Inner Life

Walking the Camino — one pilgrim’s search for transformation

PilgrimageLast year Celtic harpist, spiritual director and retreat leader Cath Connelly walked the ancient 320km path from France to Santiago de Compostela in Spain in search of her “Place of Resurrection”, taking her harp with her. She reflects on what she found.

By Cath Connelly

February 9 2016On commencing a pilgrimage it is my practice to set out with a clearly stated intention; that some meaning or goal will sit behind my ‘‘feet on the ground spirituality’’ that pilgrimage entails. Thus when invited by Dr Alexander Shaia to co-lead a pilgrimage on the Camino in Spain throughout October – November 2015, I settled on the rather audacious intention of ‘‘transformation’’.  Yes, I want to be totally transformed by the time I complete my 320kms from Leon to Santiago de Compostela.  In truth, whilst it sounds both bold and impudent to set this intent, it sits quite comfortably with the Celtic archetype of the pilgrim who casts herself off in a tiny waterproof coracle, trusting herself to the mercy of a God who summons the pilgrim to have faith as she keeps on rowing. The Celtic pilgrim steps out with the intention of finding his or her Place of Resurrection. Might I, too, be calling on a confidence of holding God to open within me things that I need to learn?

The Camino is arguably the oldest walk of transformation that we know about on this planet. Traditionally it begins as you step out of your front door and ends either at Santiago de Compostela or by walking a further three days to the coast at Muxia or Finisterra. Whilst Christian tradition claims it as the Way of St James, (James, friend of Jesus, whose bones are allegedly contained within the silver casket beneath the altar in the Cathedral at Santiago), it has been walked and marked as sacred since at least 6,000 BCE. Running across Europe from east to west, the pilgrims begins each day with the sun at our backs, finding the sun in our eyes as our planet turns away from the sun at dusk.

Whilst many pilgrims walk the Camino carrying all their possessions and sleeping eighty to a room in the closest proximity to noisy snorers, our pilgrims had the luxury of having our back-packs taken ahead of us each day, with rooms pre-booked in comfortable Casa Ruales. Did this make us any less of a pilgrim than one who risks a sleepless night and burdened shoulders? I would suggest that a pilgrim is one who journeys with God. It is the person who trusts that God will provide food and shelter, companionship and the ability to pay the bills. Whether it is the mendicant wanderer or the pilgrim sleeping in the Parador Hotel, pilgrimage is about intention, the intention that step by step the outer journey allows space for the work of inner transformation.

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Most days it was easy to walk twenty or twenty-five kilometres. On such days all is right with the world. My diary holds the following entry: Tuesday 20 October - ‘‘Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, beautiful day walking alone up the mountain track, through chestnut forests, along mountain tops, in perfect, calm, sunny weather. I can feel myself glowing. I know that if I hold a match to my face it would self-ignite with radiance. Utterly, utterly blessed day.  Beautiful churches. Beautiful conversations with fellow pilgrims. Everything perfect. How blessed am I!’’

Occasionally walking anywhere, no matter how sacred the final destination, was just sheer hard work. I have a strong body and climb hills well. That was the easy part. The trouble was that on the difficult days I had to take myself with me – no escape from confrontation with the less palatable aspects of my personality. Damn.

Whilst the walk can feel like a thousand farewells as stories are shared and then ways part, camaraderie along the trail is a definite highlight of the Camino. There develops a Camino grapevine as pilgrims share concerns for those we meet. What a surprise to discover that I was the conversation point for several days – ‘‘Did you hear that there is someone carrying a harp on the Camino?’’ ‘‘Yes, I saw her play at the chapel at O’Cebreiro,’’  ‘‘She’s with us! She plays for us in the evenings.’’ There have to be easier ways to traverse a country than taking a harp; but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Those who have seen the recent movies The Way, or Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago might recall the tradition of carrying a stone from home to place on the growing mound of rocks that surround an iron cross at the highest point en route to Santiago. Significant build-up surrounds this gesture, with many pilgrims weeping as they throw their rock onto the pile; the rock that, for many, is a shedding of the ‘‘small self’’ and the desire to claim a more profound future as they leave Crux de Hierro. I, too, found this a moment of profound release and commitment. Amidst this gesture, there was something delightful that, having placed all my intentions for transformation into the act of throwing my rock onto the pile, my particular stone looked as insignificant as every other stone that formed the pile. A salutary moment of the reality that we are all just pilgrims journeying through life doing our best to love God and love our neighbour.

My intention was transformation; the Camino was the vehicle for this to take place. In that the Camino has allowed me to discover that ‘‘every day love corners me somewhere and surrounds me with peace without having to look very far or very hard or do anything special’’ (Thomas Merton) then my intention has been abundantly fulfilled. How blessed am I!