To be a pilgrim. Part 1

Published on 20 Aug 2019
El camino de Santiago

by a Santiago pilgrim

What does it mean, to be a pilgrim? Is it just a matter of externals – walking a pilgrim route with a rucksack and staff; boarding a flight to Mecca or Lourdes; visiting, by whatever means, a holy place – or is there more to it than that? Having walked the Camino de Santiago, from le Puy-en-Velay in central France to Santiago de Compostela on the north-west tip of Spain, a journey of almost a thousand miles, I incline to the view that a pilgrim is something one becomes; and that it is the journey itself that effects the change. All you have to do is keep on putting one foot in front of the other, and let it happen.

Setting out along a pilgrim way - walking, eating, sleeping, never turning aside, always moving on - in those first days in France, I found myself almost imperceptibly coming more and more into the present moment, occupied by the few simple decisions of each day: how far to walk, where to get food, where to spend the night. Though I walked alone, I found myself a member of a small travelling family, a mixed bunch, mainly French, all bound for Santiago, who had left le Puy at about the same time.

At the beginning of the second week, having crossed the Massif Central and come down into the valley of the Lot, standing in the Abbey church at Conques, I felt something shifting deep inside me, as if the foundations of my subconscious were realigning themselves. Something was about to start.

What was knotted-up inside of me began to loosen, what was buried or repressed to surface. Yet I had a sense of being driven, of running away from, or towards something, I knew not what; but also of underlying reassurance that I was right to be here, on pilgrimage. ‘Keep to the path’ I told myself, ‘And the path will keep you safe.’  

Friends occasionally offered observations. ‘You’re walking too fast’ Claude, a Frenchwoman told me. I agreed, but said I thought it a sign of something that needed resolving internally: walking more slowly wouldn’t help. One evening, when I had evidently been using the word pèlerin (‘pilgrim’) too loosely for his liking, Marcel, an older man making his second Compostela pilgrimage, gently corrected me. ‘You’re not a pilgrim’ he said, ‘You’re a walker. Perhaps when you get to Spain you’ll become a pilgrim, but at the moment you’re a walker.’ Intrigued (and suspecting he was right), I asked him what the difference was. ‘I can’t explain it’ he smiled. ‘When you understand what the difference is, the change will have taken place.’

At the beginning of the third week I felt unwell with a slightly upset stomach, but that sense of being driven would not allow me to stop walking. A few days later, exhausted by mid-morning at the little town of Auvillar, I had to stop. There was a gîte d’étape (a French walkers’ hostel) here, I found a pharmacy, dosed myself with antibiotics, and slept through the afternoon.

That evening, I looked back at the journey. I saw that I had approached it as a challenge to be overcome, the path something to be dominated. I might be on a pilgrim route, but I had remained within an inner kingdom, a kingdom of the self, where I was in control, and my will was law, and when things were not as I wanted, I had become frustrated or angry. I had invested of my time and money in this venture, and had been looking for a return. All I was seeking was myself.

I thought that at the heart of that inner kingdom lay my fear of death. But if we fear death, we will fear life too, and try to defend ourselves against it; and those defences, that comprise the borders of that inner kingdom, also serve to imprison us. I knew I needed to break out of that prison, open myself up to the events of each day, let myself be transformed by them. Why was that so hard?

By the time I reached St Jean Pied-de-Port, the last town in France before the Pyrenees, I had been four weeks on the road. I still didn’t know whether I was a pilgrim or a walker, or what the difference was; but at least ‘Santiago de Compostela’ was no longer an abstraction: now I had begun to believe I might actually get there.