I’ve been surprised to learn, over the course of my reading in the last couple of weeks, that the Camino de Santiago is not considered a typical pilgrimage. Peter Jan Margry, for instance, argues that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela “is not representative of mainstream pilgrimage culture,” and “[i]t is therefore questionable whether, on the basis of this specific case, motion can be assumed to be the primary constitutive element of the pilgrimage as a universal phenomenon,” he suggests (26). For Margry, the point of pilgrimage is to be present at a sacred site, rather than in the movement (walking, usually, in the case of the pilgrimage to Santiago) towards that site, which would seem to exclude the Camino from his definition of pilgrimage (35-36). Not everyone would agree with Margry; Simon Coleman, for example, suggests that
The bodily and temporal modes involved in slow, effortful travel appear to subvert the rushing, mechanized world of the present, allowing space a kind of victory over time and helping to produce a sense of contact with the past. If the contemporary world appears to be about the compression of time and space, pilgrims to Compostela are entering a kind of sacred decompression chamber. (“From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem” 66)
Ian Reader, for his part, acknowledges that in some pilgrimages, the focus is on the journey to the sacred site, rather than the sacred site itself (23-24), although he also notes that the way that many pilgrims no longer have religious motivations has led to accusations that it is turning into “a hiking route as much as a path of pilgrimage” (48). The question of the relationship between the Camino de Santiago and pilgrimage is an important one for me, because the pilgrimage to Santiago is the only one in which I have participated in a serious manner, and it it is outside the mainstream of pilgrimage, then clearly I have based my understanding of what pilgrimage is on a misunderstanding.
In hopes of resolving the question of how the Camino de Santiago is connected to the notion of pilgrimage, I turned to Nancy Louise Frey’s ethnographic account of pilgrims walking to Santiago, Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago. Frey is clear at the beginning of her book that the pilgrimage to Santiago is complex, in terms of the motivations of its participants, and unusual in its emphasis on movement rather than being present at a sacred site. Frey writes,
When faced with the complexity of the contemporary Camino, the categories ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘pilgrim’ seem to lose meaning. Usually the words, especially in English, are associated with a religious journey, faith, or devout seekers. . . . Although the Santiago pilgrimage has a religious foundation based in Catholic doctrine regarding sin, its remission and salvation, in its contemporary permutation these religious elements endure, but they also share the same stage with transcendent spirituality, tourism, physical adventure, nostalgia, a place to grieve, and esoteric initiation. The Camino can be (among many other things) a union with nature, a vacation, an escape from the drudgery of the everyday, a spiritual path to the self and humankind, a social reunion, or a personal testing ground. It is “done” and “made” as a pilgrimage, but what does that mean now? The glue that holds these disparate elements together seems to be the shared journey, the Camino de Santiago. (4-5)
The emphasis on that “shared journey” is what separates the Camino from Marian pilgrimage centres in Europe, where the emphasis is on being at the sacred shrine:
The emphasis placed on the journey and how one reaches the shrine at Santiago struck me as marking an important difference between other popular western European pilgrimage centers such as Fátima in Portugal or Lourdes in France. With those other centers, whose devotion is centered on the Virgin Mary by a Catholic majority, the pilgrims’ essential ritual acts occur within the bounded sacred space of the shrine. The pilgrims’ mode of transport, or way of arriving, at the shrine is usually secondary or irrelevant. It surprised me that unlike the pilgrims at Fátima or Lourdes, these white, urban, European, middle-class men and women made the pilgrimage—from a week to a month—on foot, bicycle, and horse. Rather than a healing shrine of short-term visits, the contemporary Santiago pilgrimage is not confined to the city itself but consists of a long, physical and often internal (spiritual, personal, religious) journey. In many cases making the pilgrimage becomes for participants one of the most important experiences of their lives. Pilgrims want to feel and live the road step by step (or pedal after pedal). Non-Catholics, agnostics, atheists, and even seekers of esoteric knowledge go side by side with Catholics and Protestants.” (7)
Walking and cycling pilgrims, Frey notes, make up a minority of those who visit the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and many of those who travel by bus or plane or automobile are motivated by their religious faith and a desire to be near the relics of St. James (18). For example, during the 1993 Holy Year, only 100,000 out of the six to eight million visitors to Santiago de Compostela walked or cycled the required distances (100 kilometres for walkers, 200 kilometres for cyclists) to receive a Compostela on arrival (22). (Those distances were established arbitrarily by the Church in the 1980s, and they “represent an idea of pilgrimage based on suffering and sacrifice” .) The fact that most of those who visit the shrine to St. James in Santiago de Compostela do not walk or cycle would seem to suggest a similarity between the cathedral in Santiago and other Christian pilgrimage centres in Europe, but Frey points out further differences:
The majority of the Marian-centered shrines (Lourdes in France, Fátima in Portugal, and Medjugorje in Bosnia) are based on miracles or apparitions (Church-confirmed earthly visitations of the Virgin Mary to a seer or seers) that occurred after 1850. The pilgrimage to Santiago is based on a tradition said to reach back to the foundation of Christianity. (7-8)
The historical roots of the Santiago pilgrimage, Frey argues, are very important; those who walk or cycle to Santiago become “part of an informal society whose membership goes back a thousand years and includes such notables as Charlemagne, Saint Francis of Assisi, and King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain” (7). In any case, the Camino de Santiago has become known as a walking or cycling journey since the 1980s, rather than a straightforward visit to a shrine, despite the fact that most of those who visit the shrine use motorized travel of some kind.
