Spirit Of The Pilgrimage

The following essay, written by the Confraternity’s then Chairman, Laurie Dennett, appeared in our Bulletin no. 59, in May 1997, but with the continuing growth in the popularity of the pilgrimage, it is more than ever relevant. It is included here, slightly adapted, by permission of the author and the Bulletin editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.

To Be a Pilgrim … by Laurie Dennett

This essay arose from a special meeting of the Confraternity Committee in June 1996. We met to consider the fears raised by what some have seen as the recent over-popularisation of the Camino de Santiago. In the face of official efforts to transform the pilgrim journey into a species of mass tourism in 1993 our concern was twofold: for the physical integrity of the Camino and for the quality of the pilgrim’s experience of the route. We discussed whether these fears were justified, and ways of mitigating the damage and preserving the essentials. The approach of another Holy Year in 1999 made this a matter of prime importance. I am grateful to my colleagues for their contributions to our discussion and to this essay.

There is no doubt that the number of pilgrims climbed dramatically during the run-up to 1993 (some statistics). We can hardly complain of this: promoting interest in the Camino and helping to transform interest into action are part of what the Confraternity is about. The question is whether the response to promotion has actually begun to affect the character of the route and of the pilgrimage, which the Confraternity and the other jacobean associations also exist to conserve.

How to safeguard the physical integrity of the route is an ongoing problem with no very clear-cut solution. The Confraternity shares the obligation to defend the historic Camino when threats to it arise, ideally as part of a united effort with our European colleagues. In practice, it is difficult to protest if no protest is raised in Spain to give a lead, and sometimes, local interests and the press being what they are, this may happen later than it should. The best we can do is to be vigilant and as well informed as possible, and let the Spanish Federation know of the Confraternity’s support. We must also maintain good communications with the Council of Europe and UNESCO both of which have formally ‘adopted’ the Camino. The former’s commitment has taken the form of a great deal of monstrous sign-posting, rather than action which might have prevented the damage done in the run-up to 1993; the latter’s involvement came only after the damage was done, thereby giving it the seal of approval – but they are all we have.

The effect of the pressure of numbers, and of motorised travel on the ‘pilgrim experience’ gave rise to a lengthier discussion. Since in recent years those using the traditional ways of doing the pilgrimage have been so far outstripped in numbers by car, coach and air travellers as to now be in the minority, it is worth making a fairly basic, but important distinction. The ‘traditional ways’ are those that involve making the journey by one’s own motive power, implying an investment of physical effort or sacrifice, an element of physical vulnerability, and a frame of mind that is open to encounter. For some people this last presupposes going alone, or with very few companions; the traditional ways also preclude, unless essential for medical reasons, the use of backup vehicles.

The journey made in this way and in this spirit is the one that qualifies for the Compostela, whether over the stipulated minimum distance or the width of Europe. Why is the distinction between this kind of travel and travel by motorised means, in large groups, (even large groups of walkers or cyclists), quite independent of the interior disposition of the traveller, an important one? Some people might hold that it is not, that ways of travel may be ‘different’ in mode but not in quality. Perhaps it really comes down to whether one accepts what certain kinds of experience – the accommodation to silence, solitude, sharing, trials of one sort or another – invite personal growth on the pilgrim’s part, beyond that usually required by the circumstances of everyday life. The person who embraces the vulnerable condition of the walker or cyclist, accepting what comes, is challenged by these kinds of experience daily, and although he or she may start out with no such expectation, the walker or cyclist whose aim is ‘merely’ to have a cheap, boozy and reasonably, comfortable outdoor holiday may be challenged more than most. In other words, people with no particular spiritual orientation, attracted by the publicity surrounding the Camino and deciding to walk or cycle for purely recreational reasons, often undergo a transformation of personal values that has a lasting effect on their lives. Motorised travellers, however sincere, are less challenged by circumstances, less
likely to arrive at that acceptance of dependence and inter-dependence that is one of the Camino’s gifts to the walker or cyclist in exchange for physical effort. The desire to reproduce the values of the pilgrimage in the daily life one return to is the natural outgrowth of that state of mind, and gives the experience of the pilgrimage much of its lasting resonance.

We cannot, therefore, complain at the increase of ‘recreational’ walkers and cyclists on the grounds that they do not approach the pilgrimage in the right spirit. The Camino has always been full of casual travellers, and it still seems to work its very considerable magic on a high proportion of them. But it does seem to me that numbers pose a threat in another sense. I happen to think that whether a pilgrimage is made on foot or in a motorcoach matters a great deal, for an additional, fundamental reason – although it is one that is apprehended only in the doing – that the pilgrim’s journey is always a shared undertaking; he or she is guided, encouraged and aided by a network of ‘dedicated others’, living and dead, and the sustained experience and conscious awareness of being so supported is profoundly educative. There is also the meaningful sense of commonality that develops among people who meet by chance as pilgrims on the Camino, exhilaratingly free of the usual judgmental preliminaries. Rapid, motorised travel, and travel in large groups which are self sufficient and have their own social dynamic, usually preclude these kinds of sustained experience.

