The Catholic Thing
On the Way Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Thursday, 08 May 2014

Last Saturday I walked into Santiago de Compostela after hiking more than 100 kilometers along what in Spain is called El Camino – the centuries-old pilgrimage on foot to the Cathedral of St. James the Apostle.

It’s quite easy to write that, almost as easy as to read it. But if you have never walked “the Way,” you will probably not understand what those few words mean. It sounds like a country stroll. And if you saw the movie “The Way” with Martin Sheen (which I wrote about here), you might be tempted to think of it as merely some yuppified “spiritual” experience.

Walk alongside the people, though, young and old, in various states of stiffness and injury, feet bandaged and sore, bad ankles, bad knees, bad backs, sun-burned and peeling, arriving at the cathedral after long, contemplative kilometers. You won’t confuse it with spiritual tourism. (With only five days free to walk, we did it faster than is really good for you, too.) There’s a funny tee-shirt – deeper than first seems – for sale here: it shows bandaged feet and reads, Me muero por llegar. (“I’m dying to get there.”)

Early Christianity, before it became known as such, was just he hodos in Greek: The Way. Christ called Himself the Way, so whether you’re still on the journey or at the end, it’s all, scripturally, Him.

We engage crucial philosophical and theological questions today, quite necessary to preserving the authentic way and fundamental human things. But Christianity is not solely ideas or principles. It’s primarily a way to live. That way is not simple and, though it’s universal, each person must tread the path as God gives it.

        Robert Royal on the Way

Walking with others, you quickly note differences. Some attack hills, others take them slow. Some describe every ache and pain – of which there are more and novel kinds than you believed – others stoically bear all in silence. Some confess their whole lives while they walk, others are as great a mystery at the end as the beginning.

The path itself is different than you think, too. For most of us, a hill is where you give the car extra gas. A walker knows that uphill slopes, especially the long slow ones, can bring soul and body to crisis.

I am a regular long-distance walker at home. But never realized until several hard days that the downhill slopes punish most. Virgil wrote in the Aeneid: facilis descensus Averno, “the descent into Hell is easy.” But who knew that many descents over many days become a kind of Hell?

The Way unfolds on several levels at once, and shifts several times in a single day. One minute, God’s in His Heaven and all’s right with the world, simply because your feet don’t hurt. The next, rain blows in and you realize that God, Heaven, and Earth have their own way, which is not yours. At moments, the sheer effort makes you doubtful of the whole enterprise.

Wending your way between farms and fields, towns and industrial zones, you pass through various states of spiritual exaltation and dejection.  You can’t stand another pace (each step is a prayer, they say, but it’s also a pain, which they don’t). Then you’re convinced that devotion to the overall journey somehow gathers up all highs and lows into a spiritual architecture beyond human ken.

There are mornings straight from Dylan Thomas’ Fern Hill:

And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white
With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all
       Shining, it was Adam and maiden,
               The sky gathered again
       And the sun grew round that very day.
So it must have been after the birth of the simple light
In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm
       Out of the whinnying green stable
               On to the fields of praise.

And evenings when you wonder whether you will be able to rise to do it all over again.  

The Camino certificate of Robertum Royal

In his great book The Path to Rome, Hilaire Belloc describes trying to cross the Alps on foot – and failing: “from the height of Weissenstein I saw, as it were, my religion. I mean, humility, the fear of death, the terror of height and of distance, the glory of God, the infinite potentiality of reception whence springs that divine thirst of the soul; my aspiration also towards completion, and my confidence in the dual destiny.”

Such experiences are probably far more common than the world acknowledges. Let me record one. I walked the Camino with many intentions (including everyone involved in TCT) and invoked the Trinity, angels, saints – St. James, to be sure – and our two new pope/saints. My central questions got answers. And overall I finished reconciled to the truth that, like the painful steps of the Camino, it’s good for us not to see too far ahead. We walk by faith not sight – and walk better that way.    

But my wife labored heroically on the Camino with a special intention for one of our children. As we entered Santiago – like many European cities a beautiful old core surrounded by already crumbling new suburbs and grim concrete offices – she turned to me and said: “I’ve looked at you a half dozen times the past two days and briefly seen some spirit walking with you – your father [deceased] or some literary figure, I can’t tell. But I saw it so clearly just now, I finally had to tell you.”

My father could never be confused with a literary figure. And if my wife were imagining something out of sheer exhaustion, she would not mix one with the other. I’m inclined to think she saw something, in full sunlight on a plain Saturday afternoon in an ordinary modern city center, no less.