Unlike Margry, Frey accepts the idea of secular and even metaphorical pilgrimages (15), and what interests her in the Camino de Santiago is the variety of motivations, opinions, and experiences of those who walk or cycle to Santiago to Compostela. “Walkers and cyclists see a world of difference between pilgrims who travel under their own power and those who use some other form of transport to get to Santiago,” she writes (18), noting that walkers and cyclists typically consider those who go by bus, for example, to be tourists rather than pilgrims because they “do not understand what it means to be connected to the road and . . . to go the ‘human speed’” (18). “Pilgrims use their bodies and the ways they move to make a statement about themselves and their society,” Frey contends. “One’s movements and ways of traveling the Camino contribute to its consecration or desecration as a sacred space. Cars and buses (in the walkers’ view) tarnish the essence of the road” (18). The “sacred space” of the Camino, for walkers and cyclists, is the path they take, rather than or along with the shrine to St. James represented by the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela.
There are subdivisions among pilgrims. Aside from the division between those who walk and those who cycle (which Frey discusses at length), there are also full-time, part-time, and weekend pilgrims (20). Full-time pilgrims, the majority, begin at one point on the route and travel to Santiago de Compostela without stopping (20). Part-time pilgrims make short-term trips, typically lasting one or two weeks, and it may therefore take them a number of years to get to Santiago. Usually part-time pilgrims are prevented by time constraints from making the continuous journey, although “some, believing that pilgrimage is a process that requires the passage of time to bear the fruit of insight, choose to make the journey in stages” (20). Weekend pilgrims—and this is a group I had never heard of before—“are usually members of associations dedicated to the pilgrimage and its routes which organize walking excursions on various Jacobean paths. A portion of the Camino is selected, and the participants drive or are bused to the starting point and then walk the section” (20). Arriving in Santiago de Compostela would not be an important motivation for weekend pilgrims.
Those who walk or cycle, and those who drive or are bused, rarely understand each others’ motivations, Frey writes:
Pilgrimage, like all human movement, is patterned according to societal norms, lifestyles, class values, fashion, and cultural ideals. The questions become how and why certain modes of transport are used, what they mean to those who use them, and who the people are who use them.
Foot and cycle pilgrims tend to call those who go by bus and car tourists, and themselves, pilgrims. To be labeled a tourist is pejorative and to be avoided. . . . The term “pilgrimage” signifies a religious journey made out of faith or devotion. Bus and foot or bicycle pilgrims also make the journey for a wide assortment of religious, cultural, sport, and personal reasons. Among both groups there are individuals who go to Santiago for strictly religious reasons, but the vast majority have multiple reasons for getting to Santiago. Therefore, when bus pilgrims are labeled ‘tourists’ by foot or bicycle pilgrims it is not a pejorative statement about their motives but about their movement choices. Tourists, understood to be frivolous, superficial people, travel en masse by bus, car, or plane. Pilgrims, understood to be genuine, authentic, serious people, walk and cycle. (26-27)
The distinction between pilgrim and tourist, as Simon Coleman has pointed out, is complex (“Accidental Pilgrims” 72), but Frey is interested in the distinctions that foot and cycle pilgrims make, and they (as I did on the Camino) overwhelmingly reject out-of-hand any notion that pilgrims can take a bus all the way to Santiago de Compostela and still be considered peregrinos. (The Spanish word for pilgrim is universally adopted, in my experence, by those who walk or cycle to Santiago de Compostela, and since it’s a lot less awkward than the circumlocutions I have been using, I’ll refer to walkers and cyclists as peregrinos from now on.)
As Frey notes, the motivations of peregrinos are bound up in their choice of mode of transportation:
It is not just devotion (an instrumental purpose) that drives pilgrims to walk and cycle to Santiago, but in choosing to go in a nonmodern way pilgrims make statements (expressive and communicative purposes) about their society and their values. Broadly speaking, these values include an appreciation of nature and physical effort, a rejection of materialism, an interest in or a nostalgia for the past (especially the medieval), a search for inner meaning, an attraction to meaningful human relationships, and solitude. (27)
Unlike Margry, Frey acknowledges that the pilgrimage peregrinos make is not necessarily religious or sacred in nature:
Becoming a pilgrim to Santiago does not necessarily mean making a religious journey, but it does often signify for cyclists and walkers an inner and an outer journey, a means of finding transformation. Some pilgrims with to give their leisure time meaning, to take a much-needed break from the rat race, and they are attracted to the possibility of adventure, of finding a link to the past and a way to connect meaningfully with themselves, others, and the land, to feel their bodies, and to use all of their senses, to see every blade of grass rather than pass rapidly through a meaningless countryside, to live with less, to relax for a while. They want a space to pray, think, or meditate. From the perspective of the road these things seem impossible to attain from behind the window in the air-conditioned bus. (27-28)
Here, Frey touches on the aspect of walking long distances—whether those walks are considered pilgrimages or not doesn’t matter: such walks offer an opportunity, at least in theory, to have an intimate experience with the land that is not possible with motorized transportation. Whether that theoretical intimacy is borne out in practice is the purpose of the conference paper I will be writing next week.
