Epilogue (Musings on Pilgrimages)

It is now two months since we finished our walking trip to Europe and the Camino de Santiago in particular - probably enough distance to look at the idea of a pilgrimage more objectively. At first, I wondered whether there was any point even writing about this part of the trip as the Camino must be the most written about walk on the face of the earth. Ever since Aymeric Picaud published what was the world's first travel guide (The Codex Calixtinus) in the 12th century, people have been writing about the Camino. With its recent resurgence in popularity, there has been an explosion of guide books, dedicated websites and more recently, private blogs. What value this contribution? Probably, not a lot, except that each person's pilgrimage is unique and, in that sense, the descriptions on this website contribute to the overall picture of why well over 100,000 people have chosen to do all or part of this walk each year (a five-fold increase in ten years). In fact this year, being a Holy Year in that St James birthday falls on a Sunday, over 250,000 are expected. The Camino clearly has become something of a phenomenon and I suspect that this is really what attracted us.

Statistics have always fascinated me and those collected by the Oficina del Peregrino in Santiago are riveting. In June, the month that we completed our part of the camino, 27,833 pilgrims walked in to Santiago, 5677 rode their bikes, 159 arrived on horseback and 2 pushed their wheelchairs - over a thousand people a day! 60% were Spanish and 40% foreigners from all over the globe.

Just over 70% of these pilgrims came via the Camino Frances, the route we followed. Of these, 29% walked from Sarria, at just over 100km the minimum distance to obtain the compostela certificate. 22% actually walked the full 800+ km from St Jean Pied de Port or Roncevalles and the remainder started out in various places in between. A very small number, like our companions du chemin, the Quebecois, walked even longer distances from the different start points of the Camino in other European countries. Some, like us, sampled the Camino by doing different sections. There are many ways to experience this walk.

55% of the pilgrims gave their motivation for doing the Camino as religious (a figure no doubt boosted by the fact that 2010 is a Holy Year), 40% as religious/cultural and 5% as cultural. I may be wrong, but I interpret the purely "religious" as those who maintain the medieval tradition of the Camino, as a penitential journey, a way to reaffirm one's Catholic faith and (which surprised us) still a means to gain indulgences, the "religious/cultural" as those who seek some kind of spiritual or meditative experience and the "cultural" as those who just seek the beauty of nature and the richness of the Camino's thousand year heritage. Naturally, these boundaries blur considerably. I suspect that the fair Nello and I blur between the latter two. It would be an interesting sociological study to look more closely at these motivations - any Ph.D student want to spend their summers wandering through the Spanish countryside chatting to people?

Having read the pastoral letter from the Archbishop of Santiago to Catholics on the meaning and practice of this pilgrimage, I wonder whether we others have hi-jacked the Camino for our own ends. There is clearly a concern by the church that the Camino is losing its validity ("desvirtuarse") in an increasingly secular world. By contrast, others see it as a means back to a more spiritual (though not necessarily Catholic) life for those tired of the materialism of modern society. Herewith, the Dilemma of St James - while glad to see a revival of the pilgrimage in recent times, Catholics are worried about its secularisation and shift to a more "new age" concept of spirituality rather than the traditional Christian one. The Camino is becoming bipolar.

Regardless of underlying philosophy or beliefs, by reducing life to its basics of food, shelter and thought, the Camino provides a focus for reflection, perhaps moreso because it attracts like-minded souls. That said, the basics still include a credit card and mobile phone for most modern pilgrims and company is often not conducive to reflection. If you really want the spiritual experience of the Camino, it is probably best to walk alone.

In the end, the proof of the experience is probably in whether or not your lifestyle / beliefs / inner peace have changed after your return home - this is clearly not something that can be forced. Putting one foot in front of the other for 800 km merely provides the opportunity for change to occur.

Finally, I suspect that the more metaphysical benefits of walking the Camino are for those to whom such a journey is "novel", in that the rest of their lives is dominated by the busyness and pace of modern life. The fair Nello and I are fortunate in that we have been able to abandon that model to some extent. We can get away and walk a lot and walking the Camino has reinforced my idea that any long walk can be a spiritual meditative experience - pilgrimage in its broader sense.

If you have not been confused by these disjointed musings and are thinking about walking the Camino, whether for reaffirmation, re-evaluation or just to enjoy the nature and culture of this historic journey, do it - you won't be disappointed. If Spain is too far, go out and create your own pilgrimage - remember, the journey is more important than the destination.