On the Way

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 books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.