To be a Pilgrim?

Reflection
Deepening Spirituality
Image of a person in the distance walking along a road
Author
Roger Lasko

Roger Lasko, a member of the congregation at St Mark's Broomhill and the CRC Council, has a general interest in contemporary theology. Here he reflects on his experience of walking along part of the Camino, the traditional pilgrim route to Santiago del Compostella in Spain, and his encounters with fellow travellers on the way.

 

I didn’t think of myself as A Pilgrim. I was going to walk a few hundred miles of the route from Puy-en-Valais in France to Santiago del Compostella in Spain, the Camino, the pilgrim way to the Cathedral housing what are claimed to be the bones of St James. I had been wanting to do it for ages because.... I really wasn’t quite sure why. But I like a long walk and the idea of going on one of the ancient pilgrimage routes appealed to me. But Being A Pilgrim was too serious, too churchy a notion for me, so I wasn’t going to be one of those.

But the very first cafe on my walk offered Menu des Pelerins. I was addressed by my first landlady as ‘Pelerin’. My fellow walkers greeted me as Pelerin! So pelerin, pilgrim, like them, was what I was. Not that any of us talked of undertaking an arduous journey so that we could revere the relics of a saint. I was just a walker.

It is in the nature of a walk like this that you keep on bumping into the same people, maybe walking stretches with them, finding yourself staying at the same hostel, or eating in the same place. Most of us were walking just a week or two, aiming to cover part of the route. Most, but not all.

Hans-Peter, had recently retired from his job at the local bank, which he had joined, from school, over forty years ago. He was walking the Camino because ‘now I can’. He had started from his front doorstep in Trier, in Germany. And, unlike most of the rest of us, didn’t intend to stop until he got to Santiago. He didn’t know how long it would take, but he knew he would arrive. I did wonder if his confidence was born of his lack of concern about the duration of his walk. Hans-Peter was very kind to me. I could walk on the flat just fine and could cope with the uphills, at my own pace. But I feared my knees would give way going down any slopes at all steep. Hans-Peter saw me struggling just the once, then at the start of every steep slope, wordlessly passed me his walking poles. He made no fuss about it. He just helped.

Jakob was walking even further than Hans-Peter - all the way to Santiago from his home city of Prague. Jakob, was in his late twenties or early thirties, long flowing hair and beard, ragged clothes and a rather alarming broad-brimmed leather hat with both sides of the rim pulled up to the peak. Jakob happily joined in conversations on topics little or large. He was a great listener. He refused to be pessimistic about anything, whether that be the prospects for global warming or where his next meal would come from: Jakob had hardly any money so he stayed in hostels only when he couldn’t find either a dry cave, or a church open overnight. He didn’t ask for charity but when we found somewhere to eat or drink, it just seemed obvious that I should pay for him. He would give thanks, but didn’t make a big thing of it, so nor did I.

There were many other people I came close to over that couple of weeks of walking. There was an Australian couple, much older than me but much tougher. They would walk at my pace for a while before striding on, then greet me at cafes on the way, or at dinner tables in the evening, as a dear, long-lost friend. As Pelerins, we were comfortable in each other’s company. We ate and drank and talked, talked, talked together until it was time to sleep. They were lovely people but had no interest in the churches that line the route of the Camino: some huge, most small, some elaborately decorated, but most simple stone structures that had welcomed pilgrims for centuries. I didn’t understand why they had come from the other side of the globe to walk this way. But I was very glad they had.

Guillaime and Florence, a young couple from Paris who hadn’t been together very long, were aiming to ‘find out about each other’. I fear I rather kept my distance from them; I found them too intense for comfort and then they seemed to be blaming each other for every small problem encountered on their walk. But, late one afternoon, we bumped into each other again. They were all smiles with each other, and with me. They invited me to join them at the blessing-of-pilgrims service just about to get underway in the local church. We joined 5 or 6 other pilgrims and much the same number of local people. The service was short and simple enough for my poor French, then was followed by a lengthy reception where our hosts kept giving us food and drink. They kept thanking us for being on this pilgrimage. They kept thanking us for being their pilgrimage.

I was brought up a Roman Catholic, dutifully attending mass every Sunday with my parents. But when I reached 15 years of age, and thought I knew everything that was worth knowing, I decided that the Roman Catholic faith, in which I had been raised, was all mumbo jumbo. I then turned my back on Church until my little daughter declared she wanted to go to church, to learn about Jesus. So I joined the rest of my family at our parish church, unchallenged by its middle-of-the-road Anglicanism. Then, by happy chance, I came across thinkers like Marcus Borg who showed me how to be inspired by scripture without ‘having to believe six impossible things before breakfast’, as my 15 year-old self had thought was required by Roman Catholicism.

The blessing-of-pilgrims service attended with my young Parisian friends had been simple enough for me to understand and think about what was being said. But that was most certainly not the case at the services of Vespers and Compline at the great Abbey Church of Conques, performed in unabridged Catholic splendour. Now I had no hope of keeping up with the detail of the liturgy. Nor could I bridle at the impossibilities that had so troubled my fifteen year old former self. I had to accept that liturgy attempts to put into words the inexpressible. In the absence of words, all I could do, what I felt able to do, was enter into the mood and rhythm of these services. They were wonderful services.

There were many other churches on the way. I made a point of visiting them all, it seeming almost rude to pass them by (rude to who? me, I suppose). Many were full of the bric a brac that churches seem to attract. But many were bare stone spaces, decorated only by sunlight through narrow windows. It was in those that I fell to my knees on altar steps rounded by centuries of prayer. It was in those churches that I felt a sense of the Divine. And no, I did not think that the Divine had been patiently waiting for me arrive. I realise that what I was feeling was my response to those spaces. But that didn’t make the feeling any the less real, any the less powerful.

One night I stayed in an hotel run by a jolly Irish couple. Dinner was a communal affair in an open courtyard, all of us sat at a long trestle table with conversation passing up and down, following the food and wine. We started to talk about tomorrow’s route. Which was the proper pilgrimage route: the gentle walk along the river or the tough route straight over the hill? Was I going to be able to claim a stamp in my pilgrim book if I took the river route? Would the hill walkers get an extra stamp? Our host intervened, serious for the first time that evening. The path we followed on the ground really didn’t matter, he told us (this from a man who made his living from people following the ‘official’ Camino route on the map). No, the pilgrimage that matters is our spiritual journey through faith. If we were making that journey, then we really were pilgrims, wherever we went on the ground.

I don’t know if I will walk any more of the Camino. It is a lovely route and I’m sure I would find good company. But I do know that I shall keep on trying to be a pilgrim.

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