Are You a Pilgrim or Are You on Holiday?

What a great question.

It was our second night on the Camino and the only night where we had to do a little bit of searching of beds to sleep in.

Before continuing this story, a little background. There’s a distinct rhythm and etiquette to Camino life. When you’re done walking for the day, you find where you are sleeping that night. Once secured, you check out your bunk for bed bugs (rare but unpleasant), roll out your sleeping bag on your bed, head to the shower, clean your clothes (usually with a wash sink and clothes line; occasionally in a washer/ dryer), and rest. Somewhere in there you check out your feet, evaluate your gear (is there anything I can get rid of), catch up with fellow pilgrims and figure out dinner. After dinner there’s further socializing with fellow pilgrims and potentially attending a pilgrims’ mass. Lights out around 10—something I graciously welcomed each night.

Back to the really great question.

I was sitting there on the edge of my bunk, my hand buried deep in my pack. I was looking for my travel towel and toiletry bag. I wanted a shower as soon as possible as we had just walked 27 kilometers. Across the room were these two British retired nurses. They were a few steps ahead of us in the evening albergue liturgy. After exchanging pleasantries–where’s home, small talk about the weather and condition of the roads (really? What was this,a Jane Austen novel?), and discussion as to whether or not to eat the community meal in-house or seek out a meal elsewhere–one of the ladies asked my friend and I, “So, do you consider yourself a pilgrim or would you say you’re on holiday.” We replied,”pilgrim” to which questioner replied, “how refreshing”.

A little more explanation:

The Camino de Santiago has experienced a dramatic increase in participation. In 2007 114,000 people walked the Camino. By 2018 the number had grown above 300,000–surpassing best estimates of pilgrims walking to Santiago during the height of its popularity just prior to the Reformation.

While “back in the day” everyone walking to Santiago was doing so because of their Christian faith (seeking a plenary indulgence for themselves or on behalf of someone else, seeking intercession for a health concern, or even a criminal sentenced to make pilgrimage to atone for their crime) the modern resurgence of The Way of St. James does not find everyone walking to Santiago doing so because of or in response to their faith. I’ll write more on the phenomenally explosive growth in interest in the Camino–and what the church might be able to learn from it–but for this post’s purpose it is good to note that people walk to Santiago for many reasons, not all of them religious. And this fascinates me.

In fact, to receive a Compostela certificate from the pilgrim office (an extension of the Cathedral) you must attest that your are walking for religious or spiritual reasons. You don’t have to be baptized, profess faith, be Roman Catholic, or consider yourself a Christian. You can be a seeker, a questioner, or even someone of another faith or no faith. If you can’t honestly say you are walking for religious or spiritual reasons, though, you receive a different kind of document from the pilgrims office–a Certificate of Distance. Those receiving a Compostela can also receive a certificate of distance, if they like.

So what’s the difference between being a pilgrim and “on holiday”? Intent, expectation, and disposition seems to have something to do with this distinction. Not that all pilgrims a somber, pious persons while those on holidays are the happy go lucky, half-drunk through-hiker. But there does seem to be something about approach. Do you receive each new day as a gift? Are you in a posture to receive whatever the day brings you–the terrain, people with whom you’ll be walking, the person serving you your 2nd Coffee 2 hours in on today’s walk towards Santiago, the weather, the conversations, the silence? Or is each day simply something to be tolerated, something to be rushed through in order to check another day off an itinerary of cheap accommodation, cheap food, and plenteous libation?

Not that these are mutually exclusive, mind you. I thoroughly enjoyed cafe con leche and my morning postre, bocadilla for lunch, and the evening’s pilgrim menu (more on food in a later post).

In life beyond the Camino de Santiago, do we think of ourselves a pilgrims on a jourmey–do we understand ourselves as on trajectory towards the source of our life with God? Or do we think of life as something nihilistic–void of meaning and simply to be endured or everything is so subjective that there’s no sense of a common life? Are we pilgrims or simply on holiday?