A Lifetime on the Camino
by Anita Grace
(Ottawa, Ontario, Canada)
Traces of pilgrims on a cross beside the trail
I spent 64 days walking 1,600 kilometres on the Santiago Pilgrimage. However, for all its complexity, richness and challenges, this pilgrimage was experienced as a lifetime.
I was born onto the pilgrimage in Le Puy en Vélay, a small town in southeast France. Without faith or even an understanding of this pilgrimage, I was like a child stumbling my way along winding trails. Slowly, even unwillingly, I begin to understand what it meant to be a pilgrim and to become part of a community. My teachers were priests, hosts, villagers, church custodians and fellow pilgrims. Their lessons were challenging, humbling, yet ultimately enriching.
“What is a pilgrim?” a host asked one night, addressing a table of pilgrims. “A pilgrim is a simple being who accepts.” Accept gifts of shelter and food. Accept limitations of your own body. Accept all those you meet.
As I learned to accept others, I was befriended by a young woman whose personal quests and struggles pushed me to examine my own fears. As I grew in strength, self-awareness and confidence, I joined a pair of young pilgrims for a festive and youthful period of my pilgrim life.
The pilgrimage trail leads through the rolling hills of southern France and over the Pyrenees mountains into Spain. The number of pilgrims grows steadily. Every day brought new encounters and often surprisingly personal conversations. In this journey of pilgrimage and quest, strangers can soon find themselves deep in conversations about faith and love.
In the baked plains of Spain, under the heat of a relentless sun, I was pushed beyond what I thought was my last source of strength. As I faced new challenges, I felt like I was in middle age, worn by pain and fatigue, yet stronger in my awareness of myself, fortified by friendship and a budding faith.
In the final weeks, a period of old age, I had changed and grown, yet still had some of the most personal challenges to face. I reached Santiago, with the last ounce of strength I possessed, ready to stop, ready for this pilgrim life to end.
Days later I did continue on to the ocean at Cap Finisterre, where, as the name suggests, the land ends and it is impossible to walk any further west. I stood on the cliff facing westward over the ocean, roughly 1,700 kilomtres from where I began a journey that led me not only through the mountains, Spanish plains and along ocean coasts, but to sources of strength and peace within myself and others that I had never known before.
You might also be interested in reading about El Camino for women traveling alone.