Prof. Natalie Wigg-Stevenson Walks the Camino

camino

(Day 1 of walk)

The plan was hatched, in part, over dinner and with some Emmanuel colleagues. My husband Tyler and I voiced our growing need for an adventure, and Marilyn and Michael were only too kind to help us brainstorm. Despite all their inspiring suggestions, however, we kept coming back to the same conclusion: we really want to walk the Camino!

 

And so on May 28th we flew into Marseilles, arrived by train in Hendaye around midnight, and then started walking the Camino del Norte from Irun bright and early the next morning.

 

The Camino de Santiago has multiple routes; in fact, as many walkers will say, despite official maps and markings, “the road to Santiago is the road you take!” Everyone finds their own way. The most famous route, however, is the Frances, and it now sees about a quarter million pilgrims per year. Because we wanted something a little less crowded, we walked the Norte route, which is known for being the most beautiful. And I’m quite sure it was!

 

I learned more than can be written here, or even in volumes if I worked at it for a hundred years – but the lesson I’ve found most compelling since I’ve returned is this: bodies probably aren’t built to move faster than 8km/hour as often as they do in our modern world.

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 (Photo taken from under the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, day 7 of walk)

 

To say that the modern world moves too fast is by now a cliché, but to learn that lesson for myself in the ache of muscles and the tearing pain of tendons being pushed further than they want to go, all of a sudden made it true in a bodily sense. Moving quickly on pilgrimage simply isn’t an option. You won’t make it. But this is not just about the need to slow down the pace of work and balance it with rest; I also learned how much the technological advances that make my day more manageable also press me to move faster than I should. We often note how this is the case when it comes to instant messaging, email and ubiquitous cell phones – but we rarely think about it with things like cars, subways and buses.

 

On the Camino, for the first time in my life, I did not travel in any motorized vehicles for a full 33 days (except for a couple of pilgrimage sanctioned jaunts on ferries and a train to get across some bodies of water – thank goodness we weren’t required to swim!). Think about it – have you ever avoided cars, buses, subways, etc., for a full month? I doubt many of us have! And so the day when Tyler and I left Santiago to head to Portugal to catch our flight home was the first time I used motorized transport in over a month, and it was overwhelming.

 

 Everything moved way too fast because it moved faster than the speed of my steps. For a month, I had been able to look at everything around me with detailed patience that sunk me deep into the joys of creation – and not just God’s creation of nature, but also the stunning creativity of human work in architecture, city planning, and the beautiful details of spaces arranged with intentionality. My eyes grew used to perceiving the nuances of shape, texture, tiny variances in colour and light. Once I got on that bus, all of a sudden trees, flowers and bushes blurred together into flashes of colour/light mixture, losing their distinction of shape, projecting only their surface sheen, none of their complex depth. I perceived buildings as fragments, seeing only one side whiz by from the highway, unable to feel the way they inhabited their spaces.

 

Like I said, I was overwhelmed.

 

Of course, I got used to it pretty quickly. That’s one of the scary things about the Camino – you can feel totally reprogrammed, as if normal life will never feel natural again – and then normal life happens and you’re back into it within seconds.

 

Yet the memory remains vivid. Rapid movement feels normal again, but I can recall the pain of a moment when it didn’t. That memory is the tiniest fragment to hold onto, but it’s worth holding – if for no other reason than to know that it hasn’t always been this way. We haven’t always moved so quickly.

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They say everyone walks their own Camino – that no two pilgrims are making the same journey. And I believe that’s true. We all learned daily to be open to what the road gave us – to give thanks if what we got was rain, to be joyful if it was sun, to praise God if we found ourselves whipped around in the wind. With life stripped down to its bare essentials, even the failures of the road felt like gifts – and our attitudes turned to depths of gratitude previously unknown. Now that I’m back, the thing I find myself most grateful for is that realization of the body’s speed – or lack thereof.

Natalie is writing theological reflections on her experiences of the Camino at her blog, thewayofreturning.com.

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