What Brings You to the Camino?

While walking the Camino de Santiago, I met people from all over the world—from as far as South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia, and from all over Europe and North America. Along the Camino, you fall into conversation with these fellow pilgrims while walking, eating, resting, and bunking at pilgrim hostels for the evening.  

One of the common questions that pilgrims posed to one another along the way was: What brings you to the Camino? As the kilometers click along, pilgrim fall in the rhythm, of repeatedly asking and answering this question.

Overwhelmingly, the answer to that question had to do with people bringing their brokenness to the Camino. People were drawn or driven to the Camino following a divorce, the death of a spouse, burnout from running a business, soul-searching about a chosen career path, both young and old people discerning what comes next. Along the way, my fellow pilgrims and I shared the brokenness and big questions that brought us to the Camino. We confided in one another, with a trust in our fellow pilgrims, who were walking the same walk, who had been similarly drawn to The Way. The fact that we would likely never see each other again also helped us to share more open about our struggles, our longings, and hopes for the Camino experience, and what it would mean for us to finally arrive in Santiago and stand in the shadow of the cathedral.

I learned and I loved that the Camino is big and wide enough to hold all of us and all of our questions, pain, loss, hope, and fear. I love the way it joined us together in a community of pilgrims, walking for different reasons, looking for different answers, and at the same time helping us discover our common humanity, and console one another. I love that the Camino has been doing that for pilgrims for a thousand years, and it is always out there waiting for us. The Camino is long, yes, but it is wide, open, and generous. It was created out of religious piety, and many of the people who walk it do so for religious reasons, but it does not proselytize. The way is not narrow, it is wide and generous. Many of the pilgrims I met had discarded or been rejected by their religion, but the Camino was there for them, it held them, it healed them.

On my fourth day on the Camino, I walked from Ponte de Lima to Rubiaes in Portugal. This stage had the highest and hardest climb of my entire journey. Just before reaching the final summit, as you come the hill through a chute so steep you are basically walking with your hands and feet, I came upon the Pilgrim Cross. This was a large cross, about my height, and all around the base of the cross were items pilgrims had left. It, like other places along the Camino, had become a little altar, a sacred space, a place to leave mementos, pictures of deceased loved ones, rosaries, rocks, and more.

It was here that I placed a cross given to me by my friend and colleague, George Detweiler. It was a small wooden cross that had been scarred and blackened by being shocked with electricity. It was symbol of the brokenness I was bringing to the Camino. I suddenly knew this was the perfect place to leave the cross. I rifled through my backpack until I found it, placed it at the foot of the pilgrim cross, sat on the dirt trail, and prayed. In that moment, I felt that I laid down many of the burdens I brought to the Camino and laid open my brokenness for the healing the Camino offered.

I wonder: How can our faith communities be more like the Camino, open and generous, honest and accepting enough, that people of any and all backgrounds can bring their brokenness and their burdens? 

Keith Anderson