Reflecting on Life and Death along the Camino de Santiago
Walking the Camino de Santiago invites deep refection on life and death. Like many others, I discovered this while hiking this ancient pilgrimage route in Spain.
"Camino” in Spanish means road, way, or journey. What is it about the Camino de Santiago?
Legend has it that in the 9th century, the remains of James – one of the apostles of Jesus – were found in northwestern Spain. A shrine and then a cathedral were built at that spot. Pilgrims set out from their homes across Europe to walk to Santiago (St. James).
This region of Spain also echoes with traditions that predate Christianity. Here is a point of land thought to be the most westward part of continental Europe. This was a special place to the Celts and also to the Romans, who named it Finisterre (end of the earth).
For over a thousand years, millions of pilgrims have walked the Camino de Santiago. By the 1980s, however, the flow of pilgrims had virtually stopped. But, more recently, a new flock of pilgrims has emerged.
My brother and I recently spent two weeks walking a stretch of the Camino. We are this new kind of pilgrim. These new pilgrims have not so much a specific religious goal as a more general spiritual exploration. As well, they wish to travel, learn about a different culture, meet new people, and complete a demanding physical test.
In our case, we walked 270 kilometres (170 miles) of the Camino Francés (French Way), the most popular route. Many pilgrims start at St. Jean Pied de Port, France; they walk about 800 kilometres (500 miles). Other pilgrims choose to walk just the final 100 kilometres (60 miles). Whatever the distance, as one pilgrim said to us, every Camino pilgrimage is genuine and special.
Pilgrims who complete the final 100-kilometre walk are entitled to
receive a compostela
(certificate) at Santiago. (Those who bicycle
must travel at least 200 kilometres to get their compostela.)
The full name of the city is Santiago de Compostela. (Compostela is believed to derive from words that mean – oddly – either field of the star or burial ground.)
The scenery, the physical exertion, the break from regular routine, and the company of lively people combine to make the Camino an intense experience. And, as word spreads, more and more people are adding the Camino to their “bucket list.”
As I walked, I became intrigued by what I call “participatory monument making.” Monuments are usually static objects that are only to be observed. But pilgrims are not content just to observe. They want to participate, to leave their mark. So, on the Camino, pilgrims add to – or create – monuments along the way.
This participation is most commonly seen on top and around the concrete markers that designate the route. Pilgrims pick up small stones and put them on or beside the markers. Somehow the simplicity of these stones signifies something more. The stones come to symbolize the progress of the pilgrims who have gone before, the pilgrims who are walking now, and the pilgrims who will come after.
Another is the proliferation of crosses made from branches woven into the wire fences that often run along beside the trail. (These crosses have a more conventional religious meaning.)
At one point, we came across a montage arranged on an open space beside the path. It consisted of stones, sticks, and pieces of paper – mostly expired tickets. Is this tableau a tribute to travelling?
Pilgrims also have left their mark at the statue on Monte de Gozo (Mount Joy) that commemorates a papal visit in the 1990s. Pilgrims have left stones, crosses, and old shoes around the grand monument. These mementos seem to represent the ordinary pilgrims who were also here.
One impressive monument has been made by the pilgrims themselves. The Cruce de Ferro (Iron Cross) indicates the highest point of altitude on the Camino. Many pilgrims bring a stone from home and add it to a pile at the cross. A giant cairn has been formed. Like other pilgrims, I found it a very moving experience to place my stone that I had brought from my own backyard.
To walk the Camino is a decision to enrich one’s life. Leaving one’s mark on the way becomes a tangible sign of that decision.
Even though the Camino is full of life and lively people, death is there too. In the intensity of the experience, death can sometimes visit one’s own thoughts. And in conversations with others.
At the pilgrims’ mass at the cathedral in Santiago, we got talking with a woman who looked to be in her 50s. She spontaneously opened up about her life, which we found was a common occurrence. She told us that her husband suddenly died six months before. A friend of hers was going on the Camino, sensed that she also would benefit from the trip, and asked if she would like to join her.
“Yes, but what is the Camino?” was her response.
She told us that in the shock of her husband’s death, she at first concentrated on just getting through each day. As she said, “just putting one foot after another.” But she knew that she needed eventually to do more than get through each day. The Camino trek was her first “more.”
Walking the Camino is, of course, “just putting one foot after another.” But in this case the footsteps are so much more. She was exhilarated at completing her pilgrimage and the restorative power it was having on her life.
The recent movie The Way explores these three themes of death, renewal of life, and leaving one’s mark. This Emilio Estevez / Martin Sheen film is an excellent portrayal of the Camino. And it is inspiring more people – especially Americans – to embark on the journey. (We chatted with one pilgrim who started watching the movie and decided to walk the Camino after the first 10 minutes!)
One line from The Way is increasingly quoted as it resonates with many people.
“You don't choose a life. You live one.”
Finally, along the Camino, there is a constant reminder of death: the tributes to the pilgrims who have died on the way. These range from simple wood crosses to substantial metal plaques. And on these reminders of death, passing pilgrims have left their signs of life.
These memorial crosses and plaques are festooned with stones, sticks, pine cones, pieces of cloth, old shoes. I realize this description sounds quite disrespectful, but it doesn’t seem so on the Camino. The pilgrims who successfully walked are saluting their fellow pilgrims who died in the attempt. They are also saluting those who will walk this way in the future.
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