Their stories spoke of individuals in moments of transition, rupture and discovery that led to transformation.Moments of transition, liminal spaces and thresholds have always attracted my attention. As a scholar and as an individual, it is in these in-between spaces that I find challenging and thought-provoking questions. This may be why I feel particularly at home on the cusp between the Late Medieval period and Early
Modernity in Iberia. This is probably why I was drawn to do research on love and death, the ultimate in-between spaces.
And this is why I was intrigued by the Camino de Santiago (The St. James Way), a pilgrimage whose destination is the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. What I have found is that the Camino serves as both a real and a metaphorical journey, a journey in which the process is just as important—if not more important—as the destination. It is a process that may lead to transformation and self-discovery. And it is a process that resembles the experience of a liberal arts college like Davidson.
Yes, I am more a process guy than a destination guy. I believe that high-value performance during a process usually results in reaching the destination. Not that reaching the endpoint (be it Santiago de Compostela or graduation) is not important; on the contrary, it is crucial for a technically successful journey in both cases.
However, it is in the process, in the in-betweeness of pilgrimage, where “stuff’ happens.
In the summer of 2009, I interviewed pilgrims who arrived in Santiago de Compostela. This experience was, beyond any doubt, instrumental in how today I reflect upon pilgrimage and some of the components of this experience: community, weakness, pain, faith, memory, time, happiness, conflict and transformation. For the first time I was approaching the Camino not through my own eyes but through the eyes of others, which turned out to be an enlightening, moving and humbling experience.
In spring 2012 and spring 2014, I taught my seminar “Travel and Transformation in Spain” at Davidson. I was privileged to work with students who uncovered different ways to reflect upon pilgrimage.
Approaching the Camino through both pilgrims in Santiago and students at Davidson has allowed me to reflect upon this journey through the perspective of others. Their experiences and their stories have taught me to listen better, to observe more carefully, to ask more questions, to understand more and to judge less—a very humbling journey indeed.
Because of them, because their stories, because of their caminos (the word camino translates as path or way), I have new eyes for the real and metaphorical caminos still to be walked in my own life.
The Spanish Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage rooted in the Medieval period and increasingly active today. More than a million people have walked it over the last 10 years. The Camino has multiple points of departure in Spain and other European countries. Due to its simultaneously secular and religious nature and its culturally diverse international population of pilgrims, the Camino serves as an inclusive and plural space for a wide variety of views, believes and faiths.
Following the yellow arrows placed to mark the way, pilgrims walk and live communally along this sacred route to arrive at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the alleged burial site of the Apostle St. James. Pilgrims spend the night in albergues, primitive hostels with large, communal rooms with bunk beds. Most of them wear around their necks, in their hats or hung from their backpacks a scallop shell that identifies them as pilgrims.
Linda Davidson and David Gitlitz’s definition of pilgrimage remains fundamental to understand this physical and spiritual journey:
“From long before the beginning of recorded time, three fundamental beliefs have launched human beings onto the roads of pilgrimage.
“The first is the conviction that there are forces infinitely larger than ourselves—gods, superheroes, the tectonic plates of history—forces with the ability to influence our lives. The second is that each of us has the potential to initiate a meaningful relationship with those forces. The third is that there are certain special places where the remote, transcendental power of those forces seems close enough for us to touch.”
Within this context, pilgrimage to Santiago today can be defined in as many ways as there are pilgrims. Some walk because they want to encounter the divine. For them the Camino is a journey of faith. Others search for themselves as they have been lost in the labyrinth of life. Yet others are motivated by testing their limits in an outdoor adventure. However, regardless of their motivation, their journeys share several aspects.
All these pilgrims embark on a body-centered enterprise intimately connected to a religious, spiritual, intellectual and/or personal experience. They have all engaged in a quest. They are all displaced. They have abandoned the familiar to step out of their comfort zone and experience the unknown.
Pilgrimage is an experience that results in what anthropologists Victor and Edith Turner refer to as communitas, an ideal state of unmediated and egalitarian association among individuals that transcends social, economic, religious, political and personal boundaries. While on pilgrimage, everyone is temporarily set free from hierarchical roles. Pilgrims participate in a liminal and contested experience. Liminal because their journey takes place in an in-between space in which individuals who are separated from traditional society travel to their destination. Contested because regardless of the motivation for their pilgrimage, they all will have learned something about themselves over the course of their journey or at their destination because, as John Eade and Michael Sallnow have noted, the Camino and its sacred destination serves as common grounds capable of accommodating diverse religious and secular discourses.
