Taking My God for a Walk
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Taking My God for a Walk

Taking My God for a Walk

With a seven-week sabbatical to fill, Tony Collins wanted to do something special. But what? The answer turned out to be a very, very long walk.

I had just turned 64, and in those days, my employer offered a generous sabbatical to those who had served their years. I had been puzzled how to make use of this bounty. It was a once-off opportunity, not to be frittered. Then I

met an old friend. Douglas had always been a softly spoken, genial, self-effacing bloke, effective in a quiet way but easily overlooked. Now he was taking the lead, cracking jokes, brimming with enthusiasm, in a way I had not seen previously. The change was so arresting I asked him what had happened: where did he get the shot of happy juice?

‘I walked the Camino,’ he responded, as if that explained everything.

At that point I knew little about the Camino de Santiago. Further questioning revealed that it is the millennium-old pilgrim route between the centres of Europe and the city of Santiago, in the north-west corner of Spain; a collection of about a dozen routes converging on the city. The main route, the Camino Real or Royal Way, runs between the French border crossing of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, and the city of St James. It’s about 490 miles long, or roughly the distance between Hastings and Edinburgh. During the great age of pilgrimages (roughly, the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries) hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travelled the route.

The call of the road…

I was intrigued. I speak French, but barely a word of Spanish. As a publisher, I’d spent decades organising, scheduling, calculating, editing, cajoling, negotiating: creating a well-ordered world. The Camino offered uncertainty. You get up in the morning not knowing where you are going to sleep that night, because although the Camino is well-provided with hostels, you cannot book ahead, as you don’t know how far you’ll get (and most hostels won’t take reservations). If it rains, you get wet. There are mountains a-plenty. I had dodgy knees and a heart condition: if I fell by the wayside, would anyone notice?

Something else motivated me. For years my private prayer life, or lack thereof, was not on view. I had rarely been called to account for my own spiritual development. I realised that I needed to put myself in a position where, if God wished to speak to me, I would be in a state to hear. For most of my working life, I had been a critic: I wanted to join the players.

I discovered I was hungry. I wanted to discover sources of reverence. The evangelical Christianity of my adult years had grown dry and predictable, had lost its savour. I wanted to reconnect with the Almighty: to shout, and weep, worship and exult.

I booked a flight at the end of September – it didn’t seem wise to walk across Spain in the height of summer – and set about training and equipping my ageing earth suit.

What to get…

The first thing was stuff. I bought a good pair of boots, but skimped on a rucksack, a decision which would haunt me (the wretched thing lost shape and sagged, and I ditched it as soon as I returned). The various websites advised a maximum backpack weight of 12kg for a large adult male. I purchased lightweight clothes, a sufficiency of socks, and a minimum of toiletries. My wife, Pen, sagely recommended a pack of heavy-duty safety pins, for hanging up washing. Online I found walking poles and a camelback (a flat water bag, to be placed inside the rucksack’s cover, with a tube running over your shoulder so you can drink at will). I ordered a copy of John Brierley’s invaluable handbook, simply titled A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago (Kaminn Media Limited).

I live on the coast of Sussex. The rolling countryside offers delightful walks, and so week by week I would pore over a large-scale map, then set off to cover six or ten miles, my rucksack suitably laden. Once upon a time, I had been a regular runner, but injury and indolence had taken their toll and I was magnificently unfit. My training was restricted to weekends and had to be fitted round church commitments.

And we’re off…

The problem, though it wasn’t immediately apparent, was the absence of mountains. The South Downs are not the Pyrenees, a point driven sharply home for me on the first day of pilgrimage. To reach Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, you fly to Biarritz, then catch the stopping train upwards. At the little town at the head of the valley, the end of the line, the entire train empties. Early the following morning I unlimbered my shiny new walking poles, pulled up my socks, and strode confidently towards the pass through the mountains and into Spain. After a few hundred yards, there is a sign to the left. I started climbing.