Frey notes—correctly, I think—that for peregrinos the goal is the road, rather than the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, and that many peregrinos lack religious motivations:
The underlying assumption among most people who know nothing about the modern pilgrimage is that the goal is Santiago and that religious devotion motivates the journey. The goal, however, is often the road itself, not the city. Unlike many pilgrims to Marian shrines, those who walk and cycle to Santiago often are not motivated by the pains of the suffering body but the pains of the suffering soul. (45)
I’m not sure the distinction Frey is making here, between pilgrims to Marian shrines and pilgrims walking the Camino, can be supported with evidence; after all, her ethnographic work was with peregrinos rather than those who visit Marian shrines, some of whom might be hoping to find some relief from “the pains of the suffering soul.” Nevertheless, Frey contends that the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela typically has internal, emotional or spiritual motivations, rather than physical ones:
The pilgrimage does not begin with the first step or ride down the trail. Pilgrims begin to shape their journeys well before they leave the front door. The physical movement of arriving at the Camino is anticipated by some kind of internal movement—a decision, an impulse, an unexpected prompting, a long-held desire finally realized, a promise seeking fulfillment, a hope for change. The internal space is in some way already in flux before the journey begins—anticipatory, eager, confused, exhausted, open. (47)
That was certainly my experience before I walked from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela: I felt strangely called to make that journey (I know that language is religious and I am not, but that’s the only way I can describe the feeling I had). I was hoping for some kind of change, and thought that a month of walking might give me the time to figure out what form that change might take. In that way, I was very much like the peregrinos Frey interviews for this book.
The meanings of the pilgrimage, Frey suggests, “emerge through interaction with others, the road, and reflection” (64), and “the majority of the participants make the pilgrimage because it is the process, not the arrival at the goal, that is most significant in the experience” (64). Each peregrino experiences the journey in an individual way. One woman told Frey about her encounters with the land: the skies, plants, flowers, trees, colours, and birds filled her with joy (71). Other peregrinos report have a different sense of time compared to their normal lives: “Some describe beginning of the journey at a rapid pace and then slowing down, realizing that there is no rush to get to any particular place” (73). Peregrinos “become aware of their bodies, and in becoming attuned to different rhythms, some begin to guide their movements by them” (73). Some “report experiencing a strong sense of the ‘here and now,’” an “‘out of time’ quality” which “exists in sharp contrast to normal life, which is programmed by work, societal norms, and the daily planner” (73). That is true, to an extent, but in my experience the tendency of peregrinos to rely on guidebooks to the Camino—particularly, for English speakers, John Brierley’s A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago—often means peregrinos feel obliged to reach specific destinations each day, and the fear of not having a bed often compels peregrinos to hurry, particularly in the afternoon. In addition, as Frey points out, many pilgrims have a fixed amount of time in which to complete the journey, and they may also feel pressure to get to Santiago de Compostela by a certain date (73).
Moving slowly and getting into the rhythm of a different form of travel “can also affect one’s sense of place and experience of the natural landscapes,” Frey suggests (74). One pilgrim, for example, told Frey that being in place, rather than passing through what seemed to be meaningless space (note the echoes of Yi-Fu Tuan’s argument here; he is cited in Frey’s footnotes) was
directly linked to a growing awareness of his senses. It is his “being” in the world that is different too: he feels each step, is aware of himself in the new places and how he affects and is affected by those steps. The discovery of this sensation of place is in part based on how he moves, what he perceives, and what he touches. The roads are not just flat or bumpy, the hills green, or the birds singing. While walking it is possible to see individual blades of grass, feel every stone in the road (maybe painfully), and note how the senses are heightened. (75)
“Landscape, then, is not just a neutral backdrop but a multidimensional concept related to the understanding of space and movement and the creation of stories meaningful to the pilgrim,” Frey continues (75). One form taken by such stories—or perhaps one mnemonic device that assists with their recall—is the credencial, or credential, in which peregrinos collect stamps that will prove to the authorities in Santiago de Compostela that they made the journey under their own power:
As the pilgrim journeys over the vaguely conceptualized Camino the steps and encounters are like the stamps in the credential: at first there is a blank, structural frame, which is then filled slowly, day by day. A pause, a thought, a stamp, a cup of coffee becomes part of a memory, and the vaguely conceived-of whole—the Camino—takes on a new set of meanings. At journey’s end the spaces have been filled and marked with personal experiences. (75)
“The Camino, which begins as an abstract space, comes to be an accumulation of internalized places made up of stories, sensations, and changes in perception,” Frey writes (87). What had been undifferentiated space, then, becomes a series of places defined by the peregrinos’ experience rather than, as Tuan suggests, places where they stopped, however briefly. Place, then, is linked to mobility through walking, in a way that works against Tuan’s distinction between space (seen as mobility) and place (seen as stasis).
Those who repeat the pilgrimage experience often “express concern about losing the novelty of the unknown spaces, creating routine,” through that repetition; however, many of those repeat peregrinos discover “that the landscape is not the only knowable space or variable; each time the encounters with people, the self, seasons, refuges, and companions are different” (75). This point is significant; I’ve been thinking that the only way to understand space as place is through repeated engagements with the same location, but I hadn’t thought about the way that, for some pilgrims, “the novelty of unknown spaces” is part of the Camino’s draw—and that’s surprising, because that novelty is one of the things I have enjoyed, on the Camino de Santiago and during other walks I have made since then.
