El Camino and the “endless freedom” of a pilgrim

Miklos Marton Jalkoczi (Hungary, AC 09-11)

Santiago de Compostella is one of the three most important targets of pilgrimage along with Jerusalem and Rome. My father and I completed the Camino Frances to go there in a bit over a month in the summer of 2007. This was the best thing that has ever happened to me, apart from getting into Atlantic College . I suffered, but it was well worth it. Why? It is hard to answer this question. Simply because it is wonderful. It is El Camino.

According to the legend, Saint James’ (in Spanish Santiago) body is buried in Santiago de Compostella. He was a follower of Jesus who first died in martyrdom amongst the apostles. His body was shipped into present-day Spain, and the place became his perpetual bed. His grave was discovered in the midst of wondrous circumstances in the 9th century and many years later a cathedral beyond all others was built there. The significance of El Camino is proven by Saint James being the patron of Spain.

Broadly speaking, pilgrims have been walking to Santiago from various part of the world for more than a thousand years. There are many routes leading to Santiago de Compostella, but the best-known is the 80-km-long El Camino Frances. It starts from Saint Jean Pied du Port, a small basque village at the Pyrenees on the border of France and Spain, and heads to Santiago de Compostella.

People from all over the world gather there with the aim of doing a pilgrimage – why? Why spend more than 30 days walking from morning till night and sleeping in a huge room with a lot of people who you do not know? Well the answer is easy, I suppose: to achieve changes in your mind and find yourself. Does that sound poetic? I do think that 800 km walking does change you, because El Camino is not just a physical way, but a spiritual one as well. We all live in a rushing world, but on a pilgrimage you can concentrate more on those things you may not have the time for otherwise.

What you need is volition, persistence, self-confidence, and, last but not least, a good pair of shoes and a comfortable rucksack. You do not need a map because the whole route is well marked by yellow signs and scallops. You do not have to be religious to do it but you must have a reason for doing it. Do not worry about the accommodation, either. You can stay at albergues at a relatively cheap price if you own a Credencial, a kind of Pilgrim`s passport, which can be obtained along the Camino.

Since the 1980’s it has been leading its renaissance. Each year, more than 100,000 people are given their Compostelanum, the certificate of having completed the route, and this number will probably increase in the future. In a century, this would amount to a lot. 

Perhaps modern people need to do a pilgrimage to get out of our cruel world for a while, and undertake a journey back into a time without excessive comforts. When I was walking on the Camino where millions had walked before me, including Dante and Pope Jean Paul II, I felt that each one of them had left something behind; not simply their footprints but something invisible under the milky way above. Not only do you experience the endless freedom and simplicity through the nature, but you will probably have time for yourself, strictly speaking a kind of spirit maintenance. As for me, walking across the Iberian Peninsula, I was very proud of not being a tourist, but a pilgrim.

– United World College Student Magazine –


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