An inscription on the James Farley Post Office in New York city (see also the 1997 Kevin Costner film “The Postman”) reads:
– “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.”
Change one word, “couriers”, to “pilgrims”, and I do feel (from personal experience) that the Postman’s Oath could just as sincerely become the Pilgrims Oath.
When I walked the Camino (and afterwards) I often asked my co-pilgrims why they went on the Camino, and what kept them going. I got many different personal stories concerning their motivations, but the common denominator seemed to be that what had originally attracted them was the actual physical challenge of it, and their determination to see their self-assigned mission through to the end – Santiago. Many said that they needed to prove to themselves that they could do it, often after having just gotten over some life threatening illness. I’ve met several women walking alone right after having gone into a remission of their breast cancer. I have also met many who have gone on the Camino at a time of their life when they were in transition with some very existential decisions waiting for them coming back from the Camino, in the hope that doing the Camino will help guide them in making those decisions.
Though today the meaning of the goal, in itself, in any religious sense, has been greatly attenuated, but just like the pilgrims of old, modern day pilgrims are still in search of some form of transformative experiences, that will somehow permanently change their lives, or at least the way they look at themselves or their place in society.
Moreover, for both the older type of pilgrims well as the modern pilgrim the significance of every stage and of every day’s walking on the Camino is still derived from the diminishing distance separating him/her from the pilgrimage’s goal. Though paradoxically the way in itself has no intrinsic value without the predetermined goal (and the determination to get there no-matter what), the emphasis has now shifted away from the religious significance and benefits of having “touched” the goal, to the “way”, being the means in and of itself – especially in overcoming its numerous trials and tribulations. Western morality seems to me to be predicated on the idea that only a bitter pill is effective (remember Mary Poppins’ song?), and that like for the body builder, “no pain no gain”. Thus rain, cold and heat, blisters, tendonitis, heat prostration diarrhea, cramps, hunger, and thirst are necessary ingredients in proving that you can do it, have done it, and is thereby worth of the (spiritual) transformation you are seeking – you have proven to yourself and your surroundings: Yes-high-five: Triumph des Willens.
I do find this a bit over the top though, and cannot get over that there are still books being published relating how young strong grown men and women brag of having “survived” the Camino claiming that it was their “extreme” experience which had led to their spiritual transformation. Yes the Camino had traditionally been tough going, but today with almost two hundred thousand people walking the Camino every year and a bar and a hostel every few kilometers or so, special Camino police, I-phones with Google map, fantastic clothes, boots and other paraphernalia – come on!
Determination and extreme goal orientation have always been the salient defining characteristics of what a pilgrim is or does: a pilgrim is one who is determined to go from A to B in order to get a spiritual experience thereby, and achieve some form of transcendence or succor from having arrived at B. He/she is determined that nothing short of crippling disease or death will stop his/her journey to B. There is however one great difference between the religious pilgrim of yesterday and the Camino pilgrim of today. Both are goal oriented but “in the old days” yesterday the goal was all, and the way, the Camino, only a means to get there – thus you then chose the fastest, best way. Today this has been reversed and transcendence is expected from the day to day physical act of going on the way, which thus has to be slightly adventuresome, picturesque and all the time free range, and not from arriving at the destination – Santiago. Today arrival is often experienced as a bit of a letdown – a “post-partum blues”. The “triumph of the will” is today much more emphasized than any significance attached to the goal and actual arrival.
I think that to understand the attraction of the Camino, why having done it has become so important to so many people, and why so many people time after time return to the Camino, we have to get a little understanding about how being on the Camino, being a pilgrim and doing a pilgrimage, differs from living in the everyday world. By this I do not mean, for example, that everyday life is filled with tasks and duties and responsibilities, while being on the Camino is a vacation from all that, quite the contrary – doing the Camino is tough physically and makes a lot of emotional and interpersonal demands on Camino pilgrims.
Undeniably, though, being on the Camino is different from almost any other undertaking you may have carried out in your normal mode of life (except in some sense having been a member of some armed forces). Doing the Camino is a kind of “rite of passage” (an event or process which both marked and actually created transitions between places, ages, social states and roles: from child to adult, unmarried to married, living person to dead ancestor, and so on). Traditionally pilgrimage had certain similarities with such rites in the way it encouraged people to move (literally and metaphorically) from their normal, everyday lives and enter, however temporarily, different social and spiritual worlds. On the pilgrimage then and now, the pilgrim on the Camino inevitably encounters other pilgrims and experiences a feeling of communitas with them. After such an experience, as in a rite of passage, a person often returns renewed, perhaps even transformed. This feeling of communitas also lasts long after the pilgrimage, in that it is easily extended to include anyone that has ever been on the Camino – we, that have been on the Camino, present as well as former Camino pilgrims, are all “a band of brothers and sisters”.
