Walking the Camino de Santiago: A Saint Michael Pilgrimage
By The Rev. Mary Lessmann And The SMAA Ladies Of The Camino Pilgrimage
On a crisp September morning in Sarria, Spain, a group of ladies from Saint Michael and All Angels began their weeklong pilgrimage to hike the last leg of the Camino de Santiago. We had prepared as best we knew how, but there was so much unknown! We started this first day—14 miles of hiking—with excitement and trepidation. But we felt fortified by the thought of all the Christians who had made this trek before us. And by all of our friends and loved ones who were praying for us back home.
Today was the culmination of months of planning and training. Hiking poles—yea or nay? Hiking boots or trail runners? Backpack bladder or Nalgene bottle? We spent months determining which gear was best for each of us. Then we trained. We began nine months before our trek, starting with an hour, then two; seven miles, nine miles, twelve miles. By the time we actually began our hike, we were ready to test ourselves and see what the path had in store for us.
The Camino is the pilgrimage road to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia where St. James, an apostle of Jesus, is said to be laid to rest. Legend states that St. James spent time preaching the Gospel in Spain before returning to Jerusalem where he was martyred. His remains were carried by boat from Jerusalem to northern Spain and were buried on the site of what is now the city of Santiago de Compostela. The Camino, or Way of St. James, has been one of the most important Christian pilgrimages since medieval times and has existed for over 1000 years. It was considered one of three pilgrimages on which all sins could be forgiven—the others being pilgrimage to Rome and pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Over the years, the scallop shell, which pilgrims collected from the shore to ‘prove’ the completion of their trek, has become a symbol of the Camino de Santiago.
Today you still have to prove your completion if you want to be awarded your Compostela, a certificate that is completed by hand, in Latin, for each Camino pilgrim who qualifies. To earn it, you must have a credential, or passport, that has been stamped at least two to three times a day, with dates, for at least the last 100 kilometers of the Camino. Our groups hiked 115 km and each SMAA pilgrim was awarded her Compostela!
What we discovered on the trail was far more than we had imagined. We had foolishly ‘done the math’ during our training and determined that we should be done by late lunchtime each day. “If we cover three miles per hour and leave at 8 a.m., we’ll be in our next town by 1:30 pm.” But we didn’t account for managing the undulating terrain, stopping at shops and cafes and churches to have our credential stamped, taking time to admire and sometimes explore the small hamlets we passed through on our way, and pacing ourselves by resting on an outdoor patio with a café con leche. On our American secular time, our planning was all about attacking the trail to get the day’s hike ‘in the bag’ so we could check it off our list. On God’s time, we were invited to slow down, to see his glory all around us in the crops and gardens and livestock and woods. We saw undulating fields of corn, stalks bursting and ready to be harvested. We interrupted a herd of cows making their way down a road and were forced to the edges for safety as they took no notice of us and ambled right through. We saw trees laden with fruit and it seemed that each home had a backyard garden. Sally Schupp captures it best. “Most of our pilgrimage was spent walking on unpaved trails through the Spanish countryside. The landscape was even more lush than I had imagined...fruit trees loaded with pears, apples, pomegranates and kiwis. So many of the charming village homes had carefully tended, tidy gardens growing lettuces, cabbages and kale. We saw enormous brussel sprout plants, blackberry vines spilled over the walls; there were eucalyptus groves and tall hedges of blue and white hydrangeas everywhere.”
And we talked…a lot! Beginning with each other. While we started the day as a clump of 15 women, we quickly, organically broke off into groups of two or three or four. We got past the resume and stats of our lives and into discussions around what matters most to us, where we’re hoping for discernment on this journey, and our desire that this pilgrimage might be the beginning—or closure—for a new phase of our lives. But we also talked to others, as the language barrier allowed. We encountered pilgrims from Germany, Korea, Canada, the Philippines, Luxembourg, Australia, France, Indonesia, the UK, and, of course, Spain. We greeted one another with ‘Hola!’ and ‘Buen Camino!’ and were amazed at how quickly pilgrims were willing to share their stories with us. One story that touched us all was that of an Australian pediatric oncologist. The hospital Chris Rossbach had been associated with for years closed this summer. He and his wife, Vivian, sold their home and put what little belongings they kept in storage and headed out on a three-month journey. They are hiking the Camino as part of their discernment of where God is calling them next. Chris has written a book inspired by his patients and their experience of the divine called Red Dragonflies and Other Postcards from Heaven. At the end of our fifth day of hiking as we were about to enter O Poudrouzo, visiting with Chris and Vivian on a lovely patio, hosted by a gracious Spanish restaurant staff and sipping Sangrias, we felt as if we were being ministered to.