Frey quotes Thomas Merton’s suggestion that people make two journeys, an inner one and an outer one, and she notes that many peregrinos experience some form of inner journey on the Camino (79). Some report feelings of a loss of self or the creation of a greater self in the environment, or of losing a sense of where one’s own body ends and the other begins (79). “Time appears to stop,” she writes, “the world becomes whole, and you know that you are connected to something much greater and inchoate” (79). Often such experiences or feelings are interpreted by peregrinos in religious terms (79). Some pilgrims sense the presence of those who walked the Camino before them: “The common human experience of walking gives one the sense of a shared journey” (82). Others report “that long-forgotten memories surface”:
memories of family members and friends, childhood places, secrets or painful circumstances. These new perceptions often take people to internal places not before visited. The days consist of many hours of walking and cycling. In these long moments, which may be experienced alone or in the companionship of other pilgrims, people are confronted with empty time, a concept distant from the lives of most of these urban dwellers. Into these quiet moments may spill unexplained tears. (83)
Such “outpourings,” Frey continues, are often described as “cathartic,” and “the catalyst that sets them in motion often mysterious to the pilgrim” (83). That catalyst “may be spatial (having distance, perspective, and free time), personal (another pilgrim), or experiential (walking in the meseta)” (83). (The meseta is the high, arid, flat plain that constitutes the middle third of the territory through which the Camino Francés runs.) Pilgrims report having strange dreams and becoming more aware of their own mortality (83). They may discover “hitherto unknown personal potential, experience a reorientation of values, have new visions of the self and others, and develop road maps for present and future actions,” Frey writes (87). Even though there are experiences of levity and play, those times do not detract “from what can be a profound spiritual experience or a reflective time” (92). They become “just another aspect of the journey” (92).
Frey notes that peregrinos experience both communitas and contestation on their journeys. “Through knowing one another in adverse circumstances and relying on others to help get through the fatigue of the day or the confusion of limited language,” she writes, “feelings of communitas (community) and a heightened sense of generosity emerge” (92). Many pilgrims also value the connections they make with people from different cultures, nations, classes, or age groups (93). Frustrations do occur, however, and friendships can be strained:
Sometimes the friction is caused by the different rhythms or a physical problem, which causes one of the companions to make a choice: continue his or her own way or wait with the friend. Existing friendships may suffer from the expanding sense of self, different rhythms, renovation, and experimentation that are common on the way. Paths begin to diverge, leading to a temporary rupture or misunderstanding. (94)
Walking pilgrims often resent the cyclists who speed past them, and for all I know cyclists may resent the pedestrians who block the path; no one likes those who get up early and make noise or shine lights around thoughtlessly in the dormitorio; and those who snore are sometimes reviled. “Nonetheless, through sharing a communal dinner and the day’s stories, curing blisters, or giving massages,” Frey writes, “there is generally a high level of congeniality among pilgrims, even under difficult circumstances” (96). Because “the Camino exists outside of normal time in neutral and inspiring places, where stress is reduced to a minimum,” she continues, “pilgrims open up internally and externally to those around them” (101).
How different is the Camino from other long-distance walking journeys, however? According to Frey, such journeys provide opportunities for “similar types of personal discoveries and triumphs and the use of the road as a metaphor for life” (102). But, she continues, there are important differences:
The Camino is unique, however, for its religious and historical traditions, the presence of nonpilgrims who encourage the journey, the pilgrim’s passport and the collection of stamps, its one-way nature, and its network of refuges and hospitaleros. One is not just a walker but a pilgrim to Santiago. (102)
“Pilgrims experience a powerful feeling of being guided toward a goal, of having a sense of direction, and of knowing where one is going that is not so clear in daily life,” Frey writes. “Each day is an act of accomplishment toward a stated goal in which everything seems to be going the pilgrim’s way” (103). I’m not sure that walkers on other long-distance paths, such as the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States, don’t have the same sense of a goal, or that everything goes the pilgrim’s way; I’m sure that some days, some peregrinos think that nothing is going their way at all. I would argue, in fact, that the relative ease of the Camino is one of the main differences between it and the Appalachian Trail (or similar hiking routes). After all, there’s no need to carry a tent or much food (beyond snacks or a lunch). Packs are therefore lighter—perhaps 10 kilograms rather than 20, which is a big difference—and days usually end with a shower and a change of clothes and a meal that typically includes a cheap bottle of vino tinto. I’m not saying that the Camino is easy, but it might not be as difficult as other long-distance walks. That comparative lack of difficulty might enable more people to participate.
There are challenges on the Camino, of course—blisters, injuries, getting lost—and overcoming them often gives pilgrims the sense that they are capable of dealing with the unexpected. As a result, they “acquire greater self-confidence, and have the sense of being more compassionate, generous, open-minded, and accepting of hardship,” Frey points out. “These experiences are part of how pilgrims explain how the Camino works on them to produce meaning and transformation” (105). Pilgrims interpret the pain and fatigue of their journeys differently: for some these are vestiges of the medieval Camino; for others, especially practicing Catholics, they are opportunities for penitence or sacrifice; for still others, pain and fatigue are gifts that bring greater insight (109). “For nonreligious pilgrims, the pain and fatigue are part of the challenge that must be overcome,” Frey suggests. “Testing one’s limits to feel one’s body is sufficient for many pilgrims. . . . Overcoming pain when it seems impossible to continue leads to a great feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction, a better knowledge of and respect for one’s body, and a way of feeling alive” (110-11). Peregrinos often report greater body confidence and feelings of empowerment through physical struggle, along with losing weight and feeling stronger, which can boost their morale (112). They don’t just notice their increasing fitness, however; as norms of cleanliness or appearance become less important compared to normal life, they often joke about smelling bad (112). “The body and the sensations it opens the pilgrim up to become new unexplored territory,” Frey writes (112). Some peregrinos are not able to overcome pain or injury; Frey estimates that 20 per cent of those who begin the Camino in Roncesvalles do not complete the journey for a variety of reasons (114).
