The Camino de Santiago: My Reflections

Deacon Daniel Malyon (Representing the Coptic Orthodox Church in UK to Orthodoxy Cognate PAGE) – OCP News Service – 3/8/18 

Preparation

“The goal is a perfect peacefulness even in the middle of the raging storm.” – St John Climacus.

In the busy modern world, the concept of escaping the world to spend time alone with God is utterly alien. We will often spend twelve hours a day working and barely achieve twenty minutes in prayer to thank God for the things which he has provided for us.  Because of this struggle, this year myself and a close friend decided to take some time this year to restore our ‘spiritual compasses’ and dedicate some time to God through walking the Camino Ingles, one of the less walked northern routes of the Camino De Santiago.

The Camino De Santiago is the name given to a medieval pilgrimage, originating in the 9th Century, to the Tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela. In my case, the route which I walked was the Camino Ingles, which travels 119km between the northern Spanish cities of Ferrol and Santiago de Compostela. This route was originally used by Northern European pilgrims who travelled by sea to Ferrol from England.

After discussing this with His Eminence, Archbishop Angaelos I received his blessing to go on this pilgrimage and following further thought I decided to add an additional motivation to this walk and seek sponsorships for the St Kyrel Trust, a Coptic charity which works to provide for vulnerable youths who lack the means to go to work towards improving their situation. As someone who works in the education system, this charity and its work means a lot for me, and as someone who has spent a significant part of his life working within the Church I felt the need to work to combine these two and work to promote a charity which cares for both those within the Coptic community and the importance of education and social mobility amongst the youth. To donate to their cause you can use the link provided HERE

With these in mind, I prepared both physically and spiritually for the journey, knowing I would be walking over 20km per day through areas of solitude, meeting very few people apart from in the hotels and hostels we stayed in. This was a difficult thing to prepare for, especially living in a city and a society which values social interaction above all else. One extremely beneficial source of this guidance was HH Pope Kyrillos, whose guidance through his monastic life has guided many young Orthodox Christians to work closer in their relationship with God through both choosing to enter the monasteries or working on their prayer life within their daily life outside of the monastery. Armed with this guidance and an 8kg backpack we started our journey to Ferrol.

Day one: Ferrol to Pontedeume

“And if one were to ask, what road is this? I say that it is the soul of each one of us, and the intelligence which resides there. For by it alone can God be contemplated and perceived.” – St John Chrysostom

After a two day drive through France and Spain, stopping off in Loudes overnight, we reached Ferrol. The City itself is a small naval city and is currently struggling with economic issues following the departure of most industries to other parts of the country. After finding the first mile marker, we began our journey to the town on Pontedueme where we would complete the first stage of the walk. The road was a difficult one, especially because of it being the first day of travel. Around half way through the day we reached the town of Fene where we met two more pilgrims at a pilgrim café. This was a great reminder that we were on a journey with others.

Following this meeting, we continued to Pontedeume and travelled through some of the beautiful country lanes of Galicia, across a number of hills and through villages before walking across the Eume and into the town itself. Reaching this first town was a strange experience, since we both celebrated the achievement and realised the immensity of what was to come. After a short break in the town we visited St James (Santiago) Church in the town and headed to our Hotel (Pension). The owners were wonderfully accommodating to our lack of Spanish. The running of this small family run Pension was an interesting reflection of family values, with the whole family helping run the establishment and other family members visiting in the evening to relax together. This is a change from the family life I have experienced in other places where interactions are often short and the presence of the other person is enjoyed less than the motive for the discussion. After rest and a quick breakfast the next day we moved on to our next destination.

Day Two: Pontedeume to Betanzos

“When you see your brother, you see the Lord your God.” – Abba Apollo

The journey to Betanzos the next day was a pleasant one, stopping half way in the seaside town of Miño. The journey consisted of mostly forest and countryside which left us with some wonderful views and reminders of the glory of God. One of the most enjoyable moments was during our stop in Miño where we met a man from the USA who was visiting family in Spain and was overjoyed to see English pilgrims on the route.

