Reflections on a long walk

Reflections on a long walk

I love going for walks in the countryside.  Every chance I get on a day off I’ll be out there walking over hills and through valleys.  Walking for me is a time to let all that troubles me drop away and allows me to reflect on my place in the world, a bit like coffee percolating down through a filter.

This June I had the opportunity to spend not one day, but 30 days, walking, much of it on the Camino de Santiago de Compostella in Northern Spain.

For many people who do the Camino it’s just a pretty walk, but for me it was a spiritual exercise.  As much in internal, emotional and soul-searching journey as a physical one.  Each day I reflected on one part of my life so far and let God speak to me of where I had come from and where I was going, and particularly on the theme of belonging.  I learnt many things and here are a few of them.

At one Hostel – Bodenaya – the owner saw it as a ministry to offer welcome and generosity to the pilgrims chance put in his way.  He welcomed us with open arms and an offering that tonight this was our home, we could drink the wine and beer, eat the food and enjoy the company.  He would take our dirty smelly clothes (and after 3 days of walking they were pretty smelly), wash them, dry them, iron them and in the morning we would descend the stairs for a breakfast of coffee and rolls to find our clothes beautifully presented.  It truly was a magical place.

Bodenaya reminded me of what the Church really should be about – a welcome to the weary traveler, a generosity beyond what is expected, giving people a home away from home.  Whereas most Hostels charged for each part of the stay, from bed for the night, food to eat, wine to drink or the use of a washing machine, David at Bodenaya offered it all for whatever the pilgrim felt they could afford as a donation.  If you either didn’t want to or couldn’t pay there was no pressure on you to pay anything.

I started the Camino on my own, walking alone for much of each day, but very soon I became part of a community of pilgrims, each walking either on their own or in small groups.  A mother and daughter from America, a couple with his father from Australia, a graduate from Sweden, an Irishman who had recently lost a good friend and an 82 year-old from Wales plus many others.  Each person walked in their own way and for their own reasons, but within minutes there was a sense of camaraderie.  We were all on the same journey.

In many ways it felt like a microcosm of life.  Some people you met for a few minutes and were never seen again, either they were very quick or very slow and soon dropped out of sight.  But others became friends through sharing of meals and stories of our lives.  I’m still in contact with many of them.

By the end of my Camino I realised that belonging is found when you both love and are loved for the person you are.  Family helps, but at heart it runs deeper than blood, and can be found in church life as much as a family home.

Generosity, community, a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself.  All of these I experienced on the Camino and have taken with me back into parish ministry.  Walking the Camino is like nothing you’ve ever done before.  If you ever think of doing it, let me encourage you to do it.  You might never be the same again.