A 400 Mile Spiritual Walk Brings Wisdom to Red Cloud Jesuit

posted on September 30, 2013

Fr. Rick Abert, SJ Red Cloud Indian School's Jesuit community superior, recently returned to Pine Ridge from northern Spain, where he walked more than 400 miles to complete the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James. The Camino is a network of ancient pilgrimage routes that come together at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, believed to be the final resting place of Saint James the apostle. Today the Camino continues to be recognized as one of the world's most important Christian pilgrimages.

In the following essay, Fr. Rick reflects on his experience walking ‘the way’ with former Red Cloud President and fellow Jesuit Fr. John Paul, SJ—and the timeless wisdom he gained through the journey.


"The Camino"

by Fr. Rick Abert, SJ

“Make sure you have a good pair of boots.  Pack lightly, and when you think you have done so, unpack again, leave out more things you thought you needed, and pack even lighter.”  

These words of wisdom were offered to me by a man who had just finished his journey on the Camino de Santiago, or the Way of St. James as it is called in English—a 400 mile spiritual walk through northern Spain.  I took his advice just before I began my pilgrimage on the Camino, realizing I really should have packed even more lightly.  Lessons of life began that immediately on the Camino—we never need as much “stuff” as we fear we cannot do without.  Pack lightly for the path that is life.

History tells us that the relics of St. James were discovered and reburied in Santiago in northern Spain during the year 900.  Almost immediately pilgrims from all parts of Europe began to make the sacred trek to Santiago in response to God’s call, and that tradition grew into one of the world’s most important Christian pilgrimages. Today the Camino de Santiago continues to attract people’s hearts—and feet.  

My first inklings of taking this pilgrimage came about 10 years ago in a conversation with close friends. Despite our initial excitement, the idea retreated to the backdrop of our busy lives.  But last year, Fr. John Paul, SJ or “JP”—a former teacher and President of Red Cloud Indian School—called and invited me to join him on the Camino as he concluded a sabbatical. My previous excitement about the journey returned—and doors soon opened that allowed me to step onto that sacred path with him.  The decision was made.

Over the years the Camino has grown into four primary routes ending in Santiago. JP and I decided to walk what is called the French Way, which is the most popular path. But instead of beginning as recommended at St. John Pied de Port in the French foothills of the Pyrenees, we began our journey in Loyola, where the founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius, grew up. In Loyola, St. Ignatius recovered from a battle injury during a period of time that radically changed his life.

From Loyola we went on to Pamplona where Ignatius, as a military man leading the defense of the city, was seriously injured by a cannonball. He fractured his leg and returned to Loyola to recuperate. For JP and me, spending the first days of pilgrimage in Loyola and Pamplona gave us an important opportunity to renew and give thanks for our Jesuit roots, and to strengthen our commitments to the Jesuit ministry.

In Loyola we had an opportunity to walk all around the area that helped shape Ignatius from childhood to adulthood. We were blessed to be able to celebrate Mass in the chapel built into the room where Ignatius recovered, discovered Christ in a new way, and found his heart turned to God’s people in a way that he had never imagined.  It was a wonderful beginning to our pilgrim path.

After our time in Pamplona, we bid goodbye to the Jesuits who had hosted us and stepped onto the Camino de Santiago, converging there with a woman from Australia, three young adults from Barcelona, a man from Sicily and one from Sardinia.  This would be our first set of companions with whom we would walk that day, lose the very next, and find again on and off during the next week. This pattern of finding, losing and re-finding companions—often with great joy—would become a regular occurrence throughout the four hundred miles.  

The connections we made with people from all over the world, speaking the languages of their countries, walking at their own paces, would be a primary source of human grounding for us.  On the Camino, words were often not necessary and the rhythm of our footsteps was enough of a story to satisfy.  But most of the time our Spanish and English made it possible to communicate with just about everyone. And when words failed, hand signals, grunts and laughter filled the bill.

I remember someone asking me on my return, how exactly would you spend a day?  I replied, in a tongue and cheek sort of way, “we woke up, we walked and we went to bed.”  Truthfully, JP and I did not establish a hard and fast daily pattern. But like most other pilgrims—peregrinos in Spanish—we tended to be on the road each morning before 6:00 AM in order to take advantage of pre-dawn coolness.  

Often we spent the first moments of the new day in the dark searching for the scallop conch or yellow arrow that traditionally mark the Camino’s path.  After we found the path that would carry us through the day, we fell into a pattern of separating, to enter into the quiet prayer to which Jesuits are accustomed.  Later in the day we would rejoin one another for conversation and companionship in what was consistently beautiful landscape.  We also shared the path with other pilgrims and would accompany them for a time.  

