Friar Walks Camino de Santiago, Reflecting on Journey of Conversion

Jacek Orzechowski, OFM Friar News

Pilgrims walk along El Camino in Spain. (Photo courtesy of Jacek Orzechowski)

This spring, a friar spent part of his sabbatical as a pilgrim along the Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of St. James, in Spain. After returning to the United States, he gathered his thoughts about the journey and compiled a slide show of the 25-day, 400-mile walk.

A morning mountain breeze was gently pressing upon my face. Above me, a blue sky was slowly emerging out of the darkness of the night. The birds perched on the branches of the trees along the path I was walking were greeting me with their chirpy songs. Toward the north, on the horizon, stretched a mountain range, with its top still glistening with snow.

Trying to take in all that beauty, I felt overwhelmed by the sense of wonder and awe, gratitude and joy. Neither the weight of the backpack I was carrying uphill nor the blister on my left foot could wipe a perpetual grin from my face. I glanced at the large, wooden post marked with the yellow arrow and the scallop shell – the iconic symbols of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. It informed me that I was on the right path – and that I still had hundreds of miles to walk.

Symbols line El Camino to show pilgrims the way. (Photos courtesy of Jacek)

Since the early Middle Ages, millions of pilgrims — from all parts of Europe and around the globe — have journeyed on foot to Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern part of Spain. According to tradition, the cathedral houses the bones of St. James the Elder, the brother and the apostle of Jesus. Among those who walked the Way – popularly referred to as el Camino – was St. Francis of Assisi.

As I walked past a man with a backpack, I shouted out, “Buen Camino!” “Buen Camino,” he replied. “May I ask you where are you from, and what is your name?” I inquired. “My name is Nassor and I’m from Tanzania,” he replied. Intrigued, I said: “Nassor, sounds like an Arabic name, right?” He smiled and replied: “Yes, I’m a Muslim. I’ve heard about el Camino from one of my Jewish friends who had done el Camino a few years earlier. It has been an amazing experience!”

Over the next few hours, Nassor and I walked together, sharing our stories, wrestling with different contemporary issues and expressing our hopes for a better world. Here we were, a Christian and a Muslim, not proselytizing or arguing, but rather relishing in our diverse backgrounds, experiences and opinions and discovering the universal, perennial truths.

Nassor was only one of the many interesting people I met along the Camino. I encountered some young people and older folks in their retirement age – including an 80-year-old woman unfazed by the challenge of a 400-mile trek. I met Koreans, North Americans, and South Americans. Folks from dozens of European countries walked alongside me during my 25-day pilgrimage.

Jacek with Nassor, a fellow pilgrim on el Camino. Though they come from different faith traditions, they celebrated their differences together. (Photo courtesy of Jacek)

Solitude, Silence and Sharing
One day, I came across three Frenchmen. Attached to their backpacks was a photo of their friend, who is fighting cancer. They had taken two-and-a-half months off from their work and set out on a 1,000-mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela across most of France and Spain. As they walked, they prayed for strength and healing for their ill friend, and asked others to lift him up in their prayers.

The pilgrims spend most of the time walking the Camino in silence and solitude. But even congenial strangers, at times, would enter into conversation with one another. I had several life-giving conversations with the folks on my way to Santiago de Compostela. Some of them were agnostics, fallen-away Catholics; some could be described as “spiritual, but not religious.” I didn’t wear my Franciscan habit, but I cherished every opportunity I had to talk about who I was, my Franciscan vocation and how I try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. Often, I would mention with great pride St. Camillus Parish — its diverse people and countless ministries. But, above it all, I tried to listen to people along the Camino, marveling to see a movement of the Holy Spirit in their lives. With hindsight, I refer to many of those encounters as “Emmaus walks” along the Camino.

A photo carried by some pilgrims who asked for prayers for a sick friend.(Photo courtesy of Jacek)

Over the course of my three-week pilgrimage across northern Spain, I visited a number of centuries-old churches. Many of them had ornate altars, heavy with gold and silver. At the same time, I was struck by how few people attended those places of worship. As I sat in a pew, I wondered if the rather ossified way of celebrating the Church’s liturgy, the heavy weight of the centuries-old customs and ways of thinking might be, in fact, pinning parts of the European Church to the ground, making difficult for her to follow in the footsteps of Jesus today. I pictured the Church as a pilgrim who shows up at the Camino with a 100-pound backpack. Fearful of letting go of some of her stuff, she ends us immobilized.

