This is the third in a three-part series of reflections from the Camino de Santiago
If you do the Camino de Santiago in the height of summer as I did, everything quickly becomes coated in a layer of dust. It gets in your pack and in your shoes, so that everything becomes filthy. The dust of the Camino clings to you, and it feels like you will never be rid of it. Because it is so dusty, the walking track leaves clear footprints of the pilgrims who went before you. As I walked along, I became increasingly aware of the history of the Camino – I began to wonder who were those millions of people over a thousand years? Why were they walking? What were they doing? I also became aware of the prayers that must have been said over that time. How many Our Fathers? How many hours of rosaries? How many exaltations, and how many cries for deliverance?
There is a concept in the world of French wine that says a grape takes on the characteristics of the land it was grown in. Particularly rocky ground will have a particular taste, as would loamy soil or clay or silt and so on. This allows wine experts to identify the particular region of a wine (or even a particular vineyard) by taste and sight alone. The Camino does something similar. The many years of prayer have conditioned the ground that pilgrims walk on, so that the fruits of the Camino manifest in very particular ways. A true pilgrim is not identified by their pack, or their walking stick or their scallop shell. A true pilgrim is identified by their kindness and compassion, their spirit of fraternity and their ability to love. Like a French wine, the pilgrim takes on the characteristics of the l
and in which they were sown.
If you have read the previous parts of this series, you might have noticed that I said very little about the walking aspects of the Camino – where we hiked, where we stayed, the state of albergues et cetera. That’s because it is honestly the least interesting, and the least important aspect. What is important is the encounters you have along the way. The moments of clarity, and the experiences of God. But these encounters, moments and experiences can be sporadic, so mostly you are left with the drudgery of walking. Once I arrived in Santiago, I found the whole thing to be desperately anticlimactic. The crowds were choking, the Cathedral and pilgrims mass underwhelming, the botafumeiro an empty gimmick. For me (and please note, this is only for me) the walk was long, painful, dangerous, and useless.
In the Gospels, Jesus sends his disciples out two by two to preach the coming of the Kingdom, and for any town, house or village that rejected them, they were to shake the dust from their feet as a testimony against those that would not receive the Word (Luke 9:5). In the ancient world, to shake the dust from your feet was a public proclamation that you did not receive hospitality from this person, and so was a gesture of contempt. As I neared Santiago, I began to look forward to standing in front of the Compostela and shaking the dust from my walking shoes, a final gesture of how I felt. And yet, I could not bring myself to do it. I realized that, despite my pain and suffering, something special had taken place. The terroir of the Camino had taken its hold in me. Perhaps I was a little kinder and more compassionate, perhaps I was more open to fraternity and love. Or perhaps, the Holy Spirit gave me some other gift. What is certain however, was that the Camino was an incredible experience, and I am a better seminarian and person because of it.
I hated the Camino de Santiago, and I swore I would never do it again. But, as my train pulled out of the station at Santiago, and I returned home I began to plan my next trip. And I never did shake the dust from my shoes. They are currently sitting on top of my wardrobe, dusty and untouched. I cannot bring myself to cleaning them or even wearing them. To do so feels like a betrayal of something greater than just taking a walk. More so than my Compostela certificate, or any souvenirs I collected along the way my walking shoes are the symbol of what I achieved. It’s something I never want to lose. I want it to stay with me forever.
Just like its dust, the Camino de Santiago will cling to you, and you feel like you will never be rid of it.