Interaction with pilgrims on El Camino de Santiago is memorable

Whenever I’ve written of my spiritual journey, I’ve referred to myself as a pilgrim defined as a seeker who travels to sacred places in hopes of a spiritual experience. I’ve done so frequently and with great satisfaction.

While my world travels have provided many life-changing experiences, I regularly examine my inner spirituality for the spark of divinity that lives within all of us.

My search for faith, and truth, continued recently when I traveled with my wife to Spain for what many Christians consider a sacred experience — to walk El Camino de Santiago.

Recently featured in the movie “The Way,” El Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) is a centuries-old, well-worn trail that meanders across Spain for more than 500 miles. Each year, about 100,000 pilgrims come from around the world to walk this enormous distance in a traditional 33 days (the number of years in Jesus’ life).

At trail’s end in Santiago, homage is given to St. James, the patron saint of Spain, whose remains are kept in a crypt deep within the magnificent church that bears his name. Having neither the time nor desire to take on such an arduous effort, we committed to walk 72 miles in five days to earn the certificate of completion, the Compostela. Verification of our effort was done by obtaining at least two “passport” stamps daily from numerous churches, eateries, or shops we passed along the way.

The first day, in pre-dawn hours, we left our hotel to utter prayers at the bottom of steep, stone steps leading us away from the small town of Sarria. Marked with ever visible yellow arrows, along with scallop shells associated with the legend of St. James, the trail is easy to follow. Traversing ancient stone bridges and dodging cats, dogs, sheep and cattle, we mixed with many other pilgrims and meandered through the countryside of farms and hamlets.

Stone churches were plentiful, as were horreos, or elaborate granaries, particular to the Galician area of Spain. Graced with good weather, we averaged 14 miles a day. My wife was my guide and supporter.

The ritual of taking step after step, day after day, surrounded by the metronomic tapping of walking sticks, provided ample time to ponder and reflect within ourselves, between each other and, especially, with others. To me, this was the highlight of El Camino.

Conversation with other pilgrims flowed easily, and their reasons for walking varied. Kenny, 68, of Scotland was celebrating his joy of life after recovering from two heart attacks; a stoic Hungarian, Balint, said in broken English that after a divorce and job loss, his turmoil was now in the past and he wanted to begin life with a “white paper” (or as we say in America, “clean slate”; an Irish athlete who excelled in her sport on the national stage before an auto accident cut her career short — the walk gave her time to outline the physical and emotional path she’ll take in hopes of returning to her former elite level; and the older Australian minister and his wife, struggling with every step but persisting so they could share their love of Jesus with all they met.

I’ve been asked dozens of times why I would travel to Spain to walk El Camino. Well, I don’t always “seek” answers. During this journey, I wanted to experience what El Camino would reveal to me.

Though I enjoyed the scenic views, the Spanish food and the challenge of the walk, it was my interactions with fellow pilgrims that will long linger. For though we all had disappointments and losses in our lives, we all retained hopes, dreams and desires.

We live within God, and God lives within us. No, it isn’t necessary to undergo a distant pilgrimage to experience the divine. Near or far, one must only pay attention.

Tom Bresko, retired from Mill Creek Metro Parks, is a Christian on a spiritual pilgrimage.

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