The Camino de Santiago or “Way of St. James” is a renowned pilgrimage leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Northwestern Spain. Saint Margaret’s Anglican Church in Winnipeg, Manitoba has sponsored several groups of parish youth to travel the El Camino. Below are reflections from the most recent pilgrims on their experience.
I first heard about the Camino in 2019 when Saint Margaret’s launched its first Camino trip. Although the pandemic made planning for the trip uncertain, I decided to join the second iteration, along with some of Saint Margaret’s youth. After packing a single bag—containing the necessary supplies for 12 days of walking— we were thrown head-first into an alien environment. The goal was straight forward, walk to the next location, eat, sleep, repeat. Day after day we did this, the deadlines and obligations of modern life stripped away. Although it was simple, it could never be described as predictable. On most days, I woke up oblivious to where we were going or even what we were having for lunch. While the task of walking over 250 km would appear monotonous, the conversation was plentiful and scenery always offered a source of variety. The landscape was ever-changing, from overpasses towering over a dense forest of vegetation, to a dirt path snaking across wide open fields.
The churches along the trail ranged from quaint and homely with a handful of pews to the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral with its elaborately carved stone facades and gargantuan censer. All of these, no matter the size, provided a rest from the trail and time to reflect. One of the things I thought about while in these places was the amount of people that had to come together to make this pilgrimage possible. Priests performing evening services, people who maintained the hostels, our parish members back home who made this idea of a trip into reality. I think the whole operation is a testament to what Christians from many different backgrounds can accomplish under a unified goal and the power of Christ. I hope that the youth of Saint Margaret’s will be able to experience the trail for years to come.
The Camino de Santiago pilgrimage done with Saint Margaret’s youth group was a unique experience that I will never forget. I first got involved with the Camino group as they were looking for someone to plan out details. Planning a global trip with COVID restrictions changing daily was no easy feat, and it is perhaps a miracle that we did indeed make it at all (not without several setbacks and changes in plans in the pre-trip stages). Regardless of the challenges, the planning stages of the Camino seemed purposeful and exciting.
Now, the actual walking of the Camino was a different kind of challenge. I didn’t think of myself as having a lot of expectations, but I suppose I subconsciously did. I found myself daily battling a fog of desires of what I wanted the Camino to be and what it appeared to actually be: A series of closed church doors, pilgrims who turned out to be simply adventure-seekers, clear shrines of colonial attitudes, and following in the footsteps of a saint who was overtly displayed with the title “Moor-slayer.” I think I wanted the Camino to be simple. As it turned out, it was perhaps too much like the real Christian journey—full of contradictions, pain, confusion, and disappointment. There were connections with a few inspiring pilgrims, and still so many other journeys that seemed to lack so much. The beauty of the path we walked was woven through all of this, but not without telltale signs of a suffering earth. And yet, we walked on.
Walking the Camino was in many ways not what I expected it to be. When I first decided to go on the Camino I did not really understand the purpose of a spiritual pilgrimage. If I don’t believe the bones of Saint James are buried at Santiago, then what is the significance of walking there? One thing that encouraged me of the trip’s relevance to spiritual growth was the testimony of Saint Margaret’s youth that had walked the trail a couple years before. They spoke of the travelers they had met—strong people of faith who dispensed wisdom into their lives, and of the powerful experience of seeing multiple churches a day and taking a moment to pray. I was also told that the Camino changed their lives.
While we were on the trail, some people spoke of having a Camino moment, an “aha” moment on the trail where questions they had been wrestling with received answers, and they left transformed in some way. This seemed to me the standard, the norm of a Camino walk. These expectations, while I was somewhat skeptical, were met with disappointment. There was no life-changing moment by the end of the trail, and the majority of our traveling companions were not people of faith who could share their story and give us wisdom. I thought the purpose of a spiritual pilgrimage would be revealed to me through walking one, but I remain confused.
It is easy to focus on the ways that I was disappointed or confused. Despite nothing grand happening, God was there in the beautiful mundane. He was there in the persistence to get up together as a community and walk, in the conversations and the poems we wrote, in the joy of the simple pleasure of dunking in the creek, in the Catholic family we met who shared their story with us, in the travelers who did not know the God we were there for, but with whom we could talk about our reason for hope. God was there in the connections and reliance we had on each other. I live in faith that pilgrimage is a spiritual practice.
Over Christmas this year I walked the Camino with my family. My church paid for my ticket because I was supposed to go with our youth group over the summer but I got Covid immediately before the trip. I was very grateful to be able to still go on the Camino with the help of my church.
It was a beautiful experience and unique because we went in the off-season. One of the unique experiences happened on New Year’s Eve. We walked into Tricastella where we were staying the night. We arrived in the town around 4:15pm, feeling very hungry from walking all day. The people at the hostel told us that a supermarket had opened at 4:00pm. We walked over to the store only to learn that it was
not open because of New Year’s Eve. Similarly, all the restaurants we saw were closed. We were looking at a map, and trying to see if there was any other place we could get food, and some local guy was walking by and so we asked him if he knew if there were any places open where we could get food. He told us that the supermarket had opened at 4:00, and we walked over to it together to show him that it was closed. He apologized and walked away. Next to the supermarket was a hostel with vending machines in the window. My dad went looking to see if he could get food from them, and me and my brother were sitting on the curb, when the same guy walked by again and asked us if we found a place for food. We said no, and he said he would see what he could do and walked away. My dad came out with no luck and so we sat on the curb and thought of how we could get food. But then the guy came back with two bags of food for us and said “Buen Camino,” and we thanked him lots! It felt so special.
My pilgrimage was a beautiful experience. Walking through all the old towns, I felt immersed in Christian history. I could feel God’s presence in all of the beautiful forests and churches on the walk. Then when I got to Santiago de Compostela I was in awe. The church was not at all what I was expecting. Seeing the exterior made my jaw drop because of how big and stunning it was. It was a beautiful ending to the pilgrimage.