This book is a personal account of an experience common to countless Europeans, but unknown to most Americans. The volume is fittingly titled after a famous verse of the Spanish poet Antonio Machado, "caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar,” which is a warning to the wayfarer, but also a challenge. The reader will find here a rich mix of hermeneutics, social commentary and practical advice.
The inspiration to share his experiences in printed form resulted from the profound and long-term effects the pilgrimage had on the author. Or as he says, the walk lasted a month but its impact has been felt over a long time. A Mennonite, Boers revels in having partaken in a Catholic tradition that millions before him have established for over ten centuries in the northwestern corner of Europe. The Camino de Santiago, like his visit to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris some years earlier, filled him with awe at the accumulated Catholic legacy in ritual, spirituality and material culture to the point of making him exclaim, “Oh…I want to be a Catholic!”.
Boers introduces to North American audiences the path that for a millennium Europeans have trodden to Santiago de Compostela where, tradition has it, rest the last remains of St. James the Apostle. In 12 short chapters the author unpacks the lessons he drew from this 30-day trek. In walking the camino de Santiago, Boers discovers more than a path. He comes upon a metaphor for Christian life. Through prayer and meditation Boers encounters the divine and finds on the way countless manifestations of God’s presence and works.
Boers vindicates pilgrimage as spiritual exercise. In fact the walk can be considered a long retreat that has some advantages over traditional retreats. This 500-mile retreat, which can last over 30-days, is far removed from home, daily work and other routines. The author walked in solitude for long stretches that lent themselves to uninterrupted reflection. In the vast spaces and silence that surrounded him he took stock of his whole life. Day after day he could continue self-analysis, and could not avoid contemplating phases of his life that he would like rather not visit.
The author explores the ramifications of an intense physical experience. The strenuous effort to sustain the act of walking day in and day out, covering an average of 16 miles a day, brings to the surface qualities such as perseverance and solidarity. Enjoying good company and cooperation with fellow pilgrims while on the move or at rest became a cherished byproduct of the Camino. Competitiveness was no longer king, if it ever was, but it definitely lost its luster. The encounter with other human beings pursuing the same goal facilitates the easy striking of friendships along the way. The thousands converging on the camino from around the globe make it a rich intercultural experience. Simple conversation that can be sustained for miles, and over consecutive days, allows total strangers to lower their guard and be more natural.
To his initial disappointment, Boers discovers that only a minority of those attracted to the camino are so for religious reasons. But as the pilgrimage progresses he notices that the camino has the power to transform those who walk it, and that not a few experience some type of conversion by the time they reach the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The changes participants undergo are not related to denominational labels, but rather of the heart and spirit. This mystical effect on people is one of the special features of the camino, and it is also why not every trek is a pilgrimage. And the pilgrimage is not a means to an end either; the means is the end.
Those who walk all the way have to simplify their lives, carry the essentials on their backs, sleep in cramped quarters and withstand the bodily odors of self and those around them. The implication for Boers is that one can definitely live with less, a lesson he elaborates into a critical assessment of our materialist and consumerist ways.
The stoicism needed to keep trekking even after blisters and lacerations developed in his feet made Boers recognize the limitations of his body. Being forced to slow down tamed his drive to always do more and faster. His eagerness to get to the end as fast as possible relented. His pain opened opportunities for him to receive and appreciate help as one more manifestation of God’s providence.
Boers’s enthusiasm for el camino has the zeal of a convert. He illustrates the various ways this pilgrimage can aid spiritual growth. He even shares practical tips on how to prepare to cover the distance. And for those who don’t want to do the camino, he offers a list of alternative pilgrimage sites. For my part, I am grateful for this serendipitous encounter with a book that reaffirms my disposition to embark soon on the camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage that has been in the works for some time.