val-elcamino1“…even before you sat down with them,
broke bread and drank wine,
wiped the wind-tears from your eyes:
pilgrim they called you again. Pilgrim.”
—David Whyte, from Camino [1]

I was drawn to pilgrimages partly out of a deep desire to slow down and partly for a reason I could barely understand or articulate. More than a vacation, I was searching for real healing. I was deeply conditioned after graduate school and law school to ‘make good’, to ‘be somebody’, and the drive that propelled me was simultaneously numbing and exhausting.

I lived for decades with the primary tension of wanting and needing to ‘make a living’ and knowing that life was so much more.  I wanted to travel without a destination or agenda, to allow the fullness of time to unfold, to be lost in the small, ordinary moments, to break bread with strangers and to have that be enough.

I wanted to walk the pilgrim’s path, to allow the uncertainty of the road – the bad weather, the getting lost – to strip me of the illusion of control and shatter my small, meager self. Gradually, traveling called me to look deeply at myself, at my gritty individuality, my selfishness, and at the status and resources I worked hard to acquire.

travel documentsThis spring, I embarked on a sacred journey to explore the little known pilgrimage route from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterra, Spain, following the magnificent coastline of Galicia. Dating back as far as the 9th century, pilgrims have walked the Camino Finisterra to both Muxía and Finisterra as the final stretch of The Way of St. James, El Camino.

The ancient wisdom of India counsels that every journey consists of eleven directions. Between the four cardinal directions: north, south, east and west lie the four intermediate directions: northeast, southeast, northwest, and southwest. The direction above and below makes ten directions. The eleventh direction is inward, the journey into one’s inner self, the heart center. This inward journey is, of course, lifelong trip.

It is said that El Camino is measured not in miles but in the spirit in which you travel. Discovering the truth of this statement was one of many life lessons on the Camino Finisterra.

Day after day I walk along, arriving just before nightfall to the refugios, pilgrim hostels. I was dirty, my clothes were grungy, and my boots were caked with mud. I was tired of wrapping my feet with Vasoline, moleskin, and lambswool. My left hiking boot was torn to shreds by walking through muck and mud over my ankle and was literally being held together with duck tape.

Valerie's tattered pilgrim shoesI was sick of arriving at the refugios only to find the only bed available is the top of five stacked to the ceiling, the mattress ripped and filthy. I stand waiting in line to use the shower, which is caked with grime and smelly, the walls splattered with dead flies. And I sleep with one eye open clutching my rucksack for fear of having my passport stolen, not letting my boots, as disgusting as they were, out of my sight. I’m beginning to feel like a homeless person, like the poverty-stricken girl of my childhood. Packing and unpacking my sparse belongings and eating day-old food buried in the bottom of my rucksack left me feeling destitute.

I could walk away from all of this, pull out my American Express card and find the nearest Sheraton. ‘Cut and run’ has been my strategy for decades, ‘leave before you get left’.

The next day over breakfast, I stopped to chat with a bunkmate, Cheryl, a quietly confident former school teacher from Dearborn, Michigan. Cheryl said she was on her way back home, having walked nearly one thousand miles on El Camino. She began the walk after her cancer diagnosis.

“At first, it was really hard. I actually had to take a three-week break. I didn’t have the stamina and was hospitalized here in Spain. I was determined to live, and just decided I would start walking, and I did.” Cheryl paused, and I could feel her quiet determination and courage.

“The Camino taught me that I have a purpose, and that purpose starts with looking within myself for the source of strength and trust.”

Later that day as I walked along the Camino thinking of Cheryl, I faced the ‘cut and run’ impulse, and blessed it. I realized that my purpose in walking the Camino was to discover the eleventh direction, and not just to ‘find myself,’ but to be at home within myself, which required less movement outwardly and more movement inwardly.

[1] Whyte, David. Pilgrim. Langley, Washington: Many Rivers Press, 2012.


Valerie BrownJoin Valerie Brown for the pilgrimage El Camino, Spain, which departs in September 2015. Please contact her for more information about dates and pricing.

Also check out upcoming Courage & Renewal retreats that Valerie is facilitating:

Journey Toward Wholeness 4-Part Retreat Series
(Oct. 31, 2014 through July 19, 2015 near Philadelphia, PA)

Open Heart, Peaceful Mind: A Retreat for Rest & Reflection
(Dec. 28, 2014 – January 1, 2015 near Philadelphia, PA)

Journey Toward Wholeness 2-Part Retreat Series
(March 26-29 and Nov. 5-8, 2015 in Deerfield, MA)

Courage to Lead for Young United Methodist Ministers: A 6-Month Leadership Intensive for Faith Leaders to Renew, Reflect and Reconnect
(May 5-8 and Nov. 17-20, 2015 near Milwaukee, WI)

Journey Toward Wholeness 2-Part Retreat Series
(May 18-24 and Oct. 5-11, 2015 at Ghost Ranch in NM)

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