Spiritual Lessons from Walking the Camino


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Walking the Pyrenees from France into Spain on Day One. (Jung Han Kim)

By Duke Engel

It all started with my face. At 57 and a half, I started to be concerned about getting old, but I didn’t know why because it didn’t seem like anything had changed about my life. It took about six months before I realized the issue was my face. It was these bags under my eyes and these wrinkles. Regardless of how I felt inside, there was no escaping the reality that my face had changed and I was looking old. Once I had realized the change, I did the only logical thing I could think of… I felt sorry for myself. Self-pity got boring after a while, and then I got proactive. I decided that ages 60 to 80 were going to be the fourth quarter of my life. If I lived past 80, my life would go into overtime. If I lived into my late 80s, my life would go into sudden-death overtime.

The next question was, “What do I need to change about my lifestyle if I’m not just going to survive but thrive in the fourth quarter?” There were seven areas of my life that I identified that would need to change if I was going to enjoy my life in the fourth quarter, and each of these areas would need a major transition to mark the beginning of that change. The first change I wanted was to become a more spiritual person. The transition to mark that change was going to be to walk El Camino de Santiago, which is arguably the oldest and most famous walking pilgrimage in the world. Santiago de Compostela is a city in northwest Spain where legend states the remains of St. James were discovered in the eighth century. For 1,200 years Christians have been walking from all of Europe across northern Spain on a route called “The Camino” to reach the beautiful, huge cathedral in Santiago to see the tomb of St. James.

Just weeks before my 60th birthday in 2010, I walked out of a small village in France with my clothes and sleeping bag in a pack on my back to cross the Pyrenees into Spain. For the next 30 days and 500 miles I walked every day from village to village, passing medieval churches, sculptures and even several castles that historically have supported the pilgrims. The Camino was sometimes along highways, sometimes through the heart of cities or sometimes a mountain path but always with many markers and people to help you find the way. At night I would stay in dormitory-style refuges shared by pilgrims of many nationalities and religions. We would sometimes share meals or eat in restaurants that offered the five-course meal called the “Menu of the Peregrino,” which means “walking pilgrim.” The pilgrims of the Middle Ages walked the Camino to secure eternal salvation. Modern-day pilgrims rarely walk the Camino thinking it makes them a slam dunk for heaven. Many of us, however, expect to be changed forever, and most of us are not disappointed.

My idea was that while I walked, I would spend a small part of my time meditating on the meaning of faith and spirituality and the rest of my time enjoying the history and culture of the Camino. I figured that 500 miles of that ought to create something spiritual in me. The first thing it created was a nasty set of blisters. The second week I discovered that my mind refused to focus on one thought for more than a few seconds. There was no explanation for it. All I had to do each day was walk. No phone calls, no emails, no other jobs to be done, no one to answer to. It was simple. Just walk and focus on an idea for 30 minutes, but my mind was like a naughty child that refused to stay focused for more than 15 seconds before it was off thinking about a hundred different ideas. I tried to see if I could stay focused on walking with good posture for 30 seconds and found it incredibly difficult to keep my mind on this simple task. My spiritual pilgrimage had turned into a major frustration.

Walking down into Spain through snow on Day One. (Jung Han Kim)

The third week we stayed in a nun’s monastery. My walking companions went to bed, but I had decided to go to the nun’s prayer service. The head nun was late getting there, so I told one of the volunteers I knew where she was at. She looked surprised and asked where. I told her that it was the biggest soccer game of the year in Spain, Real Madrid was playing Barcelona, and she was across the street in the bar watching the ball game. She laughed and rushed on. Eventually the head nun arrived, rushing by all of us, and when she passed me from behind as I sat on the steps, she ever so slightly just touched the back of my head as she walked by. I can’t tell you what happened or why I just melted inside. As I sat in the prayer service of which 90 percent was in different foreign languages, the only phrase in English that registered with me was, “Pilgrim, be at peace.” That was it? Travel thousands of miles to walk 500 miles just to learn I was Attention Deficit Disorder and I needed to be at peace with myself? What I do know is the nature of my walk changed after that. Now as I walked, there was often joy and gratitude and even tears.