I had no idea what lay in store. The steep path rapidly degenerated into gravel and wound among rocks. I lacerated my hands grabbing at gorse bushes. My progress slowed to a crawl. The thinning mountain air did nothing to diminish the heat of the sun. The mountain views are magnificent, and I found myself stopping more and more frequently to admire them. The training I had done was proving spectacularly insufficient.

As I looked upwards, I spotted birds circling high above, specks against the sun. Griffon vultures, to be precise, with a 9ft wingspan. They graze on the sheep pastured in the mountains, but it was easy to think they might appreciate a change in diet.

When I finally reached the summit of the pass, hours later, gasping and trembling, I found a narrow, metalled road running along the crest. On the far side the track descended abruptly, and the vegetation switched from gorse scrub to a magnificent beech forest. The shade was welcome, but the track winding down between the trees was formed from the loosest scree, and I found myself scrabbling with my poles to stay balanced, lurching and sliding from trunk to trunk, hour upon hour.

By the time I finally reached the hostel on the far side of the pass I was utterly wrung out, and stood in the entrance shaking uncontrollably. It would take me two weeks to become fully road fit. By the time I reached the foothills of the mountains of Galicia, I was bouncing over potholes and springing over logs, but that first night I slept for nine hours.

Ups and downs

Injuries are common on the Camino; many fail to train sufficiently, or wear unsuitable boots. (One young man I passed on the first day was attempting the pilgrimage barefoot.) Much of the route is ankle-turningly rough, or worse. Every pharmacy carries displays of Compeed blister plasters. Local hospitals are well used to treating leg injuries.

The Way confers fitness, of course. Injuries are another matter. One poor man I overtook was suffering from shin splints, staggering painfully through the harsh Spanish sunlight. He didn’t want support, but had resolved to call it a day at the next town. I walked for some of the route with a lovely couple of ladies from California, who knew their vintages and called themselves the Wine Sisters: one, Jan, became gradually incapacitated from a dodgy hip. Another pilgrim, a Canadian lady, had to acknowledge defeat and was being flown home for a knee replacement.

Conversely, some pilgrims are remarkably fit. Some undertake the route by bike, which in view of the terrain is somewhere between laughable and admirable. Punctures and chain breakages are common. Some of the more reckless cyclists carry their bikes to the crest of a hill, then take off at high speed on the far side, dodging round pilgrims and rocks and bushes in a long exhilarating descent. One supremely muscled gentleman had attached to his saddle a single-wheel trailer that followed him lamb-like over the roughest terrain.

The Camino is genuinely dangerous. Traffic accidents; lightning strikes; falling off cliffs; heart attacks; idiots on bikes: all take their toll, and there are many wayside shrines to pilgrims who didn’t make it.

Pilgrims are mostly young, or well advanced in years. It requires time to undertake the Camino – in my case 33 days – and many who have young families, or a career to carve, will not be free to tackle it. Some older seekers are tough, experienced and durable: I met one elderly gentleman who was on his eighth pilgrimage, and heard of others who were spending their retirement years in one pilgrimage after another. Age does not preclude fitness, at all.
I had one brush with mortality. On a cloudy afternoon, well into my journey, ambling inattentively down a rocky path, I caught my toe and fell headlong, barely able to twist to one side so that my heavy rucksack did not drive my chin into the earth. A girl following 50 yards behind came panting up, expecting to find a freshly minted corpse: she turned out to be a nurse specialising in cardiac conditions. With her help, I was able to free myself from the backpack, but shook like a leaf afterwards.

The joys of pilgrimage

There was so much to enjoy. At the simplest level, to walk through wholly unfamiliar territory day after day is to encounter the country in a way no tourist can achieve. You see people where they live, where no word of English is spoken, where the hardscrabble daily demands are their preoccupation and you are perfectly irrelevant, one more passing face. The anonymity is a release.

