So why do people walk the 500 miles from St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, to Santiago de Compostela, Spain? There are as many reasons as there are pilgrims, but they can be organized in several logical categories.
Like pilgrims from the Middle Ages to the present, the largest category would be religious/spiritual. Originally this would have been a primarily Catholic endeavor, as Catholics were encouraged to go on pilgrimage to various shrines, including Santiago, where the bones of St James were allegedly discovered. Now there is an equal number of “spiritual, not religious” types who go on pilgrimage to re-center their minds, disconnect from the electronic chatter of modern life, or strip life to the bare essentials and engage more honestly with other people. This last point is a common refrain from peregrinos (pilgrims): on the camino, you have only what you need, so you eliminate the artifice of modern society and have more meaningful relationships with your fellow pilgrims.
Another large group is seeking simple self-improvement. They want to lose weight, quit smoking or kick some other bad habit, get in shape, or simplify one’s life. There are some similarities here to the first group, but without any specific spiritual content. Smaller sets of pilgrims are on vacation, after a personal accomplishment, or do it just because it is there.
For whatever reasons pilgrims have, the numbers have been consistently increasing. Last year over 300,000 walked the Camino Frances, with the frequency diagram displaying a familiar normal distribution (I promised no math, but this is statistics) centered on the Summer months.
To receive the official completion certificate, or Compostela, you need only complete the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Frances. When you arrive in Santiago, they ask whether you walked for religious/spiritual reasons or for other reasons. If the former, you receive a Latin script Compostela attesting to your accomplishment; if the latter, your certificado is in Spanish. If you wish, for a few Euros you can also receive a certificate of distance which attests to the actual time and distance hiked.
Whatever one’s motivation, one theme among peregrinos is consistent: how well pilgrims treat one another, and how well pilgrims are treated by their Spanish hosts. Out on the camino, people share with and care for each other. The small towns, some of which only survive by association with the camino, provide a warm welcome. Stories abound of services provided or help rendered by anonymous pilgrims to those in need. Likewise, there are numerous tales of pilgrims finding “no room at the inn” and being taken to stay in local’s homes. There are exceptions, but crime or simple boorish behavior stand out mostly as exceptions to the rule of good behavior.
This is the magic of the camino, and what really brings many pilgrims to come back and walk the camino over and over.
As for me, I am walking in thanksgiving. From early on when my wife Judy and I considered walking the camino, I saw it as a way of saying “thank you” to God for good health, a great family, a satisfying career, and all the other blessings I have received. We’ll spend time every day giving thanks, looking to help others (or maybe accepting help from others–that’s a blessing too) and praying. If you have a prayer request, let me know!