Walking Life through the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage

Camino calls, Camino provides.
Life calls, life provides.
God calls, God provides.

“Who would like to come to the pulpit to read the scripture for the mass?” a gentle-voice priest gestured.

“I would,” I raised my hand and I read Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

It was the day after our 5-day pilgrim’s walk to Santiago or better known as the Camino de Santiago. After attending several masses in Spanish which we couldn’t understand, we looked forward to attending a mass in English to end our pilgrimage. To our surprise, there were only the three of us, Annie, Joani, and I. Instead of a Spanish priest, in front of us stood Father Manuel, a priest from the Philippines.

We were each asked to light a candle and say a prayer during the pilgrim’s mass.

“I would like to invite you to light a candle and say a prayer for people you care for or to give thanks in front of the congregation. After each person’s prayer, let’s all say, ‘Lord, graciously hear us.’,” the priest invited at the end of his short message on Martha to remind us to give the gift of presence to our family and to God.

I was the first one to go to the front and prayed, “Lord, I pray for my family that you would protect it from the evil spirits. That you would help us come together as one body. Most of all that there will be Love in our family. Love not as defined by the world, but love that is defined by you. Love that is patient and enduring. Amen.”

Then Annie went up and prayed, “Dear Abba Father, thank you so much for bringing us thus this far, one day at a time. We don’t know our tomorrow, but you do. So father we thank you for the gift of the Camino, that you brought us here. And we place our tomorrow into your hands, for we don’t know where you will lead us. We do not know which country will be our next step, but you do Lord. So I ask in Jesus’ name that we will have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand your wisdom, and we will walk in courage and Faith. Thank you for each new day. In Jesus’ name, Amen.”

We had some very insightful one on one conversation with the priest after the mass.

Joani went up and prayed as well, “I want to pray for the pilgrims that we met on the road. As they all have different reasons for doing the Camino. I pray that after this special time on the Camino, that they will be willing to keep their hearts open to you and that they will see your vision for their life. And that this Camino will be a time of reflection, a time of inner healing. And I pray that all the pilgrims will be able to experience you, to reflect on their own character. I pray these in your name. Amen.”

I felt that it was God’s gift to us to have this intimate worship time with God, with just the three of us and the priest. If it wasn’t for the pandemic, the chapel would be completely filled. I didn’t shed tears after walking 5 days to the cathedral of Santiago, but I teared up during the mass as I prayed in front of family and God in this empty but solemn chapel.

How we started the Pilgrimage?

Before COVID-19, walking the Camino de Santiago was not in the plan as it would take too many days. With the difficulty of traveling during the pandemic, Camino became a possibility since we are forced to spend more time in each country. After watching the movie, the Way, together as a family in Portugal, all of us got more and more excited.

“We should do two weeks or a month,” Joani exclaimed, which surprised me because she is the least outdoors person in our family.

“I feel doing the Camino is a gift from God,” Annie felt strongly.

There are many pilgrim routes that all end at Santiago. The lines on the scallop shell also end at a single point.

After Portugal, we headed straight to Santiago de Compostela to drop off our big backpack so that we can carry only the minimum amount for the 5-day pilgrimage. At the well-designed and sleek Pilgrim’s Museum, we learned that this pilgrimage started more than a thousand years ago and it still continues today, with more than 300,000 people walking the Camino per year. Camino is the most famous Christian pilgrimage in the world. This is one historical site that you are not able to “sightsee” but can only see it by walking on it. The symbol of the Camino is a scallop shell, which represents Apostle James, one of the 3 closest disciples of Jesus. After James was beheaded in Jerusalem, disciples brought his remains to Spain where James has evangelized before. And soon Christians from all over Europe would make the pilgrimage here. There are 8 Camino paths that start from different corners of Europe, with all of them coming and ending at Santiago, like the markings on the scallop shell. The most popular one is Camino Frances, which started in France. This was the one we chose because it has the most facilities supporting pilgrims. To get the Compostela or certification of completion of the pilgrimage, one must walk at least 100 km and collect stamps along the way as proof. Since this is our first time, we chose the closest starting point which is Sarria, 114 km away.

We decided to do the last leg of the route called Camino de Frances.

Before we started our walk, Joani suggested that we each think about why we are doing the Camino and what we learned along the way. When we reach Santiago, we can have a ceremony to reflect on our thoughts.

