"Buen Camino!" is Spanish for "Bon Voyage" or literally "Good Way". It is especially used to greet pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago, Europe´s most ancient and famous pilgrimage. I finished my fourth of seven days on this typically 30-day journey on the Camino Frances, a 480 miles trek from the French border to Santiago de Compostella, where St James the Apostle is believed to be buried.
For over 1,000 years, all sorts of people have embarked on this adventure: the young, the older, the physically fit or otherwise, the spiritual, the religious, the adventurous, the home-bound, prompted by a multitude of reasons. I have met people from all Five Continentes and various walks of life: Anglican priests, Buddhist enthusiasts, devout Catholics, thoughtful atheists. Some have a clear idea why they are on this journey. Most have only a vague notion. Many of us have a strong yet unconscious motivation why we are on this pilgrimage. It´s usually after a few days - perhaps a week - on the journey, when the newness of the adventure wears off, when our bones are bruised, our muscles ache, our feel calloused with blisters, and our knees beg for rest, that deeper questions begin to emerge. The inner search takes a turn.
As for me, I initially wanted to join Paul Malvaux SJ, a brother Jesuit Tertain, as a way to celebrate my 10th Anniversary of priesthood and to listen further to how the Lord is inviting me to serve in the years to come. Yet, the deeper reason(s) remains an elusive mystery to me.
Something interesting is emerging however. I am discovering that many, if not most pilgrims, do not embark on this way primarily because of religious reasons. Some examples: a twenty-three year-old Korean young woman wants to clear her head, perhaps clouded by an early onset of "quarter life crisis". She shared, without knowing that my companion and I are priests, that she is struggling with her Catholic faith. An older man from La Reunion (Africa) unfamiliar with Jesuits asked us if we believed in Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims go to Mass at night a receive a special blessing, whether they are Catholic or not, mixed with curiosity and hesitation of what the blessing may do to them. A middle age woman from Korea was moved to tears when she received such a blessing for the first time in her life. Another group of four Catholic pilgrims from France asked us to celebrate the Eucharist with them, albeit only half of them regularly attends Mass.
Regardless of relgious persuasion, most people seem to be looking for some sort of inner transformation. Many have written testimonies of the remarkable change in them after finishing the Camino. Such witnesses clearly influence the underlying intentions of most pilgrims. (A big reason many Koreans are undertaking the Camino is because a Korean author recently wrote a popular book on his experience on the Way). However, more than a few have written of disappointments after walking the Camino. My companion Paul, who has completed 70 of his 90-day pilgrimage from Belgium, shared this observation: "The key is attitude. I have seen people who are incredulous of faith open up along the way, especially through interactions with other pilgrims. Their openness allows transformation to take place. The difference is how one approaches this question: Am I open to what is to come on the way?"
The Camino symbolizes our pilgrimage in life, for all of us are on a unique path, walking at our own pace and fashion. Walking today in the rain and mud reminds me of a similar experience in the mountain province of Kalinga in the Philippines. What I am discovering now depeens what I have been taught about trusting in Divine Providence last December: am I open to being transformed as I walk my way, toward what is to come?
Yesterday was the Feast of the Sacred Heart. I was struck by the first reading of God´s love that seeks out each of us pilgrims: "As a shepherd keeps all his flock ... I myself will pasture my sheep, I myself will show them where to rest - it is the Lord who speaks. I shall look for the lost one, bring back the stray, bandage the wounded and make the weak strong. I shall watch over the fat and healthy. I shall be a true shepherd to them" (Ex 34:15-16). The Gospel further emphasized this commitment of God in Jesus, the Good Shepherd whose care for each person moves him to "leave the ninety-nine [sheep] in the wilderness and go after the missing one till he found it ... And when he found it, he would joyfully take it on his shoulders" and gather his friends and neighbors to rejoice, saying "I have found my sheep that was lost" (Luke 15:3-7).
I am moved by the compassion of God. Regardless of where we are in our pilgrimages of life, God in Jesus in willing to journey more that halfway to meet us and bring us home. The more we are "open toward what is to come," the more we will be transformed on the way. Not an easy attitude for me to embrace with consistency. Yet, I am enlivened by the Good News, that while you and I may be searching, lost, stuck, or hesistant, Someone is searching for us ...
p.s. - I bought my prayer locket with me and continue to pray for those of you listed in the prayer scroll it carries.