Saturday, October 24, 2009

Things I was Wrong About, Part I

When Marty and I began talking about this project, I thought I had a fairly clear sense of what the camino would be like. We were setting out to compare "traditional" pilgrimage to immersion experiences and service learning. We wanted to do the camino as a benchmark, and basically I thought my sense of what pilgrimages like the camino are about would more or less be confirmed. And while I bought several camino books, I'd stayed away from them on grounds that things like the camino (as also, e.g., the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius,) should be experienced first, and only then read about.

Well, my understanding of the camino changed considerably in the walking.

I'd like to begin to 'fess up about some of the things I was wrong about in my intellectual noodling about pilgrimage. Some of these repeat themes picked up before, but now I begin to see them as lessons--or un-lessons, since these are things I was wrong about before we hit the road.

1. I expected more explicit religiosity among the pilgrims, and within myself. While many pilgrims doubtless had religious motivations for the trek, many more that we spoke to did not. I did meet one man wearing a two and a half-foot crucifix slung across his chest. He asked where the closest albergue was. I told him, but didn't pursue the conversation. Most of the churches we passed were closed, which contributed to this post-religious sense. The rare open churches tended to have a person sitting by the door stamping people's pilgrim credentials (the cards we carried to get stamped at the various towns,) and collecting donations. The few congregations we intersected at worship times tended to be a few elderly locals, an elderly priest, and a number of pilgrims. I don't know if the other pilgrims felt "fed" by these half-hearted services, but I did not, and didn't stay more than a few minutes. Marty had more patience for these than I did.
The churches are magnificent, and closed or nearly empty. The pilgrims are often motivated by a powerful spiritual purpose that is no longer, for most of them, expressed in the language of traditional Christianity. Immersions and the kind of non-walking pilgrimages that people go on tend to be much more explicitly religious--really, I think many times people who travel with religious motivation call their trips pilgrimages, even though those trips bear little resemblance to the camino and its ilk. Marty has written here about the incarnate spirituality of the trail that, even for us theological/religious types, was more about experiencing the walking of the day and the companionship of the road than praying across Spain. This may be a failing on our part, but if so, we seemed to share it with most of those we met.
The camino, like many people in the contemporary West, is spiritual but not religious. I am not certain, but I wonder if this has always been the case.

Next mistake--next post--pain.


  1. I wonder if the mediaeval pilgrims would have understood the concept of spiritual-but-not-religious. I think (and may not be right) that the symbols of the carved stone and the windows spoke much more clearly to them. (There were few other media and not as many stories to compete with the Christian mythos.) I think even the religious minority of the post-WWII era carry their/our faith with a lot more baggage, a whole slew of filters and Comp Lit and psychology and wariness about what religion has done for good or for ill. If it is possible that the mediaeval people just swam in Christendom, without analysing it as we cannot fail to do, I think it would have been a lot easier to see saints and miracles. I suspect that almost as large a proportion of them (assuming a Them without a particular time or place, which is impossible) as of us were not terribly interested in theology or in anything except getting by. Moreover, I think, guessing from Chaucer and just my (almost certainly inadequate) reading about pilgrimage and the Crusades, that a lot of them were 'religious' without being spiritual. People WENT to church. People went on pilgrimage. But that doesn't mean they thought about it except in 'get out of jail free' terms.

    And everything took longer. Walking the camino was a choice among many forms of transportation, for you; they could walk, or ride in a cart, or on a horse. Even if they were rich, their choices were limited. It would be interesting to know if their journey to the official beginning of the camino looked much different to them from the camino itself. Are there any mediaeval diarists, or even devotional commentors who drew the distinction?

  2. Laura,

    Great set of questions. Indeed, degree of "background religiosity" would be critical. I think "religious without being spiritual" hits it exactly. Of course, any spiritual transformation can be resisted--prayer itself can be a way fo keeping God at bay.

    I'll ponder more. If you run across any such medieval commentators, please pass them along..