Much was unexpected, and strangeness has its own appeal. In the first week or so of the journey, I walked through bullfighting country, and many towns have the custom of releasing young bulls into the streets during their summer fiesta, for the community’s youngsters to prove their courage. I missed these events, but the cult of the bull is everywhere. One evening I watched from my window as a young bull calf on a long leash was tormented by a horde of young men, who shrieked and dodged as the poor creature lunged. One night of high fiesta featured a life-size bull of papier mâché, festooned with firecrackers. After I had gone to bed there was an explosion from the town which rattled the windows: the bull had been unwisely wired, and had detonated all at once.

Another surprise: much of northern Spain is deserted. The Camino runs through many towns where there are no pedestrians other than pilgrims, and its route includes two villages, both over a thousand years old, with a resident population of one. A modern housing development on the central plain, the immense Meseta, sticks in the mind: outside an old village is a development of speculatively built and nicely maintained houses, street after street, all vacant. The locals, such as there are, call the area by its most obvious name: Se Vende, For Sale. Since the Second World War, the population of vast areas has moved away to the coastal cities, the old folk are dying, and hour after hour I walked past untended vineyards and orchards gradually reverting to scrub. In parts of Galicia, wolves are returning.

This was disconcerting, but it added to the picture, and I appreciated the simplicity of the Way. Each day brought one overriding concern, to stay upright long enough to find a shower, a meal and a bed. As the pain of the first few days receded, I found energy to pray, take in my surroundings, admire a stork’s large untidy nest upon a bell tower or – more remarkably – a static crane. But the simplicity remains. As you walk, I discovered, you fall into a light reverie, your eyes fixed upon the horizon. It’s not a trance, rather a kind of mental decluttering. You start to enjoy the incidentals more vividly: a sandwich and a can of Coke; a cat on a wall; a wayside shrine; an evening’s conversation.

I had opted to be independent. I had made my plans myself, booked my own flights, was travelling with no group. After decades of ceaseless interaction, I was hungry for solitude. But the friendships I made proved an unexpected legacy. The same faces cropped up as the cohort of travellers followed the route. Waiting for a meal, or over a drink, conversations begin. During the day I preferred to walk alone, but evenings became convivial, and I developed cordial acquaintanceships with Irish, French and American pilgrims (many of whom had been inspired by Martin Sheen’s film The Way). I started to keep a record of the nationalities I met, and spoke with people from at least 29 countries. Some real relationships developed: I journeyed on and off for some days with French pilgrims, one of whom had started in Geneva, a thousand miles from the Spanish border. I met a couple of formidable US Marines, full of stories of active service, and walked many miles with the convivial and intelligent Wine Sisters. After a few hours on the Way you run out of conversation, and start to talk properly. Friendships grow quickly in such conditions, and endure, thanks to Facebook.

Finding God on the Camino

I did discover sources of reverence. The wayside shrines, of which there are many, are frequently decorated with flowers, notes, photographs, trinkets. Once I found a photo and inscription to someone’s brother, who had died the previous year. The first few shrines I glanced at and dismissed, a habitual disregard of folk religion, but this was a hangover from an earlier ignorant superiority. Gradually it was borne in on me that these were places where, shorn of formal religion, men and women had honoured the Almighty, had paused and prayed. I started to pay more attention, to stop and ponder.

At several points the Way ran through the outskirts of industrial areas, bordered by severe and ugly chain-link fencing. Passing pilgrims had woven sticks or rags through the links, creating hundreds of crosses which graced and transformed the utilitarian boundary.

At the highest point of the Camino stands the Cruz de Ferro, the Cross of Iron, a slender iron construction atop a tall wooden pillar. The tradition is that you bring with you from your homeland a pebble to lay at the foot of the Cross. I had in my pack a pebble from Hastings beach, painted by my stepdaughter Hebe with the symbol of the Way, the coquille Saint Jacques, or scallop. I arrived at the Cruz de Ferro early one morning, climbing through the cold heavy autumnal mist. The vapours were so thick that you could not see the site until you were almost upon it.