For many peregrinos, the Camino becomes an opportunity for solitude and independence (117). “Overcoming a fear of being alone can lead one to personal understanding and change the Camino from an uncertain adventure to a more broadly conceived journey of self-exploration,” Frey suggests (117). “During the long stretches of continuous movement, which may be painful, boring, or exhilarating, the pilgrim also fills the time in novel or infrequently practices ways—thinking, praying, meditating, singing” (118). For some, the walk is a ludic or playful experience; others find themselves lost in the rhythm of walking; some experience existential questions (118). At the same time, Frey writes,
In this environment, in which new doors to the self are opened on personal, spiritual, and social levels and the pilgrims experiment with emerging parts of their identities, a sense of danger or guilt may also surface. These reactions frequently occur when one’s image of what a pilgrim’s behavior “ought to be” while making the Camino conflicts with the reality of the experience. (124)
Questions of authenticity, which on the Camino often mean the genuine nature of the experience, are one aspect of the pilgrimage, as John Eade and Michael Sallnow argue, a space of competing discourses (126). Conflicts “over what is an is not ‘pilgrimlike’” are frequently rooted in struggles for power, personal debates about the pilgrimage’s meaning, and claims to authority—particularly over questions of authenticity (126). In other words, “[a]lthough there is communitas, rifts exist” (129). “Without realizing it,” Frey continues,
pilgrims make sweeping judgments about others and at the same time put themselves into a category that claims to hold a “truth” about the Camino. The authentic says “We are all pilgrims,” but at the same time it is clear that “some are better pilgrims than others.” For some, being an authentic pilgrim raises one’s status instead of serving as an equalizer. (129)
“Distance from modern technology plays a crucial role in determining authenticity,” she continues. “Walkers reign supreme for their independence, physical effort, and slow pace” (131). In addition, I would, that sometimes those who have left cameras or smartphones behind sometimes consider themselves more authentic than those who take photographs or ask for the wifi password when they stop at a bar for coffee.
Questions of authenticity are important as vehicles of interpreting experience, Frey suggests:
Although authenticity is believed to reside in the past, pilgrims find their own meanings through identification, questioning, and reflecting on the image of the authentic pilgrim. The Camino has become a space in which meanings emerge for the individual who can play with identity, search the soul, find the past, create friendships, engage in serious religious or personal reflection, or simply have a good time. Pilgrims often find something essential (authentic) within themselves or others. The point is not that there is no authentic pilgrim but that there are many authenticities. Each person creates his or her personally meaningful experience. (136)
I wonder if this focus on authenticity isn’t another way in which the Camino differs from other long-distance hiking trails. Do hikers ask whether they are authentic hikers? I don’t really know the answer to that question—it’s another issue that requires research—but I would bet they don’t. I could be wrong, though.
As a form of transportation in modern, middle-class European or American life, Frey notes, walking is “essentially obsolete”:
It is the rare individual who commutes to work on foot. Walking is usually linked with leisure. What pilgrims often do not realize is that their venturing out to discover something true about themselves and the world has a long history in Christian and Western philosophy centered on the debate over whether the locus of change is found in stasis or mobility. (131-32)
I ought to familiarize myself with that debate, but Frey’s footnote here is uncharacteristically vague—perhaps because she is an anthropologist and not a philosopher. Still, she suggests, peregrinos who are uninterested in questions of authenticity tend to be those who are experienced travellers or long-distance walkers. “In other journeys they have experienced the pains and disorientation of solitude, the joys of stunning natural beauty, and the experience of living with little,” she writes. “The Camino is just one more such path” (135-36). Some of those experienced walkers are unmoved by the Camino; for them, it’s just another long walk (136).
Although the peregrino’s focus might be on the journey, at some point he or she is likely to arrive in Santiago de Compostela:
While Santiago is an obvious geographic goal, it is not necessarily the end of the interior journey. Journey’s end and the pilgrim’s goal should not be conflated. The multitextured quality of endings is visible in the closure of the physical journey and the turn toward home. The pilgrimage does not simply end with the pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago but is a process that often begins well before the pilgrim reaches the city’s gates and is prolonged indefinitely as the pilgrim continues to interpret in daily life the experiences he or she lived while making the way. (138)
Often peregrinos feel a sense of arrival long before they reach Santiago de Compostela; their sense of time changes, becoming a countdown of the days left in the journey, and as they enter Galicia, the geography and weather changes (139). “A common sensation that pilgrims experience in the last portion of their journey is ambivalence,” Frey contends:
The end of the long physical, personal, and often spiritual journey is tangible. Each pilgrim’s journey has a different rhythm. One may arrive strong and powerful on a physical level—feeling new muscles, trust in knowing one’s limits, wearing the pack like a second skin—yet feel totally unprepared on a spiritual or personal level to reach Santiago. Awareness of this process often presents itself only in the return home. (144)
“Reaching Santiago often comes as an unpleasant surprise as the joy of discovery comes to a sudden halt,” she continues (146). Others who have been “seeking yet not discovering” may experience a sense of crisis “because the Camino has not opened them to what they hoped to receive” (146). “As a goal,” Frey writes,
Santiago is both a physical place and an abstract idea; an imagined vessel into which pilgrims may have poured hopes and dreams. As a place and an abstraction it can be attained by movement away form the starting point and mediated by pauses or rests. Reaching the physical goal does not necessarily entail a parallel arrival of other goals—spiritual enlightenment, a decision made—as is clear from pilgrims’ stories of arrival in the city. For some, the end in Santiago marks the beginning of a new journey. For others, it is a great letdown or simply a stopover point. Several of the salient issues at play in the end of the pilgrimage are reassessment of the journey’s meaning, search for closure, dialogue with the past, contemplation of the future, symbolic death of the self, and preparation for the return home. Just as pilgrims must draw the physical portion to a close at some point, the arrival in Santiago marks a geographic end, even if it is not the ultimate goal in an abstract way. (254-55)
The pilgrim, she concludes, still needs to find his or her way home, the journey that completes the experience (255).
