Healing and Memory, Part 3: El Camino

I returned from the Camino portugués a few days ago. The blisters and sunburn are still there, but somehow the time remains surreal. My sister and I walked nearly 250 kilometers in nine days, from Porto to Santiago de Compostela. This is the “Portuguese Way,” one of the traditional Camino (the Way or Path) routes to the ancient pilgrimage site of Santiago. The pilgrimage is one I have longed to do for years before this research project began. The reasons that pilgrims undertake this voyage vary wildly; for me, they were spiritual but (admittedly) vague. I thought that I would have plenty of time to contemplate my life and discover something profound about myself.

While I did indeed discover that my mind and body are capable of walking over 25 kilometers per day (often in 40°C heat), I was otherwise  mistaken. I hardly had time to at all to think — other than about my aching feet, how many kilometers remained for that day, and where the next arrow pointed. My mind was completely absorbed by these basic, tangible things. I found the bodily sensations to be consuming. In the end, the concrete experience for me was the spiritual experience. The Camino took me out of my life for a week; it allowed me to escape from worry and overthinking. I had not been sure about what my expectations for the Camino were, but in the end it met them, albeit not in the manner I expected.

After walking the Camino and meeting many other pilgrims, I drew three primary conclusions about the importance of place in pilgrimage. First, as I just described, the physical (and physically taxing) nature of the Camino allows for mental, emotional, and spiritual healing. The dynamic act of walking allows you to clear your head, turn over a new leaf. Second, as the name would suggest, the Way has historical and religious significance. After all, pilgrims choose to follow this age-old path because of some belief in its sacredness. Thus, the place itself symbolizes a personal journey for pilgrims. Lastly, this common conviction in the sacredness of place leads to another significance of place. Because so many people believe in the power of place-specific pilgrimage, the place draws people together. It creates a community of pilgrims who share a goal, exchange stories, and undergo personal growth together. The universality of place therefore makes individual healing collective. I am more than ever convinced of the essentialness of place to pilgrimage as a healing practice…which is why I am already making plans to walk the Camino francés!


  1. bchristenson says:

    I especially enjoyed this post, although all of your project is interesting to read about. I think your realization while hiking about the simplicity of the spiritual experience is actually quite profound. Often, bringing massive expectations to a spiritual experience can hinder you from it, and I find especially with hiking that simple moments are often instructive in unexpected ways. I led a hiking trip for two weeks this summer, and I can certainly identify with the constant focus on the discomfort of the activity. However, I found that the activity allowed my body to become a teacher. None of that is wholly different from things you shared, I only wanted to say that it sounds like you learned a value not held highly in Western culture.

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