The Return: when yellow arrows no longer mark the way

Nancy L. Frey

The following article first appeared in our Bulletin no. 61 in December 1997, and is included here by permission of the author and the editor. You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.

The article is based on research on the experience of contemporary pilgrims to Santiago, which Nancy Frey published in Pilgrim Stories: on and off the road to Santiago.

Seeing Robert Llewelyn’s addendum in Bulletin Nº 59 finally prompted me to write and share some of my conclusions on how the Camino continues to influence pilgrims’ lives once they return home. As Llewelyn indicates, in my 1996 doctoral thesis Landscapes of Discovery: The Camino de Santiago and its Reanimation, Meanings and Reincorporation (which is in the Confraternity Library), I discuss not only the pilgrimage as the process of getting to Santiago but also as one of returning home. Curiously, despite the impact that pilgrims claim that the pilgrimage has on them while making the journey, both the academic literature and personal accounts of the pilgrimage to Santiago, rarely, if ever, mention the return. Instead, the end of a pilgrim’s diary/account usually concludes with the arrival at the Cathedral, a hug for the Apostle, or a trip to the coast and Finisterre. As a result of my own personal experience with making the pilgrimage, as well as discussing and corresponding about the return with hundreds of Santiago pilgrims, I discovered that the pilgrimage rarely ends on an internal level once the physical or geographical goal in Santiago is reached. In the last chapters of the thesis, I discuss the arrival in Santiago and how pilgrims reincorporate the experiences of the way into daily life. I have since revised the thesis for publication and it will be available in 1998 (Pilgrim Stories: On and Off the Road to Santiago, Berkeley, CA, University of California Press).

For me one of the most gratifying aspects of writing is reader response. Thus, after I published a short article on the return home for the Friends of the Camino Newsletter (United States) last year, I was pleased to receive a letter from a 58-year-old American woman eager to share her experiences about her two-week pilgrimage to Santiago. My curiosity for knowing how people respond to the pilgrimage was precisely what inspired my original focus on the theme of the return. ‘Judy’ was a self-defined housewife who, before making the pilgrimage, had never been active outdoors, had recently begun a course in religious education, and knew nothing about Santiago (except for an article she read which inspired her to go). The pilgrimage became an idea which she tucked away until opportunity knocked a year later when she broached the subject with her husband who “immediately approved and affirmed, do it!”. Describing her two-week journey from León as “extraordinary (most pilgrims probably think the same way)”, she recounted to me her most impressive memories of landscapes, sensations, surprises, personal triumph, sense of the past, and communion.

The days of reaching O’Cebreiro, El Acebo – entire days in the mountains without seeing another living person and never feeling afraid; climbing with a 30lb. pack – for the first time and feeling as though I was pushing myself to the limit; kneeling in prayer with pack in an old dark church experiencing the ‘presence’ of the pilgrims centuries before; keeping uplifted by the 7:30 Mass of the Benedictine monks of Samos. When my husband, son and Spanish friends greeted me with a bouquet of wild flowers at the Alicante airport where I flew from Santiago – they met a different person housed in the same body!

Judy wrote me the letter six months after completing the pilgrimage and closed by remarking that “It’s addictive – I’m leaving June – to walk two more weeks alone!” Feeling renovated and positive, she also sensed that in those two weeks (and what was really much more time since the idea to make the journey had come to her more than a year before) she was changed and continued to feel these changes at home.

Many things cause me to reach back and re-experience. Simplicity has become important. On walks here in [her hometown] I experience ‘flashbacks’, insights, ideas which I’d first had on the Way. My family and close friends respect me for my venture; I think it has motivated some people to go and “do it” even in other areas. I have been able to share personal and spiritual experiences – such as having ‘angels’ appear almost on a daily basis – that I wouldn’t ordinarily share. The relationship between my husband and me has deepened; we have a far greater sense of appreciation for each other and our capabilities. My faith has deepened; what I thought was very central to my being is! I am delighted in my physical capability and continue to work on it. It has been an amazing introduction and/or bridge to many others.

Six months later in another newsletter I read that she was organizing a pilgrim’s reunion in her hometown.

While her experience of the return is unique, as is each pilgrim’s, it allows me to discuss some of the common threads that pilgrims experience once they return home. What she does not mention is the immediate post-return: pilgrims often feel a sense of let-down (mixed with the triumph of finishing) at the prospect of going home after reaching Santiago (as Alan and Jean McKie express well in Bulletin Nº 58, p. 25). Many pilgrims often are disoriented in the first few weeks after arriving home – the quotidian does not seem as relevant as it did before going – i.e., the speed of the city can be disturbing, some feel isolated (that those around them do not understand their journeys) or restless with a desire to still be on the way. Many pilgrims must quickly return to work after a rapid mechanical return which often further enhances the sense of disorientation and distance one may feel from the Camino.