Most pilgrims arrive at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, where the rites they perform “rarely occur in solitude” because “[t]he cathedral is an important attraction for nonpilgrims, who also attend the Pilgrim’s Mass and engage in the same ritual actions as the pilgrims themselves” (158). For many peregrinos, both religious and nonreligious,
the Pilgrim’s Mass serves as an essential rite of closure, a moment to contemplate what has come before and what lies ahead, to celebrate the Eucharist at the feet of the apostle, to rest at the long-awaited goal, and to languish in the joy of arrival. The Mass also serves a crucial social function: it is a common point of reunion and departure for groups of pilgrims that may have formed along the way. The Mass is personal yet communal. It is one more time to share together, an often cathartic experience and moment of closure. (159)
Receiving the Compostela is another rite of closure, although pilgrims report that it is often ambivalent or anticlimactic as well (159-62). Frey emphasizes the idea that the arrival in Santiago de Compostela can be disappointing, although not everyone is going to have that experience. My arrival was emotionally powerful, although after resting for a couple of days I was eager to begin walking again, partly because I wasn’t comfortable with the transition from peregrino to tourist, an experience that is not uncommon, as Frey points out (162-63). “By taking off the backpack and putting down the staff, walking into the streets of Santiago one is no longer a pilgrim as on the road,” Frey writes, and pilgrims often find themselves “engaging in activities involving consumption,” purchasing souvenirs, visiting monuments, and eating and drinking (perhaps to excess) (165-66).
In Santiago de Compostela, peregrinos go through a range of emotions, from joy to sadness (163). They often report experiencing a flood of memories about the journey (164). Part of the challenge lies in the shock the body experiences on arriving in Santiago de Compostela: “After growing accustomed to walking or cycling for five to eight hours a day,” Frey notes, “the sudden change produces a shock to the body now inhibited from maintaining its daily rhythm” (164). “The city is a point of supersaturation,” Frey writes. “Pilgrims begin to shed their months of experience, leaving a wake of uncertainty, joy, pain, and discovery. Eventually the break is made and the pilgrim puts away the scallop shell, packs the bag and staff, and makes the turn that ends the physical journey and returns home” (169).
Frey suggests that some peregrinos may have trouble letting go of the experience (164), as I suppose I did, although I had planned all along to continue walking to Finisterre, a fishing village on the Atlantic coast that is another ending to the pilgrimage, and after that, to Muxia, another village some 30 kilometres north of Finisterre. These journeys are discouraged by the church, Frey points out, although the Galician government encourages them (171). “The internal journey that did not find its end in Santiago may be resolved at Finisterre,” she writes:
It may give pilgrims additional time to reflect on the pilgrimage’s conclusion and the return home. It may also be a way to keep walking, a way to keep searching and possibly avoid resolution, a way to smooth a potentially difficult transition, a way to end a pilgrimage of initiation through confrontation with the natural elements. (176)
I got sick in Finisterre—a 24-hour virus of some kind—and as a result I found the walk to Muxia very difficult. I remember feeling that I had walked far enough, and that it was now time to stop. Being exhausted from both the walk and the illness contributed to that sense of conclusion. They helped me realize that the experience had come to an end.
Going home is another difficult transition. It raises important questions about “how the pilgrimage endures, if it does, and how the experiences are interwoven into daily life, influencing future actions and ways of being” (179). On what level does the peregrino change, if at all? Is the change personal, spiritual, creative, or physical? “What has been acquired through the pilgrimage needs to be renegotiated into daily life,” Frey writes:
Sometimes the experience of the pilgrimage results in changes in occupational or marital status, the pursuit of creative personal projects, the discovery of prayer, an emphasis on maintaining friendships or an identity developed in the way, or an enduring memory such as a lovely walk taken in Spain. (179)
Pilgrims are sometimes encouraged to talk about their experiences when they return home, but what they share, Frey suggests, “is selective and interpretive”:
In the retellings meanings of the journey continue to emerge and the adventure grows as the pilgrim edits and elaborates on the journey’s stories. The returnee may realize only in the retelling that she is or was a pilgrim and the secular journey a pilgrimage. Retelling plays an important part in the return, whereby one is able to reinterpret, process the experiences, and create oneself as pilgrim at the same time. In this way the reactions of family and friends often help the pilgrim put the Camino into context through the acts of narration and fielding questions. (186)
Some former peregrinos report losing their sense of direction or purpose when they get home (188-89). Sometimes feelings of stagnation or disorientation are “influenced by the inability to translate the Camino’s experiences into everyday life,” or the fact that “[v]alues garnered or clarified while in the Camino may not be compatible with a work or personal environment” (190). “The sharp contrast between the easy flow, purposefulness, healthy lifestyle, and directionality found and often lived on the Camino can in the long-term postexperience give way to feelings of failure when it seems that it is difficult to maintain these ‘lessons’ or ways of living in one’s own life,” Frey points out (192). On the other hand, “another outcome of the pilgrims’ interactions with the Camino that continues to work in their daily lives is a sense of personal empowerment acquired through the way” (192). “Perhaps even more profound is the sense of the ‘potential me’ the Camino reveals on the return home” (193). The experience of overcoming pain and fear and testing one’s limits often leads to feelings of groundedness and strength in daily life (193). “For most,” Frey writes, “the reality is that the Camino helps to open doors but that the individual must choose to walk through them to be transformed in some way. Pilgrimage does not ‘make one’ a better person. Personal change is often a long-term process of trial and error” (198).