I also started to come to peace with my mind by paying attention to my thoughts. You spend lots of time in your own head when you walk 500 miles. You can’t avoid your personality. It was interesting to notice how my thinking wanted to jump from the past to the future to back home. My mind wanted to formulate things I would say and actions I would take in the future. There were these grand lists of things I would create to solve problems from the past. Eckhart Tolle, the author of “The Power of Now,” once wrote, “Not to be able to stop thinking is a dreadful affliction, but we don’t realize this because almost everybody is suffering from it so it is considered normal. This incessant mental noise prevents you from finding that realm of inner stillness that is inseparable from Being.” One day I was walking, lost in my thoughts, when the call of a cuckoo bird broke through the chatter in my head. I had never heard the actual bird call, but I immediately knew what it was and it brought a smile to my face. All my compulsive thinking was not bringing smiles to my face. I began to understand that walking had become my meditation. When I was successful in being conscious of each step of the journey and the experiences being offered all around me, regardless of whether or not I thought they were pleasant experiences, regardless of how brief they were, those were the moments I found to be spiritual.

The Camino is life. Life is full of blisters and frustration at times. Life can be unhappy or challenging at times. For me, spirituality is not a state of constant happiness. Spirituality is about learning to be at peace with whatever gets thrown at you on your journey. Spirituality is about tolerance and acceptance of ourselves and others. Spirituality is about being fully engaged in the moment. Isn’t that why we would sit here in a church on a Sunday morning? We hope to be engaged in an experience that transcends the daily routines of our lives and helps us leave feeling a bit more at peace with this world that can make us crazy at times.

I am often asked if I walked the Camino alone. My first travelogue emailed home to my friends stated that by the third day I found myself walking with a 43-year-old Korean dentist named Han and a one-armed, 65-year-old Irishman named Paddy. My friends, who knew me well, said later they were waiting for the punch line that never came. The three of us were an odd trio but inseparable for the last 27 days of the walk. We never talked about walking together, it just happened that way. We rarely talked as we walked, but at breaks or eating supper in the evening we shared intimate details of our lives. Being with them put me at ease. It was another lesson from the Camino. Spiritual growth is this highly personal experience, and you will hear people say they don’t need a church to practice their spiritual values yet it is such a gift to be able to share your journey in a supportive community, a community like the one I see in front of me. You are all on your own journey yet the strength, acceptance and inspiration you offer each other can bring a joy to your life that is hard to measure.

At the end of the Camino, I went with the others to the church office at Santiago to receive my Compostela. This is the Catholic Church’s official document that I had walked the Camino. My thought was that I hadn’t really changed that much, other than I cried a lot more now. I wondered if I had really accomplished my goal. There was a pamphlet in the office I started to read. Someone had written it with me in mind. The message in that pamphlet was that the Camino was not the end of a spiritual journey; it was the beginning. My original goal was to transition into a more spiritual way of life, but with all the expectations I had placed on myself, I had created frustration that didn’t need to be there.

 Finding my route from France into Spain through the Pyrenees, Day One. (Jung Han Kim)

The Camino can also have negative lessons for people. One of the temptations after completing the Camino is ego. There are lots of people that want to talk you up because you walked 500 miles. Fortunately for me, I have my friend, Matt Hansen, to help me with ego problems. Matt just completed the Camino in June, and I would like for him to stand up. Matt gave me permission to tell you that he only has one leg, so he walked 500 miles using a prosthetic. That is an incredible accomplishment. So if I get to feeling really important because I’ve walked the Camino, I’ve got Matt who can say to me, “Duke, get over yourself. I did the Camino standing on one leg.”

Walking the Camino is not for most people, and even the people that walk the Camino have very different experiences. Each of you can carve out your spiritual life in your own way. But the Camino does offer insight into where to look for that peace that passes all understanding. My experience tells me you should look for that serenity in this moment. If you tend to stress out, get anxious and worry, your mind may have you stuck in the future. If you tend to have regrets, feel guilty or feel resentful, your mind may have you stuck in the past. My Camino experience would suggest that all you really have to work with is right now. Making a plan is different than worrying. Taking action to correct an injustice is different than resentment. I believe your serenity will be found in directing your thoughts and your actions to the present. Pay attention to how you are feeling today, whether good or bad. Look at the expression of the people around you, especially those loved ones. Look and listen and smell the world as you are experiencing it today. Even look at all the things you don’t and things you want to change. IF you can find tolerance and acceptance of yourself and the world you see, it gets easier to live comfortably in this life. And IF you are fortunate enough to find a community like this one that supports and enhances your spiritual journey, the walk is even more joyful.

There is only one way to end this talk. When you meet or leave someone on the Camino, there is a Spanish phrase that everyone says back and forth to each other. The phrase is Buen Camino, and it means have a good trip or have a good journey. So I invite you to answer me with the same message I leave you with. Buen Camino.


Image Credits: Jung Han Kim

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