Though pilgrimage is still a bona fide spirit-renewing ritual, this by no means implies some form of religious revival. Contemporary pilgrimage is in many ways a turning away from traditional institutional religious experience towards a personalized, and often individually designed spiritual-devotional-transformational-transcendental patchwork every pilgrim constructs through being confronted with the actual physical and emotional demands made within the unique otherworldly (in the sense of not being of the world of everyday life) experience of his or her individual Camino. Significance is thus generated for the individual pilgrim when his/her needs and expectations and abilities are personally confronted with the experience of walking on the Camino. Thus, whereas the meaning of pilgrimage previously was almost exclusively given by its goal and the religious way stations on the way to the goal, i.e. churches, today each Camino pilgrim must create his/her own meaning as he /she does the Camino. This often leads to a very deep, even upsetting and at the same time uplifting (transcendental?) experience. Unfortunately, however, having had to create its meaning for oneself also means that the individual pilgrim often lacks any common language with those who have not gone through this process. Previously, when religion guided and formed the pilgrim’s way, and the meaning derived therefrom, the pilgrim could come home and share his/her experience with everyone else who had not gone on the pilgrimage by ways of the iconography, symbolism, and metaphors of Catholicism- here was thus a kind of linguae franca between the returning pilgrim and his homebody family and friends, which is sorely lacking today, where the experience of pilgrimage is so intensely personal. My coming home felt so me somewhat like what I had read about how war veterans, policemen and fireman and hospital personnel feel that they cannot talk to their families and friends about their experiences. For them the only people who truly understand what they are saying are their present or former “brothers in arms”.
I do think that this disjointedness vis-à-vis their “civilian” lives that pilgrims experience while walking on the Camino (and afterwards) might give us an inkling as to the attraction of the Camino. Maybe thereby we can get an understanding of the phenomena of the almost two hundred thousand persons that do the Camino every year and the spate of books written by returning pilgrims, and the many associations devoted to the Camino. Some of it can obviously be explained by the above, I thin however, that there are some basic, cultural and structural factors at play here having to do with how we fit into the world and how we find our place in it.
According to Zygmunt Bauman, we have moved from a period where we understood ourselves as “pilgrims” in search of deeper meaning to one where we act as “tourists” in search of multiple but fleeting social experiences. A more apt comparison is also mentioned by him: the world as a ubiquitous shopping mall and life as a shopping experience: you take only what you like from each shelf and dump them into your mental-social-spiritual shopping cart as you please.
When our lives where dominated by the metaphor of pilgrimage, our lives were guided and formed by the idea of a goal for success and happiness and fulfillment, and therefore we were ever ready to defer todays pleasure for the greater pleasures of the future. Our lives were guided by plans and actions that always were related to our future development as individuals, a sort of constant career path that in the final analysis led to our fulfillment as individuals and also in terms of the spirit.
In such a world where every action from schooling, marriage, work, family and who you know and associate with, acquires its meaning from some future, the world must necessarily be stable, unambiguous and manageable, otherwise how can we plan for the future, if the future cannot be counted upon to be the future we planned for? The 20th century strived for and achieved this goal – a sort of predictability – and that is also what lies at core of the upward mobility of the middle classes all over the world.
That is not the case anymore. Today all is flux, change and ambivalence and nothing stays the same and the world of today is no help in assessing the world of tomorrow. Yes the world has become a more richer, les physically threatening world for most of us, but because of this we are free to be more self-determined and individualized in our life path: whereas previously you had (or were given or had forced upon you) a strategy for how your life would develop, today you are expected to be a master of tactics and go with the flow and grab the opportunities that present themselves. Because of this the individual must constantly asses the cost/benefit and opportunity costs of any and all of his daily actions as to the contribution they can make to his /her gratification as an individual here and now and in the future.
The individual is alone in this – no-one can choose for you – and there are no traditional time-tested cultural or social guidelines. Whatever you choose you must face the consequences, and no excuses accepted. If you’re fat or thin poor or rich popular or lonely that’s you decision you might be “worth it”, but it’s your very own responsibility to get “it”. Also those, which involve interpersonal relationships – who knows anyhow how long they will last, and are they worth investing my time, emotion and effort into? Personal achievement and transcendence even spiritual are not something that will take place in the future, but just like teenagers walking through a mall window-shopping, gratification and self-realization is something you look for and choose from a variety of outlets.
This world is both lonely and stressful and yes there is almost total freedom, but with total freedom and the loss of the stability that comes with traditions and conventions, comes total responsibility for one’s own destiny.
