22 Sep Once a Pilgrim…
22 September 2018. Exactly one year ago Niels and I walked into St Peter’s Square. What seemed impossible when the idea of doing the Way of St Francis was first mentioned in a throwaway line, had become reality. There has been enough time to reflect on the experience. A number of things have become clear to me.
If I had a specific bucket list before starting the Cammino di San Francesco, I’m certain that doing a Camino would not have been on it. I’ve done my share of hiking. The southern tip of Africa is very beautiful. Yet I’ve always admired those who did a Camino.
For first-timers, there is a lot of uncertainty. I certainly felt that way. This uncertainty can be seen in Facebook posts openly asking, “Do you think I can do it?” and many other questions about equipment, routes, accommodation, fellow pilgrims, and the like.
Why Do a Pilgrimage?
Before leaving on the Way of St Francis, I did ask the question of why do it in the first place. Not only was I uncertain, but also, I was very unclear within myself as to why I wanted to tackle such an apparently insane venture at my age (63).
Almost any reason would apply to me: To be with a friend? My friendship with Niels was an unknown quantity, although I loved hiking with him in the past. Travel abroad? Certainly. Adventure? Oh yes! To impress others? Of course, although it’s more about being impressive but not boastful. An addiction to walking? Maybe for Niels but not for me. Because famous people do Caminos? No. Walking in the footsteps of a Saint? I’ve always had an affinity with St Francis, even though I’m not Roman Catholic.
“Finding God” and Altered States of Consciousness
One can easily believe that “finding God” is why people do pilgrimages. However, only 11% of Camino walkers cite purely religious reasons as the prime motivation for their walk.
This was furthest from my mind. I grew up in a very conventional Christian home. Faith in the Holy Trinity was a given. My only concession now is to call myself an unconventional Christian who accepts the validity of all spiritual approaches. That includes non-Christian religions and philosophies from the East and West, as well as atheism. They all present different sides of the same truth.
From an early age, I’ve felt driven to gain a better understanding of God. It has been my mission to kick open the doors of perception and understanding blocking the way. Two near-death experiences have something to do with it. They made me realise that life after death and the Light and Love of God make up a greater reality. The borders between our here and now reality and the afterlife are much thinner and more permeable than people believe them to be.
Altered state experiences are also means to experience this greater reality. Many of mine have happened in nature, as when I was in the forest around La Verna. I’ve had many as a result of using Kabbalistic meditational methods, which are specialised forms of prayer and meditation.
Perhaps the need to do a trek of this nature has always been lurking in my unconscious mind. It needed something to make it surface in my conscious thinking. The fact that Niels offered me the opportunity was the Universe coming together and making it happen for me.
Perhaps it’s not as much asking why one does a Camino. Laying down specific reasons before starting can lead to either disappointment or reward. Reasons can remain unfulfilled. I don’t say that one should not have reasons to do a Camino. My view is that keeping an open mind and cherishing what one finds is far more important. I have found so much more than any of the vague reasons I may have had at the outset.
One of the biggest rewards is to be far less affected by the insanity of the world. There are still times when it gets to me. There are many special cruelties and evils that can make me seriously lose it. The difference between before and after doing the Way of St Francis is that I can restore my personal balance so much quicker. What has happened is that my meditational techniques work far more effectively and efficiently since doing the Via Francigena di San Francesco.
What has truly surprised me is a quiet sense of freedom. It is both a reaffirmation as well as a continuous discovery of what anchors me and keeps me in balance. While I may occasionally misplace it due to the slings and arrows of life, it’s becoming easier for me to return to this state of being. I can be myself without fear.
How about doing it Again?
Many Facebook posts reflect a need to do another Camino after completing one. There are many people who repeat the same routes as well as do different Caminos. Many who have done such a walk would rather be on the trail than trapped in the trials of regular life.
Initially, after completing the Way of St Francis, my feeling was “no, never again.” The experience was so huge that I needed time for it to saturate me. Now, after writing about my experiences, I’m beginning to change my tune. There are so many places I would still love to see.
While the walk may end, the quest never does. It is a journey that spans several lifetimes. Once your feet are on the path you can never turn back. You may rest. Retrace steps. Get completely lost. Go back if you may. Do the same route but you cannot repeat the experience.
It is a pilgrimage of the mind, heart, and soul. The venture inward never ends. Once a pilgrim, always a pilgrim.