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

by Chaplain Mark LaRocca-Pitts PhD BCC

APC Forum, September 2018, Vol. 20 No. 6



The Camino de Santiago is a 500-mile pilgrimage route running across northern Spain from France to Santiago de Compostela. For nearly 1200 years, Christian pilgrims have made pilgrimage to Santiago where tradition adheres the bones of Saint James, the apostle of Jesus, are buried. Today, over 300,000 people from all religious and spiritual traditions and from all over the world make their way to Santiago each year. I was privileged and blessed to make this pilgrimage this past spring, 2018. If you are looking for a self-care experience that will change your life, I highly recommend this pilgrimage or one like it. Our work as chaplains can significantly drain our inner resources over time and making a pilgrimage can go a long way toward replenishing those resources.

Like many, I first heard of the Camino de Santiago from the movie, The Way, starring Martin Sheen, which I first saw in 2016. That movie awakened my spirit for this pilgrimage and just a few months later, in the fall of 2016, I, along with a small group from my church, travelled to Spain and we walked the last 100 miles of the Camino. This was a wonderful experience, but it left me wanting more: I wanted to return to Spain and walk the entire French Route from Saint Jean Pied de Port (SJPP) in France to Santiago de Compostela (SdC). If you doubt the degree to which this consumed me, just ask my wife! With an obsession for detail, I began gathering information, training, buying gear, saving money, and arranging my work schedule. On April 24,2018 I flew to Madrid for a couple days, took a train to Pamplona, then a bus to SJPP and on Friday, April 27th I began my 500-mile pilgrimage.

Having never done a pilgrimage before, I never knew something could be so easy, so hard, and so blessed at the same time. The Camino de Santiago was so easy because the infrastructure along the pilgrimage route addressed my every need. On the Camino is a saying: “The Camino provides.” And, indeed, it does! Having been established for over a thousand years, the economy along the Camino caters to the pilgrims. The Camino is not a “wilderness adventure” like the Appalachian Trail. Instead, the pilgrimage route meanders through small Spanish villages, large cities, small dairy farms, vineyards, cultivated fields, along rivers, over mountains, through church court yards, and past an untold number of gorgeous views of rural Spain. And all along the route, rarely more than half a day’s journey, are a variety of small to large hostels, called albergues, that are specifically designed for pilgrims. For a few Euros, the pilgrim gets a bunkbed in a dormitory-style setting along with showers and bathrooms. Often these albergues offer a “pilgrim’s meal,” that includes three courses with a bottle of water or wine, and a small breakfast for a few more Euros. If the pilgrim wants to spend more money or wants more privacy, there are also small inns, private homes, B&Bs, and hotels all along the Camino.

In addition to always having a place to sleep at night, I rarely walked more than a few miles before stumbling upon a small rural cafe, a village bar, or a city restaurant. In the villages and cities, I had access to pharmacies, food markets, hardware stores, and various shops for clothes and gear. I rarely went more than three or four miles without another cup of coffee in the mornings or a glass of local red wine in the afternoons. On the Camino, I was never far from some place that could help me with whatever I needed from lodging, to food, to drink, and to clothing and gear. The Camino does provide!

The Camino de Santiago was also one of the hardest things I’ve done because I had to walk every step of the way from the Pyrenes on the border with France to the mountains of Galicia in northwest Spain. Along asphalt and gravel roads, concrete sidewalks, well-worn grass-lined dirt paths, ancient Roman cobble stone roads, and knee-knocking, ankle-twisting, turned-on-their-head geological formations from hell, I made my way westward through rain, sleet, wind, and heat, averaging 15 miles a day. Along with the walking, is carrying a backpack. Though I did not have to carry food, camping gear, or cooking gear, I still carried somewhere between 15 and 20 pounds. After a couple weeks, the pack became a part of me, but it certainly added to the hardship and it was always a delight to take it off.

Yes, the Camino was hard. But I was lucky in one respect: I only developed one very small blister. Blisters are the bane of the pilgrim’s existence: happy feet equals happy Camino. Foot care is primary. Many pilgrimages have come to an end due to blisters and many more are made tortuous for the same reason. I had good shoes that were well broken in, I changed my socks every two hours to keep them dry, and I put moleskin or duct tape on any “hot spots.” I lucked out with blisters, but my right knee was a different issue. 

While training for the Camino I hurt my right knee—an old running injury that sometimes rears its ugly head. Instead of resting the knee, I walked on it relentlessly every day across Spain. I never knew a knee could make so much noise! There were days I was not sure if I would continue the next because it was so swollen and sore. Through a combination of ice, Ibuprofen (“Vitamin I” in Camino lingo), Aleve, topical painkiller, a knee brace, a walking staff, and the encouragement of fellow pilgrims, I was able to complete the pilgrimage. Since returning home I have been diagnosed with a severe case of patellar tendenitis and have been rehabbing it since. The bad knee did serve, however, as a valid reason for always needing a bottom bunk!

In Part Two, I will focus on how the Camino blessed me in multiple ways. In Part Three, I will turn to some of the significant lessons I learned along the Camino. Buen Camino!


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.