We walked through the morning, stopping after about two or three hours with others for a quick but relaxing coffee and piece of fruit for breakfast.  After that brief respite—and yes, for a change—we walked some more!  Most days, taking the hint from others and from our feet and legs, we walked until 2 or 3 PM, at which point we would seek a shelter in an albergue—hostels along the path meant to provide rest for those on the Camino.

We generally stayed in the albergues that felt like large dormitories, with either bunk beds or mats laid out on the floor.  It was definitely community style.  Some days we would eat around 2:00 PM, as many Europeans did.  Other days around noon, we would buy a hunk of cheese, fruit and yogurt at a small store in whatever town we were passing through, and then in the evening have a larger meal either cooked and shared with others at the albergue or at small restaurants that specialize in “peregrino meals.”  

The afternoon time in the albergue always included a very quick shower, the washing of a set of socks and other clothes needed for a next day, repair of blistered feet and conversation with other pilgrims.  Most were in bed early to rest up for the quickly approaching new day.

The Camino varies in intensity, grade, terrain and even climate.  It seems that there is a three-part structure to it. The first stage of the trail was intensely physical, and demanded that we climb and descend over rocky footpaths—although there was respite to be found in the very small and ancient towns through which we passed.  

After some time on the trail, the constantly changing terrain and physical exertion of this first stage gave way to a regularity and sameness in the second stage, called the meseta. The meseta is a flat, agricultural region of often-unchanging scenery of wheat and barley fields—and a very hot sun.  While the fields were beautiful in their own way, the flatness and sameness of that external environment seemed to invite a more reflective interior journey.  In the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, prayer sessions with lots of new material often give way to repetitious patterns of prayer and reflection. This draws attention away from the glitter of new information that engages the mind and into the more vulnerable place where depth of relationships becomes the fare of the day.  Many have commented that this second Camino stage is a difficult one because it brings one into those interior depths and truths that the distractions of life often allow us to deny or escape.  

The last and third stage of the Camino returned us to higher heights and incredibly beautiful vistas that perhaps the second stage of soul searching prepared us for.  Our feet took us more gently through forest paths. After a very long trek, we reached a place called Monte de Gozo, or Mountain of Joy, five miles outside of Santiago. The next day, one month and 400 miles after we stepped onto the Camino, we completed a slow and emotional five-mile trek into Santiago.

As we arrived, we said a prayer of thanks in the Cathedral plaza and proceeded to the place where we received our “compostela,” the certificate stating we had completed the Camino de Santiago.  Then we returned to the Cathedral where, for the next several hours and with much shared emotion, we met many of the companions with whom we had walked on this wonderful path of life.

The Camino, as pilgrimage, is a teacher. And this is some of what I believe we learned.

Pack light in life, because God provides.

As a wise veteran stated at the beginning of the Camino, “don’t worry about what will happen, because the Camino provides what you might not even know you are really seeking, and gives you whatever you need to stay in the search.”  

We have time. When I responded to a question about my life by saying “it’s a long story,” another wise, young companion on the Camino reminded me, “but we have time”!  Yes, we have time to be people who speak and listen to one another; we have time to slow down a bit in life that can sometimes seem to run us in circles, like the greyhound dogs that keep chasing a rabbit they never quite catch. We have time to let the beauty of people, the landscape that embraces us, and the gift of our own inner spirit; sing their songs of gratitude for the life we share.  

Camino is a relationship.  We don’t come to it to overpower it.  We respond gratefully for its support, for the direction it offers.  We walk lightly over its sacred ground and figuratively take our shoes off in reverence.  We are invited, as in all relationships, to listen as it speaks its own truth, a truth we trustingly receive and let draw forth in response, the truth of our heart, which we can speak back with our humbled walk.  

The Camino invites us to be patient with it and with ourselves as we enact the sacred relationship that is life.

The sacredness of the Camino path is the trust that people shared with each other.  One young woman from Barcelona said it to me this way: “the beauty of this experience on the Camino is that people acknowledge one another without really knowing each other, even if only to wish each other a hearty ‘holá’ or ‘Buen Camino.’  We look at one another and ask each other questions about our life, help care for each other in the shared experience of blistered feet, check on other’s hurts and health when we meet again.  This just doesn’t happen when we step off this path into the world we have come from and return to.”  

With a tinge of sadness I found myself beginning to agree with her. But very quickly the spirit of the Camino formed words from my grateful heart, “and then again, maybe it can happen as you say, if even only a bit.”  Buen Camino.

Written Content: All Rights Reserved ©Red Cloud Indian School
Map: ©Creative Commons, Manfred Zentgraf, Volkach, Germany
Photo: ©Creative Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Spain_Santiago_de_Compostela_-_Cathedral.jpg