I’ve recently returned from two weeks on the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage path to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I was with a group of fellow pilgrims, around 20 in total, from the United States. What surprised me was how many other people we met on our daily hikes across the beauty of the Spanish countryside. The Camino, it seems, has now become a truly global phenomenon. We met pilgrims from all over the world, and others who were not really pilgrims at all in the usual understanding of the word. Many were not Christians. Some were anti-Christians. There were many new agers who “do the Camino” seeking communion with nature or whatever. There was a group at one of the places at which we stayed clustered around a guitarist singing John Lennon’s atheist anthem, “Imagine.”
“Imagine there’s no heaven, It’s easy if you try, No hell below us, Above us only sky…. Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too….”
It seemed an odd choice of “hymn” for those on the well-beaten path to Santiago and the tomb of Saint James.
Then there was the recently widowed man from Australia, grieving the loss of his wife, who was walking the Camino “to find himself.” There was the couple from Ireland who responded to my promise of prayers with a profession of faithlessness. There was the serious hiker who wanted to add the Camino to the Appalachian Way and the other long-distance paths he’d hiked.
To be sure, there were also pilgrims in the traditional sense, whom we met along the way and at the pilgrim Masses in the evenings.
In some sense, however, even the non-traditional pilgrims were traditional. We only have to think of the menagerie of miserable sinners who accompanied Chaucer to Canterbury. The way of pilgrimage is like the way of the cross. It is for everyone, saints and sinners alike. We are all on the journey of life even if we are unaware that human life is meant to be a pilgrimage or a quest for heaven. We are all suffering even if we fail to see the value and meaning of the individual crosses we carry.
I hope and pray that the widowed Australian will find himself by finding himself closer to Christ. I hope and pray that the new agers will find communion with nature in communion with the God of nature. I hope and pray that those who imagine there’s no heaven will have their imaginations baptized by their experience of following in the footsteps of the saints in heaven who have trod the path of the Camino before them. I hope that each of these wayfarers will find truth and life on the Way.
This is part of the series called “The Human Being Fully Alive” found here.