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A Pilgrimage of Self-Renewal: The Camino de Santiago, Part Two

by Mark LaRocca-Pitts PhD BCC

APC Forum, December 2018, Vol. 20 No. 8

Note: Part One of this article was published in the September 2018 issue of the APC Forum

One of the greatest blessings of the Camino de Santiago, the 500-mile pilgrimage route through Northern Spain, is the community of fellow pilgrims. Everyone who walks the Camino walks it for their own reason, but we all walk it together. I met people from every continent except Antarctica and from a multitude of countries across the world. For days on end you see these same people as we all walk the same path, but at our own paces. We all know that we are there for each other—another way in which “the Camino provides”—and slowly as our paths cross repeatedly on the trail, in cafes, and in the albergues, we begin to learn each other’s stories. Inevitably you find two or three people with whom you click and for a few days or a few weeks, you form a “Camino family”—a group of people who mostly walk together and make decisions together for a while.

I was blessed to form such a Camino Family with three women: Kim from Canada, and Claudia and Lillianna from Romania. Kim and I met on our first night at Orisson and on day four, after our paths crossed again, we remained together for the next 20 days until Astorga, covering 465K (289 miles) together. On day six, Kim and I connected with Claudia and Lillianna and walked with them to Leon, covering 381K (237 miles) over fourteen days. At times I struggled with my loner tendencies, thinking that doing the Camino alone would be more spiritually uplifting, but I’m glad I remained with my family: building relationships trumps being alone anytime! Some days we walked together and other days we walked alone, but each morning we started out together and each evening, having always made reservations together one day in advance, we caught up with each other. We shared many meals together and always had someone with whom to explore a town or village or to visit a church. We laughed together, struggled together, got lost together, did laundry together, and shared our Camino together with other Camino families.

My Camino family was not my only blessing. A pilgrimage, among other things, is a personal journey to a sacred place in the hopes of experiencing a spiritual transformation. This hope was fulfilled along the Camino when I reached out to touch God and God touched back.

It was my fourth day. I had been walking most of the morning with another pilgrim, Joyce from Spain, who had gone for an unplanned swim in a river to retrieve her phone after it fell in when taking a photo. She was a bit rattled so as we walked along I let her debrief. After a couple hours, we came to a juncture where the Camino split: the traditional path went up a very steep and winding path to a small, medieval church perched on a mountain; the alternate path went along the river and was relatively flat. I decided in favor of the mountain and Joyce in favor of the river, so off we went our separate ways.

After a difficult climb, I reached the top and as I walked pass the church, an old Spanish woman came out and beckoned me to come in and look at the church. Knowing it would end in a donation, I decided to enter. Leaving my pack, hat, and staff at the church door, I crossed the threshold and my life changed.

On the wall facing the door was a life-size crucifix of Jesus made of wood that was hundreds of years old. It was surrounded by yellow sticky notes with prayer requests in the many languages of the world. After briefly glancing at the crucifix, I began to explore the church. It was small and very old. The first floor, along with the wooden crucifix, had a few pews and the altar. In the back and off to the side was a small circular stone stairway that led first to the choir loft, which was made up to sleep a few pilgrims overnight, and then upward to the bell tower, where a bell from the medieval period still hung that I got to ring. After enjoying the view of the neighboring valley, I descended to the first floor again. On a whim, I asked the old woman if I could touch the wooden crucified Jesus with my brass cross that I had made years ago from plumbing parts and had been carrying in my hand while walking the Camino. She nodded affirmatively and as I reached up and out with my left hand and touched my cross to where the heart of Jesus would be, a deep welling from within my heart rose up and I wept. I can count on one hand the times I have cried since the fifth grade: it is rare. I did not expect tears, but I suddenly felt so connected to Jesus, that I was where I was supposed to be and doing what I was supposed to be doing. Like John Wesley, my heart was “strangely warmed” and I knew I was loved unconditionally by God. As I walked down that mountain, the tears continued to flow as they are flowing now. There in the valley, again unexpectedly, Kim from Canada came along with Daniel from Germany and I asked, again unexpectedly, if I could walk with them: after having touched God, I felt a strong need not to be alone, but to touch and be touched by others.

Without a doubt, this experience was the high point of my Camino and I was very lucky to experience it early on and so unexpectedly. The desire to have a profound spiritual experience while on a pilgrimage is common and the closer one gets to one’s destination, the more acute the desire grows to have such an experience. So much so, that a desperation sets in causing an almost unconscious manipulation of events to orchestrate such an experience. This “quiet desperation” is evident all along the Camino, I think, in the many ways a pilgrim leaves their mark along the trail by placing special objects at particularly sacred places. Cruz de Ferro is a traditional place for this, but many other, unofficial places are strewn along the Way. I was lucky to have my experience early, so I could relax and enjoy myself the rest of the way.

And I did enjoy myself as I walked on toward Santiago. As mentioned before, Claudia and Lilliana left Kim and me right before Leon when they decided to jump ahead by bus in order to miss some industrial areas. Kim and I continued together to Astorga where I jumped ahead by bus in order to meet my wife, Beth, who was joining me in O’Cebreiro, so the two of us could walk the last 100 miles together. When we arrived in Santiago, we were able to catch up with Claudia and Lillianna for dinner, but I did not see Kim again.