Despite the disorientation, memories, of a fully sensual nature, are often what remain most strongly with pilgrims – suddenly smelling the rosemary and lavender near Rabanal, or feeling the heat on the meseta, or the smile and welcome of the hospitalero or a new friend at day’s end, the pleasure of water quenching thirst, a chilly breeze at Cebreiro. Judy, for example, first mentions the memories: how she has flashbacks, relives moments and remembers thoughts she had while on the Way. Pilgrims have recounted these types of vivid flashbacks occurring unexpectedly – at work, in the shower, while driving, etc. One of the interesting aspects of the pilgrimage is how it is incorporated into one’s memory through a series of emotional and physical experiences with the Camino‘s landscapes, the self, and one’s companions along the way (those with whom one travels and those who live along the route). The intensity of the Camino as a series of impressive daily experiences usually returns unexpectedly to the pilgrim once he or she returns home where distance allows a rehashing of the Way.

I have noticed three general trends in the ways that pilgrims reincorporate the pilgrimage into daily life; roughly labelled as, compartmentalization, integration, and a combination of the two. Briefly, some pilgrims tend to compartmentalize what they see as two realities: the Camino and home life. The Camino is often envisioned as an irreal oasis which contrasts with ‘real’ or daily life. Either a limited attempt upon return is made to bridge these two realities or the pilgrim accepts the two as distinct and separate. In the latter case, rather than bring the pilgrimage home as a way, for example, to question one’s materialism, develop one’s spiritual life, be more generous, these attitudes are usually understood to be practised while on the Way and part of one’s identity as a pilgrim. This compartmentalization does not imply that these pilgrims remain disassociated from the Camino – rather they often maintain contacts with pilgrim friends, participate in association activities, plan future journeys – but it does not usually cause personal transformation. Some other ‘serial’ pilgrims seem to be addicted to the Camino – they come to need the Way and continuously repeat the journey but not making a connection between the two realities nor feeling a concomitant appreciation towards others who made their journeys possible. Rather than becoming a humble, helpful pilgrim through repetition, for some the result seems to be an increased sense of pride, an air of superiority for their physical deeds and an attitude of ownership towards places of the Camino (I do not mean to imply that anyone who repeats the pilgrimage is addicted to it. There are many motives for repetition).

In the case of integrating these two realities, Judy’s experience serves as a good model. A sudden major transformation (a conversion, divorce, quitting a job) upon return tends to be the exception rather than the rule, though these may also occur suddenly or over the long-term. Some pilgrims actively attempt to incorporate the personal insights or strengths garnered while on the Camino into daily life. Judy, for example, consciously attempts to bring home the simplicity of the Camino, her awareness of her body and its strength, and her deepening confidence and development of a spiritual life that needed the Camino to flourish. She is also aware of how her actions also influence those around her – as a couple she and her husband are stronger and her friends have a new understanding of and respect for who she is as a person (more than a housewife). Some pilgrims feel renovated in various ways as Judy describes – spiritually, physically, emotionally. Others make decisions or find new resolution to complete personal goals. The major post-pilgrimage task becomes how to apply these experiences to the path of daily life when the yellow arrows no longer mark the way.

Finally, another group of pilgrims appear to attempt to integrate the pilgrimage into home life but find that work, personal, or social circumstances /pressures conflict with these desires. Several pilgrims described how they came to question the materialism of their lives, but their work required them to sell to others – encouraging others to be materialist. In this case, the pull of the stability of a job and family obligations overcame the value of simplicity. Many find that, in general, it is very hard to keep the pilgrimage actively alive other than as a memory.

I now turn to the reader who can use his or her own experience to reflect on what I have suggested. How can pilgrims bring these two realities into greater congruence? Do you feel like you live your daily life as a pilgrimage? If so, how? and How do you think you could bring the Camino more into your daily life? Would you like to?

While some pilgrims continue on in their daily journeys alone, many others actively seek out other pilgrims to keep the memories or feelings of the journey alive – through correspondence, visits, repetition and participation in associations. Without going into detail, many pilgrims continue to re-experience and share the pilgrimage by maintaining the friendships made during the journey by crossing linguistic barriers writing letters or holding reunions. Other pilgrims find that once they return home they begin to understand the pilgrimage in ways that they could not while on the road and want to return, for example, to reorient themselves, to feel once again rejuvenated, to continue the process of inner search, to renew social relationships or to experiment by making the pilgrimage in a different way (alone, for a longer period of time, on a different Camino). Some pilgrims return to the way with their families to share the Camino and retrace their steps by car in order to give thanks to those who helped them along the way. A few feel a sense of debt and gratitude towards the Camino and decide to return as a warden or as a member of a working party to help others. Others become involved with other pilgrimages or charitable projects – channelling their sense of debt or being a pilgrim both “on and off the road” to other types of daily or humanitarian projects.

