At some point in 2017, Irene Rodriguez, one of my dearest friends and professional collaborators, mentioned that she wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago.
“Me too!,” I said, having been fascinated by the ancient route since watching the 2010 movie The Way starring Martin Sheen.
However, my connection to pilgrimage in the Catholic tradition has long been a part of my life. I worked at the Marian apparition site of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Hercegovina from 2000-2003 following a life-shifting experience there while backpacking in Eastern Europe. As I served in various civilian humanitarian aid and liturgical roles during my time there, I had the pleasure of making several walking pilgrimages on holy days. The most memorable one was traveling to Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, in 2002 by car to join my cousins on a 46km (28.5 mile) walking pilgrimage to the holy site of Marija Bistrica. The people of their Zagreb suburb committed to this offering every year since the Homeland War (1991-1995) in gratitude for their town (Velika Gorica) surviving the war unscathed. I made it about 2/3 of the way before needing to lean on the mercy of a rescue car working the route.
Renata, a friend, teased, “You haven’t been training. You must train for walks this long.”
Many spiritual teachers proclaim that pilgrimage—any journey to cross a threshold—begins the moment that you even set the intention to do it. So as I make the final preparations to begin walking the Camino de Santiago on November 1, 2022, I realize that my training began the moment that Irene issued the invitation. And while a good amount of my recent training has been physical, the greatest preparations for this journey continue to be mental and spiritual.
When Irene first mentioned it in 2017, I didn’t think it would be possible to work in training between my busy work schedule and attempting to save a marriage that had been doomed from the start. The next year, after my marriage ended, Irene mentioned it to me again and it felt more possible. The following year Irene said, “Let’s do it for my 50th birthday!” I looked at the calendar and connected that would make our target date 2022. While the stirrings and possibilities still quickened within me, all of the reasons why I couldn’t bombarded me:
I’m too fat and out of shape.
My knee, riddled with old injuries from my time as a figure skater in adolescence, and the plantar fasciitis in my heel, would certainly be a deal breaker.
It seems frivolous to take so much time off of work for travel that is not connected to work.
Then the pandemic hit in 2020, sending me into an ever-evolving period of re-evaluating all of my priorities. Irene and I travel together often for work, yet in 2021 we decided to take our first major trip purely for the fun of it (to Costa Rica) after getting vaccinated. On that trip we made it official that the Camino would be our next quest!
The Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James, is a collection of several routes in Europe that lead to the shrine of Santiago de Compostela in the West of Spain. This Roman Catholic shrine is where the remains of St. James the Great—one of Jesus’ twelve apostles—are interred. The routes themselves, which began attracting pilgrims or seekers as far back at the 10th century CE, are considered a UNESCO World Heritage site. Several Roman Catholic popes have declared Santiago de Compostela one of the three great pilgrimage sites in Christendom, along with Jerusalem and Rome. For some reason, Irene and I were being called to walk one of these roads. At some point during our planning, another dear friend and fellow therapist/expressive artist, Dr. Kellie Kirksey, responded to the call as well.
“I’ve always wanted to do it!,” Kellie said with enthusiasm and Irene and I were all too glad to welcome her onto our vision board.
Despite our different backgrounds—I am White (Slavic-American), Irene is Puerto Rican, and Kellie is Black (African American)—we were all raised Catholic. Although institutional church along with its rigidities and injustices was never a box any of us wanted to fit into, the three of us remain deeply spiritual and drawn to wherever the calls of spirit may lead. So it feels very appropriate that we’ve been called to trudge some miles on a traditional path. And tradition can feel both comforting and wrought with emotional baggage. Yet speaking purely for myself, my Camino preparations have already been a gift in helping me to walk with the both/and of it all.
