The Way, the Pilgrimage in Winter

One of my favorite Camino authors is a woman who was sent by the New York Hispanic Society at the beginning of the 20th century to write about Spain to encourage Americans to go there. She worked mostly during WWI and her personal goal was to find the inspiration for medieval Spanish church design, but once she got there, she threw that out in favor of writing about the string of Romanesque churches along the Camino de Santiago. Her name was Georgiana Goddard King and her three-volume guide to the Camino would inspire some of the greatest American writers of the 1920s to follow along her route and experience the Camino on her terms.

What struck me about her writing was the way she characterized the pilgrimage itself: the draw, the lure, the pull of the shrine on anyone who knew about it. She writes, “…when you are away, it draws you.” And in the winter, you will experience this on your own, I believe, in a way that you may not in the summer: not less or more, just differently.

When the crowds are on the road, there is an unmistakable momentum, a current, like a carnival ride that you get on and go with everyone else. But in the winter, even if you are walking with friends or your new-found family of pilgrims that you have met along the way, the draw becomes more personal. I am not one to broadcast the spiritual nature of this walk, but I am one to recognize it when I see it, or when I feel it.

As you walk across the Meseta, the route between Burgos and León and the one part of the Camino Francés that so many people will tell you to skip, I get the best sense of the pull to get to Santiago de Compostela. The vast open space, the endless vistas, the 360˚ skyline – that is where the urgency, for me, comes the loudest.

King writes: “Mystics can tell you how journeys to such shrines are made: the way opened before you and closed behind you. Simple that: believe it or not, it happens.” I’m not sure if it’s just that by the time you reach the Meseta that you are accustomed to the cold and resigned to the few places that are open, or that you finally do start to see your way there, to Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral of St. James.

It can be like coming out of a fog. There may not be an “ah-ha” moment, but you will probably catch yourself starting to think about what’s next, instead of what’s in front of you in the moment. This is one place where your fellow pilgrims will shore you up. It will be less “I am walking to Santiago de Compostela” and more “When we get there,” and the walking will become directed.

It’s easy to confuse the excitement you feel at the beginning of the pilgrimage with this mid-walking realization or understanding. Everyone feels nervous and thrilled at the outset, but this pull is like being a fish caught at the end of a line with the crypt of St. James reeling you in.

“In the spring, when frost is out of the ground, and ships are sailing, week by week, you cannot get it out of your head: as you smell the brown fresh-turned clods, it works in your blood. There, as I went, so went the Middle Ages. The great Pilgrimage was something hugeous, incredible. On the current of it was borne this noble French architecture, already spoken of; along the stream of it grew up a body of noble French epic; in the winding gorge of Roncevaux, still echoes the Chanson de Roland.”

And how immensely fortunate are we to be able to do this in the peace and solitude of winter, knowing that we most certainly are where we want to be.

Look for my new book, Buen Camino! Tips From a WINTER Pilgrim – on Amazon and soon, also on Kindle!

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