Here, I would like to share a conversation I had this past March with Santiago Agrelo Martínez, OFM. A bishop in the northern part of Morocco, he is also a prophetic voice that amplifies the cry of the refugees from Sub-Saharan Africa. Thousands of them now live in his diocese and risk their lives on the precarious journey through the Mediterranean Sea in hope of reach the Spanish coast. Bishop Agrelo spoke to me about the irony of the situation in which significant parts of the Spanish/European Church are fearful of the desperate, dark-skinned immigrants and refugees, who are, as it were, knocking on the doors of Europe. Many of those Christians express a grave concern over what they perceive to be the Islamification of Europe. At the same time, Bishop Agrelos points out that many in the Church seem unfazed by how such callousness, racism and moral indifference vis-à-vis the cry of the very vulnerable people undermine the credibility of the Christian message.

Journey of Conversion
My typical day on the Camino began around 6 a.m. with packing and a quick breakfast consisting of coffee and milk – sometimes supplemented with a can of tuna, bread, garlic, and a banana. By 7 a.m., my traveling companions and I would be on our way, usually walking in solitude some distance apart. Morning was my favorite time for prayer.

Using my own words, I gave thanks to God for the beauty reflected in the created world and in the people around me. I lifted up in prayer those being crushed by poverty, injustice and violence, especially the refugees and migrants. I also went back to praying the rosary, reflecting on the divine mysteries and how they were being fleshed out in the contemporary world. Yet, for most of the day, I listened: to a wind blowing across the fields; to the sound of the forest; to the silence, pregnant with mystery and promise. Correspondingly, I allowed my eyes to feast on the beauty of God’s creation around me and satiate their hunger.

Usually, after six or seven hours of walking, I would arrive at a hostel. There, I would claim one of the bunk beds, usually in large rooms capable of accommodating as many as 150 people. After a shower, sumptuous meal and routine hand washing of my socks and T-shirt, there was still time to socialize, rest or read. By 10 p.m., I along with most pilgrims would be in bed sleeping – or trying to tune-out other people’s snoring.

Scriptures are replete with the metaphors of pilgrimage and journey. Abraham and Sarah; the ancient Israelites; Mary who journeyed to meet her cousin Elizabeth; and Jesus and his disciples walking throughout Galilee are just a few examples.

The stamps that Jacek collected along El Camino.

A corresponding Franciscan insight is that all life can be best understood as a journey – a way of beauty. Such a journey involves discovering God’s evident and hidden beauty in creation and in the vicissitudes of one’s own life. It is also about life as a journey of conversion, of learning how to see, think, and feel from God’s perspective of how to act with compassion, justice, wisdom, and integrity in a way that brings forth beauty in our world and society.

The three weeks of my sabbatical that I was privileged to spend walking the Camino gave me a unique opportunity to taste and explore more deeply and experientially that rich Franciscan tradition. The Camino has been for me a journey of conversion. It has taught me some significant lessons about trusting God and relying on the goodness of strangers, about finding and nurturing solitude and a more authentic community. The 400-mile walk to Santiago has reaffirmed for me how much I love my Franciscan vocation. I hope and pray that the experience of my sabbatical – especially the Camino – will also redound to the benefit of others whom I will meet along the path of my life and ministry – especially the poor, the disenfranchised and the threatened.

At this time in our nation’s history, when the forces of racism, creeping tyranny, callousness toward the poor, the immigrant, and the “other” are in ascendency – we must refuse to give in to despair or impotence.

Walking the Way – wherever that takes place – can reawake in us a sense of radical wonder and awe. It enkindles within our mind, body and soul a sense of conviction and trust in God of all creation whose desire for goodness, justice and beauty is ultimately destined to triumph. It is a subversive God with the history of calling and enabling ordinary people to help pull tyrants from their thrones and lift up the lowly. Are you one of them?

Fr. Jacek has served as parochial vicar at St. Camillus Parish since 2008.

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