When I came home from walking 500 miles across Spain, I was surprised by how many people asked me about religion on the Camino de Santiago. They seemed to ask for all sorts of reasons:
Some wanted to test whether I’d gone walking because of religion…
Others wanted to know if I’d come home “born again”…
And there were others who knew the camino had a religious history and wanted to know whether this influenced my daily walking in any way.
Sometimes, I felt the questions were inquisitive and open-ended. Other times, I felt there was a snide judgment ready and waiting. I tried to be open-minded about everything on camino, so I wasn’t happy with being labelled one thing or the other. Separately, I felt protective towards the various friends I’d met along the way and I didn’t want to give anyone an opportunity to pass fun at their beliefs. Whatever we might think about matters of faith, I’m not okay with sneering at someone else’s belief system.
Me? I happened to be reared a Catholic but I use the term with a certain affection and humour. I grew up attending weekly mass but was always at least 10 minutes late and never had a seat to sit on. In truth, going to Sunday mass was a good opportunity to stock up on the Sunday newspapers and chocolate. And attending mass was also a good way to see people (or be seen by them) and keep in touch with the local community. Altogether, none of these things are signs of devotion, are they?!
And yet, I learned some (perhaps simplistic) version of Catholicism – the bit that assured me I don’t need to be in a church to say prayers, and the bit that says what’s happening in my heart is more important than whether I arrive to mass on time.
Do I know when to sit, stand, kneel, and shake hands? Sure. Do I know all the prayers, Bible stories, and feast days? Not a chance.
Am I devoted Catholic?
I don’t really think so.
As an adult, I’m a bit uneasy with the “G” word and there’s a lot of the official doctrine I don’t agree with. I also know that a lot of indefensible things have been done in the name of religions, so I can’t defend (any) organized faith. At best, I’m an À-la-carte Catholic. I have a system that works quite well for me and I find the divine in all sorts of places – both church-y and not. All things considered, I don’t think I count myself as “devoted”.
But am I going to scoff at someone who *is*?
I tried to keep an open mind with all things religious while I walked camino.
I didn’t choose to walk because of religious devotion. True, I had some rather divinely inspired reasons for walking, but were they exclusively Catholic or even Christian? I don’t think so.
I walked because some deep-rooted part of my heart/spirit called me to action. And truth told, I felt more akin to the (pagan) pilgrims who walked this ancient route long before the Catholic church took it over. I don’t know enough about *their* story but I’m intrigued by the force that propelled them to walk from all over Europe and travel to the end of the world, as they knew it.
That strikes me as a rather primal compulsion and I resonate with it more strongly than anything church-y.
But I knew that the camino had, and has, a lot of Catholic significance and that thousands of people treat it as a religious pilgrimage – just like they would treat a trip to Lourdes or Rome. I didn’t feel I was exactly one of them but I didn’t think it fair to want to avoid them either. Anyway, there are good people and bad people in life – irrespective of religion. When it came to camino, I decided I’d hang out with the people I liked and avoid the ones I didn’t – regardless of faith.
I made no plans to attend mass or avoid mass – I figured I would decide as I went along. I also felt amenable to having conversations about faith, spirituality, and religion if they came up. I reasoned that the odds were pretty high but I was neither seeking nor avoiding the topic. Plus, the camino route goes past dozens, if not hundreds of churches, all across northern Spain. It purposefully snakes through small towns and villages to make sure it goes by the door of the church – presumably so pilgrims can avail of /will avail of its services. Separate to religion, many of the churches date back to the 11th and 12th centuries, so they’re elaborate and ornate buildings – solid, stoic, and architecturally impressive.
Some of them were as small as my living room, with wild flowers humbly gracing the altar. Some of them were spectacular cathedrals with lines of tourists waiting for a look at their famous stained glass.
And some of them, when you least expect it, looked non-descript on the outside but reveal something like this inside:
So, whatever your feelings on Catholicism (in particular) there is no getting away from the church on camino.
Over the course of my 6 weeks, I met people who quoted scripture in my presence (and they knew it off by heart). In honesty, it felt a bit intense to me at the time because that’s not how I roll. But to be fair, they weren’t trying to ram it down my neck. They were saying grace at a dinner table in the way that felt most fitting for them. I’d be an ass to take offense to it.
And yet, I met people who did take offense when I told them about the quoting of scripture. For them, that was a leap waaaay too far and even though they hadn’t witnessed it in person, they were irate and argumentative about anyone having the gall to openly quote scripture. Clearly, it was a touchy subject.
I’m not sure it’s practical to get offended about religion on Camino because then you’re likely to get offended by accommodation like this:
This was my hostel room in the town of Hospital de Órbigo and incidentally, I didn’t stay in a monastery but there’s no getting away from the big crucifix on the wall. I was so thrilled to have a quiet room and a non bunk-bed that I barely even noticed the crucifix!
I met people who planned their walking schedule and accommodation so they could avail of pilgrim masses in as many towns and villages as possible.
I met people who openly wore crucifixes on their person – and some of those crosses were the size of a coffee cup so there was no missing them!
I met people who had left churches, joined other churches, and knew about theology. I don’t know many people like that in my life and the bookish nerd in me was delighted to learn new information.
I met atheists and “lapsed” Catholics.
Conversely, I met people who weren’t Catholic at all but attended mass and received Holy Communion in their hands all the same.
I met two vicars, neither of whom wore collars, but both of whom shared very human experiences of their daily work at home.