I began my training in earnest on Easter Sunday 2022, lacing up my newly bought Sketchers hiking boots for the first time and putting in my first three miles in our neighborhood. Having studied several suggested ways to train for the Camino journey, I felt that the training would be possible and a good challenge for my body. Yet part of these preparations would involve an element of prudence because my knees, which are full of arthritis, often betray me. At some point in May I finally decided to consult an orthopedist to get some guidance. For any larger person, going to a doctor fully expecting to get the, “Why don’t you consider losing some weight?” lecture is emotionally taxing. It’s one of the reasons I put off having the knees properly looked at even though they started bothering me seriously again in early 2021 (and indeed is a reason that many fat and overweight people resist medical care). And for the record, if you, dear reader, are going to recommend something to me for weight loss—I’ve probably tried it. Moreover, I was first on medication for arthritis in my knees when I was about 19-20 and in much better shape than I am now as a result of excessive and I would argue even abusing working out.
Learning to love my body as she is—having been my current size for the last twenty years—is the most challenging spiritual practice of my life. All things physical have historically been a challenge for me. Yes, I was the last kid picked in gym class and I have always been clumsy, partly due to my dissociative tendencies for coping and partly due to what I’m learning to accept may be neurodivergence. My mother still recalls that, as a toddler, I was happy to be curled up, reading a book in my bedroom while the other kids were outside playing. Bowling was the only sport I was ever any good at in my youth because my larger size seemed to help me put some power on the ball that I got to toss in frustration down a lane. Yet I’m always that kid/person who relishes trying. I played softball and learned to figure skate. In my mid-thirties I learned aerial yoga and passed a timed belt test in Gracie Jiu-Jitsu’s Women Empowered program, something I thought could never be possible in my aging body. For me it’s never been about being good, it’s about setting a challenge that my body knows is reasonable and celebrating what is possible in my body, as she is.
As I’ve shared my Camino preparations with several people, including my doctors, they asked if it’s a timed race or if I’m training for a certain pace.
“Nope. I am training to be able to finish the route that I’ve challenged myself to take. And that’s good enough for me.”
And it truly is.
Years ago I learned a fascinating lesson about people’s discomfort with fat or larger bodies who attempt to be active and celebrate what’s possible in their bodies. I was on a guided hike in St. Maarten with a very fit former work colleague, and I was more than okay to walk several paces behind my colleague and our guide. They kept feeling bad, wanting to wait for me, and I kept telling them to go on—I would finish, just on my own time. Naturally the male guide, at one point, started to recommend all of the things that I should try for weight loss. I dissociated from most of it but at one point I managed to tell him, “I’m still walking, aren’t I? Let me go at my own pace and you go at yours.”
Everyone must walk their own Camino.
In the reading and study part of my preparations I’ve learned about this common phrase amongst pilgrims on the various routes leading to Santiago de Compostela. For me, it really means honoring people (and their bodies) where they are at on their journey and giving them grace, knowing that we are all trudging a hard road and are doing the best that we can. That guide in St. Maarten seemed way more bothered by my larger body than I ever was, which is pretty typical of my experience with people who are threatened by anything other than a thin, fit, able ideal. So I will let them walk their Camino of life, and I will walk mine…
Irene, Kellie, and I decided early on that we were going to accept the needed assistance that we are privileged to afford in making this journey. For instance, we are staying in hotels and letting a service take our bags from place to place. We are walking only the last 100km (62 miles) over five days, which is considered the minimum on the most often traveled Camino Frances to receive one’s Compostela (or certificate verifying that you walked the Camino). Of course in my younger days I would have loved to carry my own pack and stay in whatever hostel was available along the way. At this point in my life, doing that would just feel like I am proving to myself that I can do the tougher way just to feed my own pride. And my gut tells me that I would end up hurt by pushing and forcing in this manner.
We also feel assured in knowing that this is not a wilderness route so we are able to stop often to sit and replenish. And yes, there are taxis and car services available along the way if we need rescued. While writing this today, just within two weeks of beginning the formal journey, my intention is to walk the course we’ve set, and I believe my physical training has prepared me to do that. Yet I’ve also learned in the practice of learning to love my body that accepting help and not straining myself into foolishness might be the greatest practice of all.
So I begin this journey from a place of deep preparation and a spirit of non-striving. And I look forward to the lessons that will be revealed along the way.
Stay tuned to the Redefine Therapy blog for Dr. Jamie’s further writing on the journey. If you are a Spotify user, feel free to visit the group’s developing Camino playlist by clicking HERE.