Following this, we continued to walk through the countryside and found such a welcome as pilgrims that it put other areas of charity to shame, and made us really reflect on our mindset to wards visitors. As we passed through hamlets and small villages we were greeted often with “Buen Camino,” meaning “Good Camino” and found cold boxes containing drinks, attached to donation boxes, for pilgrims to take as they pass in exchange for a small amount of money. Looking back at this, I could never see such a thing working in London as there is not a degree of trust or trustworthiness. In warm days, such a gracious act was extremely appreciated, and I wonder how many other cities or businesses act in this way to the benefit of humanity and impact of such a thing becoming widespread.

On arrival in Betanzos we visited the main Church in the city and had the blessing to attend the pilgrims mass in which prayers were said for all those pilgrims who were heading to Santiago de Compostela and the Tomb of St James. In was here that we had the blessing to meet more pilgrims, including a Protestant minister and some Spanish students. Following a nice talk with some of these were reminded of the diversity of this pilgrimage and diversity of motivations. Of all the pilgrims met, there were very few who were traveling for religious reasons, with most travelling for a sense of challenge or for personal reasons. Regardless of this, there was a sense of unity in that all were on the same path, experiencing the same challenges and having to overcome theme together. This sense of unity on the pilgrimage was a strong bond which brought everyone together. This would be important the next day as we were to travel 27km uphill to Hospital de Bruma.

Day three: Betanzos to Hospital de Bruma

“Do not attempt to explain something difficult with contentiousness, but with patience, prayer and unwavering hope.” – St Mark the Ascetic

The next morning we awoke early at 6am, to begin what was expected to be a 10-12 hour day uphill to the hamlet of Hospital de Bruma. Most of the guide books had warned that this would be the most difficult of days, and so we had decided to have an early start to miss the midday heat. The journey started with some difficult uphill sections, leading to the small down of Presedo. In the town of Presedo we discovered a small pilgrim café which, being the last pilgrim café before Bruma, had everyone we had previous met there. In this café we were able to relax and hear more of the stories of our fellow travellers and their motivation with a few people asking about our religious motivation for taking the pilgrimage (my travelling partner being a Catholic lay-chaplain.) Here we again felt the kinship from before, meeting many of these people for the second time and sharing our journeys before separating for the next stage.

The second half of the trip to Bruma was more difficult, with more slopes and more road walking than before, which had a major impact on my feet after hours of walking on dirt paths and country roads. The long stretches gave us a chance to reflect on the journey so far, and chances to stop for water and often prayer which should be the first call in such times. Fortunately, the weather was more generous and so we were treated to clouds and mild warmth as opposed to the boiling heat from the first two days. We arrived in Bruma at around 3 pm, with painful feet, and were treated to lunch at a small village café before heading to our hotel to freshen up and rest for the evening, spending another evening with some fellow pilgrims.

Hospital de Bruma – Sigüeiro

“Think nothing and do nothing without a purpose directed to God. For to journey without direction is wasted effort.” – St Mark the Ascetic

Following the challenge of getting to Hospital de Bruma we had another long day, with 25km to Sigüeiro. The day began as the others, with long stretches down country roads and more steep slopes leading through towns and villages. This penultimate day of our pilgrimage led us through various farms however it was different in that we walked a large amount of the journey with people we had met on the way. Our walking partners were a couple from the Netherlands and Belgium who worked as hiking guides and were preparing to write about the Ingles route after travelling most of the other Camino de Santiago paths. We spent a large amount of the journey speaking to them about our experience of the way so far, and discussing the religious aspect. From their perspective, it had very little meaning to those walking it today however they felt positive seeking myself and James representing this link to the faith on the journey.

