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Sacred Rhythms

This is the first in a three-part series of reflections from the Camino de Santiago.

I took my first steps on the Camino de Santiago before 6am on the 3rd of August 2022, from the small mountain village of O Cebreiro. As I began to climb and descend the rolling Galician hillside I almost immediately realised I was in trouble. As it happens in that part of Spain, the sun does not rise until 7:30am. The night was still and dark, there was a thick fog, and I only had the light of my phone to see where I was going. I was cold, damp, miserable and to be quite honest – I was afraid. I was afraid that I would step in a hole and break my leg, afraid that I would miss a marker and find myself miles from the Way. And so, I did something horrible: I played a podcast. I broke the sacred silence of the early morning Camino, not because I was bored but because I was fearful and anxious and the inane chatter coming from my phone provided a distraction. I carried on clumsily, one hesitant foot following the other. After an hour on the Camino the sun began to rise, and the sky began to lighten. At this point I began praying my rosary, and I found an easy, confident rhythm. My footsteps fell in line with my prayer, and my prayer fell in with my footsteps.

This was the first lesson that the Camino taught me: whenever you try to do anything in the dark you will stumble and likely fall. But when you work in the light of Christ, it becomes easy. You find your footing and settle into a gentle rhythm. As I continued on that first morning, I made a startling discovery: the silence of the Camino is never silent. There is the soft step of your footfalls, the continuous tap of your walking stick, the gentle tolling of cattle bells, the hopeful cries of buon camino as other pilgrims pass by. The Orthodox Church has the ancient meditative practice of the Jesus Prayer in which your breath becomes your prayer, and in this way the Christian can ‘pray without ceasing’ (1Thes 5:17). The rhythmical silence of the Camino works in a similar way. The silence becomes part of your rhythm, and the rhythm becomes part of your prayer.

The prayerful rhythm of the Camino welcomes you to walk at your own pace. For me it was slow (so slow in fact, that at one point I was overtaken by a man with a clubfoot) but that was OK. It was what the Camino was inviting me into. I would often find myself moving slowly on my own, and then suddenly walking quickly in order to keep pace with someone I was talking to. None of us were rushing, but only that we had settled into a shared tempo; and as our rhythms changed and one would outpace the other, we bid farewell and returned to as we were before. Without quite realising it, we had entered into each other’s prayer, and although we spoke of many things we were really praying with and for one another. This is the beauty of the Camino. It opens the sprit to the other, and fosters community and a sacred communion between pilgrims. I heard stories of pilgrims passing over their last drops of water to those who needed it more. I heard about a boy leading his blind father through the Meseta. I was invited to sit at tables and share meals and stories with complete strangers. On the Camino de Santiago, every action and every encounter becomes an invitation to share in Trinitarian love.

And then, literally overnight everything changed.

The Galician city of Sarria is 117km (or 5 days) from Santiago, and so is the most popular point to begin the Camino in order to receive the Compostela. The city is big, it is loud, and it is busy. After Sarria the Way is thick with pilgrims, and the sacred silence is utterly destroyed. Your slow pace is an annoyance to the people behind you. The calls of buon camino become rarer, and less heartfelt. The inane chatter of thousands of voices disrupts the rhythm of your prayer. For those Camino veterans who have been on the Way for hundreds of kilometres, it feels like a betrayal. It feels like something sacred has been defiled. Like something beautiful has been mutilated. Like something greater than ourselves has been reduced to a footrace.

There are a number of Camino proverbs that get shared along the way, the first being ‘everybody does their own Camino.’ This means that everybody has their own way of doing the Camino, and so everybody has a different experience. The second Camino proverb is that ‘the Camino works’, which is really another way of saying that God works. So, regardless of whether they are taking selfies in church, or running and screaming up the path, or not carrying backpacks but somehow carrying a case of beer, each of these tourist pilgrims has a right to be there, experiencing the Camino in their own way; and we then have to trust and know that God is working in them.

And so, you carry on. Placing one foot in front of the other, searching for the rhythm of the Camino.


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