Walking the Camino

A video of our 5-day pilgrimage.

The first day was 22km, the second day 24 km, the third day 28 km, the fourth day 20 km, fifth and final day 20 km, for a total of 114 km.

We started in Sarria, 114 km away.

The walk was more beautiful than I had imagined. Most of the time we walk in forest paths, along rivers, and among cattle, away from car traffics. Each small village we pass through feels very traditional and peaceful. Along the way are cafes where we can get a hot coffee with milk to warm up our body in the rain or to rest our sore feet. We walked through rain and hail but they were usually fast-moving such that every time after stopping to put on the rain poncho, the rain would mischievously stop. It rained the hardest on the second day. However, as we walked in the early morning, the sun broke through the clouds and a rainbow appeared right in front of our path. It was as if God was telling us not to lose hope as we walk towards his promise.

We saw many chestnuts and apple trees along the way.
The rainbow was God’s promise to us.

We stayed in hostels along the Camino. Due to COVID-19, shared kitchens were usually closed so we were forced to eat in restaurants, which often has the “pilgrim’s meal” or Menu of the Day with 4 courses, a starter, a main dish, a dessert, and wine. Each pilgrim’s meal was an opportunity for us to enjoy and appreciate the food of Galicia, such as the Santiago Cake or Pulpo (Octopus).

Enjoying the pilgrim’s meal of the “Menu of the Day” with other pilgrims.
We stayed at hostels along the way.

The beauty of walking the Camino as a family is that we can start and end each day together but during the day, we can walk at our own pace, listen to our favorite music or podcast, or walk with other pilgrims because we know where we plan to stop at the end of each day. Annie and I walked together the whole way, worshipping while walking, listening to Amy Grant oldies, TedTalk or Camino Podcast, and talking about life.

Worshipping God as we walked.
Annie and I had 6-8 hours a day to walk together. Here is an Iron Age ruin on the way.

“You always wanted me to go on walks together more often,” I joked with Annie. “How did you enjoy me walking with you for 114 kilometers!”

We started the first day walking with Juan Carlos who taught many Spanish words without knowing how to speak a word of English.

The biggest highlight is probably the many interesting walkers we met along the way. There was Juan Carlos a cook from Barcelona who couldn’t speak English at all but was very patient in trying to speak and teach us Spanish. There was John, a British retiree at 50 who was in Britain’s national basketball team, and whose father worked in Iraq! There was another British retiree pilgrim cyclist Gerad at 60 who spent years as an English teacher in international schools in different parts of the Middle East, such as Libya, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and Iraq. We met a Venezuelan Hector with fluent Chinese who studied Chinese in China for the past 5 years and has been during Workaway in Spain as well for the past 8 months. There was Carmeli from a Bulgarian pastry chef who did this one month Camino to celebrate her 50th birthday. There were two girls from the Netherlands that took on the challenge of not speaking for the whole day while walking. They shared that when they were not able to express their feelings while doing the Camino, the intensity of their feelings is even stronger. There was a Canadian couple from Toronto that walked for 3 months, the only North American we had met on the whole walk.

The Canadian couple who walked for 3 months!

There was a big group of Portugal friends that were very excited as they walked. Later we found out that this was their high school reunion after walking the Camino together in high school 15 years ago. There were Robert and his brother who are coaches in professional football leagues in Spain but previously in India. He and his brother looked very fit and walked very fast! There was a British Shakespeare actor who wants to continue walking to Finisterre (meaning the end of the earth) because it sounds romantic.

There was a recent high school graduate from Madrid who wanted to figure out what he wants to do next. He walked the whole way with his backpack balanced on his head to have a stronger back and better posture.
We even met a pilgrim dog with its own pilgrim passport!

There was a recent high school graduate from Madrid who wanted to figure out what he wants to do next. He walked the whole way with his backpack balanced on his head to have a stronger back and better posture. There was a couple from Madrid that brought their dog on the Camino as a pilgrim dog. The dog even has his own pilgrim passport. Most touching of all, we also met Irrne from Barcelona who invited us to stay with her when we are there!

Irrne, who invited us to stay with her in Barcelona, is the one on the right.

