A Deeper Dimension of Faith: Walking El Camino
By Megan Simmermeyer, Communications student co-op
S. Donna Steffen (left) and Monica Clark take a breather and pose with one of the trail markers for el Camino.
Spanning hundreds of miles, el Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) stretches across the country of Spain and entices thousands to traverse the countryside for personal and spiritual reasons. In September 2017, S. Donna Steffen joined the queue of pilgrims dotting the Northern Way, an el Camino route that creeps along Spain’s northern coast and through the mountains.
Accompanied by her graduate school friend, Monica Clark, S. Donna trekked along el Camino for six days, from Sept. 15-20. The pair initiated their trip in Sarria, Spain, which lies about 119 km (or 69 miles) from the final destination of all el Camino routes—the cathedral in Santiago, Spain.
The friends booked their trip in fall 2016, through the Camino Way Company, which offered packages for reasonably priced hotels in towns along el Camino, as well as luggage transportation. S. Donna says another, perhaps more economical, option was to stay in hostels, which like a hotel would have provided a bed but few other earthly comforts, and laughing, she admits she preferred spending a little more to have a shower and someone to transport her luggage.
While many who travel el Camino do so as a religious pilgrimage or to find a sort of peace, S. Donna says her initiative was not so specific. She recalls a couple she met whose daughter had passed away the previous year, so the parents and their remaining children walked el Camino in remembrance of their deceased family member. S. Donna’s desire to travel el Camino arose from a wish to experience another dimension of spirituality outside of prayer.
Other pilgrims S. Donna met expressed a variety of reasons for walking el Camino, but they also represented a plethora of nationalities and ages. S. Donna met an 86-year-old Australian woman determined to walk the entire 500-mile route despite a leg injury; a parish group from Seattle traveling with a priest; a wheelchair-bound man whose partner patiently propelled him along; and so many more. After traveling many miles with her fellow pilgrims, S. Donna said it felt as if she knew her companions, even if they had not exchanged so much as a first name.
Whether conversation was exchanged or not, S. Donna says “buen camino,” which means “good way,” was a popular greeting among the fellow pilgrims. Though she thought she might tire of repeating the phrase over and over, she says she never did, as it was a way to connect and share in the Camino experience. Many of the people she passed on the trail, she never saw again, but sometimes, she encountered the same person multiple times. “It was joyful to see someone you had talked to previously,” she said.
If they walk more than 100 km, pilgrims of el Camino receive certificates for their journey. S. Donna Steffen and Monica Clark pose with theirs, having walked 119 km together to reach the Cathedral at the end of el Camino.
During the long journey of el Camino, S. Donna experienced ample time for prayer, personal reflection, and thought. She noted that one was never truly alone and the journey felt more like an extraverted prayer, one experienced by a large group rather than merely herself. Having encountered so many people, all with unique backgrounds, S. Donna said she spent more time than usual praying for others. She spent one day praying and meditating on the Pope’s call for prayers of reconciliation, and other times, she recalls using her own pain—the pain of walking so many miles each day—as a basis of prayer for others who suffer daily. “It was so much harder [walking el Camino] than I expected,” she said, “but the people helped.”
Throughout her experience, S. Donna says she felt humbled, especially physically. The biggest challenge was accepting one’s own limitations. “I had to learn to take my time,” she says. Focusing on one’s own physical pain made it bigger, but S. Donna found that channeling the pain in prayer, reflection, and dialogue with other pilgrims made it easier. Despite finding muscles she never knew she had (and feeling soreness in all of them), S. Donna says the journey was worth it, as she experienced deeper dimensions of her faith through the experience.
At the end of the Camino pilgrimage, Monica and S. Donna arrived in Santiago, Spain, at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the supposed resting place of Jesus’ apostle St. James. Inside the Cathedral resides an elaborate shrine to the saint, as well as a statue of St. James. While she enjoyed reaching the Cathedral, S. Donna meditates more on her experience of the journey itself and the opportunities to deepen her faith.After all, it is the journey and not the destination that matters. She reflects: “The whole walk was an opportunity to practice living in the present moment, and accepting what comes, whether it be rain, clouds or sun, a steep upward climb, or long downhill road, or beautiful countryside, coming to a place to rest or eat, meeting a fellow journeyer, or walking alone.” Throughout her experience, S. Donna felt God walking with her. “As a pilgrim,” she says, “it felt like we were being cared for. I had a real sense of God continually providing what I needed.”