Among the many interesting people I encountered along the Camino, I will never forget Padre Agustín, the priest at the small parish church of Santiago in the town of Tricastela. The day we arrived in that sleepy town I went to the local parish church for the Saturday evening vigil mass. A number of locals were present, as well as no small number of pilgrims. Padre Agustín began the mass with a very warm and genuine welcome to all those gathered, especially to those of us who were pilgrims. As he continued, it became clear to me that his eyesight was not very good. He offered virtually all of the prayers without looking at the missal on the altar. When he did need to read from the missal, he put on his thick-lens glasses and leaned in close to the book. I wondered how many masses he had celebrated in that small church and how many pilgrims he had welcomed and prayed for across the years. Several times in the mass he reminded us that we were praying for all pilgrims on the Camino and for all people on the various caminos of life. That phrase, in particular, struck me and stayed with me. All of us are indeed on our own journeys of life.
When the time came for communion to be shared, I remained in my seat and offered my own prayers. As Padre Agustín moved to serve communion to those who came forward, he began singing a song: Tú has venido a la orilla. It is a song that many Spanish speaking Christians know by heart, and I’ve learned most of the words from experiences singing it in parishes of The Episcopal Church. And so I joined in singing, as the old parish priest raised his voice in song and distributed communion at the same time: ‘tú has venido a la orilla, no has buscado ni a sabios ni a ricos; tan sólo quieres que yo te siga’ (Lord, you have come to the seashore, neither searching for the rich nor the wise, desiring only that I should follow). I left that mass renewed and ready to continue on my Camino the following morning.
In the days ahead I looked back on that experience with fondness and some nostalgia, for my Camino experience fundamentally changed in the days that followed. The path from Triacastela leads into Sarria, some 115 kilometers from Santiago de Compostela. Those seeking to earn the compostela must walk at least the final 100 kilometers to Santiago, and thus Sarria is a very common place for pilgrims to being their journey. I knew the number of pilgrims on the path would increase after Sarria, but I was completely unprepared for just how big the increase would be. It was not an uncommon experience in our first days to encounter only a handful of pilgrims during the day. We knew, of course, that others were in front of us and behind us, but we might not encounter many on the actual path. After Sarria, well over a thousand people were on the path every day. It was at first a jarring shift. The quiet, solitude, peace, and contemplation I had been experiencing and enjoying was gone. Simple pleasures on the Way like stopping for breakfast and a café con leche became burdensome necessities as the cafes along the path were overflowing with pilgrims.
There is, I think, a fundamental temptation for a pilgrim to believe that they are doing things the ‘right way’— I am a ‘true’ pilgrim, and anyone who does the experience a different way is doing it incorrectly. I quickly fell into this all-too easy trap in those final days. A passing group of teenagers loudly playing pop music from portable speakers left me especially appalled and indignant. How on earth did they think that was appropriate behavior on the Camino? Didn’t they know that their music was obnoxious and disruptive for others on the path? My displeasure and angry simmered, and then in turn I was made more upset by the fact that I was feeling that way on the Camino, a time when I was supposed to be peaceful and contemplative.
On one of those final days leading into Santiago, we passed a small, unassuming cafe on the path, one of literally hundreds we passed. Outside there was a sign, displaying not the menu but a mantra for all who passed: todos tenemos un motivo para caminar (we all have a reason for walking). It stopped me in my tracks. It was as if someone had written the message just for me. In an instant, my hardened heart and arrogant disposition was softened, even if just a bit, because I knew it was true. No one sets out on the Camino without a reason, even if it is not immediately clear to them (or to me!). Each person on the Way carries with them sorrows and griefs, joys and longings, hopes and questions seeking answers. Most of these things will never be known by those sharing the journey, for each of us is a mystery that can never be fully known by another human.
All of us have a reason to walk—even those Spanish teenagers who so upset me with their music. While I still think that sort of behavior inappropriate, I also honor them as fellow pilgrims on the Way, carrying with them much more than I could ever see or know. All of us walking the path were pilgrims. Indeed, as Padre Agustín reminded me, all of us journeying the various caminos of life are pilgrims, just trying to find our way home.