I thought pilgrims only existed as characters with funny hats in Thanksgiving storybooks. But I’m a pilgrim too. I don’t wear a cross. I don’t believe in saints or in Biblical miracles. I’m definitely not Catholic. I don’t believe the remains of Saint James are actually buried beneath the cathedral in Santiago de Compastela. But I made a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago (the Way), walking 120 miles (195 km) from Ribadeo, Spain, to the cathedral at Santiago de Compastela.
I was soaked with rain and muddy as I entered the medieval Cathedral with its gaudy alter drenched in gold. I lined up behind other soggy pilgrims to walk the few stairs up behind the alter to hug the statue of Saint James, and as I put my arms around his cold bronze neck and felt the inlaid jewels that decorated his shoulders, I knew my pilgrimage was complete.
I find it hard to explain why I, and thousands of unreligious people like me, do this pilgrimage. It’s not for Jesus, but when I heard the organ playing at the daily pilgrim’s mass and looked up at that towering alter, I couldn’t help but feel emotional. In modern life, we are challenged in so many ways — to endure an hour without a cell phone when we run out of battery, to find jalapeño stuffed olives in the supermarket, to pay our credit card bills on time. Walking the Camino de Santiago, I had one task for the day — walk to the next pilgrim refuge without major injuries. I forgot the stress of packing for our move to the States, searching for a job in D.C., meeting my girlfriend’s family, adjusting to an American life… Walking an average of about 15 miles per day while carrying everything you need to survive on your back gives you a simplicity of life that is impossible to find, especially, I fear, in the States where the pace of life is much faster than in Spain.
Walking across the region of Galicia left me with a calm mind, a physical satisfaction and will also leave me with memories of Spain — of friends made along the Way, of café con leche on wet days, of magnificent cathedrals and of my uncomplicated life as a pilgrim in Spain.