Finally, a significant number of pilgrims claim that this journey has changed them, or that they have been transformed. As many have come to experience, “you don’t walk the Camino, the Camino walks you.” For most pilgrims, transformation happens (or at least they are aware of it) in the less obvious journey that takes place when they return to their communities.
Pilgrimage, then, seems to be an inherent part of who we were, who we are and who we want to be. What the Camino reminds us is that we are always on the road to becoming.
Narratives of Life-Changing Experiences
How differently do people from diverse faiths and cultures reflect on the experience of pilgrimage? What role do religious and personal beliefs play in the making of this experience? What social, theological, personal and political views do these narratives express about pilgrimage?
With these questions in mind and a video camera in hand, I arrived in Santiago de Compostela in the summer of 2009. In order to shed some light on those questions I wanted to interview a diverse group of individuals ranging from professors of religion, sociology, literature, and history at the University of Santiago, church officials, and politicians from the Xunta de Galicia (local government), to residents of Santiago de Compostela, and above all pilgrims, many pilgrims.
They all shared with me rich and plural narratives that opened up a diversity of ways to think about the Camino. It was, however, the narratives of the pilgrims that I interviewed in Santiago de Compostela that left an everlasting impression on me. Their stories spoke of individuals in moments of transition, rupture and discovery that led to transformation. In addition to the personal content, what captivated me was the vocabulary, metaphors and symbols that these pilgrims used to reconcile their experience with its expression within their narratives.
A common thread runs through their stories: the Camino was a transformative experience, a physical and intellectual journey in which introspection and community had led to self-discovery. Let me share with you, in their own voices, how they experienced their journey.
Ramón walked 71 miles in five days because he wanted to better himself, to find himself. On his journey he reflected upon the apparent paradox that “we all need from each other, and yet we all need to be alone.”
Marisa walked 497 miles in 36 days. As she confronted her fear of being alone with her thoughts, her Camino became an introspective journey to reconcile her past and her present in order to give shape to a better future.
Three female friends (one of them insisted that I note that she was 72 years old!) walked 71 miles in five days as an act of faith. They found self-empowerment and self-fulfillment in a female-only environment, which led to renewing their faith by leaning on each other to overcome physical hardships because after all, “The Camino is hard but not harder than life.”
Álvaro walked 435 miles in 27 days. His motivation? To enjoy nature, see monuments and meet people. On his journey he reflected upon the meaning of friendship.
Adrián and Juan Francisco, two high school students, accompanied a friend who was suffering from an illness over 105 miles and eight days. They found the Camino to be a therapeutic journey.
Antonio and Magdalena, husband and wife, walked 105 miles in eight days as an act of gratitude for their son’s recent recovery from an illness. Magdalena sprained her ankle but asked her husband to help her reach their destination in spite of the pain. Both husband and wife rediscovered the meaning of empathy and solidarity within their marriage, which led to a gradual transformation.
It took 71 miles and four days for Ferrán, Gerard and Eduard, two brothers-in-law and their nephew, to strengthen their personal and family bonds. During their journey they engaged in dialogue with each other, which allowed them to open up a new dialogue inside each of them; the stillness of the Camino motivated them to reflect upon loneliness, silence and introspection. They felt that “Se está más solo en el día a día” (you feel more lonely in everyday life than in the Camino); they learned how to be with themselves by being together as a community. When they reached Santiago they experienced a feeling of emptiness because “Te das cuenta de que lo importante eres tú, no el destino” (You realize that what is important is you, not the destination).
These narratives speak of community, confrontation and transformation; they speak of suffering, friendship, accomplishments, happiness, faith: they speak of the very fabric of humanity.
The experience of attending a four-year liberal-art college resembles that of the Camino. It is throughout their four-year long journey at Davidson that students grow and learn by filling up their imaginary backpacks with the values of a liberal arts education.
