Why Are You Doing This?

A pilgrim's gift of hindsight

by Daniel H. Martins

After five years on the job as bishop of the Episcopal diocese of Springfield (Illinois), I was due for a sabbatical in 2016. A combination of factors led to a decision that placed me in St Jean Pied de Port, France, at the foot of the Pyrenees, on the evening of August 12, ready to set out the next morning on a 500-mile walk across the mountains into Spain and on to the ancient pilgrimage destination city of Santiago de Compostela, in the northwestern part of the country, not far from the Atlantic coast. I arrived there on September 19, 38 days later.

More than a thousand years ago, remains believed to be those of the apostle St. James were discovered in the province of Galicia. A shrine was erected in the city of Compostela, and it quickly became a highly popular destination for pilgrims from all around Europe. Many of the pilgrimage routes converged in St Jean, and the path from there to Santiago became known as the “French Way.” It remains the most well-traveled of all the routes, with amenities catering to a steady stream of pilgrims from all over the world.

The most common question strangers ask one another when they meet along the way is, “Why are you doing this?”

Walking the Camino (Spanish for “way”) was a life-changing experience. There has not been a morning since I completed it that I have not wished I were going to walk a leg of the Camino that day. It is compelling.

It is also health-giving. The most common question strangers ask one another when they meet along the way is, “Why are you doing this?” It would not have occurred to me to answer with, “For my health.” But, with the gift of hindsight, that would have been a perfect response.

The Camino made me physically healthier.

I lost 15 pounds. I’m a Type 2 diabetic, and my morning blood sugar readings were consistently in desirable double digits rather than triple—and this with exercising no dietary discipline at all; I enjoyed chocolate croissants and ice cream every day! I turned 65 while on the Camino, but, when I finished the route, I was arguably in the best physical condition of my adult life. That’s what walking 10–15 miles per day will do for you! (Sadly, my real life pre- and post-sabbatical does not allow me to maintain such a pace.)

The Camino made me mentally healthier.

In my work of overseeing the ministry of the Episcopal Church across two-thirds of Illinois, my attention is constantly pulled in every conceivable direction. Once in a while, there’s an emergent concern that forces me to drop most everything else and focus directly on it. But, most of the time, it’s an endless stream of relatively small demands that drive my mental activity from morning till night. Any single one of these demands is not overwhelming, but, taken all together, it’s not an insignificant burden.

On the Camino, though, a pilgrim has one job: follow the yellow arrows. Whether in the countryside or on busy city streets, the route of the Camino is marked by simple yellow arrows. Following them is not often a taxing assignment, but distraction is harshly rewarded. Such a mental lapse coming out of a town one morning cost me an hour and a half, along with whatever physical exertion I expended during that time—45 minutes in straying and 45 minutes in repenting. Over time, a pilgrim learns to see the yellow arrows as comforting and reassuring. They become almost sacramental signs, “training wheels,” perhaps, toward the cultivation of a sort of mental simplicity that is commendable just in itself, a virtue worthy of aspiration even when one is not walking the Camino.

The Camino made me emotionally healthier.

Full disclosure: I’m an introvert. I generally don’t mind being alone, and my default social mode is to retreat into a shell. While I was fairly certain I was never going to be a pest to anyone I might meet along the way, I was resolved, as a matter of personal discipline, to be open to such encounters and conversations as I would come upon.
Unlike Martin Sheen’s character in the Camino-based film The Way, I never bonded with a small group of fellow pilgrims who walk together for several consecutive days. Rather, my experience was more like a cavalcade of temporary encounters. They varied widely in length and depth. Some lasted only a few minutes, at a rest area or until one of us felt the need to walk at a different pace than the other, or had different interests as we entered a village. But then there was the group of Australians, the group of Canadians, and the group of Mexicans with whom I would spend considerable time two or three days in a row, or the pair of women from Michigan whom I would run into several times after several days and several dozen miles without seeing them.

Sometimes the conversation was quite casual—literally about the weather (the Brits and the Germans mostly thought it was too hot; but for this Midwesterner, 90°F and very low humidity was just about ideal). At other times, it was more profound. One day I walked several miles with a German college student who, upon hearing that it was my forty-fourth wedding anniversary, quizzed me in detail about what constitutes a strong and enduring relationship and how to maintain it. I met an Austrian woman who was walking the Camino with her father, who was in his seventies. I shared a luminous dinner with an American couple who were about to begin a new life together in Maine, met a retired Presbyterian pastor and his wife who had lived in the same area in northern Indiana where I once served, and ate with a cadre of Brits and Irish for whom, because I’m an American, I was the closest thing to a qualified pundit on the state of US politics. There were many more, of course. That’s a pretty good haul for an introvert, who was emotionally stretched, in a good and healthy way, every day of the journey.

The Camino made me spiritually healthier.

While the terrain varies throughout, the central third of the French Way is mostly very flat and very straight. It’s not mentally demanding, and the distance between the yellow arrows is rather long. There’s plenty of scope for the mind to wander, which also means that there’s plenty of scope for praying. I don’t think I’ve done more concentrated intercessory praying at any time in my life as I did on the Camino. I had a list, and it got longer along the way as I kept up with people on social media each evening. (All but one of the 38 lodgings I stayed in had a Wi-Fi connection.) As I was bearing these people and situations in my heart in prayer, I began to associate them spiritually and symbolically with my backpack. Every time I put my pack back on my shoulders after a break for refreshment or a meal, I was consciously reminded of my list of prayer concerns that, it soon seemed, I was physically carrying with me.

Intercessory prayer is quite the mystery, of course. We can be sure that we are bidden by the Lord to pray importunately—in effect, to pester God. We are less certain about what God does with those prayers, and how they figure into the tapestry of redemption. One of the people for whom I prayed while on the Camino has since died, but it was a holy death if there ever were such a thing. Another one underwent marvelously successful back surgery that relieved him of constant pain. In both cases, I think, my prayers were important. Someday I might know how.

But there was another spiritual benefit, a “make lemonade out of lemons” situation. I am an Anglican Christian, but there are not very many Anglicans in Spain, and none, that I know of, along the route of the Camino. So my opportunities for public corporate worship on Sundays and other times were limited to Roman Catholic churches, where non-Roman Catholics are not routinely permitted to receive Holy Communion. Nonetheless, I participated spiritually and mentally and vocally in the services, to the extent that the constraints of language allowed me, and adopted the venerable practice of making a “spiritual communion” at the appropriate point in the liturgy. God’s ever-present grace abounded in those moments, which turned out to be powerfully rich and sweet for me.

Did I mention that I wish I could go back and walk every step yet again? I don’t know whether I will ever be able to, so I give deep thanks for the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health that being a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela brought me.

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