Jesus is the Way and the fruit of pilgrimage

By Els FcJ 

In the summer of 2017 I walked four weeks of the Camino del Norte from Irun to Ribadeo (approx. 630 kilometres) in Northern Spain. Last summer I was able to finish the last 200 kms from Ribadeo to Santiago de Compostela and walk onwards to Muxia and Finisterra (another 120 kms to the coast or the point where one literally can’t walk any further).
I started this journey as an FCJ novice trying to find out whether religious FCJ life was really for me.

Most of the novitiate is lived within a community which provides for all one’s basic needs, closely supervised by the novice directress, who gives input, topics to reflect on and spiritual guidance. The pilgrimage is a different type of experience, as it involves being stripped to the bare essentials with nobody to rely on.  It can be a tremendous treasure when one is able to give oneself fully to this experience. Years ago I had walked part of the Camino with a group of FCJ sisters and young adults, but this time I embarked on this pilgrimage journey alone.  The only but very real teacher is Jesus who is the Way, the Camino.

For a long time the idea of pilgrimage appealed to me. It seemed like a great adventure: walking in nature, meeting strangers, not knowing where to spend the night and carrying everything needed on your back. Several people had told me before about their experiences and what a life changing experience it had been for them. Pilgrimage was surrounded by mystery, and I wondered what it would do to me: would my body be able for it? Would I like it and be able to cope with the uncertainties? Would I be lonely and, most importantly, would it deepen or strengthen my 
relationship with God?
                      The first marker with the distance on after two days walking: still 787 kms to Santiago

I enjoyed the first week immensely. The Basque country is beautiful and I felt a great sense of freedom and relief immediately about having to do nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other, going at my own pace, and acknowledging that my biggest worry was about where my next meal or sleeping place would be. Pilgrims are pushed into the ‘here’ and ‘now’. There is nobody watching and nothing to prove.

I was surrounded by beauty and because of that I felt close to God immediately and without effort. I loved having the personal space yet at the same time I appreciated meeting and ‘hanging out’ with fellow pilgrims in the evenings, sharing bread and wine. There is a great diversity on the Camino: people from different backgrounds, nationality and age.  People, who would otherwise never meet, become pilgrim companions and develop deep and lasting friendships. Everybody is equal on the Camino and the one thing we all have in common is the search for meaning, while nobody is exempt from difficulties.

Being among these people helped me settle in my religious identity and, because everybody is so accepting of one another, one also learns to accept oneself. Having started as a lonely pilgrim I found it interesting to see relationships develop. In no time one feels part of a little community where everybody looks out for each other, yet at the same time, people have different paces and people’s bodies have different needs. Sometimes we have to let go of people who have journeyed a while with us, say goodbye to old companions and welcome new ones and sometimes people meet again later on the way. At times it is a hard lesson that we are all on an individual journey yet different people come and go, support each other and then move on. Again, there is great freedom here: the freedom not to cling to people and to welcome new strangers.
  There is a wonderful culture of ‘giving back’ and ‘passing it forward’ on the Camino. Experienced pilgrims tend to the blisters and adjust the backpacks of inexperienced or less fortunate pilgrims; people share their food, even give up a bed in a full albergue to someone who needs it more and people grow on the way.

Shared evening meal in an albergue

Halfway through my Camino, more pilgrims had joined, and it appeared there weren’t enough beds to accommodate all. Everybody got stressed.  People were getting up earlier and earlier, walking in the dark and arriving at an albergue that didn’t open for hours and had to spend time sitting in a queue outside in order to secure a bed. Others decided to divert and opt for a more secure and luxurious Camino, booking hotels ahead. I had to ask myself the question: “What were my hopes for this Camino?  I concluded that these two strategies were not compatible”. I decided instead to place my trust in Divine Providence - and it never let me down. At times I had to walk a lot of kilometres a day (between 35 and 45 kms) in search of a bed, but in the end, somebody would always give me one.  People are generally kind and generous and I slept in some amazing places, like the beautiful albergue that had just opened and wasn’t in the guidebooks yet or in an emergency accommodation offered by the priest, a pensione, for albergue price. Each time my courage and confidence grew: the courage to take the risk and the confidence that my body was able and that God would not let me down.

On some days I met fewer people because they were not walking the same distances as me. During these times it became natural and clear that Jesus was my constant and faithful companion. Walking long distances day after day cleared my head and brought me more and more in touch with my feelings and ultimately with myself and God at work within me. Layers were peeled off. Having dealt with physical difficulties, the mental struggles were harder in comparison; yet they were cleansing at the same time. Trusting in the slow work of God, I realised that the more vulnerable and willing to trust I became, the more God can do for and in me.

Jesus is the Way. Nothing else matters. If we take the risk and entrust ourselves to God’s caring love, God will shower his graces over us in abundance.


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