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Friday, March 25, 2011

"Buen Camino!": The Pilgrimage of a Secular Franciscan (Part I)

(If you have already read Part I, click here for Part II.)

What is it like to go on a holy pilgrimage on foot? A friend and relative of mine has offered to share!

I'm delighted to bring to you today a wonderful guest, Patricia Dervish. While Patricia has been discerning her call to the lay Catholic order of the Secular Franciscans, she took a pilgrimage on foot, called The Way of St. James, along the region of northern Spain. Today I am posting Part I of II. Join me in thanking Patricia for sharing her story with us, and please pray for her during this holy Lenten season.

by Patricia Dervish

The Way of St. James is the pilgrimage to a region in northwestern Spain, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia.   Since medieval times, thousands have made this pilgrimage on foot, horseback, donkey, and more recently on bicycles, fulfilling a call to make the journey of the pilgrim to honor our God.  In mid October, 2009, I walked the last one hundred kilometers of The Way of St. James, also called the Camino de Santiago, holding my sacred intentions in my heart.

Pilgrimages are a part of many religious traditions.  In Christianity, Rome, Jerusalem, and this small town in the northwest corner of Spain are generally thought of as the most important pilgrim destinations.  Many believe that the followers of St. James (the apostle) brought his body to rest in Santiago after he was martyred in A.D. 44. His sacred tomb is located inside the cathedral. 
the cathedral
Thousands now travel ever year to the cathedral to embrace the statue of St. James, attend the pilgrim’s mass celebrated every day at noon, and pray.

There are several routes to the town of Santiago de Compostela.  The Camino del Norte follows a coastal path traveling west across Spain.  There is a route that begins in Portugal and travels north.  The most popular, however, is known as the Camino Frances, or the French Route, which begins in France, traverses the Pyrenees, and follows a path through Pamplona, Burgos, Leon, Sarria, to Santiago de Compostela.  The route from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port in France to Santiago is 800 kilometers or 500 miles.  Hardy pilgrims make the journey in about four weeks. My pilgrimage began in Sarria and ended seven days later on the steps of the cathedral.
A map of the various routes of The Way of St. James.
The author's journey took her along northern Spain for 7 days.
(map source: Wikipedia)
My walk in Spain was part of a larger pilgrimage.  I am in formation to become a member of a lay Catholic order, the Secular Franciscan Order, and had planned a 21-day solitary retreat to read, walk, pray, and reflect on God’s calling to me.  I began my retreat late in September, traveling first to Assisi in Italy to celebrate the feast day of Saint Francis, and pray at San Damiano, the Portiuncula, and La Verna.  I traveled then to Spain to continue my retreat.

There are suggestions in the literature that St. Francis made the pilgrimage to Santiago sometime in 1214.  By the time of my arrival in Sarria, Spain, 24 hours after leaving Italy, I didn’t know how.  In comparison to the saint's lengthy travels, my journey looked like this.  The bus from Garibaldi Square delivered me to the train station in Cortona, where I took a train to Florence.  In Florence, I found a bus to the airport and flew to Madrid.  A fifteen minute study of the public transportation in Madrid and two subway rides delivered me to Tirso de Molino, the metro station closest to my friend’s apartment on Calle Magdalena.  I visited briefly with my friend, rested an hour, repacked my backpack to carry the least amount of things possible, and took another two metros rides to Atocha, the main train station in Madrid, to catch the overnight train to Sarria.

Even with all the conveniences of modern travel, the 24 hour period from Garibaldi Square to Sarria left me reeling and looking for coffee.  I have yet to find the details of St. Francis’ journey from Italy--across the Mediterranean Sea then across Spain--but I assume he took a boat or two and walked a great distance.  I marveled, once again, at the Saint’s stamina.

I arrived in Sarria a little after 5:00 a.m. on October 7. I stood at the train’s exit, waiting for the screeching of brakes, the anticipated call of the conductor, and the automatic opening of the doors.  I jumped off the train with backpack and camera in tow, and wandered through the yet deserted and dark town looking for an open cafĂ©.  I found one which offered piping hot rolls and coffee and discovered other pilgrims starting their journeys there.  Each pilgrim carries a pilgrim’s passport.  Along the Camino there are places that offer sellos, or stamps, thereby tracking the journey to indicate that you have indeed made it.  There is an official office in Santiago that reviews the pilgrim’s passport and issues a certificate, called a compostela, to those who have journeyed the Camino.  Sarria is a popular starting point for many because it is the last point traveling west where one can enter and still receive the official compostela.

The pilgrim's passport was an important part
of the journey.
The pilgrim’s passport also allows the pilgrim to stay at refugios, or hostels, along the way.  The refugios vary from place to place but are usually simple, with bunk beds, warm showers, and a kitchen to prepare meals.  Some refugios offer rooms with places for six to eight pilgrims.  Others have large dormitories where as many as eighty pilgrims sleep in one room.  Regardless of the arrangement, I found the refugios to be clean, safe, and a great way to learn from others about their adventures and sometimes about their interior journeys. 

The Camino itself is not hard to follow.  There are yellow arrows painted on markers, rocks, sides of buildings, and trees that signal any turns on the path.  I ventured on roads, across bridges, through quiet forests, to grass lands, through villages and farms, up hills, through streams, and lost my way only once.  The yellow arrow was a comforting and reassuring site.
The author is guided by markers of the yellow arrow.
The scallop shell is also everywhere on the Camino and is, in fact, the symbol of the Camino.  Many pilgrims wear a scallop shell as a necklace, or pinned to their backpacks, or tied to their shoes.  There are many legends about how the shell came to be the symbol of the Camino.  Regardless of the legends, however, shells are common in Galicia and were useful to early pilgrims as makeshift cups for water or utensils for shared food.  I was particularly drawn to the shell because it is also one of the symbols on the Franciscan cross. 

My favorite symbol, however, was not painted or etched, but flowed from the mouths of everyone I met.  “Buen Camino” other pilgrims would say as they passed.  “Buen Camino” said the farmers in the fields, the children playing by the side of the road, the shopkeepers, the women and men in cafes and bars and churches who stamped the pilgrim’s passports.  Soon I too embraced the words almost as a chant as I greeting others on the journey.                                                                         
"Buen Camino," said the farmers in the fields.
I walked about twelve miles a day, from Sarria to Portomarin, from Portomarin to Palas de Rei, then to Melide, Arzua, O Pino, and finally to Monte de Gozo, a few miles outside of Santiago de Compostela.  In medieval times, pilgrims paused there to engage in a bathing ritual in the streams nearby, washing themselves and their clothes after their long journeys.  I engaged in my own water ritual before entering the holy city, but mine was at a laundromat and a shower room in the pilgrim’s hostel. 

As I thought over the previous six days, I was struck by the variations for walking the Camino.  Some walked solo, some in pairs, some in groups.  Some couples walked hand in hand.  Some groups parted and came together again at rest stops, or other bends in the road.  I saw two companions with a piece of rope tied to each of them as they dragged their gear in a travel wagon.  I saw another couple aiding each other as they carried their octogenarian bodies over rocky, rough spots.  Other pilgrims walked when they could and caught a ride on the Lugo road when they tired. I spent one morning with a woman who walked all the way from France with a pack on her back.  In contrast, I met a group of Canadians who had guides and a van.  The van carried their bags, and the guides checked on them as they walked along, providing historic information about the specific area we were traveling through, and preparing picnic lunches in various shady groves.  I treasured all encounters. So many variations on the Camino, echoing the variations in our human family.

Click here for Part II.

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