by Susan Grilliot
The Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James) has become an increasingly popular pilgrimage walk in Europe. Last winter, I made the decision to quit my job and take this adventure. Alone. At first, I was open to going with someone else if anyone happened to be able to take a month off work or also quit their job at the same time. However, after some time planning and praying, I felt called to go it alone.
The Camino is one of those experiences that are difficult to describe, and every pilgrim’s description is different. That is the beauty of it. No two Caminos are alike. Different motives, different backgrounds, even different routes. That being said, my good friend, Paul (we met on The Way), has walked three times now, and he says, “Where else in the world can you find such a variety of people in the same place with the same goal?” I think this fact contributes to making The Way a “river of human kindness” as Paul says.
Making friends is easy, and if you are not comfortable making the first move, someone else will. If you are sitting alone, someone is bound to ask if he or she can join you. I loved this aspect of The Camino. I did not have to worry about the reaction, only whether or not we had a language in common! Pilgrims in general are so willing to help each other. Molly needs something for her blister. Bob, across the room offers her a band-aid. Claire has a strange sickness she cannot beat. Arnau, a doctor, writes a prescription for the correct medication. Susan gets sick, so Karl and Florian take turns carrying her pack so that she can still travel with the group. Yes, I am talking about myself here.
The first couple of weeks were filled with such joy and beauty. Between the warm, sunny weather, the picturesque landscape and new friends, I felt such genuine happiness. A German man, Florian, who I met the first day, would play his ukulele and we would sing songs as we walked. We were always laughing or smiling about something!
Carrying twenty or so pounds on your back takes time to adjust to. Never mind walking inclines and declines on uneven surface. Blisters, sores, bed bugs, injury and illness- All may be a part of the experience whether personally or through fellow pilgrims. Though these topics are widely discussed, they hardly brought us down for long before we would be caught up again in the beautiful scenery or in hunting down the next yellow arrow that indicated the way.
The trail passes almost every single Catholic Church within a few kilometers. Unfortunately, not all were open at the time I walked by or were turned into museums and charged an entrance fee. Despite the lack of European religiosity, I could not get over how old everything in Europe is, especially the churches-most dating back to the 1200-1300’s. I found one of my favorite churches after a wonderful day of hiking up a mountain. It was located in the small, cold, and touristic town of O Cebreiro. While looking up mass times, I discovered that a Eucharistic miracle happened there in the 1300’s! There was a side alter with the remains on display for veneration. So cool!
I intentionally made the journey spiritual. Each day I prayed for someone specific or a group of people. I prayed a rosary and offered the days sufferings in his or her name. It seemed to help me focus and stay on track when it was so easy to obsess over how close the next meal or bathroom was. It was also very easy to let the other pilgrims distract me as I suffer highly from FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
I was quick to find a Camino family, and so never walked an entire day alone. I enjoyed meeting many unique people to share stories and experiences with. I now have friends in Australia, France, Spain, Germany, Argentina, Brazil, Maine, California, and beyond!
I gained so much confidence in myself and my abilities. I learned more about who I am. There is something very special and powerful about sharing your true self, that is, the you beneath the makeup, fancy clothes, or photo filter. I also grew in trust of God and His plan for me. Numerous times, God put the right people in my path at the right time. For example, one night while cutting cheese with a pocketknife, it slipped. Luckily, Jules, who is a nurse, was with us that day so she was able to get the bleeding under control and properly sterilize and bandage the deep wound.
Though I do not plan to walk this again for a long time, many pilgrims find themselves on the trail multiple times in his or her life. As for me, I would like to explore the countless other countries I have yet to see!
Susan, originally from Ohio, made it to this great state by attending Ball State University and is currently one of the members of the St. Catherine of Alexandria Women’s Formation House here in Indy.