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. In some measure each person or generation sees in it what they want. Its origins are shrouded in myth and the myth is reinterpreted again and again, in this time often being close to new age herbal or healing movements. Sometimes the dreams turn to nightmares; we were walking on September 11th and were made to recall that the Camino was a rallying-point for Christendom in its struggle against the world of Islam. The St James of tradition is not only the homely traveler whose gashed knee is healed by the licking of his dog but the warrior on a white horse spurring on the Spanish armies to defeat the moors in a crucial battle. At times the Christian faith seems harsh and unloving, whether in Spain or elsewhere, but that was not the general picture. The Christ and saints and heroes of the pilgrimage are on the whole humble and human. We were scene a modern crucifix where Christ has only one arm nailed to the cross, the other is stretched out downwards in compassion to suffering humanity. We go on the Camino with our dreams, but in the course of it we and they are often changed.
What are the lessons I take away from the experience?
* Sometimes the most important things are the most difficult to put into words. We have found it difficult to explain why we wanted to walk the Way of St James and what was so satisfying; I'm not sure I fully understand it myself. Sometimes however our inability to define may itself be a merit, maybe a sign that it is in some way of God, who is beyond our understanding.
* How important it is to travel light. Things can weigh us down, even the best of them, if they prevent us loving God, our neighbours or ourselves. This is not an argument against all technology; some, like in my experience mobile phones, profoundly simplifies, but we have to be so careful that it does not become an end in itself or an obstructive means. Janet came back from her pilgrimage determined to give things away. She did a lot, though there is much more to do.
* Other baggage to be left behind consists of guilt, grudges and hurtful memories. There is no virtue in them. We need forgiveness; the Greek word means being untied for them so we can float free.
* Take one day at a time. One can't cut out the past and future; they provide the necessary context but they should not dominate.
* Find out about your companion's spiritual quest. She or he probably has one, whatever it is called. It's interesting that the TAV commentator on Starwars having been chosen as the most popular film of all time claimed that in part it was because it had a spiritual message, as do the Harry Potter books. This is not to say that all spiritualities are the same, simply that it is as well to learn to speak the language. And the perfection of God's truth is likely to be greater than all we already know, certainly not less.
* All Christians are called to the Way of the Cross. That is essential. Other pilgrimages are optional, even the Way of St James. But who knows, dear Reader, it may be just the thing for you