Views along the "El Camino" path. Courtesy of Faye Tischler and Clare Faherty

Last fall, four members of St. Luke Catholic Church in River Forest completed a 71.5-mile pilgrimage in Spain, beginning in a town called Sarria and ending in Santiago.

The Spanish term for the long walk to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, where the remains of St. James are said to have been buried, is “El Camino de Santiago.” In English, it is known simply as “The Way.”

El Camino was one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the Middle Ages. Completing it qualified the pilgrim for an indulgence, i.e. atonement for certain sins.

In the 12th century, Pope Callixtus II wrote, “The pilgrim route is for those who are good: it is the lack of vices, the thwarting of the body, the increase of virtues, pardon for sins, sorrow for the penitent. … It takes us away from luscious foods, it makes gluttonous fatness vanish, constrains the appetites of the flesh which attack the fortress of the soul, cleanses the spirit, leads us to contemplation, humbles the haughty.”

Mortification of the flesh and revering the bones of St. James in the cathedral in Santiago was not what motivated Clare and Paul Faherty and Renee and Terry Norton to hike through the Spanish countryside for eight days. In fact, during our interview, it took them a minute or two to recall the name of the town where the journey had ended because for them, arriving at the destination was secondary to what they had experienced along the way.

Initially, their motivation to take on the eight-day challenge came from a 2010 film about the pilgrimage, starring Martin Sheen, directed by his son, Emilio Estevez, titled The Way. They were not expecting a “born again” experience. All four have completed training as deacon couples in the Archdiocese of Chicago, are active in St. Luke Parish and are deeply rooted in the Catholic faith.

“The pilgrimage for me wasn’t a spiritual endeavor,” Terry recalled. “Renee and I saw the movie and said, ‘Wow, look at that beautiful scenery.'”

The four, all retired, talked about being motivated by the physical challenge, the chance to meet other people, the adventure of being in a country none had visited before, and spending a week sharing an intense experience with best friends.

These days, walking at least 100 kilometers of the route earns the walker a “compostela” (certificate of accomplishment). Traditionally, as with most pilgrimages, The Way of Saint James began at one’s front door and ended at the pilgrimage terminus, but today many pilgrims begin their walk in Sarria, a point of departure that qualifies the walker for a compostela.

Challenges and surprises

Many surprises awaited River Foresters as they journeyed through the Spanish countryside, not all of them pleasant.

“The movie made it look a lot easier than it is,” said Renee Norton. “One time we were caught in a hail storm. The trip taught me I can be pretty smug about thinking I’m in pretty good physical condition, that I can do what I want to do. There were a lot of challenges.”

“We’d be exhausted at the end of the day,” Paul Faherty recalled. “We all had sore feet, and I had a problem with my knee, so I had to take off half a day and ride the bus.”

“It rained a lot,” Clare Faherty added, “and no one told us about the many steep hills.”

Another less-than-comfortable surprise was that most of the people in their group of 21 hikers had voted absentee for Governor Romney and not for President Obama, whom the River Forest foursome were backing. When they received the news that their candidate had won, they had to stifle their enthusiasm in consideration of the other group members.

One of the pleasant surprises for the four liberals was how a group with diverse politics, pieties and personalities were able to form a caring community in little over a week.

“During the trip,” Clare recalled, “there were a lot of people who weren’t voting the way we were. It reminded me that people can really disagree with me on a lot of things and be terrific people. I really thought about that a lot.”

Paul was struck by the fact that “on the pilgrimage, a sense of community happened quickly. We got to be friendly with everybody. If someone was lagging, people would be there walking with them. It confirmed for me that this is the way the church ought to be.”

Renee phrased her reaction in a different way: “I respected everyone on the trip. I knew there were people I wouldn’t want to spend a lot of time with, but I was glad I got to know them.”

Clare speculated that one of the factors enabling the rapid creation of community was the “suffering” they shared. Everyone in the group felt the same aching muscles and weariness at the end of the day.

Walking in the same direction, Terry Norton thought, provided a metaphor for what a common purpose and shared experience can create in a diverse group of people.

“Before we left,” he added, “I was totally absorbed in watching the news and reading the newspapers about who was going to win and who was going to lose. But over in Spain, I totally forgot about the whole thing. I was just into the moment of walking up a hill or looking at the beauty around me. I had totally forgotten the things that had concerned me so much.

“That was a good experience. It helped me get in touch with some deeper questions. I was able to focus more. We all go along every day and think the same things over and over, like we’re in a rut. When you go away to someplace totally different and, especially if there’s a religious aspect to it, you’re able to scrub away what you ordinarily think about and focus on larger issues — like who you are and where you’re going and how long you’re going to live.”

Despite having a large chunk of time with nothing to do other than walk, Paul said, “I don’t think any of us felt bored. When we live our everyday lives, I think we sort of get settled in. There’s something about being in an environment like that that allows you to break the pattern. I liked to watch the Spaniards. We went to a bar, and the people there seemed totally different. They seemed to be much more laid back. It was good to see how they live and recognize they’re doing things in certain ways better than we do.”

Walking 9-10 miles a day got Clare thinking about refugees. “I thought what it would be like trudging along, not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night,” she said, “and it made me realize how privileged I am. Hiking up and down those hills was hard for me but nothing compared to what many other people go through.”

Terry wasn’t motivated to join the pilgrimage by any great spiritual longing and didn’t experience anything life-changing during his eight days of walking. He did, however, acknowledge that hiking up and down those hills in the beautiful Spanish countryside, especially when he found himself walking alone, did have an impact on him.

“Here at home,” he said, “a kind of radio is always on in our brains. When you go someplace far away and walk by yourself for a while, I think God can get into us — into our minds, hearts and souls more easily … because we make time which isn’t ordinarily there.”

Paul had a different angle on the need to get away.

“One of the things I was thinking about while we were doing the trip,” he said, “was that we could do the same thing here. We could take a pilgrimage in our minds. We could take a walk and push aside the distractions of our lives and think about things clearly.”

Even though the Fahertys and the Nortons didn’t begin their eight-day pilgrimage seeking any dramatic religious insights, they did experience much of what Pope Callixtus said they would: “Thwarting of the body cleanses the spirit, leads to contemplation.”

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Tom Holmes

Tom's been writing about religion – broadly defined – for years in the Journal. Tom's experience as a retired minister and his curiosity about matters of faith will make for an always insightful exploration...