“The Walk” by Rainer Maria Rilke
My eyes already touch the sunny hill,
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has its inner light, even from a distance –
and it changes us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;
a gesture waves us on, answering our own wave…
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
Why do people walk “The Way”? Why do ever increasing numbers of people walk the path to Santiago de Compostela? Why subject yourself to blistered, wrecked feet, sore shoulders, freezing cold mornings, searing hot, shadeless afternoons, indifferent, monotonous food, and dormitory style sleeping with 12 or more complete strangers – who all snore?
Once upon a time, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela was a major religious pilgrimage; people travelled from all over Europe through various routes to converge at the cathedral in Santiago where tradition says the remains of the apostle St. James are buried. At a time when most people never left the environs of their villages, such an undertaking would have been a momentous religious experience.
In todays world where you can fly halfway around the world in a day, it seems very anachronistic to walk 800 km. to visit a shrine that a goodly number of the people walking, don’t personally believe in.
So why? What makes people walk; what makes some of these people walk again and again and again? In 1985 there were less than 1000 registered Peregrinos, today the number is well over 250,000 – per year!
Our world is governed by logic, facts, science and a shared “Reality” but we human beings have a deep need for mythos and stories which give meaning to our lives, not just answers. The Way necessarily slows the body and eventually the mind and almost forces contemplation. You become intimately aware of your senses; sights, sounds and scents can become overwhelming but inevitably you turn inward to that parched modern soul which is always looking for meaning. Teenagers probably had it right with their angst filled cries of “what does it all mean?” They just aren’t equipped at that point to uncover their life’s meaning.
Perhaps any long distance walk would have the same affect but I think because the Camino de Santiago de Compostela started as a religious journey and has been with us for so long, it has become that almost universal metaphor for spiritual growth irrespective of religious affiliation or absence thereof. It has been transformed from a specifically Christian pilgrimage, into a way for people from all over the world to explore their need and desire for spiritual growth.
Walking The Way has become fashionable; people are “doing the Camino” because it is the latest thing to do, but I believe that that in no way alters the transformative aspects of the journey – perhaps it is most effective in those of us who are least aware of that need! The Camino is the medium not the message.
I have spoken with people who seem to be focused on how many kilometres they can cover in a day, others who really don’t know why they are walking and a great many who are walking for someone or something else besides themselves. One woman I posed the question to, “Why are you walking?” responded with the most honest answer I can imagine; she said, “I don’t know yet, but I hope to know by the time I finish.” In the end I think they, like myself will find another layer of understanding, a deeper meaning, a story to follow and a degree of spirituality which will help us achieve wisdom in this life not just knowledge. It isn’t about religion or at least it doesn’t have to be, it is about finding your own meaning in a complex, frenetic world.
One last comment – Beverley and I set out to raise 1500 GBP for the Joe Homan Children’s Charity as part of our reason for walking the Camino. I am proud and awestruck to be able to say that including sponsorships, we actually raised over 5000!!! Thank you everyone! http://www.joehoman.org.uk