“As a memory the Camino exists on at least two levels,” Frey contends: “that which is shared and re-created for an audience and that which exists privately for the pilgrim, the place that is revisited and remembered, bringing back the journey’s discoveries” (199). The Camino may not only consist of memories, however, According to Frey,
Finding silence and peace in solitude, living and appreciating the moment, and making life less complicated are all ways that participants try to bring the Camino as pilgrimage home. Feeling oneself a pilgrim through personal and social encounters during the journey also marks the experience in the memory of the postpilgrim as more than a holiday adventure. It is described as an internal experience rather than an external one. (203)
“Postpilgrims,” Frey writes, “want to continue journeying, believing that a vital part of their identities is as pilgrims on the Camino” (203). I wonder if that belief leads some to repeat the experience. I haven’t been able to return to Spain to walk—I haven’t had the time or the money to do so—but I’d like to. I suppose I’m a repeat pilgrim who has yet to make the journey again.
Frey also touches on something Tuan writes about: the notion that the longest journeys lead to the most powerful experiences:
within the culture of the Camino there exists the commonly held idea that the longer the journey, the greater its impact on the individual’s life. It is generally those who make the longest journeys who support the idea of time/distance relationships, an idea that is further strengthened by the current ideal of authenticity. (214)
Frey’s research, however, suggests that “what appears to be more important is what the pilgrim brings to the Camino (state of mind, motivation) and how the Camino is remembered and acted on in the postexperience” (214). She refers to Tuan’s suggestion that while sometimes an intimate encounter with place is the result of a lengthy experience with that location, sometimes (Tuan’s metaphor is love at first sight) that intimacy can develop immediately (214). “A week on the Camino may immediately and radically shake some pilgrims’ sense of reality on the road and at home,” Frey writes. “For others, a journey of four months may produce infinite opportunity for meditation and reflection yet confusion and aimlessness back home” (214).
Frey’s conclusion summarizes her arguments. She notes that throughout the book, she has argued “that through movement pilgrims make statements about themselves and society” (218). One such statement is a belief in the power of contact, and that belief is one point of difference between the Camino de Santiago and European Marian pilgrimages:
In the implicit, and often explicit, critique of modern society there is a concomitant valorization of “contact,” felt to be either lost or hard to achieve in a fast-paced world characterized by mass communication and an apparently increased callousness toward human life on political and social levels. These types of contact are varied: with people, with the road, with the past, with nature, with the self, with silence and solitude, with less, with the spiritual and the religious. At the heart of this desire for contact is often an unspoken lack that pushes the person out of home and on to the road. On some level a wish for transformation—perhaps of both the self and society—or at least clarity and insight exists. For these reasons I call the modern pilgrimage a journey of the suffering soul rather than a journey of the suffering body, as journeys to popular Catholic shrines associated with miraculous cures, such as Lourdes, might be characterized. (219)
Another point of difference is the way that these contacts and transformations are “made fundamentally through the body and its movement through time and space”:
the truth of the way is felt on the road. The pilgrim’s body is not only a conduit of knowledge but also a medium of communication, a means to connect and make contact with others, the self, the past and the future, nature. The body can also be used as an agent of social change (“cause pilgrims”), as a way to protest the fast-paced, disheartening aspects of modern society, and as a way to peacefully ask for change. Pilgrims are noticed, and on some level may want to be noticed: perhaps they are making a cry for help, a show of grief, a testament of faith, a plea against resignation and personal and social stagnation, a statement about an alternative way of living, or a public protest. In this way pilgrims not only pray with their feet but also speak with or through their feet or their bicycles. (219-20)
The body’s movement also constructs the meaning of the peregrinos’ journeys:
Throughout the journey pilgrims are confronted with personal, physical, and mental challenges as well as unexpected acts of kindness and patience. Pilgrims encounter new sights, sounds, and ways of feeling and perceiving the world and often develop surprising friendships. Each day’s journey becomes filled with anecdotes and stories that become models for future action. Pain and the limitless horizon may lead one to a greater sense of humility. Being invited into someone’s home may serve as a lesson in generosity and lead to a greater faith in humanity. Receiving unexpected gifts can lead to one’s own desire to give. Being unable to sleep because of thirty snoring people reminds another of the ludic. Feeling God’s presence in the sunset over the sea brings another closer to his religion. Surviving a difficult day lost can bring greater self-reliance or the knowledge that there are not accidents. Singing at the top of one’s lungs in the middle of the meseta may give another a sense of freedom and wild abandon. Sleeping on the floor reminds another of how easy it is to live with less. Making new friends gives another a feeling of sociability and belonging. Each story becomes part of the pilgrim’s journey which can later simply be recalled or applied to another life situation. (220)
“Feelings of one’s potential and a sense of renewal can also emerge during the pilgrimage and at the same time reveal more clearly the everyday lacks that pilgrims suffer,” Frey writes. The interpretation of such experiences as meaningful “sometimes leads to feelings of physical, spiritual, personal, and social renewal—which is why some pilgrims call it the therapy route” (221).
