Is punishing your body a spiritual practice? At one time, it was. In the Middle Ages, thousands of pilgrims walked the arduous and dangerous Camino de Santiago. The goal was to reach Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain, visit the tomb of Saint James, attend mass in the grand Cathedral, and receive an “indulgence.” Many didn’t make it but died along the way.
People undertook this physically demanding trek for a variety of reasons: as penance, as a required sentence for misdeeds, as a prayer request, for healing, etc. As one of the prime Christian pilgrimages, rivaling Rome and Jerusalem, it was nothing if not explicitly religious.
But today over a thousand peregrinos pour into Santiago daily and most of them are non-religious or, at most, “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR). Why do they undertake what can be a punishing journey through rain, cold, wind, extreme heat, difficult terrain, and uncomfortable communal accommodations?
Like the SBNRs, I walked the Camino for mostly non-religious reasons (even though I am a Christian). Doing a pilgrimage was never on my “to do” list. I have a fused foot and some other issues which I thought made this pilgrimage off-limits for me. But my husband wanted to do it very much. As a Cuban raised Catholic, with Spanish roots, he felt it would connect him with his origins, as well as undergird certain prayer requests with bodily effort. If suffering was involved, he said he would “offer it up to God.”
Being a Protestant, I don’t believe God intends our suffering or benefits from it. I don’t believe in indulgences or other promised benefits, such as getting a reduction in your purgatory time. I am not even convinced that Saint James is buried in Santiago. Still, walking the Camino this summer seemed like a good opportunity to carry on my research with SBNRs. After we compromised on some modifications, I agreed to go.
In talking with other pilgrims along the journey, I found that, like me, people had a variety of reasons for undertaking this trek. Very few were religious or even intentionally spiritual. Some wanted to “clear their head” or “empty their mind,” get away from life stressors, recover from a loss, or have time to think. Many hoped they would be rewarded by an insight on how to proceed in their lives. Some simply wanted to test themselves, have an adventure vacation, or take a trip with friends.
Even so, they could not avoid the religious implications of the Camino. Ancient churches, shrines, crosses, and other religious symbols are everywhere along the way. In Santiago, pilgrims line up and wait hours to be awarded their certificate, the “compostela,” and have to verify that they walked the Camino for religious or spiritual reasons. If they cannot give a spiritual reason, they are given, instead, a “certificate of distance.” Many also dutifully complete the “rite of pilgrimage” by going to Mass, sitting under the huge censer (the botufumiero) as it swings over their heads, visiting the tomb of Saint James, and hugging his larger-than-life statue.
So does this become, by default, a religious experience? Some of the monks, nuns, and religious people I spoke with assured me that – no matter the intention or orientation of the pilgrim – this is always a religious pilgrimage because “at the end, everyone ends up at the tomb of the Apostle.”
Were they being overly-optimistic, or did they have a point? Those few pilgrims, especially Roman Catholics, who set out for religious reasons are probably not disappointed. But what do SBNRs and thoroughly secular people get out of this explicitly religious pilgrimage and why is it drawing rising numbers of people from around the world?
I have wondered if the popularity of the Camino among SBNRs, and even the non-spiritual, is an indication of the profound spiritual vacuum we have in contemporary consumerist, materialistic, and secular society where religion is relegated to the private realm and spirituality is a DIY activity. Or perhaps, the rise in pilgrims is a harbinger of a new spiritual awakening which may be happening in Western society. Still I ask: Can people “find” God on the Camino, or more likely, God find them, even if they are overtly and intentionally non-religious, even non-spiritual?
One tour leader assured me that the long days, uncomfortable conditions, and being “reduced to basics, to carrying everything on your back,” can prompt the type of reflection that was difficult at home, where distractions often short-circuit deep inner diving. But does this make it a defacto “spiritual experience”?
I’m still working on these questions, but I can relate my own experience on the Camino from earlier this summer. To my surprise, I had more of a spiritual experience than I anticipated, and – to my chagrin – it did come through physical suffering. Once we arrived, I caught a terrible cold – accompanied by fever, bronchitis, and a sinus infection – and fought it the entire time we walked. I rested whenever possible, but did not want to abort the trip and go home. Normally very energetic, I dragged through the many miles each day. I expected my foot to hurt, but I never expected to be so sick and exhausted on this route.
And I was beset by unpleasant thoughts. I resented that other pilgrims – young and old alike – seemed to “ride my bumper” and pass me at every opportunity. I felt guilty that I lagged behind my husband and he had to keep turning around to encourage me. I felt ugly with matted hair, sweaty face, baggy hiking clothes, clunky boots, and hunched over posture. Perhaps most troublesome, the political situation at home hung over my head like a dark cloud, making me wonder if walking the Camino meant anything at all.
And yet, one evening after we arrived at our hostel, as I washed my hands before dinner, I felt overcome by a strong sense of God’s love and acceptance. It was as if all those negative, ugly, and unhappy feelings were simply brushed aside. I never got over the sinus infection and the rest of the walking continued to be exhausting, but I still felt transformed.
Somehow, God reached through my ambivalence about the Camino and met me in my suffering.
My own experience doesn’t answer my questions about pilgrims who do not believe in God, who purposely ignore the religious elements of the Camino, or who feel that a spiritual experience consists in simply “getting away from it all.” Would they recognize an encounter with God? How much do they need to know before they appreciate where grace, peace, and calm is coming from? Can God find them if they don’t accept God’s existence? I don’t have answers to these questions, but I do know that the Camino has a unique way of opening people up to divine encounter, if they are willing to receive it.