By Fr Nicholas Pearce
"To go on pilgrimage is not simply to visit a place to admire its treasures of nature, art or history. To go on pilgrimage really means to step out of ourselves in order to encounter God where he has revealed himself, where his grace has shone with particular splendour"
- Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI
In July, Father Pearce will leading a group of 11 pilgrims along the ancient pilgrim route of the Camino de Santiago. This is his fifth time leading a group of young people through this life-changing experience, and here are some reflections of his experiences over the years.
Camino days generally start early, around 6am; it is important to try and get a good 10 kilometres under your belt before breakfast and before the heat of the day sets in. It was these early morning starts that were my favourite part of the day, with only the moon to guide you as you make your way in the quiet of the morning chill. As the Camino route takes you westward through the north of Spain, the sun always rises behind you and the warmth on the back of your legs is the first sign to stop and turn around, so as not to miss another amazing sunrise that signals the beginning of a new day and a new opportunity to move forward, towards not only the goal of the Camino, but life itself. What struck me as each new day commenced was that the simplicity and routine of life on the Camino quickly became hypnotic, as the rhythm of your walking, the slower pace of life, and the simplicity of relying on only what you can carry on your back, allows you to focus and pray with a clarity that is hard to find when surrounded by the busyness and noise of ordinary life.
Each new day brings with it new challenges, new scenery, new people, new soreness. Each new muscle niggle, blister or strain was a reminder that both on the Camino, and in life, we all walk with our own crosses, some visible to the eye, and others known only to the individual. In addition to these solitary crosses, there were shared sufferings also: the steep hills, the blazing sun or the snoring roommate, things that affected us all. No matter what the pain, shared or individual, the Camino reminded me that the suffering only makes sense when we remember that Jesus Christ became man for us, and freely chose to suffer and experience pain for us, so that our own suffering would have a purpose. I would often try to imagine the heat He felt during the 40 days He spent in the desert, being tempted, but never giving in. I would often wonder how many blisters He would have had, after his many journeys proclaiming the kingdom, and of course how many nights of broken sleep whilst sharing a room with 12 snoring apostles after a long day. As I would readjust my pack for the hundredth time in a day, I would think of the weight of the cross He carried for me; as I stumbled on a rock on my way down a hill, I would think of how He picked himself up after each fall and continued onto Calvary on my behalf. This would not make my pain any less, or take away my suffering, but it would strengthen my resolve, and encourage me to continue on, remembering that He did all of this out of love of me and that although He does not take our suffering away, He does share in it, and He shows us through His own suffering, that we too will triumph if we courageously follow in His footsteps.
“Pilgrimages, a sign of the condition of the disciples of Christ in this world, have always held an important place in the life of Christians. Their pilgrimage was a process of conversion, a yearning for intimacy with God and a trusting plea for their material needs. For the Church, pilgrimages, in all their multiple aspects, have always been a gift of grace.”
- Saint John Paul II
Pilgrims who walk the Camino de Santiago are encouraged to carry with them a rock or stone from their home country – a symbol of their own sinfulness and the extra weight we all carry around, as a result of our bad choices. At the highest point of the Camino, Cruz de Faro, pilgrims leave their rock behind at the foot of the ancient cross, a sign of relinquishing their sinful past and their preparedness to recommence again on the journey of holiness. In the days leading up to this, we stayed with a small community of Benedictine monks, praying before the Blessed Sacrament, chanting the Divine Office and, most importantly, receiving the sacrament of Confession, making this symbolic act of placing our rock down a concrete reality through the grace and forgiveness that Jesus offers us all in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
As with much of the Camino, the walk to Cruz de Faro surprised me, as it was a lot easier than what I was expecting. We too often forget that the hard work of redemption has already been done for us by Jesus and that the forgiveness and mercy we seek is always easier than what we expect. As I cast my stone beneath the cross, I renewed my commitment to my own Christian mission and to my service as a priest, praying that my own inadequacies and deficiencies would not hinder the good work that God wishes to achieve through me, and I gave thanks to God for the wonderful gift He has given each one of us in his Son, who offers us all the grace we need, if only we are willing to seek it out. As we walked on, buoyed by our experience, we then faced three tough days of walking on pretty challenging terrain. Whilst the forgiveness of Christ is easy, the way to sanctity is something that we must work at, each and every day. Holiness is achieved through persistence, and perfection is reached only when we are willing to learn from our mistakes and to work hard at improving ourselves. With God’s grace, we must pick ourselves up when we fall, and start again each and every day, for our journey will only be complete, and the work over, when we receive our reward in heaven.