Walking the ancient Camino pilgrimage routes means travelling light from start to end. Unburdened of our everyday trappings and routine, for many the walk becomes part of their spiritual journey. This summer, Mr Paul Ambridge (Physics teacher and Housemaster) returned to tackle another stretch of the Camino. Here he tells the School’s Head of Geography and Assistant Housemaster, Mr Andrew Lavis, why the pilgrimage is so meaningful to him…
The Camino de Santiago is the name of any of the pilgrimage routes to the shrine of the apostle St. James the Great in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many take up this route as a form of spiritual path or retreat, for their spiritual growth. Some pilgrims undertake the whole distance in one attempt while others return to walk different sections of it over several years to complete the entire journey. Several of Worth’s teachers, as well as Fr Peter one of the School chaplains, have walked sections of the journey in the last few years.
What inspired you to participate in this venture?
I have been on a personal spiritual journey over the last few years. As part of this exploration of my faith I read a book called The Pilgrimage written by Paulo Coelho. I was especially taken by his style of writing. The book is quite fanciful and is not written in a factual or literal sense. However, it felt as if the author had a direct link to my inner thoughts. I was mesmerized and continued to read another four or five of his books, including The Alchemist, although none of them had the same impact on me as The Pilgrimage.
What does participating in the Camino entail?
On a practical level people walk for 20 to 25 km a day stopping at hostels along the way. The best hostels are parish hostels. There is normally no charge and you often help cook and clear up with the other pilgrims and sleep on the floor on foam mattresses. You leave a donation if you wish. The most expensive hostels are only 10 Euros.
Each person travels light – carrying as little as they feel they need. Each year my pack gets lighter: a change of socks and pants, a towel and not much else. I shower in my clothes and let them dry on me. However, the journey is far more than a test of endurance or a hike. It’s a highly emotional and spiritual journey because you have time and space to reflect; you have no worries or concerns. All you have to do is walk. The way is signed with shells and yellow arrows, and every village and town will have hostels. A bed for the night can always be found.
The conversations you have with strangers are open and relaxed, and there is a very strong feeling of belonging. Not everyone initially goes on the Camino for spiritual reasons but when you meet someone who is just doing it for the exercise after a short time talking with them they say there is something that they can’t put their finger on, something special, and they are getting more from the journey than they expected.
What have been some of the particularly moving experiences on the Camino that you’d like to share?
I met a young woman who was a PE teacher. We were at one of the better hostels which had a communal footbath and we started talking. Her specialist sport was Judo which as you may be aware is a sport I was involved in for some years. The next day I met her on the walk and I noticed she had something in her hand. She was carrying three stones. When I asked her about these she said that they were burdens she was carrying and would throw them in the sea at the end of the walk.
She then went on to tell me she had been in an accident on a bike and had suffered a head injury which had taken some time to heal and had shaken her confidence. This was one of the stones. The second she was carrying was the upset she had experienced when, with a group of students on a school trip, a motorcyclist hit their coach at high speed. She went out to help the motorcyclist and he died in her arms. We then had a break at a café and she went off with a group she had met earlier.
That evening we arrived at a parish hostel and a member of the group I was travelling with noticed the same young woman sitting by herself staring into space. She suggested I went over and talk to her. As I sat down beside her and asked if she was okay she collapsed onto me and sobbed like a baby. I held her tight for what seemed like a very long time and eventually she calmed down and relaxed and started to speak to me. She said the third stone she was carrying represented the despair she was feeling as she had been raped. I just sat with her and told her God loved her and to have faith in God.
That night there was a fiesta (this seems to be very normal in Spain) and we all danced with the locals. The next morning the young woman thanked me and said that she had had the best night’s sleep in a long time. The next time I saw her was three days later when we were on our way home from Burgos and she made a special point of coming to see me and thank me again. I don’t know how this story is relevant or what it really means but it was an important part of my faith journey.
Any other aspects that you recall in particular?
During the following year’s pilgrimage walk we stopped at a hostel which was run under the umbrella of the Franciscan order. My feet were in a bit of a state and the men running the hostel dressed them, which was quite a humbling experience. These people are volunteers and to be washing and dressing smelly, blistered feet is not how I would like to spend my spare time.
The hostel had a small chapel and in the evenings the pilgrims would have a service there. One part of the service was for the pilgrims to read notes left by previous pilgrims. The notes would be read out for three weeks which was the time it would take pilgrims to finish the walk. People were offered a box containing notes and prayers in their own language and were asked to read out the notes as part of the service. The note I selected had a short but powerful message. It was written by a mother and father who were on the walk because their 11-year-old son had taken his own life and they were trying to come to terms with the tragic loss and trying to make sense of it. The thought that these parents were going through this tragedy was immediate and overwhelming.
You’ve emphasised to me that the Camino has been part of your own spiritual journey. Can you elaborate further on this?
I’m not sure I can. My own journey continues to surprise and excite me. As a clumsy extract from Thomas Merton’s prayer says: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going… But I believe the desire to please you does in fact please you…Therefore I will trust you always…”
The above feature appeared in the Winter 2014 edition of Insight magazine.