In addition, pilgrims may seek out a Friends’ association (many of which were formed like the Confraternity) to maintain contact with the pilgrimage, to develop friendships with other pilgrims, to help future pilgrims and give back to the Way, or to share and relive their experiences. Some Friends of the Camino associations take an active role in the return while others emphasize the departure. As you know, the Confraternity both prepares pilgrims with pilgrim preparation days (Practical Pilgrim) and allows some members to share their journeys at the Annual General Meeting or continue their connection to the Camino through participating in activities or taking on leadership roles. It has only been in the last few issues of the Bulletin, though, that members have begun to discuss the return outside the context of the journey itself. In contrast, the Flemish Vlaams Genootshcap van Santiago de Compostela (Brugge) has, since its inception in 1985, held a number of rituals to ease the transition into daily life of the returning pilgrim. The association not only gives the homecomer a terra cotta scallop shell (one colour for cyclists another for walkers), pilgrims are asked to submit a copy of the Compostela which is kept on file. Since 1995 the association has held a fall meeting for returned pilgrims to share their photos, slides, videos, etc. Last year more than 80 returnees attended. In addition, some members also write articles about the return in their bulletin De Pelgrim such as is common in the bulletin of Los Amigos del Camino de Guipuzcoa (Actividades Jacobeas). The Italian Friends also conduct a rite of reincorporation for returned pilgrims who are inducted into the confraternity and given a cape and shell. Despite the existence of these activities within various associations most pilgrims return home with few, if any, rites of reincorporation to help navigate the pilgrimage of daily life.

A final note and thought for reflection. One of the trends of the pilgrimage in the 1980s and 1990s has been the development of the idea of the ‘authentic pilgrim’. Generally, what is considered authentic centres not on the why of one’s journey but rather the often superficial how one makes the journey (I do not mean the differences that exist between motorized and non-motorized pilgrimage, but the hierarchies of difference that exist between and among walkers and cyclists). I will not discuss this issue here at length, but I wholeheartedly agree with Alison Raju’s comment in her article “Winter Pilgrim” (Bulletin Nº 58) that one’s notions of the ‘proper’ or ‘authentic’ pilgrim ought to questioned and not used to judge others’ journeys. I mention this point in discussing the return because one of the characteristics of the ‘authentic pilgrim’ links the amount of time/distance of the journey with the impact of the experience. It seems clear that time and distance, while important, are not the determining factors in how the pilgrimage can influence an individual. Rather the most important element appears to be what he or she brings to the Camino (the pilgrim’s receptiveness to what the Way offers). Some pilgrims believe that their long journeys and repetition make them more ‘pilgrim’ or more authentic than others. Looked at in the way, the Camino, is at times reduced to a competition for ‘pilgrimness’ (whatever that may be) based on fulfilling or complying with an image of the authentic constructed in the last ten to fifteen years. The pilgrimage is both an inner and outer way and it is impossible to equate distance travelled with one’s feet with the amount of inner terrain that one covers. I make these statements after discussing the return with pilgrims who have both made long-term, long-distance repeat journeys and those who make the pilgrimage in stages from one year to the next or choose, or can only afford, to make shorter journeys. Judy, for example, made a journey “of only” two weeks from León (neither doing the “whole thing” nor going for a month) yet found the pilgrimage to be deeply moving in large part because she was at an important stage of personal transition. Perhaps one of the most obvious, but also interesting comments she makes is that her experience is extraordinary. The majority of people who make the Camino return home with positive memories and stories, despite any hardships endured while on the Way. The pilgrimage is extraordinary and (stepping out of my academic objectivism) should not be governed by the hierarchical pettiness of ‘authenticity’ which is so characteristic of daily life. For me one of the great ironies of the contemporary pilgrimage is the value of openness and respect for personal experience among pilgrims and the concomitant intolerance frequently found on the journey fostered by notions of authenticity. As one Spanish pilgrim commented in an article on authenticity he published for his Association’s newsletter: “With almost complete certainty, one can say that there is no ‘best’ or ‘most’ authentic way. These ways change with time and the social, geographic and religious circumstances that revolve around the Camino“.(1)
1. Pliego, Domingo. 1994. ¿Cómo debería de ser el ‘auténtico’ peregrino? Estafeta Jacobea (Navarra) 22: 38-39.

Source: Confraternity of St James Bulletin Nº 61 pp. 14-20.

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