Folks hike the Camino for many reasons: as a spiritual offering, to gain clarity during a major life transition, because it’s on their bucket list, or in honor of a loved one. The Camino is full of makeshift and ancient shrines where folks have offered stones, letters, shells, photos of loved ones, prayer cards, ribbons and poems. As Carol Roehrig observed, “These totems are manifestations of surrender, reflecting a burden or care pilgrims want to give to God. People travel hundreds and sometimes thousands of miles to walk day after day to release a burden, find wholeness, or fill an empty hole.” In fact, each SMAA pilgrim was encouraged to follow the tradition of bringing a stone from home to leave behind to symbolize a burden that you want to let go of or a worry you want to release, or in honor or memory of a loved one. Margaret Spellings noted, “I think that all of us left at least one, and often more, stones behind and felt changed in the process.” As we moved into the second half of our week of hiking, we were encouraged to intentionally spend some time walking alone, creating space where God might speak to us and we might hear him. “We were encouraged to spend some part of our journey walking alone,” Sally Schupp said. “What I noticed: was how much more I noticed! I loved the quietness of it; cocooned in the mantra-like sound of my boots on the gravel path. It was joyful, uplifting and enlivening!
There is a community that has grown up around the Camino. Most prominent are the cafes along the way. You rarely hike more than a few kilometers before discovering one. Performers also were also in abundance. We would round a corner to find ourselves serenaded by bagpipers in ancient garb, by Gypsy musicians and percussionists, by artists who provided credential stamps with wax, flowers and charms. There were fruit stands and woodworkers offering their wares and souvenirs. “Walking the Camino is all about community,” observed Ginger Baden (sister of Tricia Stewart). “Community with God, friends, strangers, and nature. The community that God strives for us to find and share with others.”
And, of course, there are the churches. A hamlet might have only 6 buildings, but one of them was usually a church! Many of the churches were open so that we could enter for physical and spiritual respite, enjoying the cool quiet that invited us to say our prayers. And we prayed a lot! We began and ended our days with prayer and reflection. On Sunday, we celebrated Holy Eucharist in the cemetery that surrounds St. Julian church, in a small town. As Tricia Stewart noted, “We worshipped, literally, with the communion of saints.”
While there were many revelations on this pilgrimage, a few stand out. First, we were amazed at how simplifying and clarifying it was for our day’s sole (soul?) mission to be walking from one town to the next. “I loved the independence and strength I found in being on my own two legs every day,” noted Diana Newton. “Everything I needed to move forward was in me. That was refreshing and empowering. Walking the Camino day after day I felt I was walking away from all the noise in life and towards God's will for me. I felt like I could hear Him better in the dappled glades of the Camino than I can when I am my usual over-scheduled self in Dallas.” And we were moved by how this pilgrimage reminded us that we are part of the larger people of God throughout the world. “Walking the way of so many pilgrims over the centuries brought me closer to my faith on a personal level as well as a global level,” Kay Whelan shared. “Although I don’t greet strangers with a Buen Camino in Dallas, I am striving to continue the essence of that warm greeting forward to those I meet and greet now. The Camino de Santiago brings one into a ‘thin place’ with God as you walk with your fellow companions as well as total strangers from around the world on this intentional pilgrimage to the beautiful cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.”
Our arrival at the cathedral in Santiago was emotional. We laughed and celebrated and cried and hugged one another. We took many pictures in front of the cathedral. And we stood in wonder as we observed the other pilgrims arriving in the square and the massive, beautiful, ancient cathedral looming before us. We still had to collect our Compostelas, a challenging process that tests one’s patience and resolve! But we had completed the journey we had come to make. In love of God and in the desire that he be more present in our lives, we had walked in the steps of hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims who had gone before us. And we had experienced God’s protection and provision and presence on the way. Now, as we turn our faces homeward, our challenge is to hold onto the learnings of the Camino, that they might enrich and refocus our lives as we journey onward.
By Carol Roehrig
October 13, 2019
The infant socks caught my eye. Nestled among grey rocks, a few photos and holy cards, the spot of soft white texture graced the granite base of the cruceiro (stone cross). The trail guide dated this monument from 1670. I stretched my neck to recognize a Virgin Mary and crucifixion carving on opposite sides of the crucerio, nestled next to a 100-year old majestic oak tree that canopied and protected the cross. I stepped off the trail up a few stone steps to discover this treasure near the hamlet of Ligonde at the 76 kilometer point, my second day on the Camino de Santiago.
