Keep Walking

One morning about halfway through my pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, as I was standing outside the hotel in my walking gear, a mother with two young children – a boy and a girl – emerged from the hotel. The mother smiled at me and asked if I was walking to Santiago. I said yes. The little girl studied me. “Why do they do that, mommy?” She replied: “so they can get to heaven easier!”

I laughed, but it got me thinking: Why am I doing this, really? What is it I hope for? Is it changing me, and if so, how? Is it drawing me closer to God? What am I learning about myself? It had long been on my bucket list to walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, or more realistically, a portion of it. Still, when the opportunity presented itself through a pilgrimage offered by the Shalem Institute, I wasn’t sure I was up to it. Can I manage it? Am I too old? What about COVID? But I was intrigued by the information session and jumped at the chance (it filled up that afternoon) and said “well, I guess we’ll see what happens!”

The Camino de Santiago, or the “Way of Saint James,” is an ancient network of trails that run through countryside, small towns and cities, converging at Santiago de Compostela, where — legend has it — the bones of St. James are buried. The Way has been used by pilgrims (peregrinos, as they are called in Spain) for centuries. In medieval times the Way was often used as a form of penance, and in those days many of the pilgrims did not survive, dying of hunger or thirst or cold or heat, or the hard terrain, or set upon by bandits.

We didn’t face those kinds of dangers of course. Thankfully our lodging was planned for us, and we did not need to carry our luggage on our backs, just plenty of water, snacks, foot care products, sunscreen, and trekking poles. Still, it was hard, as of course it is meant to be. We also had the benefit of spiritual reflection guided by the Shalem staff, which was huge. We walked between 12 and 18 miles a day, sometimes flat, sometimes quite steep. Sometimes in the woods, sometimes through the industrial section of a major city. Sometimes there were cafes that welcomed us with bathrooms, coffee and food, stamps for our Camino passports, (“Credencial del Peregrino”), and a bit of rest. Sometimes the bathroom was a conveniently placed bush off to the side of the road. Modesty was an early casualty. There were 17 of us on the pilgrimage, including our two wonderful trip leaders. The theme of the pilgrimage was “Remember, Release, Reimagine.”

The thing about walking is you have to be present to it, or risk tripping and falling, or getting lost, missing that familiar blue and yellow Camino sign, or the yellow arrow painted on pavement or a fence. I found I couldn’t go very far stuck in my own head without being hauled up short. It was not only the beauty of the world, but my bodily needs that would remind me to be alert. How you’re carrying your body, your posture, your pace, matters when you’re walking 15 miles a day. The need to go to the bathroom, attend to your sore feet, take a rest and drink some water; to watch out for uneven terrain and for trail signs so you don’t get off track; all of this requires awareness. Walking requires an alertness to where you are. I found as I did this that my mind was shaken loose from its obsessive chatter, its do-loops of past gripes and current frets and worries. The Shalem invitation to “remember” and “release” helped with this. I came back mentally lighter.

There was for me throughout this pilgrimage a constant feeling of being “unsettled,” of being in between one thing and another. Something has been left and something else not yet arrived at. There is the unease of realizing that I don’t have a car, and I have to get to where I am going on foot. There are the twin feelings of loss and hope, of belonging and aloneness. Having to rely on my own two feet made me much more acutely aware of the support of others I need along the way. There is a restlessness built into the human spirit that calls us on, even if we don’t go very far, a restlessness that causes us to venture, and with it a longing to arrive home. And getting there, but never fully, instead finding a way station on the journey.

At the core of this pilgrimage – and what grounded it for me — was the desire and intention to walk in faith. After the first day, when we were discouraged and exhausted, one of our trip leaders encouraged us to call upon Jesus. “Walk with me, Jesus” became a prayer on the road. It was faith that sustained me when my energy flagged, when I would feel lost and scared, for that last two miles of hot, daily walking. It was faith that reminded me that the journey is at times beautiful, and other times uneven, surprising and hard. And that I was never alone. I had companions along this journey, not only the 16 others who were part of this pilgrimage, but the many people who showed us hospitality, and all the people walking the Camino in the same direction, helping each other along, wishing each other a “buen Camino!” as we journeyed.

I’ve realized that when Jesus talks to his disciples about readiness — “be dressed for action with your lamps lit” (Luke 12:35) — it has nothing to do with building up a retirement fund, or so much about having the right theology in our heads or ascribing to the right doctrines. It’s about walking in faith with an active, engaged alertness. Walking in faith leaves no room for apathy, cynicism or resignation. It means being fully present to all of life’s messiness and beauty along the road, finding companions, and trusting in God’s daily providing. Perhaps walking in faith has to do with this longing, this restlessness, heading out to unfamiliar territory and allowing ourselves to be unsettled, to see what we see, to allow ourselves to be vulnerable and experience hospitality, and to be surprised by beauty and by grace.

Editor’s note: This article was originally published in the Fall 2022 edition of Delaware Communion Magazine (a publication of the Episcopal Church).  It has been edited for length.  

August 08, 2023 by Martha Kirkpatrick 4 Comments
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Karen Lewis Foley
Karen Lewis Foley
10 months ago

Thank you for this thoughtful and faithful reflection. It resonates strongly with my life at present and reminds me that we’re all just always walking, on a life pilgrimage. Martha reminds me of what is needed to keep walking—to be present with each step.

Charlotte
Charlotte
10 months ago

Beautiful reminder about our pilgrimage and faith! Thanks Martha! Miss you on the Way! Buen Camino!

Aetna Thompson
Aetna Thompson
10 months ago

Wow! Spot on. Thank you Martha Kirkpatrick.

Tom Adams
Tom Adams
10 months ago

Thanks Matha for the reminders of my lessons from the Camino. I recently lost my brother and am in some rough and unknown terrain. I appreciate the prayer Jesus walk with me and the reminder the road is up and down and all good.

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