Pilgrims share experience of walking the Way of St. James

August 16, 2016

HOUSTON — The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is on many people’s bucket list. However, those who have walked this path know that it is more than just something to do before one dies. It is a journey in the truest sense of the word — full of pain, suffering, joy and friendship. Several parishioners from Christ the Redeemer Catholic Church with a few of their relatives from El Paso walked a condensed version of the Camino de Santiago. The journey proved to be an enlightening experience for each of them in a personal way. 

With a group of 17 companions from ages 17 to 69, the pilgrims walked about 130 kilometers, about 80 miles, in six days. The Camino de Santiago is made up of ancient pilgrim routes, stretching across Europe, that merge at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The group walked the last segment of the French Way that started in Sarria. They then walked to Portomarin, Palas de Rei, Melide, Arzua, Amenal and finished in Santiago de Compostela, where a tomb holds St. James the Apostle’s relics, according to legend. 
To prepare for the journey, the group began training last fall. 

“We had group hikes in the area and we even drove to some state parks to do trail hiking,” said Jane Lakatos, who organized the training schedule. “About a month before our trip we did longer mileage three days in a row so we could see how our bodies reacted doing consecutive trainings. Our guide even commented that it was a rarity, especially with a group as large as ours, that everyone finished and no one had to call a cab to get to the next stop.”

Although the pilgrims trained well, several group members were surprised at how difficult the walk really was. 

Pilgrim Debbie Horgan said she had an extremely heavy backpack and blisters, but when she compared her physical suffering to Jesus’ suffering carrying His cross, her pain went away — totally and completely.

“Suffering can be a choice and sometimes it is good to suffer,” Horgan said. “Pilgrims who walked before us didn’t have the special hiking shoes we have. My blisters were so horribly painful, but I could get to a doctor to minister to them. What unimaginable suffering did earlier pilgrims deal with? If someone asked, ‘How are you doing?’, I could cheerfully answer, “Vale, vale!” (It’s fine, it’s fine). I really want to incorporate that into my ‘returned’ life.” 

Horgan tried her best to soak up the solitude, time for reflection and re-charge from a hectic life in the United States. She and the group celebrated the closeness with nature, attending Mass in Spanish in the villages, the camaraderie with fellow pilgrims (from their group and others), the splendor of the scenery, and the sense of accomplishment during and at the end of the walk. 

Pilgrim Ofelia Carrasco said she really enjoyed walking the Camino as a group because even though they did not walk together at all times, it was nice running into familiar faces when they stopped to rest at a bar/rest stop. 

“We became a family,” Carrasco said. “We took care of each other and we lifted each other’s spirits when we were down because of our blisters and sore feet. We shared everything with one another — socks, pain relievers, food and laughter. We celebrated our achievements and most importantly we prayed together.”

After three days of walking with members of their group, Horgan decided to walk alone one day. She set out with her 30-lb. backpack and two walking sticks. During her walk, she ended up falling hard on flat rocky ground because she had gotten used to more hilly terrain. 

“A Polish pilgrim from Germany helped me up, mopped up the blood and bandaged my knees,” Horgan said. “She also corrected the posture of my backpack, which she said she had been rushing up to correct for me when I fell. And then she walked for the next five hours with me. 

We took our rest stops together, shopped in a supermarket for lunch together, and she regaled me with tales from India and Nepal where she works for non-profit charities. God knew I didn’t need to be alone and truly sent me an angel for a day. The next day I was back amidst our group having heard His message loud and clear.”

Carrasco said she went on the walk hoping that God would magically reveal His will for her and that she would come back filled with knowledge and wisdom and know exactly what to do with her life. That did not happen. 

“The experience was awesome and I know I have changed but not how I had expected,” Carrasco said. “On the walk there will be a time that you will suffer and the only thing you can do is keep walking, keep moving and keep praying. We learn how to suffer but we also learn how to find the joy in the suffering.”

She mentioned that one day during the journey their guide accidentally took them down the wrong path away from the Camino Markers. She said it was not long before they felt that things were not right.

“We felt anxiety and confusion,” Carrasco said. “There were cars and fumes and noise that differed from our calm, quiet and peaceful path that we had become accustomed to. Our guide realized her mistake and put us back on the right path. We quickly felt our anxiety leave us as we happily and peacefully continued. 

I reflected on this experience and realized that this is what happens when we do not follow the path that God has laid out for us. So as I pray and reflect on my life I think I am on the right path, I just have to trust that God will always be my guide.”

Before the pilgrims left to walk the Camino, a quote from Pope Francis resonated with them: “Do not be content to live a mediocre life, walk with determination along the path of holiness.” They learned this well as they journeyed to the tomb of St. James. 

“The Camino is a metaphor for life’s journey, good and bad, ups and downs, companionship and solitude, short days and never-ending days,” Horgan said. “We traveled lightly and survived. Our lives back in the U.S. can get overly ‘stuffed’ with possessions and people pulling us in so many directions. Simplifying our cluttered lives will allow us to follow God with a yoke that is easy and a burden that is light.”