I became a pilgrim on September 13, 2019 in Sarria, Spain. I pivoted from my usual business leader role to a backpack carrying walker on a 115 kilometer excursion headed to Santiago de Compostela. The origin of this path dated to the 8th century when people believed it would lead to the end of the earth. The route subsequently became one of the most important in the growth of Christianity as pilgrims walked to see the holy tomb of St. James, housed in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. When I learned of a planned trip for Saint Michael women posted by Rev. Mary Lessmann in summer of 2018, I signed up without hesitation. The lure of a spiritual experience, and the chance to meet more Saint Michael women, grabbed my attention.
Lots of planning and REI shopping visits occurred throughout the year. Preparation included practice walks at White Rock Lake, the Katy Trail and neighborhoods. Key test trials focused on shoes and the best socks, followed by the back pack and water carrying plan. From my former marathon days I embraced the rigor of preparation. Rev. Mary provided spiritual insights and suggestions for prayers and readings. One other tip was “be sure to bring your rocks”, a curious item when coupled with guidance to minimize suitcase size and weight. Sixteen Saint Michael and All Angels women made up our pilgrim population, different ages, backgrounds and physical stature. Each day started with breakfast, followed by gathering outside our inn, backpacks in tow, hiking poles positioned, learning route tips and sharing a morning devotional. Reverend Mary prepared a booklet that outlined a suggested focus for the day’s walks, such as recognizing God’s protection, walking in solitude to listen for God’s voice or walking with other pilgrims to share community. These daily reminders brought our Christian way close into view and solidified the nature of this spiritual journey.
Nature abounded in moss-covered rock walls, tree canopies that loomed to the heavens and the aroma of dairy farms. My level of joy lifted with each step as my Wisconsin heritage of oak forests, rolling hills with perfect corn stalk rows, and awakening roosters came to life. I did not expect this walk to draw into my memory banks. Most everyone in my childhood unincorporated town of St. Peter subsisted through milk, egg and beef sales. By default, I learned the rhythm of the farm with the twice daily cow march to milking stalls, the distribution of feed and the distinct smell of sileage, fermented corn stalks stored in silos. Many of my fellow Saint Michael pilgrims grew up in urban centers so this close exposure to dairy farms brought an opportunity to share my stories.
The picturesque nature walk provided ample time to walk in solitude with reflection. Granite distance markers with bright yellow arrows served to keep me going in the right direction, but also collected small stones and indications of those who had passed before. Trails often have rock piles to aid hikers in finding their way, but on the Camino, cairns signify far more. This was what Rev. Mary meant about bringing rocks. Pilgrims bring prayers, troubles, hopes and gratitude with them in the form of a stone, shell, photo, ribbon and other mementos. When I walked alone, I thought about the whys behind the rocks, and acutely on why God called me to walk the Camino. The physical challenge is one aspect, yet for me the call to go deep and seek connection evoked far more energy and emotion.
My heart stirred most when I saw the baby socks, small and dusted with soot. What did they signify? The possibilities swayed from joy for a newborn to a still born child. A hope lost in never conceiving, perhaps never finding the mate to marry, or worse, making a regretted life decision to abort. In any case, the small speck of white fluff among thousands of stones showed surrender to God, the only power to heal and give life a fresh beginning. Near those same socks I found a beautiful photo of a woman, perhaps in her mid-thirties, smiling with oar in hand from an orange kayak, long black hair shimmering in the sun. A prayer, personal and typed, protected the photo. Was this a parent longing for a daughter to return home, a girlfriend who slipped away to another love, or a fiancé soon to walk down the aisle in joy? And then a tube of lipstick. What an odd surrender, or was it? Perhaps it meant a return to true self with vanity forestalled, cancer killing hope of beauty, or the best kiss of love forever treasured.
I took two rocks and left them at two different points along the trail. These stones blend in with all the thousands of other ones, unlike the distinctive socks, photo and lipstick I encountered. Yet the magnitude of the number of prayers and petitions crying from each of these stones and mementos speaks to the vast call for God’s protection. Surrender materialized in each artifact, and for me I learned to visualize each of life’s challenges in the form of a stone placed with prayer along the Camino. A verse from Proverbs 3, verses 5-6 explains this: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding.In all your ways acknowledge Him and He will make straight your paths.”
My walk on the Camino will stay with me forever and I will always see an infant pair of socks in a new and blessed way.
Tags: Blog & Newsroom