Twelve things I learned accompanying pilgrims
Brendan McManus SJ worked as a volunteer in the Camino pilgrim reception centre in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, in June 2023. In this ministry of the FCJ Sisters, he was part of the team of Camino Companions, meeting people individually and in groups in English Speaking Welcome on the first floor of the main pilgrim office in Santiago. Brendan is a Camino author (Redemption Road, Contemplating the Camino, Walk to Manresa), walker and pilgrimage leader, based in Belfast Jesuit Centre. Here is his reflection on his experience of accompanying people:
1) It is a special moment when the pilgrims arrive in Santiago, often after a long and challenging walk. It is often a very emotional moment walking into the cathedral square, and they often feel a whole mixture of emotions, relief, sadness, elation, sorrow, anti-climax, loss, and bitter-sweet ambivalence about finishing a special journey and heading back into their daily lives. One is privileged to witness and support people at this pivotal moment; there are a lot of tears and strong emotions, and a certain vulnerability about it. Great care is needed.
2) Most people that arrive to the Camino Companions office have a fairly serious motive for walking that informs their whole pilgrimage: a life transition, a major loss, a promise made to another, a search for meaning etc., they are normally happy to share this information in a safe space and this ‘deep desire’ or intention is what defines their experience, and depending on how it has gone is the source of great joy or sadness. At the most basic level, our job as ‘Companions’ or listeners is to allow the story to be told and not get in the way! The story is sacred.
3) Arriving in Santiago is only ‘halfway on the journey’ (cf. A.J. Shaia, Returning from Camino), people still have to unpack and reflect on what has often been a very profound experience. Even though they have had these significant experiences, they still need to express them, put them into words and be heard. Even among their fellow pilgrims they may not have had a chance to say what is really going on for them, and they are ready and open for some reflection. The main job of a listener is to help them with this initial reflection and help them to continue this back home (often this can take months and even years).
4) The most important gift you can give someone is attentive, intentional listening, and creating a safe space where pilgrims can tell their own story, in their own way, without being interrupted. A lot of the initial work here is about just this, setting a tone, putting some guidelines in place and facilitating meetings of around 10-20 pilgrims per time. The method we use is the Ignatian one of the ‘Spiritual Conversation’, that is, a ‘sacred space’ where people can reveal their personal thoughts and feelings in confidence.
5) The second step is trying to help the person process their experience, this is often about asking the right question as the facilitator. These are often open questions that ask them to go a bit deeper, i.e., What does this experience mean for your life? What are you taking home with you? How will you be different when you get back home? What is God saying to you through this? As a spiritual director you are trying to help them identify the ‘movements’ of the Spirit within (i.e., consolation & desolation), recognising where God is working with them.
6) People often need help understanding their experience in terms of a ‘spirituality of everyday life’. Often, they have had negative experiences of religion or unhelpful images of God or external ‘magical’ spirituality with excessive focus on miracles and external events. As a result they are slow to recognise that what is happening inside them, in their experience, is of God. It can often be a great liberation and relief to realise that their Camino experience, a profound encounter with the deepest parts of themselves, is the work of God who is active there. What often feature in their stories are really challenging moments and of reaching limits (energy, patience, courage), and managing to walk though these moments and into some deeper place where peace and healing exists. They just need to know they don’t have to be perfect or ‘holy’, rather God is in the ‘mess’ with them (cf, Deeds & McManus, Finding God in the Mess).
7) The Camino always touches people at some level. The walking for long hours, being out in nature, the natural contemplation that they fall into, and the images, memories and emotions of life all come to the surface. People tend to live intensely even though it doesn’t feel like effort; the absence of distractions, and long periods of time alone brings people into contact with themselves. Hence the rewards are great of literally walking out and working out problems that their bodies know the answer to (and their heads don’t). It is integrated head and heart living (an ‘incarnated spirituality’), dealing with the important often messy stuff of life, which is the real stuff. People often talk about great feelings of peace, tranquillity and joy when they can manage this.
8) The Camino brings people in touch with their basic humanity and connection to others: the Camino is the great equaliser or leveller as everyone is equal on the road and it doesn’t matter who you are or your background, pilgrims learn the importance of tolerating difference, relating well to others, having compassion, and not judging. A lot of Camino stories revolve around the importance of hospitality and welcome; as pilgrims arriving in a new place they are often tired, hungry and worn out, so how people treat them matters a great deal. ‘Com-passion’ is literally feeling for the suffering of another in our shared humanity.
9) Often mistakes, injuries or wrong turns can be the greatest learning points. This is ironic but it points to the value of the unexpected, providential, and ‘uncontrollable’. In fact letting go of control (Ignatian freedom) is one of the most challenging and ironically most rewarding aspects. Experience is hard earned on the Camino and unfortunately there are no short cuts, it has to be fully lived and experienced, both the ups and downs. People need help to see the value of these seemingly negative or ‘disastrous’ experiences (God in all things).
10) There is a great temptation to think that these exceptional experiences only happen on the Camino and that people can’t take them home with them, one solution seems to be to keep coming back and doing the Camino obsessively, but this denies the lasting significance of these experiences. Hence the need to help people think of ways to bring this experience home and how they could integrate some of these learnings into their lives. This was such a common issue that we put together a sheet of suggestions as how they might do this, see: Keeping the Camino Alive Back Home.
11) Helping people move away from the ‘small stuff’, such as simple aches and pains: “muscles are sore for a day but beauty lasts forever”. Seeing the sunrise over Santiago, dappled sunlight in a brook, a riot of wildflowers, all make a lasting impression that speaks to people’s hearts. Having a heart that is full and sings, vastly outweighs any minor irritations and strains that walking causes. Unfortunately, people can sometimes prioritise the second over the first; in order not to feel any pain they no longer receive any joy and fail to appreciate the wonder and awe of people’s Camino experience (people often report that back home friends tire of the Camino stories). They need a space to tell these to people who understand and help them get beyond the ‘small stuff’.
12) Teaching people to focus on the ‘path’ ahead, that they can only live one day at a time. The Camino teaches people to live in the moment and not plan too far ahead. They only need one plan for the day, one set of clothes, one meal at a time, one foot in front of the other, it is a radical simplicity. Modern life frustrates and complicates, it has us face multiple options as if we could cram 50 options into a day, and we end up doing justice to none of them; a dull frustration ensues.