Who it was, I cannot say. The answer to that question, like many more on the Camino, wasn’t given. But I am grateful for the experience anyway, and the company.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

Rules for Commenting

The Catholic Thing welcomes comments, which should reflect a sense of brevity and a spirit of Christian civility, and which, as discretion indicates, we reserve the right to publish or not. And, please, do not include links to other websites; we simply haven't time to check them all.

Comments (8)Add Comment
written by Bgc, May 08, 2014
I walked the Camino to "find myself", but instead found peace regarding my deceased brother. Although he always had a better heart than mine, he was not particularly religious, and I often prayed for him and concerned myself with his state now where he is. When I was at the middle of the Camino, I found out that I would earn a plenary indulgence at the end, and that it could be for a deceased person. At the tomb of the apostle, that was my request.

My mother later told me that, on the day prior to my arrival at Santiago de Compostela, she dreamed of me and him together and rejoicing. I don't think about him nowadays as often as I thought then. I won't say I know that he is in peace, but now I have great reason to hope.
written by Jack,CT, May 08, 2014
Robert,very inspiring and poetic.
I love the end and I truly believe
your dad was there as the pic of you shows
a middle aged man, tired yet inspired by the

I have softened my approach to things in life
since i have started reading here daily.
Despite a stubborn way after a few years

of reading here daily has improved my life,

and I have come to a point in my life that

I have chosen to do what you said, "Walk with

Faith not sight."

I reflect these days on the "Clinical" way I

approached life as a person of Medicine (Retired)

and I suppose it was a coping mechanism for all

the suffering one sees but I am proud to say I

was always available and not too good" to take

"one" by the hand and simply "stay" as they

took that last "Before" going home to be with

"there father",God I pray this may be my own

fate but either way I have not Seen" my father

since May/1989 and if I die with 1/10th the

faith as he did I shall feel a "Hand" even in

a empty room-

So thanks for softening a cold heart as much

as Bishop Sheen, Amazing how a Little Article

written for daily consumption feeds a soul.

God Bless

written by MJ Anderson, May 08, 2014
Wonderful reflection! Thank you for igniting a new yearning to return to the Camino. The literary references are particularly appreciated. Must dig out Path to Rome. I hope you will write more of your Camino experience.
written by Schm0e, May 08, 2014
Very much dug this.
written by Myshkin, May 08, 2014
Agree entirely with MJ Anderson. As for apparitions on the Camino, Google "Spooky Camino Stories" to see some of these ... If I had to venture a guess I would say it was probably your Guardian Angel ....
written by Randall, May 08, 2014
I've wanted to do this pilgrimage for years. Now that I live in Poland, I suppose it's more feasible. Ditto on the reference to Belloc's book - one I've read 3 times through and God willing, will read many more times.
written by Jack,CT, May 09, 2014
Articles such as this in 2014 are a big reason in my
opinion why the fundreaiser ist doin well!
written by debby, May 10, 2014
Sat Am - a few days late to read this. Awesome way to begin
Mother's Day weekend for a mommy of 3 in very different places along their way to Him...

@Jack - one Scripture for you: "I MAKE ALL THINGS NEW."
all things!
offer all your past, all wounds, those you have self-inflicted by your personal sin and those you have received via others' sins, offer them to Him. Let Him enfold your wounds in His, transform these marks of sins, recreate them into the hallmarks of salvation. Our wounds of sin are the locks on our souls - He is The Key....look how He loves you. He called you when you were barely aware of Him and gave you the privilege of being a midwife to eternity for so many souls.......what a HOLY LIFE you have lived.

@Robert - "I walked the Camino with many intentions (including everyone involved in TCT) and invoked the Trinity, angels, saints – St. James, to be sure – and our two new pope/saints." i cannot receive a more wonderful gift this Mother's Day (too old to have another baby!).
i am receiving this intention of yours and taking it to Mass, the Ever-Present Sacrifice, the Foot-of-the-Cross. i will chose to believe (once again) that He makes All Things New. He takes the most impossible horrendous sin, kills death with death, transforms and recreates Mankind's Worst into God's Means of Salvation. HE IS THE RISEN LORD OF LIFE!

i cannot thank you enough for carrying my heart in yours on The Way.
i long to make that walk one day - if it be God's Holy Will.
blessings and xo to your beloved wife - debby

Write comment
smaller | bigger

security code
Write the displayed characters