“…the sacred center is here and now—in every moment of the journey, everywhere in the world around us, and deep in our own hearts.”
—Parker J. Palmer, from “Let Your Life Speak”
The pilgrimage of El Camino de Santiago, the medieval path across the north of Spain, is much more than a beautiful walk. It is much more than a destination, or the repetition of footsteps along the path; it is more than a tour or an expedition, or even ‘taking a good walk’. El Camino is an outward and an inward journey, a visible manifestation of an inward calling, a journey to the sacred center of the heart and the mind.
For many years, I was drawn to pilgrimage as a universal and ancient spiritual practice. This interest drew me around the world, taking pilgrimages to far off places, leading pilgrimages in India and the United States, and then writing about my experience in my first book, The Road that Teaches: Lessons in Transformation through Travel (QuakerBridge Media 2012). Strange as it seems, I found comfort in the rough and tumble of solo international travel in India, Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America. Getting hopelessly lost, taking a fall, losing my passport—these and much more shifted my perspective of travel as leisure activity to connecting deeply with others, seeing and being seen, and understanding my own vulnerability and the same in others.
I came to appreciate pilgrimage as a special type of travel: travel with a spiritual, a holy purpose, a kind of prayer, that carries with it physical, emotional, and geographical elements. Initially, my interest in pilgrimage was in response to my own self-questioning, my wildly curious soul, and a messy mix of inner fearlessness and fear.
Pilgrimage destinations, like El Camino, are places of spiritual significance made holy by saints, the natural and elemental quality of the landscape itself, or places of shrines, temples, burial grounds, or meaningful contemporary events, and they draw people to them in ways that are difficult to name. The pilgrim engages liminal space: leaving, journeying, arriving, departing, and returning. And in this space something magical awakens.
Stories—personal, heartfelt stories—are the connective tissue of pilgrimage: the pilgrim listens to her own inner voice in perhaps a new way, to the story of the land itself, and to the story of the lives of others along the path. Our walking Courage & Renewal pilgrimage began on a chilly, hint-of-winter day in the ancient city of Santiago de Compostela and ended ten days later after a nearly 100-mile walk in the beautiful port city of Finisterre, which faces the western sea and was thought to be the ‘end of the known world’ in ancient times. This little known route along El Camino, known as the Camino Finisterre, is like walking in a David Whyte poem: soulful, heartful, prayerful, and beautiful. We follow the ancient symbol of a peregrination, the clamshell, trail blazes that guide our group of 15 pilgrims out of the city of Santiago de Compostela and into the Galician countryside.
During the next nine days, the path would take us through rural landscapes of high plateaus, forested tracks, country villages, and stunning coastal trails and headlands. A surge of joy, excitement, and wonder rushed through me as I murmured silently to myself: “I am here—the sacred center. I am on El Camino. I am a pilgrim!”
“The road to Europe began here…”
Roadside marker along El Camino de Santiago
Even here on El Camino, I was continually reminding myself to turn to wonder, to inhabit the moment, to slow down, to practice opening, to practice listening, to find the beauty in moments of quiet transformation, even when those moments are not apparent. It’s said that ‘the road teaches’ us what we need to know. And, an important ‘knowing’ for me as the pilgrimage leader is that it is not important whether I walk fast or slow, but as a leader, how do I support others as they walk the Camino in their own way. Some days I walked with the fastest and other days I walked with the slowest.
It was on a day that I had chosen to walk with the slowest of our group, that, on a shady tree-lined path, we met Consuela, an 88-year old farmer, solid as a brick wall, and carrying a wheelbarrow wearing a broad smile under her straw hat. We stopped and chatted, I in my broken Spanish, and she in her broken English. She told me the story of working with her sons after her husband’s death to clear her land to build a stone house that she pointed to nearby. She built the house stone by stone from rubble in adjoining fields. And, I shared about our long walk. She smiled, knowingly, and said: “No one will ever walk El Camino like you, ever.” Her words were a benediction.
As our group of 15 walked along the path, we came to understand each other through our stories of love and loss, of relationships and loneliness, or children and partners. The landscape shaped us as we climbed hills, walked though tiny hamlets and forests of eucalyptus and chestnut. As the hours became days, walking along the road, I could feel that we were no longer strangers, but through our stories, we had become friends, pilgrims.
Reaching Finisterre, we made our way to the ocean, the western most tip of Spain and looked out into the western sea. At that moment, standing at the ocean’s edge, the sun, shining through the mist of the late afternoon, the wildness of the surf, the mountains, it all made sense. I understood the ancient pilgrim ritual upon arriving at just this place: the pilgrim is to walk into the ocean and allow nine waves to wash over her as a symbol of gestation, a new beginning. Standing at the water’s edge, I felt new and fresh again. I knew, I could continue walking. I could continue being changed by the land, the people, the stories. A part of me was left “right at the water’s edge”.
Valerie Brown is a Courage & Renewal facilitator who is an educational consultant and ICF-accredited leadership coach of Lead Smart Coaching, LLC., specializing in leadership and mindfulness training for educational leaders (www.leadsmartcoaching.com). In her latest book, The Mindful School Leader: Practices to Transform Your Leadership and School (Corwin Press, 2015), she explores the role of mindfulness in strengthening thriving leaders and building greater understanding and peace within schools.