My husband asked me shortly after I came home if there was a big difference in calling this journey a pilgrimage or just a long walk. It's a fair question as everyone's motive for doing something like this will vary. I don't have a deep answer to that except to say that when you follow a road that pilgrims have for hundreds of years, it does connect you to something bigger. Every time we saw a sign or a symbol of the Chemin, it was thrilling and inspiring. A pilgrimage is defined as a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place, as an act of religious devotion. So I think the first thing to consider are your expectations.
For me, I'm not sure I was super dialed into this experience as an act of religious devotion as much as I was just curious about what something like this looks like, physically, emotionally, spiritually. I was pretty unprepared in many ways but that wasn't all bad in my mind. I came in with even expectations, basically just curious. I wasn't expecting to have a Paul on the road to Damascus spiritual encounter, although I was open. I also didn't think it would be utterly void of learning. So I think the expectations you bring into the experience are important. But keeping your expectations open but even is also important because there is so much uncertainty in what you will encounter.
My good friend who walked the camino de Santiago for her 60th birthday remarked that most say the camino is one third physical, one third emotional, and one third spiritual. And while the thirds are intermixed, in some ways the longer you are on your journey, more space emerges for the spiritual and emotional to rise above the physical. A short journey like the one I did, definitely keeps you in the physical place because the first week is all about adjusting to the physical demands.
Secondly, you will need to decide if you want to go alone, with one other person, or in a group like I did. I think a group experience for much longer than we did would be pretty demanding. I don't think I could a month with a group. Pace would become an issue. And taking the time to debrief each day and night would also be hard to do. Perhaps if you did a group, after the first week, you could decide to meet up every other day, or every third day to enter into an examen with one another, but over the long haul, sharing that much would probably become pretty exhausting. While rich in many ways, also constantly listening and interacting with others takes quite a bit of energy and can distract you from your own thoughts and feelings. If you do it alone, there will likely be loneliness combined with the serendipitous encounters with strangers who become friends. If you do it with just one other person, that person should be someone with whom you desire a greater intimacy. You cannot do this without going deeper with the person you are with. This is both a gift and a little nerve-wracking!
|Friends of my heart forever. Thankful beyond measure for these two.|
Fourth, there will be pain. I love this photo of the bread box from our first morning. Pain in French is, of course, bread and pronounced pahn, but the double meaning is not lost on me. We need bread for the journey but there will also be pain on the journey. Do not be naive about the foot issues you will have. Bring moleskin and tape and bandaids. I was woefully unprepared and had to borrow stuff from others. Thankfully there were open pharmacies in some of the towns we stopped so I could stock up but it's important to accept that you will have some issues, no matter how well you trained. You feet in particular take a beating when you are walking that much day after day. There will also be discouragement, potential illness, frustration, and grumpiness. The goal is not to be rid of all these things but learn to manage them as you journey on. Because of course there is laughter and joy and encouragement as well.
Fifth, invest in the right gear. BOOTS that work are the most important thing. Get advice, spend some money, get the right fit, wear them for awhile before you set off. Walking sticks were super helpful. I fully recommend them, especially if there are hilly parts. A backpack that is well fitted and has the correct frame for your body is essential. And the right clothing. I had a quick drying towel that was very useful. I had good socks made for hiking so I could put my best foot forward in reducing hot spots. And best of all I had this flat water bottle that fit nicely in my backpack with the drinking tube affixed near my shoulder so that taking a drink was easy and effortless.
Sixth, nourish yourself along the way. Do not go into a walk like this thinking you will lose weight. It doesn't really work that way and you don't want to be limiting food or drink along the way. You might lose some weight but don't make it a goal. Enjoy the food and drink as you journey. Make sure you stay hydrated and ingest the calories you need to sustain the day. Eat some treats. Enjoy a beer or a glass of wine at the end of the day. Indulge once in awhile. Of course, making this journey in France was especially tantalizing!
Finally, enjoy the trip, even when it's hard. Remember, it's about the journey not the destination. It's very easy to focus on the destination, especially when your dogs are barking at you and you think you can't muster another step. But stop to smell the roses along the way. To admire a beautiful sight. To take in the view. To share a good laugh. The end point will come. It's what unfolds along the way that will be most memorable.
There is no formula for doing a pilgrimage. Whether you see it as a long walk or an act of religious devotion, unexpected encounters with yourself, with others and with God will occur. But it does behoove you to do some serious thinking ahead of time about why you want to do this, where you want to do this, when you want to do this (time of year matters tremendously and you need to know what kind of weather you can endure) and with whom you want to do this. I was thrust into a pre-conceived situation which my dear friend Kim spent hours working on. I signed up knowing it was a group of women, mostly who I did not know well. I knew it was 5 days. I knew I would be providing some pastoral leadership for the group times. I knew it would be a physical challenge and I was intrigued by the challenge. I learned a lot. I am still not ready to say that I would do another one or a longer one. But I am open. And that perhaps is what is needed more than anything. Openness.
So bon Chemin, buen camino, or good journey to you...whenever and wherever the road may take you.