When I say the word “pilgrimage”, do you instantly think of people walking in torn sandals, with hoods over their heads and carrying a wooden staff, with dust in their eyes and sweat running down their backs, trailed by a pack of dogs somewhere in the middle of nowhere? Do you feel you could never understand their motivation, not today, in the 21st century, when everything you can ever want lies just a fingertip away?
There is no need to be surprised when I tell you that people do go on pilgrimages in the 21st century. They are no death-ridden walks plagued with disease and flies. What they still are is a life changing experience. You don’t need to hold a higher power dearly in your heart to know this to be true – going on a pilgrimage does not imply being devout. Admittedly, a significant portion of those who do decide to spend a serious amount of time on the road does believe in God, but it’s not a prerequisite.
In case you are still unsure about the entire concept, let me tell you a bit about my own experience on the Camino de Santiago, and why I believe you should also take some time out of your busy life and walk a week or two.
The age limit
No, I am not implying there are age limitations to walking a Camino. What I am saying is that the Camino can take anywhere from a week to two months to complete, depending on the route you choose, and not all of us have the luxury to take that much time off work. I have met a young back-end developer who was actually working from the road – admittedly, Wi-Fi was an issue at times, but he seemed to be managing just fine. If you are like me, you will mostly likely have only a couple of weeks available for this adventure.
However, if you are just out of college, looking to spend a gap year somewhere, the Camino can be just perfect for you. You may never again get the opportunity to meet so many different kinds of people all at once, with their unique stories and worldviews. We’ve met a bunch of groups of college kids, spending their break on the road. They admitted to having been challenged at first, not being able to use their phones all the time, but in the end, the experience has given them a new take on life and modern communications, and they have gone back home with a new sense of wonder, I bet.
The other perfect time to take a Camino is when you retire – you will not believe how many unique and insightful conversations we’ve had on the road with people in their 60s, taking a month to walk a route it would take us half the time, enjoying their days, sharing a bite and a tale. After so many years stuck in an office, having the time to walk can give you an instant energy boost. Not to mention all the sights and sounds you will be coming across every single day.
The belief factor
If you do believe in God, or if you are not quite sure about it, walking the Camino can be the perfect time to face yourself and your questions. Having nothing to do but walk for two weeks or more is the perfect time to discuss all the important points with yourself, and there will be plenty of those who are certain in their faith you can talk to. I am not claiming you will have a profound religious experience when you get to Santiago de Compostela. What I am saying however is that you might learn to appreciate the faith others have, and judge them less when you do get back home.
The ultimate challenge
Finally, what the Camino is above all else is a challenge – you will first of all be challenging yourself physically, mentally, and all of your beliefs and values may get challenged as well. You will likely meet someone who thinks just the opposite of what you do, and you will get a chance to ascertain what you really think and who you are. You will get to know what kind of stuff you are made of, where your limits are, and who you truly are as a person. Not something you can gauge in your day-to-day life, but something that the air and the serenity will certainly allow for.