Why would anyone want to go for a nine hundred kilometre walk by themselves… down country lanes, through rural towns and villages, illegally sleeping in public parks and road sides… just to experience the dubious delight of exploring ancient monasteries, admiring piles of sacred stones and to finally end up at the reputed final resting place of an ancient Christian martyr, Saint James? I had heard of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage as a popular activity but considered it “bucket-list” (an expression I hate) material for bored, well-resourced, retired, middle class folk. It never appealed to me as a good idea. If I was to wander off for weeks on a very long walk I would rather traverse a wild national park in Hokkaido (avoiding bears) … or explore the crazy, out-of-the-way, Kamchatka Peninsula (again avoiding bears) … or travel one of Australia’s most remote cattle droving routes (no bears but plenty of other biting critters). The whole Camino idea seemed to me one low on adventure and high on irritating tourists. That was until I heard Jean-Christophe Rufin (French diplomat, academic, novelist and doctor) talking about his experience on Radio National recently. His description was enchanting. I found myself hanging on every word. As someone who has always felt that the spiritual aspects of sport, exercise and adventuring has hardly ever been pondered upon, explored or discussed by anyone the thoughts of Rufin were music to my ears. Here is a little of his story.
When Jean-Christophe concluded several years of work as the appointed French Ambassador to Senegal he felt that he needed to do something special before settling back into day to day life in Paris. His thinking was that having lived in the strange diplomatic world of chefs, drivers, servants and staff, being constantly surrounded by beautiful and important people who treated him as beautiful and important it seemed that life in the real world back in France might become very depressing very quickly… i.e. perhaps a difficult “mind-clearing” journey would enable him to re-enter the everyday world with a fresh and rejuvenated perspective. He considered a number of long walks but, “The Camino” given its history, ancient monuments, scenery, monasteries, religious traditions and arduousness very quickly occurred to him as the most fascinating. Jean-Christophe had no religious inclinations what so ever before his journey but that did not stop him from wondering why so many millions of Christian pilgrims over the centuries would have taken on this adventure.
The pilgrimage el Camino de Santiago (The way of Saint James) became popular as a means for mediaeval Christians to achieve a penance and thus reduce punishment for their sinful lives. Pilgrims would start from the front door of their homes then take many months and sometimes years to walk along popular pilgrimage routes to the town of Santiago de Campostela (coastal Spain) where they would participate in rituals at a shrine dedicated to the Saint paying homage to him and thus achieving their penance. Modern pilgrims can choose a number of routes to carry out the Camino but the most popular commencement point is at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains on the French side of the Spanish border followed by an arduous trek through the mountains and then an enormous march to the Spanish coast and the town of Santiago de Campostela where legend has it that Saint James was brought from the holy land for burial.
Jean-Christophe explained that, by tradition, the life of the pilgrim should be a simple one. Pilgrims should take a very small back pack, have very few possessions, should spend very little money and should only wear the clothes that are essential. It’s not about saving money but about existing as simply as possible. He found that in the first few weeks he discovered that he had packed far more than he actually needed and every morning, as he was repacking his backpack, he was able to get rid of some object or other that was clearly surplus to his needs. The pilgrim needs to travel, day after day, by themselves through dark, cold and rain and needs to be able to manage on unfamiliar paths and roads without having to rely on others, material possessions or sophisticated aids.
According to Jean-Christophe many commence this enormous walk thinking that the pilgrimage will give them the opportunity to consider important matters, fill their minds with serious and interesting thoughts and think about love and the meaning of life. Rufin scoffs at such a foolish assumption. He says that if you want to think thoughtful thoughts you should take your dog for a walk in the park. The only things that people think about in the first few weeks on the Camino is “when can I eat, when can I have a drink, when can I sleep, when and where can I go to the bathroom, where do I need to go next and how I can look after my feet.”
Rufin’s point is that, initially anyway, the Camino is no cerebral or even spiritual activity. The Camino is about the body and the survival of the body. The body becomes the subject of the journey. No one has time to think about anything other than the matters that will enable the pilgrim to survive for another day. The pilgrim’s body screams out to its owner that it exists. Feet are a terrible problem for the pilgrim, explains Rufin. Walking may sound easy but walking for eight to ten hours every day, day after day on bad tracks and rough roads is really very hard. Early in his journey Jean-Christophe came to think of himself as the Camino convict… a prisoner of his task!
The early stages of the Camino are not remotely transcendental! Rufin believes that the pilgrimage teaches the traveller that there is an essential initiation into spirituality. In other words, reading spiritual passages and texts, praying, carrying out rituals, studying spirituality, attending sermons, lectures and meetings or watching films can only get you so far. In truth a spiritual journey also has to include suffering. The true pilgrim on the Camino suffers much before they experience any spiritual enlightening.
