Prof. Traugott Roser from the Faculty of Protestant Theology spent four and a half weeks hiking across Northern Spain on the “Camino Francés”, following the old pilgrim’s route of St. James. He talks about his experience in this article, written for the University newspaper wissen leben.
A research sabbatical is a fine thing. You can use the time to make thorough preparations for a research project, for example. As an academic with a focus on spiritual care, I study pastoral care in difficult periods of people’s lives. It thus made sense to me to approach the subject within a context where a growing number of people currently are focusing on their own, individual spirituality: on the old pilgrim’s route of St. James, the “Camino Francés”, in Northern Spain. So off I trekked, following - in a quite literal sense - a grounded theory method: forming theories while having both feet firmly on the ground and making observations directly in the field - and without any preformulated hypotheses. In any case, I had to reject some assumptions I had. But first things first.
It is in the natural order of things to have your feet firmly on the ground. Anyone who goes hiking with new boots knows that you need to take the right approach and be as methodical as you can. So I had some made-to-measure insoles specially produced for me, as my weight of just over 90 kg (at the beginning of the walk) would be making quite heavy demands on my feet. I rubbed deer tallow into my feet every day to help them get through. One morning, I forgot to do this, and, promptly, a dreadful blister plagued my left foot for three days and made me limp.
Hypothesis No. 1: Overcrowded Way?
One of the assumptions I mentioned above was that the Way of St. James would be crowded with pilgrims in the wake of German comedian Hape Kerkeling’s recent bestseller describing his own journey along the Way. In fact, the numbers have been rising steadily for years. In 2018, over 320,000 people made the pilgrimage. Spaniards accounted for the largest share (45 percent), followed by Italians and Germans (around eight percent each). However, to say the Way was crowded, or that there were hords of pilgrims, would not be right. During most of days, pilgrims can chose whether to walk alone by themselves or to walk in pairs or small groups, since the numbers of pilgrims spread out. Indeed, there are stretches on which you barely see another soul. New hypothesis: one travels the Way of St. James alone, but one is never alone.
Hypothesis No. 2: Only religiously motivated people?
My second assumption was that it was primarily religious people who follow the Way that is so important in the history of Christian faith. On one of my first days, another pilgrim said, “If you go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, you find God. If you go on a pilgrimage to Rome, you find the Church. If you go on a pilgrimage to Santiago, you find yourself.” On the Way, I encountered not only Christians, but also Buddhists, Jews and Muslims. In my field notes (a kind of diary) I wrote the following:
When they begin talking, many of the pilgrims say that they are not religious - by which they mean “churchgoers”. One man - from Italy - said, “I am Christian, but not Catholic.” This may not very surprising when you witness the Vatican on a daily base. The Church seems to have lost even the pilgrims. On the camino it’s easy to understand why. You pass many impressive Churches on the Way, but only some of them are open. Candles can only be lit electronically, and the LED lamps shine behind a perspex case. It’s hardly an invitation to come for worship. Nothing spiritual is being offered in most of the churches along the Way, and you’ll be lucky to find a mass being celebrated in the evening - although there are between 100 and 200 pilgrims in the vicinity every day. Many of them have a heavy heart, many are overwhelmed with joy. Many churches ignore the steady flow of people from all over the world. It is simply not enough spiritual care to have your pilgrim’s passport stamped in a church. You can get a stamp in every pub.
Hypothesis No. 3: Tears are unavoidable?
Another of my assumptions was also - as I had already read in every book about the Way of St. James for preparation - that every pilgrim cries at least once. One explanation for this may be that one’s tears are the result of the physical and/or mental efforts made. On some days, the Way goes up and down by up to 1400 metres - which certainly is a challenge to pilgrims coming from the flatlands like the Münsterland. Many feet, shins and shoulders are severely “maltreated” and are a source of considerable pain. Tears can also be the result of the relentlessly arduous confrontations you have with yourself. Anyone who is walking on a seemingly endless and straight gravel path high up on the barren Meseta plateau, alone and without any shade, lost in thought, may well come across one or two shallow spots in his or her own biography. There must be a reason why taking the Camino used to be ordered as penance.
Once you have made it to the end of the 800 kilometres, you will have worked through pretty much everything for which, at home, you would need a year of psychoanalysis and supervision. That, too, can make you want to cry. My experience, though, was rather that I felt constantly overwhelmed by beauty.
That might sound a bit tacky, but that’s how it was. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the sceneries and the towns and cities with their grandiose cultural heritages. Best of all, though, were the people - the locals with all their hospitality who provide accommodation for pilgrims, and who still call out “Buen camino!” to the 125th pilgrim they’ve seen that day and provide them with water, grapes and fresh pancakes. One of the pilgrims said, “At home I read and hear so many negative things in the newspaper and on the radio. Here I meet only good people.” It’s enough to start you off crying. New hypothesis (to be verified from a religious/psychological point of view): Every pilgrim cries at least once - for joy.
This article first appeared in the University newspaper wissen