Just like pilgrims on the Camino, students spend four years (a temporary period of time) building up a community (a group of people who interact and live together) on campus (a liminal space) outside their comfort zone (displacement). Contestation is also present in our college community as Davidson accommodates different faiths, political views and personal credos. At the end of their journey lies graduation, the destination for our student pilgrims. It becomes a liminal moment to stop and look back in time and inside oneself to fortunately see that the senior who is graduating is not the same person who joined this community as a first-year student.
Pilgrimage, like college, enables participants to re-create, to renew themselves, and to explore their creative and intellectual potential apart from the context of everyday routine with one goal: personal transformation. The Camino serves as a metaphor for college because, just as pilgrimage can be viewed as a rite of separation, transition and incorporation, so can college.
However since the proof is in the pudding, or as we say in Spanish “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (movement is proven by walking), let’s allow our student pilgrims to speak for themselves about their personal and intellectual quests and discoveries on the Camino.
My conversations with student pilgrims revealed these Camino lessons: learning to cope with the fear of being judged and learning to feel comfortable with a lack of control and imperfection.
“Walking the Camino was the healthiest thing I’ve ever done for my mind, body and spirit,” said Luke Currin ’12. “I haven’t experienced anything that quieted my soul like walking miles every day with two things: my own thoughts and people who had decided to search deep within themselves and, thankfully, share pieces of that search with me.”
Some students compared sprains to essays and reviews at Davidson, and arid sections on the Camino to those long months looking for a job. Others remarked upon the value of solitude to reflect upon a romantic break-up and how upon finishing their journey the dispersion of their pilgrimage companions shared the poignancy of college graduation marked by the loss of those individuals who had helped to form their reshaped identity.
These are their voices as they reflect on the process, community and transformation.
Process: “It is easy, in the midst of university study and living in academia, to believe that I have a comprehensive understanding of the world, and to think that I can know God simply through ritual and creed. I decided to go on pilgrimage because, I felt, as much as I spent my daily life studying religion and holy text, they had lost meaning for me. I was too comfortable, complacent and over-confident in my set beliefs and practices. In my time of studying, I had lost connection with the mystery and the awe of nature, as well as the lifeblood of living in community.” — Elizabeth Welliver ’16
Community: “More than anything, I was surprised by the prevalence of spontaneous community on the Camino: often, I would stay up late talking with my fellow pilgrims, and they would share their life stories with me, even though we barely knew each other. This human connection was refreshing to experience in an age of such disconnectedness and emotional malaise.” — Nolan Boyd ’12
Transformation: “Walking the Camino helped me understand the value of my own perspective. I learned to pay attention to my instincts, listen to my conscience, and reflect on both my successes and failures. I now fully realize that I have the ultimate ability to determine what is and is not meaningful in my life. ” — Holly Sims ’12
“I do find myself smiling more often with no reason at all. I catch myself walking off city maps. I talk less, and I listen even more than before. I look at people more, and I see them in a new light. I am open to conversations with strangers, conversations I am often the instigator of. I cherish details, and I appreciate gestures of affection. I see love everywhere, and I love the streets of the world. Only now do I realize how much more walking awaits me.” — Polly Draganova ’09
The Act of Being
Travel for transformation lies at the core of the humanities experience in a liberal art college. In this regard, Davidson is a liminal space in which the emergence of communitas and contestation serve as a catalyst for transformation. Students’ experiences on the Camino and at Davidson mutually inform each other as they provide a frame for a reciprocal understanding of both journeys: pilgrimage and college. The strong sense of community at Davidson allows individuals to search for themselves, for who they are and for who they want to be.
This is not always an easy journey. It is a winding path that sometimes leads to success and, at other times, to challenges that may seem insurmountable. Students negotiate social life, academics, personal issues, sports and health from the time that they set foot on our campus until the moment President Quillen hands them their diplomas four years later.
These negotiations are metaphors for the ultimate pilgrimage at Davidson: what they are essentially traveling to is their own selves. In addition to the knowledge and critical thinking skills that they will have acquired, the most important knowledge of all comes from knowing themselves better and becoming aware that the new individual who is about to start that other journey of leaving and venturing back into the world at large is not the same as the one who started his/her journey at Davidson four years ago.
Both the institution and the individual have enabled and enacted the spirit of transformation.
At the end of the day, we are all pilgrims traveling along different roads, both imaginary and real, longing to be transformed in one way or another, are we not?