I met people who’d done missionary work in developing countries and others who had an ongoing despair about their dwindling faith.
I met people who didn’t mention religion or faith from one end of the day to the other – and we talked about a million other things instead.
Religion didn’t dominate my camino but it played a big part nonetheless.
I attended some of the pilgrim masses along the way and in general, I managed to be late almost every time 🙂 I liked the sentiment of the pilgrim blessings and I came away from every one of them feeling fortified in my hopes to carry on.
There was one day, I happened to arrive into a tiny country village just as the bells were ringing out for Sunday morning mass. To the surprise of the locals (who expected me to go straight to the café bar) I went to the church, me covered in dust and sweat, and sat in the quiet darkness. I lit candles for loved ones at home. I said a few prayers of thanks. And even though I was the only pilgrim in the village that day, I didn’t stay for Mass and the pilgrim blessing I surely would have received. Somehow, the vibe wasn’t quite right for me that day and I felt like hitting the trail instead and finding my version of mass out there – so that’s what I did. As I descended the church steps, I met the locals on their way in, dressed in their Sunday best (literally) and ready for action. My departure might have been offensive to them at the time but I don’t believe in attending church just because of what the neighbours think! I felt no guilt or hesitation in my decision, and celebrated a great day of walking instead.
Surprisingly, by the end of my camino I was wearing a scauplar around my neck, neatly tucked in behind my sporty t-shirt. It came as a gift from Liz in a moment of spontaneity and I accepted it with gladness. I had an important decision to make and she felt an impulse to give it to me. She took it from around her own neck and she placed it gently around mine. I hadn’t even seen such a thing since I was a child and barely knew what it was called, but it felt right to accept the gift in that moment. I wore it as a sort of talisman for the remainder of my trip and I happily have it to this day.
Like I say, I tried to be open-minded about all things religious on camino.
My speciality was to wander in and out of churches as, and when, the mood struck me. I started it on my first evening in St. Jean Pied de Port, in France. It was bright out and the town was full of window boxes in full bloom, reds and yellows in the evening sunlight. I took a stroll around before dinner and came upon a church, and decided to pop in for a look. As it happened, there was a mass on (and wouldn’t you know it, I had arrived 10 minutes late!) so I sat down the back and admired the raw stonework and foot-long candles burning in front of the alter. And I couldn’t follow most of it because it was held in French and my high school French is long forgotten!
That evening, a couple were blessed in honour of their 50th wedding anniversary and later on the church steps, they invited everyone to join them for champagne and pizza. They even invited us pilgrims – knowing well we’d be gone the next day and they’d never see us again but our faces would appear in their photographs. I was too shy to join them but watched their delight as they splashed champagne into plastic cups and handed out slices of hot, cheesy pizza in the evening sun.
I loved their warm welcome and their playful abandon. I loved the sincerity of their kindness. I loved that the church space allowed them to be casual and convivial, instead of formal and stuffy. The tone was good.
All along the way, I was a bit of a pyromaniac and I lit candles as often as I could. I lit them for all sorts of reasons and all sorts of people. Living such a transient life on the trail, there was very little I could do for anyone in the world but somehow, lighting a candle felt like something I *could* do – so that’s what I did.
I enjoyed the churches because they were cool and shady, and I relished the break from the sweltering sun.
I also enjoyed the churches because they were often the quietest places where I could take some time out. Sure, it may be a religious pilgrimage but the churches are quieter than the hostels, the café bars, and the restaurants. Think about that for a minute – it says a lot.
Towards the end of my journey, I walked for 2-3 days with a woman I’d just met. In the green countryside of Galicia, I gestured that I wanted to stop off in a small country church and light some candles.
“I’ll wait out here”, she replied.
I sensed that she was uncomfortable with the church thing and that she mistakenly took me for being somehow devout. It didn’t matter what she thought but I made a point of explaining my reasons for visiting the churches. I liked the shade. I liked the quiet time. I liked lighting candles. I even liked looking at how they were decorated and arranged.
She nodded in understanding but stayed outside the front door, patiently waiting for me to arrive out so we could resume our conversation about something entirely different.
We lost track of each other for a couple of days and when we reunited again on the trail she surprised me by saying:
“I’ve taken a leaf out of your book and I’ve started going into the churches!”
For years, I ran hard and fast away from all things church-y. The irony that I had influenced anyone to step foot in a church was….well…hilarious to me!
When people asked me about religion on Camino, it was hard to know what to say. Yes, if you want to have a formal religious experience, the framework is there and ready to go. There are monasteries, convents, priests, and nuns. There are blessings and masses, confessions, communions, and hymn-singing gatherings. There’s a rich history and it’s all there for the taking.
Equally, if you want to have an informal religious experience, as I suppose I did, it’s all there for the taking or ignoring. I dipped in and out of services, conversations, and religious accommodations. I accepted some of it, rejected some of it, and followed my own hearty impulses as best I could. Rightly or wrongly, that was my exploration of faith on camino.
And equally, I think it’s quite possible to walk camino and avoid the religion thing almost entirely. I met plenty of atheists who enjoyed the history, the cuisine, the countryside, and companionship, and bypassed the religious elements quite comfortably. They didn’t have anyone force religious agendas down their neck.
I tried to answer the “religion on camino” questions with delicacy and tact but really, the topic was multi-faceted and huge.
How would you answer such questions?