The evening of this long and extremely tiring day was spent in the pilgrim hostel. Whilst there we met other pilgrims including a Belgian man who had walked 30-day pilgrim walks every year and was a fountain of knowledge on the topic. After this, we had the blessing to attend a Catholic Mass in the city, and to take a talk with the priest about the pilgrimage and its importance, he seemed again happy to see pilgrims taking this religious journey. Having later shared dinner with other pilgrims, we were able to gain further insight into the mindset behind many people they had met on the way and listened as others reminisced in their journeys through some of the longer pilgrim ways. In was great to see the impact which walking the Camino has on others even when their motives are not outwardly religious in nature since all seemed to have a call to the journey.

Sigüeiro – Santiago De Compostela

“If we are not willing to sacrifice this temporal life, or perhaps even the life to come, for the sake of our neighbor, as were Moses and St. Paul, how can we say that we love him?” – St Peter of Damascus

The final day started strangely, with the strange feeling that the Pilgrimage was coming to an end, since despite its brevity, its impact was significant. On a personal note, I can only wonder as to the feelings of whose walking larger routes which can take a month or longer. Though the walk was shorter, it again contained numerous slopes and challenging parts through forest paths. However, by the middle of the day, we were within a few kilometers of the Cathedral. As we entered the city we visited a small Church and were able to pray and thank God for bringing us this far, preparing ourselves emotionally and spiritually to enter the old city and reach the cathedral.

Reaching the main square was a daunting thing to experience. Though the journey had been a short one, the realization that it was over and that we had achieved our goal left me speechless. There, standing next to the Cathedral and only a few hundred meters from the tomb of St James, it seemed like a dream. Before entering the Cathedral we visited a small café and rested, meeting some other pilgrims there, and reflected on how we felt. We had shared a similar journey and a similar emotional state upon completion of the pilgrimage, one of “not feeling like I have arrived” and unpreparedness for it to finish. It was with this state of mind that we entered the Cathedral.

The Cathedral was beautiful and fascinating, keeping most of its medieval architecture alongside some modern features. The centerpiece of the Cathedral was its golden altar, along with the world’s largest censer. This censer was only used in services where a donation had been made, and so wasn’t used each service. After viewing this, we queued up to venerate the Saint at the end of the Pilgrimage and pray at his tomb. This was emotionally charged for all of the Pilgrims since they had traveled here to venerate the Saint, and so myself and James spent a few minutes in prayer there before moving on and attending the Pilgrims mass at which we were happy to see many people we had travelled with.

The next day we began our drive home. As with the way there, we took the time to visit Lourdes as it was the half way mark. It was good to spend the start and end of our journey at this wonderful town. The domain there, with the grotto and basilica, was a perfect place to pray and reflect due to its silence and prayerful atmosphere. Whilst there we took the time to say our prayers and light candles for friends and family before resting up for the drive home.

Tips for Travellers

Though my reflections do not quite emphasize it, the Camino de Santiago is physical, spiritually and emotionally demanding. Even the short routes such as the Camino Ingles (which I walked) involve hours of walking on hillsides a day and a willingness to accept that there is little room for stopping or giving up once the day has begun. A key piece of advice I would give to travelers is to pack lightly and ensure that you are committed to its completion.

By packing lightly, I mean not to pack for a holiday. The Camino is a pilgrimage and by its nature a path. Because of this, you carry your pack with you between towns. This means that the more you bring, the more you carry. When I walked, I only took a small number of clothes (My cassock and 3 sets to be precise) and little else, I had planned to bring a book to read however this became impossible due to weight, time and tiredness. Because of this, a small pamphlet text alongside your prayer book and Bible suffices, or even just having them on your phone could be preferable.

Overall the journey is a great blessing and I would advise everyone to undergo it or a similar one at least once in their life, embracing the spirit of the pilgrim. It is a chance to become one with others and forget the secular life which drags us from others and from God. You will meet many people of different motivations and they will become a lifeline and you will often lose track of the real world outside of this pilgrims life, thus truly becoming the Christians which the Apostle called “Pilgrims and sojourners” as we were called to be.

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