We were called “Fiesta Pilgrims”—the ones who stayed in inns and five-star monasteries and had our luggage delivered to our nightly destinations. I liked the idea of being a fiesta pilgrim, because any true spiritual journey should be a celebration, or gala, or feast. I kind of got into the whole idea.
So here’s what happened. My sister Ruth invited me to join her and some friends to hike the last 100 miles/160 kms of “The Camino de Santiago” (The Way) in northern Spain. Forever the optimist and adventurer, I agreed without much hesitation. It was primarily because a chance to hang out for eight days with my sister was already enough incentive. Hiking, talking and eating—what could be better than that! And northern Spain is now on my top 10 places to visit. I fell in love.
Yellow arrows will always be symbols of the 100-mile walk that has changed forever the way I think about faith and sight. The Camino de Santiago de Compostela is a pilgrimage from east to west that attracts thousands of pilgrims every year. It is believed to be the journey of the Apostle St. James who brought the gospel to that part of Europe.
Each morning we were poured out of our bus, like grains of coarse salt, onto the trail. Our first task was to find the yellow arrow marking the direction—always facing west. Then we looked for the cement pillar with the scallop shell in bronze or cement letting us know how much farther it was to Santiago and off we went.
It gradually dawned on me that everyone was heading in the same direction. The only time you ran into anyone heading toward you it was cows with a herder, a little old shepherdess with her sheep, or maybe a delivery truck. So here we were, thousands of people all flowing in the same direction. It gave us a sense of purpose and anticipation. In the rhythm of sunrise to sunset, we moved through each day.
Sometimes we joined other pilgrims, sometimes we walked alone and sometimes we were with our group. Always walking, talking, collecting stamps in our Camino passports that would validate our journey. And always conversations about why we were on this pilgrimage and what we hoped we would see, or learn, or understand. At every turn or fork in the road there would be a yellow arrow showing clearly “The Way.” If only life could be as easy as following a yellow arrow.
Our two guides, Jason and Marta, were filled with stories and explanations about the people, cathedrals and monuments we passed along the way. Everything in the culture has meaning; every object tells a story—and if there isn’t one, they develop a story. I began to understand that in a pre-literate culture, back before the printing press, people needed visuals to help them remember the truths they were taught. So churches were filled with carvings and tapestries and sculptures that told pilgrims over and over again the stories of Jesus and the Apostles; stories of creation and ascension. The journey was dripping with the visual gospel of hope for burdened pilgrims and truth that sets us free.
The grand finale at the Cathedral in Santiago with thousands of other pilgrims—all getting our certificate of completion of the journey—was an emotional time. Then into the cathedral for the pilgrims' mass (we almost did not find a seat) which left me weeping.
The homily encouraged us all to go out from the place and be Apostles, spreading the good news of hope in Jesus. Symbolic of the power of the Holy Spirit was something the Catholic Church calls the “sensor”—a large brass ball hanging on a chain from the ceiling of the cathedral. It took eight priests to swing the ball. As the smoke filled the cathedral we were told that this image was to remind us that the Holy Spirit should fill the church and us with His presence.
As an evangelical believer, with virtually no visuals in my faith journey, I was feeling overwhelmed by the invasion of beauty and art that filled the churches and communities of Northern Spain. This was a world before Protestants and Gutenberg’s printing press. Before my pilgrimage began I had decided to read through the book of James as we traveled. I wanted to look for places where the written word and “all of creation”—God’s visuals—told the same story. (That’s another long post!) I also decided to look for stars in the carvings, statues and cathedrals along the way.
Conner, our second grandson, is all about stars and has them on the ceiling of his bedroom and occasionally the glowy ones in his pockets. I even found one in my toiletry case after spending a few nights in his room. So the stars were to remind me to pray for Conner and the grandboys. I found lots of stars on the journey, but the final one was right on the bottom of the sensor, which shone in clear view as the sensor swooshed over our heads in the cathedral. As I looked up and saw that star, I felt like a wise man who had come from far to see Jesus all over again.
And now I’m back home in Kenya, a tired but renewed pilgrim.
PS: Watch Martin Sheen in The Way and you will see the pilgrimage.