The realization hit me full force as I walked into the Cathedral piazza in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, for the first time in 2018: I am a pilgrim.
Not a hiker. Not a tourist. Not a visitor to holy places. A pilgrim.
I have traveled with a sense of openness and adventure and curiosity. I have traveled, not just with my body but with my mind and heart, my soul and my spirit. I have been part of a ‘moveable community’ of fellow pilgrims who bear witness to each other’s journeys. I recognize in the faces of other pilgrims the state of my own soul: I know, deep in the deepest place of knowing that, even though I still am who I am, I have been changed and transformed and will never again be the same.
After I finished the Coastal Camino Portuguese in 2022, I was glad I planned to have a few days to decompress and rest after that great spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical high of having completed this amazing journey. Soon enough – too soon – it was time to travel back home. That had been an aspect of the pilgrimage I hadn’t adequately planned for after my first El Norte Camino in 2018. This time, I was better prepared to make the journey from pilgrim to citizen again.
I’d like to share with you what worked for me.
First, it’s important to practice being gentle with and kind to yourself. Re-entry is a very tender time. The excitement of returning home combined with the sadness of leaving can create what the Celts call “a thin space” – a spiritual time when heaven and earth come very close. Your heart has been wide open. This is a time to learn to put a protective fence around it. Not a wall, but a fence. With open spaces. And a gate. With a lock. On the inside, so you control what or who goes in and what or who goes out.
Be gentle and kind to yourself so you can be gentle and kind with others and be patient when yet another person says, “So . . . tell me about your hike!” and your impulse is to raise your voice and say in a tone and volume you didn’t intend, “It wasn’t a HIKE, it was a pilgrimage!” Breathe. Deeply. And say, simply, “My pilgrimage was really incredible. Let me gather my thoughts a bit more before I share them with you.”
Which leads me to the second thought: Share your experience appropriately. Try to resist giving a PowerPoint Presentation to a large group of interested folk. Not for a while, at least. Begin slowly, perhaps over a cup of tea or glass of Port Wine, with a trusted family member or friend or colleague. This is where keeping a daily journal on Camino can come in handy, but looking over your photo collection will also prompt memories. As you look over your notes and/or your photos, you might want to explore something you wrote, some observation you made, some insight you had, some brief encounter with another pilgrim that feels right to share at that time.
It’s more important to stay connected with the things you experienced on Camino than to try to share them with others. Practice awareness. Practice curiosity. Practice a sense of adventure. Practice keeping your body in tune with your mind and your emotions and your spirit. With that practice will come an awareness of when and with whom to share your experience.
Third, practice gratitude. This discipline is at the heart of every major religion and spirituality. The verse in that old song “Count your blessings, name them one by one,” is a good mantra to take into daily life.
The Buddha taught that gratitude is a reflection of someone’s integrity and civility. Gratitude is the confidence in life itself. In it, we feel how the same force that pushes grass through cracks in the sidewalk invigorates our own life. Three easy, practical ways to practice gratitude include to intentionally notice good things, look for them, appreciate them. Second, savor, absorb and pay attention to those good things. Finally, express your gratitude to yourself or someone else, or write it down.
Fourth, practice generosity. This is easier to do the better you get at practicing gratitude. Many people think first of financial generosity but that’s not the only expression of what is, essentially, a spiritual discipline. It may be going out of your way to smile and say hello to a person who seems down, or send a card or email or make a phone call to someone you haven’t heard from in a while. It may mean holding back criticism – even if it is, in your estimation, deserved – and finding a way to frame your remarks in a more positive, productive manner. Or, it may mean committing yourself to contribute toward a scholarship fund so that someone who otherwise couldn’t afford to go on Camino.
For Christians, practicing generosity means to love without condition, lavishly, even as wastefully as the woman who anointed the head and feet of Jesus with expensive perfume. Sometimes, the greatest and most generous gift you can give in this busy, noisy, chaotic world is silence. Practice trusting silence to hold the potential for insights and healing
Fifth, practice curiosity. Quaker author and educator Parker Palmer has developed “Touchstones of Group Dynamics”; one of them is “When the going gets rough, turn to wonder”. Turn from reaction and judgment to wonder and compassionate inquiry. Ask yourself, “I wonder why they feel/think this way?” or “I wonder what my reaction teaches me about myself?” Set aside judgment to listen to others—and to yourself—more deeply. Ask yourself, “I wonder if what disturbs me most about this person is a quality I know to have in myself?”
Reflect on some of the conversations you had with other pilgrims. Practice asking the same questions of old friends as you did with Camino friends and ask yourself how you might listen more wholeheartedly. Recall a steep hill you climbed or descended and ask yourself what you learned from that experience which might be applicable to the challenges and downtimes of your life. Where in your life might you slow down or soften? Where do you find laughter and joy? From the wisdom of the Dine or Navajo Nation chant, Walk in Beauty, what beauty is before, behind, above or below where you are right now?
These five are suggestions based on what I learned after both my Caminos. Try them on, one at a time, and see how they might work for you.
I am learning that “once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim”. I am a citizen of the world and a pilgrim of The Way.
Ultreia et suseia!
Elizabeth Kaeton lives on one of the vibrant estuaries of Rehoboth Bay in Delaware (USA). An Episcopal priest, Elizabeth’s passion is a ministry of advocacy and Hospice chaplaincy. She walked Camino El Norte in 2018 and the Coastal Camino Portuguese in 2022.