My Camino – A Pilgrim Journey
Sebastian Cichocki is on the staff of the Mount Street Jesuit Community in central London. He recently undertook a five-week pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St James. This 900 km pilgrim trail through northern Spain ends at Finisterre via the shrine of St James at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
My Camino (from the Spanish for “path”) started on 21 May 2014. I chose the most popular “French Way” which begins in Saint Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees.
There were many reasons why I undertook the walk. Like many others before me, I was looking for opportunities to strengthen my faith, to feel the presence of God in my life and to rebuild myself in a better way. During the long period of preparation, I understood that I was embarking on something completely new. I read memoirs, reviews and guidance about the pilgrimage. It all looked great and wonderful so I was expecting something special. And I wasn’t disappointed. But I hadn’t fully understood the scale of what I was undertaking. Reading and absorbing reflected wisdom are good starting points. Imagination can take you a stage further. But the reality of the pilgrim experience was a leap beyond!
The very first day was one of the hardest physically. It involved crossing the Pyrenees Mountains in harsh weather conditions and one pilgrim was seriously injured. But I was sure I was in the right place. I was prepared for pain, for the simple conditions of pilgrim life, for a range of weather conditions. But all my reading had not prepared me for the very special atmosphere: the amazing friendly relations between people from across the world, where kindness, compassion, warm-heartedness and care are constantly in evidence. Most of the people I encountered along the Way had, like me, somehow heard the “call of pilgrimage” and decided to begin this spiritual adventure. Through these five weeks I walked and talked with wonderful people of all ages, professions and nationalities. I was privileged to share unbelievably inspiring and touching stories of their lives.
The Camino traverses the beautiful mountainous landscape of northern Spain and hundreds of tiny villages, as well as towns of varying sizes - all really well organized to welcome and support the pilgrims’ journeys. I spent a lot of time admiring the many churches along the route, from tiny village churches to great cathedrals with astonishing art. They all had one thing in common – a stork nesting in the tower! The sight of circling storks meant a church was not far away!
At every step of the way you find signs of people’s faith: Christian symbols, wayside shrines, inscriptions of prayers or intentions.
The local people were lovely, always ready to welcome the pilgrims who seem to be an accepted piece of the fabric of their lives. I hardly need to mention Spanish cooking. Even the simple pilgrims’ menu was always very tasty!
I elected to walk the extra 100km from Santiago de Compostela to Finisterre on the coast where traditionally pilgrims have cleansed themselves in the sea. This was another moment of communion.
Without doubt this pilgrimage changed me. All I saw, experienced and learned was extraordinary and ultimately formed a cornerstone for the foundation for the next stage of my life in a way that I could never have imagined.
One of the bas-relief in Santiago Cathedral shows the Greek letters Alpha and Omega inter-twined, symbolising that the end and the beginning are connected. That is how it feels for me: my pilgrimage is not over.
Above left: Sebastian reaches the Castillo Templario de Ponferrada on the Camino.
Right: A cellist plays at Finisterre, the western end of the Camino.