Fr Gerard Spillane reflects on walking the Camino
Friday 9 December 2016
Fr Gerard Spillane, Parish Priest of St Brigid’s in Gisborne, walked the Camino in October this year. The following is his reflection on the experience.
Beginning in Lisbon the Camino Portuguese takes you through some very interesting places, particularly Santarem, Coimbra, Porto, Ponte de Lima and then across the border at Tui and into Spain, and places like Pontevedra, and finally to Santiago de Compostela.
Of the various Caminos the Portuguese is the shortest at 614 km and takes the pilgrim through central Portugal and then into Spain, although you can take an alternative route, for part of the journey, along the coast. With this pilgrimage you come into contact with a different culture and language, and yet the way of life is similar to the Spanish.
Outside of the main cities you meet people who are connected with the land: vineyards, crops, olive groves and animal farming. For many of the locals pilgrims are important as they support the local economy with money spent on accommodation and food. The accommodation is basically in Municipal Albergues, 6 euros, and private ones which charge approximately 10 to 12 euros. The difference being less pilgrims to a room. With the large Albergues you can find yourself in the company of 40 or more pilgrims, many snoring to their hearts content. Other accommodation is found in Hostels, which charge around 25 euros for a private room with shower/toilet, and then of course, for those seeking a few extra refinements, you can choose a Hotel. On a number of occasions I chose a Hostel to escape the incessant snoring of other pilgrims, to ensure a good nights’ sleep.
Having said all that, the purpose of a Camino is to follow the spiritual path, like many pilgrims before, to the Cathedral of Santiago—traditionally the burial place of the Apostle Saint James. A spiritual journey allows time for silence and reflection—a little like a retreat on the move, allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the Way, and to give thanks for what has been and what hasn’t, and to be open to the God of surprises.
In the evening it becomes the practice to sit down with other pilgrims over a meal and share the day. The idea of a Camino is becoming more and more popular with peoples from countries around the world, many of whom just like the idea of walking to Santiago without any particular spiritual motive. And yet, such fellow pilgrims find that their hearts are touched, just by walking ‘the Way’.
One surprising aspect of the path through Portugal was meeting pilgrims walking in the opposite direction, i.e. from Santiago heading south. These fellow pilgrims were making for Fatima, which is about 100 kms from Lisbon. Next year is the 100th anniversary of the apparitions (1917) and this devout country will be overflowing with pilgrims and tourists to celebrate the event; good for tourism and the Portuguese economy, as well as the spiritual motives underpinning the appearances of Our Lady.
Although I found this pilgrimage uplifting it did not have the same impact as previous Caminos. One reason for this is the constant walking on asphalt roads and cobbled pathways—good for penance but hard on one’s feet. During my ruminations I came to the conclusion that the Portuguese must be the direct descendants of the Romans who were renowned for their cobbled road-making. As well as the hard surfaces you were constantly aware of on-coming traffic and erratically driven cars, which are dangerous. The Portuguese authorities need to learn from their Spanish counterparts and provide more pathways alongside roads and reduce the possibility of accidents.
Why undertake such a pilgrimage? For many hundreds of years Christians, in particular, have walked to the three great centres of Rome, Jerusalem and Santiago for religious reasons. Walking in the footsteps of others to a spiritual centre becomes an affirmation of one’s faith in God, whose Spirit guides us along the journey of life. It could be an acknowledgment of blessings received or perhaps an act of penance. Many pilgrims set out without any particular spiritual motive but along the Way their hearts are touched by the presence and generosity of others and some kind of spiritual awakening. I find there is a real challenge to walk the Camino with a load on one’s back, removed from the daily cares and responsibilities back home, and hopefully open to the presence of the Holy Spirit; it can become, as I said earlier, a retreat on the move.
The highlight of the pilgrimage is reaching the destination of Santiago de Compostela and joining with others in the great Cathedral for the midday Pilgrim’s Mass. For the two days I was there I concelebrated Mass with other priests with overflowing congregations and had the added bonus of witnessing the drama of the Botafumeiro (the huge incense burner) swinging from one side of the Cathedral to the other. In latter days this was done to fumigate the sweaty (and possibly disease ridden) pilgrims, but perhaps today to give thanks as one’s prayers ascend to the Father.