Many people try to ameliorate this situation through joining informal associations of likeminded others in more or less the same situation, creating groups and sub-groups and ghettos of rich and poor, young and old etc. Another tactic is to attach oneself to some belief system, but in that there are so many to choose from amongst all the religions ideologies, and doctrines and theories available, just in case so as to not have chosen wrong, it’s best not to put all ones eggs in one basket, and instead pluck out what one sees as most desirable or useful here and now from each of them. Everyone thus creates his or her amalgam of belief, philosophy, or lifestyle.
Going on the Camino is the perfect choice fulfilling all needs, allaying all uncertainties, and providing direction – the Camino is the perfect modern coach. In fact it is as if everyone today has all the necessary aptitudes for doing the Camino: The interpersonal, decision making skills and proclivities (inconstancy and adaptability etc.) the post-modern person has developed, turn out to be eminently suited to going on the Camino – the post-modern personality type fits right into the Camino pilgrim way of life: both during and after having done it. Moreover doing the Camino somehow re-enacts what today can easily appear to have been a golden age when pilgrimage was the metaphor for life when every action was attuned to and measured by some final goal or outcome, and when there was confidence in the permanency of the way stations that must be passed thereto.
Let me enumerate:
There is the physical-emotional challenge of having done the Camino in this age when control over the body is most sought after: such control is one of the primary markers that one is control over one’s life and destiny. Thus overcoming a hardship or two is a necessary ingredient: in the immortal words of Nietzsche that introduces the Schwarzenegger movie “Conan the Barbarian”: “What does not kill us, makes us stronger”.
Each day on the Camino is a new day unencumbered by the history of what the pilgrim has done or experienced the previous day – total freedom – yet at the same time each day is part of a planned progression towards a goal- thus the pilgrim now has the best of both worlds “traditional” stability and total post-modern flux.
Whereas interpersonal relationships are difficult to maintain, perhaps bothersome, and always attuned to the opportunity costs of maintaining them – is it worth it staying in a relationship to so and so – on the Camino they are very intense, there is that sense of communitas mentioned above, which is so difficult to maintain “at home”. Yet, at the same time as our relations to our fellow pilgrims are very deep, full of empathy, even altruism, they are at the same time flighty – you can always (literally) walk away from them and form new ones at the next albergue.
Moreover, just by having done the Camino you can ever after gain new friends and form a new communitas of ex-Camino pilgrims. Moreover these “friends” are special in that they and their communitas is totally divorced from all your other networks and the demands made upon you there.
A pilgrim has a strategy- to get to Santiago – and every step on the Camino entails the tactics of achieving this strategy. In real life, where all is flux and potentially ambivalent, strategies must often give way to the tactics of survival – of establishing and maintaining ones own identity. Thus the Camino reintroduces the primacy of strategy that obtained when pilgrimage was the guiding metaphor for life. For pilgrims on the Camino, the world of the Camino as opposed to real life, will remain stable and un-ambivalent – each stage is mapped out and the map, surprise-surprise, actually corresponds to the reality. This relaxation of the need to configure and attend to the immediate tactics, frees the mind and gives a feeling that this is why I’m doing the Caminos, and that is why at the end the modern pilgrim feels that his experience has been so meaningful in comparison to all other extra- Camino experiences.
The modern pilgrim by going on the Camino exposing him/her-self to its rigors, to the beauty of its natural environment, to the communitas of sharing with other pilgrims, re-enacts in some way the lost innocence of the school-yard, the scouts, the school sports team.
In our “civilian life” forming our own spiritual worldview, having a feeling of the sacred and transcendental has turned out to be hard work and quite a bit complicated, now that we cannot any more fall back on traditional institutions such as the church or the holy books. Here on the Camino just by walking, experiencing the newness of being in nature, divorced from all our other speculations and concerns we can almost gratuitously achieve a little bit of nirvana.
Pilgrimage on the Camino enables each of us to experience the immediacy of the here and now, so lauded by mystics and searched after by the devotees of eastern gurus and (in the old hippie days) users of LSD.
Each of us is in some way or another a seeker that longs to have direct contact with the sacred – defined as that which gives life meaning, and perhaps even that which might put us in touch with the transcendental in the here and now: pilgrims – whoever, wherever, whenever – are people who do something practical about it.
(Zygmunt Bauman and Turner and Turner have been my guidelines and inspiration in writing the above – Zygmunt Bauman: “From Pilgrim to Tourist – or a Short History of Identity” & Zygmunt Bauman: “Liquid Modernity” — Victor and Edith Turner’s: “Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture”)