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Why I Hike the Camino

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I just returned from hiking the Camino in northern Spain. On a hike like this, my purpose is rejuvenation. My life is a demanding one – every day, I pour out until there’s little left. I leave depleted by the demands of daily living and leadership. My days start early and end late. My life…
By Seth Barnes
I just returned from hiking the Camino in northern Spain. On a hike like this, my purpose is rejuvenation. My life is a demanding one – every day, I pour out until there’s little left. I leave depleted by the demands of daily living and leadership. My days start early and end late.
My life is pressure-filled. I’ve been given the immense privilege of stewarding God’s dreams and empowering others to do likewise. Every day, people need more from me and it can feel exhausting. Often, I tumble into bed with nothing left to give.
What to do to replenish? I don’t need a beach vacation – just sitting around bores me and brings the possibility of skin cancer. A cruise is even worse – it’s too much of everything that is already too much in America.
Already feeling overweight? Here’s a floating 24/7 calorie-laden buffet so tempting, you’re sure to gain ten pounds in a week. Spend too much time passively watching entertainment? On the cruise of your choice, the moment you wake up, you’ll be able to watch chorus lines of dancing girls in peacock feathers high-kicking on any of five decks.
Maybe these work for you – no judgment here, I’m just sharing.
What works for me is to hike an ancient path in northern Spain called “The Camino of St. James.”  Hiking it, life returns with each step. I unplug to noise and plug into a slower pace where I can breathe in dreams and possibilities .
Last week, I joined a small group of friends and started in Pamplona, where Hemingway wrote about the running of the bulls in The Sun Also Rises. We hiked over the fruit-laden vineyards of the Rioja region, over stretches of Roman roads, past Medieval castles and cathedrals.
We walked in the footsteps of pilgrims and Templar knights. To the story-filled back alleys of towns whose restaurants antedate Queen Isabella commissioning Columbus.
It was a glorious opportunity to disengage from the 9-5 office reality of my always-on treadmill desk world and enter what Richard Rohr calls “liminal space.”
Hiking into Intentionality
We hiked away from social media and To Do lists and into a space where we were no longer responding, but were given the gift of intentionality.
Our first stop was Puente la Reina “the Queen’s Bridge”, so named for the Romanesque bridge where armies crossed en route to war.
If you listened hard enough, you could hear the echoes of their marching feet. And along the way, if you listened, you could hear the stories from a millennia of peregrinos struggling to make their way over 500 miles to Santiago de Compostella.
Every day on the Camino, as blisters appeared and joints ached, we identified a little more with their struggle. We died a little bit more to pain and we had a chance to choose our response – to laugh or to complain. Leaving Pamplona, we breathed in the crisp Basque air and we breathed in life and possibility.
Free wine, free laughter
Further along, we stopped in the town of Estella. We found a new hostel and luxuriated in the hot showers. We left in the darkness the next morning, pausing at Fuente de Vino, a free wine fountain set up to give pilgrims refreshment.
That night, at a hostel in the hill-top town of Sansol, all the pilgrims gathered after dinner for a laughter-filled sing-along.  It’s the kind of night that reminds me of the possibility of abundant living. Ordinary life can be exhausting. On a night like this, I’m reminded that we were not made for ordinary living.
In each new town, the stories of the ages cried out from the cobblestone streets and old Roman walls. In Najera we visited an old monastery. It was founded in 1052 by King Garcia, son of Sancho the Great.
According to legend, one day King Garcia was out hunting when his falcon chased a dove into a cave. In the cave he saw an image of the Virgin Mary lit by a lamp. So of course he built a shrine which later became a beautiful church and monastery.
Down through the centuries, due to wars between bishops and kings, it became a multi-purpose building, serving at times as a prison, at times as a place for bull fights, and at times reverting to its original religious purposes.
But always, in its crypt, the Church of Santa Maria la Real served as a cemetery. And if you pay four Euro, even today you can see where the great men of Najera are buried.
You re-purposed
We finished our hike at the cathedral of Santo Domingo. Next to it is the first hospital for peregrinos, now re-purposed as a four star hotel. Back in the day, pilgrimages were treacherous journeys. You could set out for Santiago, but who knows what sickness or injury might befall you along the way.
Re-purposing is a rich and constant theme of the Camino. Everything along it, including the pilgrims, seems to be re-purposed. You can leave searching for a Holy Grail of your own making and find destiny flying at you sideways at a time you least expect.
Somewhere along the way I realized that the Camino of St. James is like a time machine, both collapsing and expanding time so that those on it are allowed to see through the centuries. It transports you in the time-space continuum.
There is a sign over one village that says, “I once was what you are now. You will be what I am.” Macabre you say? I say we need more of that kind of perspective. The struggles may look different, but we as humans walking our way through life, go to the same destination.
Living in the hyperspace of modernity, the gap between thought and action narrows to paper-thin. To live is to respond. And in the absence of intentionality and prayer, regrets pile up. We can become what we dread.
We can find ourselves slowly shuffling off to a boring future. Dead at 50, buried at 80. I am committed that this will not be my fate. Life in God is full of so many rich possibilities if we’ll just say yes to them.
The Camino transported me, as it does with so many pilgrims, to a place where I began to live more intentionally. I found that as you walk it, you see how much your story is like the stories of those who have preceded you. And in that, you find grace.
I suppose I set out on the Camino looking for whatever grace would give me. I’m so thankful that that’s what God is looking to give all his pilgrims.

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