Arriving at Santiago de Compostela

We were excited on our fifth day that we will be able to see the city of Santiago from afar at the PIlgrim’s Monument, but disappointedly it was really misty and drizzling the entire day. Walking on the Camino, we would greet each other with “Buen Camino” and there was a sense of companionship. However, the last 5 kilometers was in an urban area with many cars and other non-pilgrims who were just busy with their daily lives. The cathedral was under repair for the Holy Year in 2021 so we weren’t able to see the statue of Saint James.

Walking the last 5 kilometers, stilling following the shell symbol, through urban Santiago.

We collapsed on the stone plaza floor in front of the Cathedral of Santiago resting our tired feet while watching other pilgrims arriving one by one. Some were jumping up and down with their bikes and some were crying together with their friends. We started to see all the familiar faces and we began to greet each other and take photos together. Then we realized that what makes Camino so special is the “communities” that are formed while walking. For five days, we saw the same people walking past us, behind us, or together with us. We stayed mostly in the same hostel. We even shared food together or sit at the same table in the restaurant.

We collapsed on the stone plaza floor in front of the Cathedral of Santiago resting our tired feet while watching other pilgrims arriving one by one.
We are like droplets forming into creeks and rivers as we all head towards Santiago.

Father Manny told us that a couple met during Camino and he ended up officiating their wedding. While walking one morning, God showed me that each one of us pilgrims is all so different but like droplets that all heads in the same direction. As we come together, the droplets formed into creeks, and creeks formed into rivers. We saw people paying it forward by leaving walking sandals or hats along the way because others had left them items in their last Camino. Even Joani left something precious for someone that she felt was in need. The invitation from Irrne to stay with her in Barcelona represents the continuation of this unique community.

The “community” formed during the Camino was what made this pilgrimage special.

After a long time in front of the Cathedral, we got up and went to the Pilgrim Welcome Office to get our Pilgrim Certificate (Compostela). We celebrated by ordering four Menu of the Day (10 Euro), one for each one of us for the very first time, with dishes that we had been wanting to eat such as baby squid, Spanish seafood rice, and croquette. As we ate, we each shared what we had learned while doing the Camino. Annie shared that she learned to enjoy being in the moment. Joani shared how during the Camino, she had 3-4 hours a day by herself to listen to God about how to understand relationship, forgiveness, patience, and love from God’s perspective instead of listening to her own thoughts which might not be right. She wanted to learn to lean on God’s strength for patience and love, and to remember that God is patient too!

Joani got the most stamps on her Pilgrim’s Passport.
We all got our Pilgrim Certification in Latin from walking more than 100km.

For me, I asked God to speak to me more clearly and more often. I heard the word, “prodigal son” out of nowhere. I also saw the 5-day walk as a shrunken version of our lives on earth. There will be rain and hail but there also be sunshine. Although we don’t know when the rain will turn into the sunshine and back to rain but they pass quickly. When it does, a beautiful rainbow might be waiting for us. So don’t despair but have hope that God will get the “hell” out of our family.

What an Ending to the Camino!

God couldn’t have orchestrated a better ending to our Camino with the attendance of the pilgrim’s mass.

The words spoken during the mass by Father Manny, whose sole purpose is to minister to the pilgrims, hit our heartstrings and helped us to process our experiences.

Attending the pilgrim’s mass with our family in attendance.

He reminded us that just as we have blisters on our feet, we need to treat the blisters in our hearts. Just as we carry the burden of our backpack on the Camino, we also carry burdens of our hearts that we need to put down. The real Camino starts when we are back home.

After the mass, Father Manny invited us to have coffee together. Usually, there is a fellowship time on the second floor with many pilgrims. That day, we get to have a personal one on one time with Father Manny.

Priest Manny offered to have coffee with us.

He shared that pilgrims go on the Camino either as a time of celebration, reflection or decision, or grieving; or for personal fitness, cultural experience, or gastronomic adventure. There were once several parents who walked the Camino who photos of their children who all died on a school bus. Before we left, Father Manny blessed us for our journey ahead.

Joani reminded me of the verse, “How beautiful are the feet of those who carry the good news.” Annie and I carried a seashell as a symbolic mustard seed from the vineyard in Portugal and thru the entire Camino. We prayed and placed the seashell at the end of the pilgrimage under the cathedral in front of Apostle James’ silver coffin. May our family become the beautiful feet that carry the good news thru Spain and to the ends of the world.

We placed a seashell we carried the entire pilgrim in front of the tomb of Apostle James.
“How beautiful are the feet of those who carry the good news.”
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