And a further point, turning to the effect of large numbers on the actual Camino: they can erode the unforced goodwill of those ‘dedicated others’ who live along the route, inter-action with whom is frequently cited by pilgrims as offering the most memorable experience of their journeys. There were enough stories of ‘rip-offs’ in 1993 to suggest that un-conditional generosity had occasionally given way to cynicism. In that sense, the ‘pilgrim experience’ may already have altered, and the fears that we considered last June may well be justified. Some people feel that there is no ‘may’ about it, and that the pressure of the last few summers has been decisive.

How can those of us who go on pilgrimage redress the balance? One might simply choose to avoid adding to the numbers. The obvious way is to go out of season if following the Camino Francés, or if the summer is the only feasible time to go to take one of the lesser-known routes, such as the North Coast Route. That said, there will still be a lot of people to whom the Camino Francés is irresistible and for whom June to September is the most convenient time. The Committee concluded that there were a number of things that could be done.

Firstly, with regard to local people, one can be notably and unfailingly appreciative, the expression of gratitude being the hallmark of the pilgrim. (On the wall of the refugio at Mansilla de las Mulas is a notice which ends: ‘And don’t forget: the tourist says “Give me …”; the pilgrim says “thank-you“‘.) Tourists feel they have a ‘right’ to expect this or that because they are paying for it; the condition of the pilgrim claims no ‘rights’. The things of the Camino belong to each and every pilgrim, to the extent of taking responsibility for safeguarding them, but not in any personal, proprietary sense.

Secondly, one can behave, dress, spend etc in a simple, discreet way that is in keeping with the most basic form of travel and with the spirit of encounter. That means not creating barriers between oneself and local people by offending their sensibilities. (I observed two pilgrims in bikinis promenading through a Galician hamlet last summer, leaving the residents scandalised; pilgrims drinking other than moderately has the same effect. Need one say anything about such practices as picnicking in churches, littering, using the verges or the Camino as a toilet, leaving graffiti, gouging one’s initials on trees?)

With regard to one’s fellow pilgrims, one can adopt an attitude of service. The more of them there are, and the more there come to, be in future years, the more need there is for the consideration that dispels anonymity. It may be no more than offering encouragement to someone who is finding the going difficult. But what about carrying a plastic bag while walking, to collect other people’s litter, or making a point of keeping to hand some small
useful objects such as penknife or needle and thread, with the specific aim of being ofuse to fellow pilgrims? What about resolving to do some unobtrusive act of kindness each day to improve the quality of someone else’s journey? Or taking the initiative in the refugio and gathering a group together to share the experiences of the Camino. Or learning enough elementary first-aid to be able to deal with blisters, tummy troubles and so one, for any companions as well as oneself?

One veteran hospitalero commented after the onslaught of 1993 that the best thing the jacobean associations could do for the Camino would be to stop sending pilgrims down it. I disagree. By all means, let us keep encouraging people to make the pilgrimage to Santiago but let us be clear about a few things. There is the Camino one walks and the Camino one lives – often as a result of having walked it. There is no doubt, in my mind at least, that if in the approach to 1999 the physical Camino is further ‘improved’ by the authorities so as to eliminate its more challenging features and to make it ‘accessible’ to untrammelled hordes using every modern form of conveyance, not only will the physical integrity of the route be altered for ever, but that essential component of the pilgrimage, the perspective of those ‘dedicated others’, will also change. Increasingly there are more and more instigations to regard the Camino as a commodity and the growing number of pilgrims and travellers on it as captive consumers. Defence of the historic route is one of our prime collective responsibilities. But may I be so bold as to suggest that everyone who sets foot on the Camino has the personal responsibility to reinforce, through the way they enact their pilgrimage, its character of simplicity, self-sacrifice, openness to encounter. That will in turn reinforce the dedication which has been an essential element in sustaining it for the past millennium, so that it has a fair chance of surviving into the next.

Laurie Dennett stepped down as Chairman of the Confraternity in January 2003. Her parting gift to us was a further address, reflecting on her 20 years’ experience of the pilgrimage to Santiago. Click here to read her “Gifts and Reflections.

Laurie gave an extensive survey of the history of the Camino at a gathering of pilgrims in Toronto in May 2005: “2000 Years of the Camino de Santiago: Where did it come from? Where is it going?”

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