In closing, I would like to include a couple edited entries from my daily blog about some of the lessons I learned along the Camino.

From Day 22: “A pilgrimage is about the journey toward something: sometimes you pass through tedious and ugly stuff on the way toward something. Right now that something toward which I am moving is Santiago. But my pilgrimage does not end then: it continues on past that and still toward something. What is great about a pilgrimage such as this one is that the destination is clear and concrete. All I have to do is put one step in front of another and I will eventually arrive. Our lives, however, are also pilgrimages toward something. But what is that something? Is it the same for me as it is for you? Is it something inward or something outward, or part of both? Is it a place, a person, a moment in time?

“Actual pilgrimages such as this teaches us some of the primary characteristics that we can then apply to our spiritual or existential pilgrimages. Some of these characteristics seem to be the following: 1) movement. Are you static and stationary or moving? 2) directionally toward something. Are you moving toward something, running away from something, avoiding something? 3) direction trumps specific path. There is more than one path moving toward something. Don’t get caught up in believing your path is the only way or the best way. 4) hardship. You will step in s—t. It will rain. There will be mud, sore feet, blisters, aches and pains, heat, cold, people who snore, no beds available, cold showers, etc. You get the picture. 5) moments of bliss. If you keep on keeping on, you will have moments of connection that confirms your way. 6) community. You can’t and won’t do it alone. Your community holds you up. And your community may come and go and change over time. 7) unexpected help. Learn to ask for and receive help that is offered, even from, or perhaps especially from strangers. 8) pack light. There is a lot of stuff we don’t need and all it does is make it hard to move. This is not just about physical stuff, but also about emotional, psychological, and existential baggage. I don’t need to know all of Emmanuel Kant to move toward something. 9) learn to relax. Take advantage of down time. Take your shoes off, close your eyes, think of nothing, feel the wind, and hear the birds. 10) think in stages. No journey, no pilgrimage is one long slog. It has stages. Break your pilgrimage/journey into doable and recognizable stages and celebrate the completion of each.”

From my Post Camino Reflection: “What have I learned? I hear of what many other people have learned. Some speak of learning to be less judgmental and just letting people be who they are. I like that idea, but you should have heard my thoughts when we passed that French couple today. I must have missed that lesson. Some speak of learning to do with less after learning all they need they can carry in their backpack. Been there; done that! Man, I’m ready for my house with all my creature comforts. Some people speak of how they learned to be more patient and just go with the flow. Well, ask Beth if I’ve learned THAT one! No!

“I guess when it is all said and done I’ve learned ‘that no matter where you go, there you are.’ I am who I am, warts and all. And more than anything, I’ve learned God doesn’t give a hill of beans whether I am transformed or not: God simply loves me as I am and as I will remain—no matter how good and nice I want to be. Yes, I want to be ‘perfected in love’ and striving toward that is a good spiritual goal, but even if I remain ‘bogged down in self,’ God is still here for me. Transformation is good for me, good for others, and good for the world, but God doesn’t need it: God loves me regardless.

“I’m reminded of the Sistine Chapel and the creation of Adam where God is reaching toward Adam and Adam is depicted with a relaxed hand and all he would have to do is straighten a finger and he would touch God. For me this depicts not the moment of creation, but the moment right after creation when humans came into being as beings separate from God. In short, it is the human condition: God is forever reaching out toward us and all we need to do is reach back and we would touch God, but we don’t. Instead, we go it alone. Until we learn we can’t go it alone, or don’t want to go it alone. Then we reach back and touch God who has always been there reaching toward us. For me this pilgrimage was an intentional act on my part in reaching back to God and I touched God in my little mountain church Camino experience. This Camino may have been an extreme act, but for me that is what was needed. Perhaps as a pastor for so many years (and so many years as a Christian before that), the normal acts of going to church, praying, study, fellowship, etc. could be done with ‘a relaxed hand,’ and for me a more intentional and exertion-filled act of ‘straightening a finger’ was needed. Yes, I am still less transformed than I would like to be. Yes, I missed out on many if not most of the big Camino transformative lessons as supposedly learned by others. Yes, I am still set in my ways and not all those ways are pretty. But through this act of pilgrimage I did reach out and God was there waiting, and we touched. What might you need to do that forces you to straighten your ‘relaxed hand’ and touch God?”

As chaplains working in often very difficult and stressful settings, good self-care is a commodity we often lack. If you are looking for an experience of renewal, I highly recommend the Camino de Santiago, whether for a few miles or for all 500. Go alone or go with a friend, but please go: you will not regret it. Perhaps that which you hold sacred or meaningful will dine to meet you on the Way.

Mark LaRocca-Pitts served as a professional chaplain for nearly 20 years in community outreach, acute care, and hospice settings and currently serves as Pastor in Charge at a United Methodist Church outside of Atlanta, GA. He has been BCCI® board certified since 2006 and is ordained by the United Methodist Church.  Mark received his BA and MA in Religious Studies from Indiana University, his MDiv from Harvard Divinity School, and his PhD from Harvard University. He is past president of the Georgia Society for Healthcare Chaplains and founder/host of Death Café Atlanta and a current memeber of the APC Board of Directors.