Rufin explains that not all pilgrims he met on the path of Saint James have the same attitude towards suffering and deprivation. He met pilgrims happy to stay in expensive hotels and travelling on beautifully appointed tour buses. He tells a story about one group of Australian yoga tourists who were not only happy to avoid walking and surviving difficult sleeping options but showed very little interest in the spiritual practices and rituals of the monasteries they visited. He said that they sat on the front lawn of one monastery and practiced their lotus positions and the salutes to the sun. Rufin found it hilarious that these less than enthusiastic sufferers were given special treatment by the monks in terms of food and drink provided and the more genuine pilgrims were pretty much fed the scraps and leftovers of the travelling yogis. As Rufin pointed out, the monks have certain economic imperatives to treat the guests who have lots on money very well and save the meagre morsels for the lesser payers. Rufin said that the genuine pilgrims had no problem with this given that their objective was to live their pilgrim’s life simply and frugally.
Most modern pilgrims stay in small dormitory hotels and inexpensive guest houses dedicated specifically to people on the Camino journey. Rufin chose to not take up the dormitory option. He explained that the noise of snoring as soon as the dormitory lights go out prevents most pilgrims from getting a much-needed good night’s sleep. Despite the fact that public camping is illegal in Spain he chose to bed down in a one-man tent throughout the journey and delighted in the fact that he was flaunting a foolish law that he thought deserved to be ignored. Not staying at a guest house meant that he often had to find less than ideal places to go to the toilet. On one occasion he says he couldn’t stop laughing when he found himself squatting in a public park to relieve himself. A few months earlier he had been a distinguished French diplomat in charge of an embassy and now he was a vagabond pooing in a public park in Spain. He knew that if his behaviour was discovered it would have created a scandal. Still… he wasn’t bothered. In his view, this was the life of the pilgrim.
So Rufin had become a vagabond… a ruffian… an anonymous individual bereft of dignity. He was like a wild animal. Rufin says that vagabond pilgrims pass through beautiful Spanish tourist towns and villages that are full of lovely hotels, wealthy tourists, wonderful shops and expensive restaurants and they are invisible. The contrast between the anonymous pilgrims and the visible wealth is extreme explained Rufin. Despite the deprivation and anonymity Rufin said that he and the other simple pilgrims he met loved their anonymity. Rufin says that there comes a time when you become “just who you are”. No more… no less. There is no sense that anyone would care about where the pilgrim comes from. Social background becomes completely irrelevant. The pilgrims share a fraternity based on their simple and difficult lives and this creates a deep bond between them.
It was at this point that Rufin began to appreciate the spiritual aspects of his journey. He became completely enchanted by the ancient rituals he observed in monasteries. He came to be entranced by the Spanish Catholic mysticism practiced by the monks he met. The very walls of the ancient monasteries, churches and shrines he observed seemed to be alive. Along the way monuments that six months earlier might have seemed like to him to be just a pile of stones came to have a life. The meaning, history and mystery that lay within that pile of stones could actually be felt!
Rufin had had no deeply felt spiritual motives for setting out on his journey. He was not seeking out anything precisely and had no preconceptions about what the trip would achieve for him. He just knew that he needed to clear his mind from his recent past. In his own words he went “seeking nothing” and it was “nothing” that he found… though the nothing that he found was not quite what he expected. The “nothing” that he found was actually a Buddhist kind of nothing. “The daily experience of being outside alone, day after day, your brain starts to empty. Without walls around it. Everything that comes to you… a person… a landscape… a monument… since your brain has no wall, or limit, or protection… you really feel it and accept it. There is a presence in the world that is completely different to the presence you have in normal life.”
You know, I am not quite sure what Jean-Christophe Rufin experienced in his journey along the Camino de Santiago. My attempt to describe his experience probably doesn’t make things much clearer to you than Rufin’s description did to me. Realistically one would have to experienced what Rufin experienced to be able to understand what he came to discover. On the other hand, it is clear that Rufin’s experience was deeply transformational for him. Somehow, his nine-hundred-kilometre solo walk initially turned off his brain to the concerns that most of us grapple with daily and focused him on the very basics of physical existence. Over time his focus on the very basic necessities of life experienced by a wild animal caused his mind to view the world around him with a kind of clarity he had never experienced before. Things that in the past to him might have seemed trivial or foolish or unimportant took on a whole new rich meaning. Things that in the past might have seemed irrelevant or insignificant came to him to be the really important things in his life. Things that might have in the past seemed foolish or even dead actually came to life!