Spiritual Lessons from the Way of St James

Walking Spain’s ancient pilgrimage route “The Way of St. James” is hugely popular. Gemma Wildsmith reflects on what she learnt while trekking through the hills of Galicia.

The Camino de Santiago is one of the world’s most famous pilgrimages. It has even been given the Hollywood treatment thanks to Martin Sheen’s acclaimed 2010 movie The Way.

“The Way of St James”, to give the Camino its full name in English, is an ancient walking pilgrimage to the apostle James’ tomb in Santiago de Compostela in the north-west corner of Spain.

There are many different routes that you can take on the Camino, with the most famous being the Camino Frances, from the French town of St Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenees all the way across northern Spain to Santiago – a staggering 770km (about 480 miles).

Many people prefer to simply walk the final 112km section of the route (about 80 miles) from a town called Sarria. This journey typically lasts between five and seven days, and was the route that I opted to take.

The idea of the Camino is that it’s a journey and if you go on it with an open heart then you can be amazed at what God will reveal to you through it – it’s like a little microcosm of life.

The ups and downs of life

I started off on the first morning and I felt like I was doing well. I thought, “I can do this. This is going to be easier than I thought.” Then after about 20 minutes I hit the first hill!

As I walked on that day, my rucksack became heavier and heavier and my shoulders started to ache. It made me think about the burdens that we carry in life. Many friends had given me prayer intentions to pray for them along the way and some of them were very deep and personal. I felt like I was really carrying these burdens on their behalf as I walked and prayed. But however heavy my rucksack felt, I knew that it was nowhere near as heavy as Jesus carrying his cross, for my sake, up the hill of Golgotha.

The hills were a struggle on the shoulders because of carrying the bag, but I found that the steep downhills also hurt, only in a different way – they hurt my hips. However, they were inevitable. If I went up a hill, I knew that at some point I would have to go downhill further along the walk. In life the upwards struggles and the downward spirals both hurt in different ways, but it is in these moments of struggle that we grow. We rely on God’s strength and find a well of resilience inside us that we never knew we had.

The final hill that you climb on the Camino is called Monte de Gozo, ‘Hill of Joy’. It’s called this because a) it’s the final hill you have to climb and b) it’s the first glimpse that you get of your actual destination, Santiago city and the spires of the Cathedral. I almost cried with joy when I got there and suddenly all the suffering and hard work seemed worth it!

Pointing the Way

To find your way on the Camino, you follow the yellow arrows. Some of the arrows are just painted on trees or buildings, others are more ornate, and others tell you the distance still to walk. Some are massive and you can’t miss them, others are subtler and you have to look harder.

I found myself wondering what these arrows are in our everyday lives. What do we look to in life to point the way? Are there some arrows that we see more clearly than others?

These arrows for us might be a verse of scripture, it could be the words of truth spoken to us by a friend, going to Mass, spending ourselves for the sake of others, developing our discernment or being attentive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit in the day-to-day things.

When I returned home, I realised that whatever reason you give for wanting to do the Camino it’s normally different to the reason that is revealed to you along the way.

The point of the Camino is not to be able to say that you’ve done it, but to go home and live what you’ve learnt whilst doing it. We are all pilgrims on this journey through life but, when we encounter God, do we return to our normal lives transformed from within?

(Source: ccr.org.uk – Author: Gemma Wildsmith)