I recently had the incredible opportunity to walk “El Camino de Santiago Compostela,” a pilgrimage to the legendary burial place of Saint James the Apostle in Spain. I traveled with one of my best friends from college for over a month to walk the 775 km from St. Jean Pied-de-Port in France to Santiago. Throughout “the Way” he and I practiced the Spiritual Exercises, faced an assortment of challenges, and discovered many incredible blessings.
I had set out on the Camino seeking a powerful and meaningful spiritual experience. I was hoping to reconnect with God and reignite the prayer life that I felt had grown quiet over the past few years. Though I knew it would be somewhat challenging, I was looking forward to the daily walking and for the space for prayer that it would provide. After all, I have always loved hiking – why would this be too different?
Yet, as I sat on my bottom bunk in the town of Estella after five days of walking, I began wondering if that time in prayer would ever come. Though crossing the Pyrenees Mountains was one of the most beautiful sights of my life and even though Pamplona was an incredible city filled with beauty and charm, the walking experience of the first few days was incredibly difficult. The pain in my feet induced by poor arch support and by more walking than I had ever been accustomed to was beyond anything I had ever felt before. For those first five days, I was consumed by the attention that my body demanded. During the last few hours of each day I had to focus all of my will and energy just on making that next step. And I could not pray. My soles were aching along with my soul – I worried that things would never get better.
In retrospect, I learned a couple of things in those days. I learned in a real felt way that when one is in pain, it takes over everything. I could not pray, I could not think of my family back home, I could not contemplate any of the things I had hoped to consider while I was on the Camino. It was only then that I felt the true connection between my Spirit and my Body in a way I had never understood before.
I could not help thinking back to various people I had met during my life who had undergone immense struggles with pain, disease, and chronic illness. I thought about the poor who do not have access to the health care that they need. I thought about the energy that survival requires. I was led to compassion. I could never have imagined how difficult it is to pray and to dream when physical needs are demanding so much attention. I had to ask, “Where have I failed to notice the all-consuming physical needs of the person before me? When have I diminished the physical pain of others and not understood its deep connection to the spiritual?”
I also learned something about ways of prayer. For me, those first few days did not include the contemplations of the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises. I could not do it. Yet, I had made my way to Spain, prepared for this experience, and opened myself to God’s presence. And though I could not find a way to bring myself into conscious thoughtful prayer, I do think I connected with God on that road to Santiago in a way that I never had before. My walking was my prayer because that was all I had to offer.
This walking prayer was not what I expected and certainly far from the contemplative way of the Exercises. I thought back to other times when I had been frustrated with the prayer I imagined I should have been having, but had ignored the prayer that was naturally happening. When had I tried to force my own agenda on prayer? When had I failed to notice the presence of God because my vision too narrow?
During those first days, I experienced things new to me. I found a new respect for the physical and the spiritual. I noticed God’s presence not in the prayer experience I wanted, but in the prayer experience I was having. I was left with two questions:
Where were the opportunities to see and care for the physical needs of others that were inherently linked to the spiritual?
Where might God be moving me into prayer beyond my wildest expectations?