“To be simple is to see things with the eyes of God.” –St. Francis
“For me, prayer is walking. Every step is a prayer. The way unfolds and all it asks is trust and humility. The road always leads home. Step by step.” –Alisa Piper
The Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James is a pilgrimage that people of all backgrounds and faiths have been walking for thousands of years. Last year my parents, Peter and Magdalen MacEntee joined the ranks of pilgrims to make the walk. They walked 14-22 miles each day for six weeks; a total of 500 miles. At almost 70 years of age, together they trekked the Pyrenees Mountains and across northern Spain to the coast. They embarked on this walk at a period of transition in their lives as my father was retiring from medical practice after 40 years. They finished it together and I could not be prouder of them. This “glimpse of spirit” looks at the idea of pilgrimage as a means to connect with spirit. I wish to thank them for sharing their experience for this glimpse and for being my folks!
How did the decision to walk the Camino come about?
Dad- Well, I think there is a lot of activity going on in our subconscious mind all the time that we are unaware of. When then the perfect moment comes, some of what has been worked out in our subconscious rises to our consciousness. For the first time in my life, I was retiring and had the time to do such a thing. The idea of going to a beach for 6 weeks didn’t appeal to me. I liked the idea of having an adventure- immersed in a foreign land and dowsed with spirituality.
Mom- I was actually a bit railroaded into it. The Camino was not my idea but I knew Dad would likely not do it without me. In the end, it was a much better experience than I anticipated.
How did the journey begin?
Dad- It started with a mixture of fear and uncertainty. We had a 33-day walk ahead of us. We had booked into hotels along the way and so needed to get to a certain point each day in order to keep those reservations. I was worried that I had brought Mom out here and was concerned whether she would be able for it. (It turns out she walked ahead of me and left me in the dust most days!)
The first three days were very hard for us as they are for everyone. We began in the rain crossing some fierce rocky slopes in the Pyrenees Mountains. Finishing that first tough day was exhilarating. We began to trust that maybe we could do it. As our trip continued, we were blessed with good weather and blister-free feet. We met a few people who had to go home due to blisters and injuries. By about 11 days in, we both just knew we were going to finish it.
What was a typical day on the Camino?
Mom- We would wake up at 5:45 before dawn, have a good breakfast, put our headlights on and begin walking the trail with the stars. We caught some unforgettable sunrises on those mornings.
We would break at around 10:30am for a gorgeous café con leche and a piece of fruit. A simple snack never tasted so good! We would walk again until lunch at around 1:30. You would walk in the country and then thru little towns along the way. The afternoon sun was hot and by the time we would finish our day at around 5pm you would be sticky and truly exhausted.
On the Camino, you are with yourself a lot. There is a lot of time for prayer and thought. If you knew how much we thought about all of you and prayed for each of you! I found a lot to be grateful for along those trails.
As the day went on, you would get tired and seek out the company of others for support. There were a record number of people walking the Camino that year. There were dreamers, adventurers, seekers, people looking for love and people running from and sorting out crisis in their lives. On the Camino, people would immediately open up to you. It was as if the walk allowed us all to be more vulnerable with one another. We met some beautiful people out there.
Dad- I think I told too many jokes. I told every joke I had ever heard out there.
Where did spirit come in on the walk?
Dad- It was a subtle and profound experience of spirit. On that walk, you are stripped of titles and the trappings of your life. All you have is your boots, your water, your daypack and each other.
In the cool mornings, you would begin full of energy and gratitude. As the day went on, you would get hot and your feet would hurt. All you could do at that point was offer it up. There was much prayer and gratitude during those days.
One morning walking down a hill, I sensed sanctifying grace for the first time in my life. It was surreal and unexpected- as if there were lots of butterflies fluttering around me. I felt a deep sense of God’s help and peace. In that moment, I felt God’s mercy.
I also felt spirit in nature out there. One morning we were walking on the plateau in Spain. The sun was rising and I felt totally at one with the natural world around me. There was an old man lying in a ditch also taking in this beautiful vista. As I passed him he nodded and said “Muy tranquila no?” In that moment, we were both absorbed and captured by this scene. That felt like a spiritual moment.
How did you experience spirit on the Camino Mom?
One day I was walking next to a woman and we began to talk. She was Irish and lived in a town called Navan. I told her I had family there. It turns out she had been friends with and worked with my twin sister Peggy before she had died! They worked together for years at Navan hospital. She went on to tell me what a fantastic nurse Peggy had been and what wonderful care she had always taken of her patients. The woman also helped to take care of my twin sister Peggy in that same hospital as she died of lung cancer!
That interaction gave me such comfort. I was meant to meet that woman. The synchronicity that brought us together that day- walking at the same moment on the same road certainly felt like spirit to me.
After that, I also literally tripped over a heart shaped rock. I picked it up and still have it. It also felt as if it was there for me- a gift to remember how connected we all really are.
I began the walk with gratitude and by the end of the walk it had multiplied ten-fold. The simplicity of life on the Camino allowed me to connect with my own spirit too. I think of myself as a social person who needs people. However, for much of my time on the Camino, I was content to walk with myself. That was a shift for me.
Why do a pilgrimage?
Dad-It is a great luxury to step out from responsibility. You step out from the mundane and take time out to do what some would consider crazy. Inside each of us there is a deep longing for spirit. We look for that which is beyond our senses. We are drawn to it like a magnet. Being with hundreds of other people on the Camino who were also seeking was comforting. It was as if we had somehow found our tribe. Getting on the flight as we were leaving, it felt as if the tribe was dispersing. However, even now, a year later, I find great comfort in the awareness that the Camino exists. I still feel connected to it.
There was also a great sense of history on that trail. The ancient Celts walked it. St. Francis walked all the way to the coast and back! It incorporates the old Roman road. You can feel the presence of those who came before you on that road.
What did you learn? What advice can you offer?
Mom-Well, if you are planning on walking the Camino, my advice is to train and invest in really good socks and boots. It is harder to find spirit when your feet are cracked and blistered.
Dad- We are inherently spiritual people. The more we deny this spirit, the more we seek it. We cannot repress that. You ask people on the trail why they do it and many could not give a great answer. And yet, there we were all together walking the Camino.
Everyone comes to the Camino for a different reason and I dare say most never find what they are looking for. The secret may be in the journey itself. We find glimpses of spirit and answers along the way.
Talk to your fellow man. Open up and find your commonality. Everyone- and I mean everyone has stories and vulnerabilities. Cultivate connection. That is where the fun is and you don’t have to go to Spain to get that.