As a result of these feelings and experiences on the pilgrimage, “these new visions of the self and others,”
pilgrims often express the desire to make a decision, to take action, or to be less materialist, to be more generous with others, to bring decisions—to quit a job, to change careers, to move, or to alter a relationship. The confidence and strength that come while walking and cycling lead many to bring these feelings back to daily life. (221)
“Others experience disappointment,” Frey acknowledges, “but few feel unmoved:
Instead of transformation and clarity, more questions than answers arise. For some, the Camino simply provides good memories and a sense of accomplishment, which can be sufficient. Others are haunted by the inability to make it to Santiago or to find solutions, for examples, to personal crises, social failure, or unexplained pain. Some come to the Camino believing that the ‘therapy route’ will give them the quick fix or the spiritual insight they crave yet feel frustrated when it seems that only others end up with the solutions. Some accept the lack of discovery as ‘not being their time’ and repeat to find what is missing, or they may reject the Camino itself. (221)
For many, she continues,
the pilgrimage appears to be a continuous process, at least on the level of memory, if not of action. The arrival in Santiago marks the beginning of the next phase: the pilgrim’s translation of the stories to home life, which may seem as difficult or as unlikely as the legend of the apostle’s own translation. How does one bring together two distinct realities, life on and life off the road? The challenge is complicated by how the inner journey appears actually to be a series of inner journeys. Pilgrims may feel exhilarated on a physical level yet not feel that their spiritual questions have been resolved. Or perhaps the journey was meant to be a time of personal reflection on a love relationship, and instead of greater clarification the pilgrim felt distracted by body pains, a resurgence of unpleasant childhood memories, or an unanticipated spiritual awakening. (224)
“The simple pairing of an inner and an outer journey,” Frey continues, “is too narrow a metaphor to understand contemporary pilgrims’ experiences” (224).
“The modern pilgrimage to Santiago is ecumenical, even though its symbols and infrastructure have a distinct religious history and meaning,” Frey writes (228). “In what appears to be a desacralization of pilgrimage by alternative and competing interpretations,” she writes,
many, especially the religiously devout, fear the loss of its essence: faith, belief, community, communion, and religious and spiritual sentiment. In general the proliferation of individualized spiritualities is interpreted as the rejection of religion and, by analogy, the loss of community and a sign of further social fracture. Yet is appears to be more accurate to say that for participants faith and belief actively life and grow in the contemporary pilgrimage. (228-29)
Like Coleman, Frey accepts the idea that pilgrimage—at least, this particular example of pilgrimage—is complex and multivalent, best approached as “a case-study rather than focussing on the institution itself as a firmly bounded category of action” (“Do You Believe in Pilgrimage” 363), unlike Margry, who sets out to establish clearly defined boundaries for this phenomenon. But, more importantly, Frey is interested in the Camino’s potential to effect personal transformations in its participants:
Many, at least temporarily, taste something different but are unable or unwilling to integrate the Camino reality as a deep, personal, structural change. The simple act of making the decision to go and follow through with a dream may be sufficient and the greatest achievement. Most pilgrims, however, find that deep personal transformation occurs over time through action and reflection, that the Camino may have provided the catalyst, but they work to integrate the Camino and daily reality. In a sense one chooses to be changed. (230-31)
As a case-study, and one involving a phenomenon I have experienced, I found Frey’s book useful, even illuminating. I was particularly interested in her suggestion that walking can be a way to experience the land. She contends, several times, that it is a way to “see individual blades of grass” (75), and while I think the relationship between mobility and place is more complex, I think there is some truth to this claim. At the same time, her emphasis on the importance of constructing stories about the experience of the Camino is important, particularly as a way to engage with the territory through which one walks as place. I am also convinced by the argument that long-distance walks can lead to personal change. I was changed by my experience on the Camino, and the walking projects I’ve engaged with since then, particularly Muscle and Bone, my walk through the Haldimand Tract in southwestern Ontario, have led to further changes. I’ve been warned about the subjective nature of such feelings of transformation, but I think they are true, and I think they are powerful. In any case, I’m glad I read Frey’s book—particularly since it’s the first time in quite a while that I tackled something that was actually on my reading list! In other news, it’s time I revised that list. Perhaps I’ll spend some time on that after I write my conference paper.
Brierley, John. A Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago. 16th edition, Camino Guides, 2019.
Coleman, Simon. “Accidental Pilgrims: Passions and Ambiguities of Travel to Christian Shrines in Europe.” Brown Journal of World Affairs, vol. 22, no. 1, 2015, pp. 71-81.
——.Coleman, Simon. “Do You Believe in Pilgrimage?: Communitas, Contestation and Beyond.” Anthropological Theory, vol. 2, no. 3, 2002, pp. 355-68. DOI: 10.1177/1463499602003805.
——. “From England’s Nazareth to Sweden’s Jerusalem: Movement, (Virtual) Landscapes and Pilgrimage.” Reframing Pilgrimage: Cultures in Motion. Edited by Simon Coleman and John Eade, Routledge, 2004, pp. 45-68.
Frey, Nancy Louise. Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, U of California P, 1998.
Margry, Peter Jan. “Secular Pilgrimage: A Contradiction in Terms?” Shrines and Pilgrimage in the Modern World: New Itineraries into the Sacred. Edited by Peter Jan Margry, Amsterdam UP, 2008, pp. 13-46. JSTOR. Accessed 14 September 2018.
Reader, Ian. Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2015.
Tuan, Yi-Fu. Space and Place: The Perspective of Experience. U of Minnesota P, 1977.