Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Pilgrimage in the 21st Century? I walk along the Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela.

In today's hyper-connected, accelerated and materialistic life is there still a place for pilgrimage - where one walks, often alone and frequently over great distances towards a sacred destination? It is slow, it is basic, it is introspective; in direct opposition to what characterizes contemporary society. To help answer the question, I decided to again pick up my knapsack and follow in the footsteps of medieval seekers along the Camino de Santiago. This time to walk the Camino Portugués from Porto, Portugal to Santiago de Compostela, Spain; a distance of about 250 kilometers.

Stamps collected along the route in the Credencial. Required to stay at pilgrims' hostels and later at completion, to claim the Compostela certificate.
How to prepare for such an endeavour? In addition to sorting through gear and roughly planning the itinerary, I decide that besides ensuring that I was physically fit, I wanted to spiritually prepare for the journey. But what does spiritual preparation actually mean? As I reflected about the purpose of my walk, the idea of somehow needing to re-connect with the Divine kept coming to mind. Communion with the sacred. Leave the everyday world to re-visit the mysterium. But how to enter into a mental framework conducive to such an other-worldly destination? Well, other-worldly to some extent, as at the same time, it is of course very much a long distance walk amidst our quotidian world of rain, sun, fatigue and needing to find food and accommodation along the trail.

Last time I partook of the Catholic sacrament of Communion was ten years ago following the death of my father. In preparation, I made confession for the first time in many, many years - to the priest who administered Anointing of the Sick to my dad - in a corridor of the hospital where he was dying, or as I liked to think - preparing for his own final great spiritual journey.

I felt that prior to embarking on this trip, that I would again receive Holy Communion as a way to identify this trip as not just a long distance hike through ancient villages but also as pilgrimage to help deepen my sense of connection to that which is Holy.

Early morning at the Porto Cathedral. Seagull and I alone at the closed gates. Obtained my pilgrim's passport and attended a glorious high mass with choir and chamber music prior to setting out - way too late as it turned out!

I began walking after Mass at the Cathedral in Porto on April 1, 2018. It is Easter Sunday, and also curiously April Fools' Day! Auspicious day to start. Fool or Pilgrim? Maybe I'm both. The thought pops in: Am I kidding myself? Am I just a plain fool to attempt this sacred journey? As every peregrination starts with a first step, I distract myself from dark thoughts of self doubt and begin walking.

From Porto there are three main routes leading to Santiago: The Coastal Route, The Caminho Central and the Seaside Route. (As I did not begin my journey in Lisbon, I will not be discussing the route from Lisbon to Porto.)

The Coastal Route, initially confusingly, does not always hug the coast as does the newer, and some say, inauthentic, recently configured Seaside Route (Senda Litoral). Not wanting to slog through the industrial outskirts of Porto, I decided for my first day I would follow this Seaside Route out of the city.  I joined the traditional medieval path - the Central Way - the following day and continued along it all the way to the Cathedral in Santiago.

I walked the Camino Portugués like this:

Day One: Porto via Matosinhos to Lavra. 22km
Day Two: Lavra via Vila do Conde to Rates. 24km.
Day Three: Rates via Barcelos to Portela Tamel  São Pedro. 24km
Day Four: Tamel to Ponte de Lima. 24km
Day Five: Ponte de Lima to Rubiàs. 20km.
Day Six: Rubiàs via Valença (Portugal) to Tui (Spain). 20km.
Day Seven: Tui to Porriño. 17km.
Day Eight: Porriño to Redondale. 16km.
Day Nine: Redondela to Pontevedra. 20km.
Day Ten: Pontevedra to Caldas De Reis. 22km.
Day Eleven: Caldas de Reis to Padrón. 19km.
Day Twelve: Padrón to Santiago de Compostela. 25km.

Along The Way, I stayed at albergues, the shared accommodation pilgrims' hostels. The camaraderie, commiseration and motivation provided by our multinational fluid community of walkers was always appreciated. The snoring is irritatingly identical in any language! Addresses are easily located in tourist information centers, by word of mouth, Camino handbooks and online sources. For lists of accommodations and general trip preparation, I used John Brierley's book, "A Pilgrim's Guide to the Camino Portugués", guidebooks I downloaded onto my iPad from The Confraternity of Saint James website, and the comprehensive, "Wise Pilgrim Guides" app for the Camino Portugués. In Porto, I picked up "The Portuguese Way to Santiago de Compostela" by Sérgio Fonseca.

Crossing from Valença, Portugal into Tui, Spain. Smiling despite the blisters and a week of rain. The poncho was another gift along The Way - as we liked to say, from St. James. In this case, from a fellow peregrino.

A highlight for me - aside from arriving in Santiago, was the magic of Padron; a town one day's walk from Santiago de Compostela. Padron plays great importance in the history of St. James' mythic journey from Palestine to the Iberian Peninsula. According to the legend, it is here that Santiago came to preach the Gospel in the First Century. After several years, he returned to Palestine and was beheaded by King Herod.  It is also to Padron that Santiago's remains were mysteriously returned on a stone ship by his disciples. Over the centuries, the Cathedral in Santiago was built to house the crypt of Santiago. Pilgrims have been coming to venerate this place for two thousand years.

Monte Santiaguiño. A steep climb above Padron is an often overlooked secret of the Camino. This is the place that marks where Santiago preached in Galicia before returning to Jerusalem. It is also to where his remains were mysteriously transported - to begin the timeless pilgrimage along the Camino De Santiago.

The walk was very satisfying along many dimensions. Travelling by foot through ancient medieval towns in Portugal and Spain was almost akin to time-traveling. To appreciate that millions of devout pilgrims - and lowlife criminals doing penance also walked this ancient route, gave me a feeling of kinship with a larger humanity. That we helped one another along the way reflected the ethic that comes from participating in this time-honoured grand walk.

The answer to the question that I posed at the start of these reflections is a resounding, "Yes!" Walking along these paths - sometimes indeed along ancient Roman stone roads - is a meaningful and necessary counterpoint to the contemporary social order which emphasizes the acquisition of limited material things and consequent unhealthy feelings of greed, envy and ultimately a disquieting sense of purposelessness.

The yellow arrows that guided me from my fist step outside the Porto Cathedral and onto Obradoiro Square in front of the Cathedral in Santiago taught me that no matter where I am, I can always find my way to God.

Buen camino!

With work having begun in 1075, ongoing restoration of the Cathedral in Santiago is necessary. A reminder perhaps that there is also continuous work to be done along our own journey to self realization.