The place is a mess. Every year brings tens of thousands of pilgrims to this site, each of them with their pebble. The cairn stretches for yards on either side of the Cross. Not just stones, either: I saw jewellery, belts, scarves, teddy bears, dolls, thin rusting chains. But the mess didn’t matter. What was important was that pilgrims like me had in their turn prayed, worshipped, reflected, resolved. This local manifestation of the Infinite might be scruffy, but so what? I stood silent, my pack at my feet.

Later that day I met the Wine Sisters, who had followed me an hour or two behind, after the mist had lifted. They too had stopped and, in their case, had sat to one side in the morning sunlight and consumed a bottle of red before continuing. The older – a confirmed atheist – nodded at me with a wry smile. ‘It was communion,’ she acknowledged.

The dark side

There were downsides: days when unending fields of dead sunflowers reduced the mind to gibbering; long paths coated in rocks of just the right size to turn the ankle, requiring moment by moment attention to my uninteresting feet; industrial townships surrounded by blown layers of plastic; incessant political graffiti. Spain is a place of several major languages and passionate regional identities, not a country at peace with itself, and the slogans I could translate were sometimes savage.

The bitterest challenges were internal, however.

Two weeks or so into my pilgrimage I started to experience nightmares, the kind of panting horrors from which to waken is release. Night after night, grim detail piled upon terror: it was as if the septic tank of my soul was being purged. I am not above brooding, and no stranger to psychic weather, but this was new. At the same time the days were little improvement. By this point I was well into the Meseta, which is both overbearingly empty and wide beyond vision: in such circumstances the thoughts turn inwards, and now something unexpected happened.

I have not always been wise in my affections; especially in my youth, there were ladies who had grounds for criticism, and my first marriage ended in divorce after 31 years. Now the women of my life, those whom I had most truly offended, came back to my waking mind as I walked. The procession of accusers seemed never-ending. With the attendant nightmares those few days were a grim time, one of the bleakest I can recall. Prayer was beyond reach.

What restored me was the memory of an insight from Adrian Plass: God is nice, and He likes me. The morning that recollection dropped into my mind I grasped it desperately, and it was as if a switch had been thrown: the memories and dreams had expressed truth, but not the whole truth. Over minutes, the darkness receded, and I was able to worship once again.

Why do it?

At the Dean’s office at Santiago Cathedral, they ask you to say why you walked the Camino – and many do: 277,913 in 2016 alone. The numbers are increasing: in 2013, the year of my own pilgrimage, the figure was just under 210,000. Just under a third walk for religious or spiritual reasons; of the rest, a similar proportion do so because they are looking for a new challenge; some to get away from routine; some simply for the exercise.

So, why? It was a reasonably common topic on the Way, with diverse answers. ‘Just havin’ fun,’ grunted Mac, one of the Marines. Many of those I spoke to were not formally religious, and certainly did not attach any specific aura to our destination at the shrine of St James in Santiago. Yet on the road you have a sense of direction, an awareness that your steps have a goal. You are connected to the millions of souls who have preceded and will follow you.

Once you have started, and assuming you survive the first few crippling days, the Way begins to penetrate your spirit. The wind, rain, sun in your face, the road before and behind – these old clichés become reality, as the emergencies of working life lose authority. You are on a journey: this is what you are. The horizon calls. There was space in my schedule for dallying at the many sites of interest, yet I did not. A pilgrim is not a tourist. The road beckoned.

I think this is the true reason, not why people start, but why they continue, and why they return. Forget doctrine, forget forms of worship, forget niceties of allegiance: these are developed by those who stop and stay. Tomorrow we rise, pick up our packs, and walk.

There are several immediate, practical gains from walking the Camino. You get fit. You meet fascinating people whom you would never normally encounter. You will probably encounter some expression of the divine, whatever label you attach. You will unquestionably meet yourself, unvarnished and raw. The acquisition of stuff will lose its appeal. You will laugh more, and more easily. Your career and status may lose their importance. You will ask profound questions of your purpose in life, and may well change your course entirely. I became impatient with, and more conscious of, my own lies. Relationships grew more precious.

The Camino formed a watershed. It has forever changed my sense of who I am: I am, and will always be, a pilgrim journeying through.