Turn Travel into Pilgrimage

I love to walk. It’s always been my number one choice for exercise.

As a child my friends and I walked to school every day, explored the woods nearby and sometimes walked the couple of miles to and from downtown to shop or visit the library.  We could walk wherever we wanted to go.

Years ago, I jogged until I discovered that my jogging wasn’t much faster than walking.  A brisk walk is magic to clear the cobwebs in my mind and open space for creative thinking.

At midlife I discovered pilgrimage, the ancient practice of intentionally leaving a customary place in the world in order to discover new and potentially meaningful experiences beyond.

Seventeen years ago in May 2001, I joined a group traveling to Spain to experience The Archetype of Pilgrimage. I flew alone to Spain, met the group in Madrid and immediately boarded a bus to drive north stopping in ancient towns, visiting historic churches, and walking along three different segments of the centuries-old pilgrimage path, El Camino de Santiago.  It was a guided tour with very little walking on the Camino.  Every year since, I have wanted to return to walk as a pilgrim.

One day last fall, a friend listening to my repeated wish, said, “Who would you like to go with? Why don’t you ask them?”  I asked and the answer was YES.  The 1st stage of pilgrimage – The Yearning to Go – was complete and there was no turning back.

For seven months my friend Ann Braithwaite and I worked on the 2nd stage of our pilgrimage researching options, interviewing pilgrims who had made the trip, and preparing for the 3rd stage of our pilgrimage – The Journey – April 24th through May 7th when we flew to Spain to walk over 80 miles of farmlands, through pine, eucalyptus and chestnut forests, up and over rutted hillsides, crossing rivers over bridges and fording clear-flowing streams on foot.

Each day was unique.  We moved steadily past every concrete Camino mile marker counting down the remaining kilometers to Santiago. It felt safe and appropriate to be in this strange land far from home.

Other pilgrims passed us on foot. Some sped by on bikes. Several on horseback. We heard the call and reply between pilgrims along the path, “Buen Camino” repeated often.

A 4th stage in pilgrimage is Contemplation.  Continuous walking is the perfect setting for solitary deep thinking, allowing memories to surface, revising long-held opinions, offering thanks, asking for help.  We created writing prompts.

1.     With the topic “Release,” we asked ourselves: What do I want or need to give back or give away? Why do I hold on to certain things, thoughts, memories?  How do I know something has outlived its usefulness?

2.     “Hinges,” our second topic came in response to an unusual red church door with elaborate metal hinges.  We asked: What helps me move easily or is holding me back?  What keeps me in place?  What in my life moves smoothly or squeaks loudly?

After all of the anticipation and preparation, the 5th stage in pilgrimage is the Encounter. Friends helped when they asked us to carry their individual gifts – a rock or a small token or saying – to leave at the right place along the trail – by a flowing stream, attached to a flowering vine, or perhaps beside the other rocks and letters left by previous pilgrims.

The 6th stage of Completion and Return began when we spotted Santiago, its magnificent cathedral anchoring the oldest quarter of town.  In the square it’s easy to recognize pilgrims completing their walk – their hiking poles poised, well-worn boots still, eyes focused on the steeples, listening to bells while the jostling crowd celebrated.

American theologian, ethicist and professor Reinhold Niebuhr said, “Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys … Pilgrims are persons in motion – passing through territories not their own – seeking something we might call completion or perhaps the word clarity, a goal to which only the spirit’s compass points the way.”

“Salvitur ambulando,” St. Augustine’s words in Latin sum up our adventure – “It is solved by walking.”


Susan is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Journal Therapist, approved by the SC Board of Social Work Examiners to offer CEU’s to mental health counselors. Request notification of upcoming groups and workshops at www.susanhendricks.com/contact and read all previous articles in the Columbia Star Newspaper at www.susanhendricks.com/columbia-star-news   

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