Ultreia–One Pilgrim’s Progress

For the last two months, my course materials have consisted of a tiny backpack filled with clothes and blister treatments, a pair of hiking shoes (recently exchanged for a new pair), and a foldable book of stamps from hostels and chapels. I am on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a medieval pilgrimage route that leads to a grand cathedral and the remains of St. James in the Galician city of Santiago. Its presence and importance in the history of Europe has its proof in the still intact walking routes that lead to Santiago from all parts of the continent. For some, it leads ninety kilometers beyond Santiago to the ocean at Finisterre, the place people once considered the end of the world. Traditionally, for people in Europe, the pilgrimage begins when you leave the front door of your house, and I have met pilgrims from Germany and Switzerland and Belgium who have done just that. While many know of the Camino Frances, which stretches through Navarre, La Rioja, Castilla, and Galicia, there are also some other very popular routes that lead through the northern coast of Spain, Portugal, and the western stretch of Spain. And then there are even more that lead from Paris, from eastern Germany, even from eastern Europe. I am staying here in Europe until my visa expires to do my best to complete, meet, learn about, struggle with, and come to love the route that takes me from the middle of France (Le Puy), connects me with the Camino Frances, and brings me to Santiago. Over the summer, I completed the bulk of twelve credits of independent study on the history of pilgrimage, pilgrimage literature from around Europe, the Divine Comedy, and nature writing themed around travel and spirituality. Now, I put my studies into practice and make my own journey, taking notes for my own collection of nature writing.

And I am indeed living my studies. Arnold van Gennep, a famous anthropologist, has a term for an experience like the Camino. He studied rites of passage and invented a word called “liminality” to describe periods in which people are suspended, temporarily separated, from their everyday lives in society. Every rite of passage, even the simple rite of walking through a door, has this step. Liminality is the sense of being caught in the middle, being separate from home and customary habits and activities, and at the same time recognizing the time on the threshold (limen is the Latin word) as something that will enrich one’s return to normalcy. Here on the Camino, I am living the words I read. I feel, often, completely detached from my normal life. For a month and a half, I walked through a country where I don’t speak the language. I felt detached from complete conversations as I sat through long meals with groups of five to fifteen social people. For many days, I walked alone for hours.  While I normally walk and hike with ease and speed, I have been walking bewildered, day after day, as I experience one leg problem after another. The slow walking has left me detached from my usual drive to move forward, to fill my days with productivity and force.

And yet, as lonely and difficult as this all looks on paper, this trip has left me feeling light and filled with a mysterious sense of joy. Every time I look back, I remember struggles, but mostly I feel filled with a sense of magic. I remember walking out of a canyon and into a city with a sanctuary built into a cliff. I remember hills of green and yellow and purple in the middle of rural France. I remember fresh, homemade sourdough bread at a donation-only pilgrim hostel. I remember watching old ladies in plain cardigans swaying along with gleeful smiles to a traditional African processional dance in an echoing stone church. I remember laughing with new friends about falling off my top bunk and miraculously landing on my less-injured foot. The route has been filled with unforeseen beauty. The difficulties, though demanding and exhausting, have taught me the importance of slowing down, of believing in the surprises to come, of trusting that not only the Camino, but life itself, will provide for us. I have realized in this trip how much the tiniest things–a bowl of soup, a phone call, a conversation, an open café after miles of rain–can mean to a person detached from home, from ordinary comfort, from usual sources of self confidence. And I have also started to suspect that those moments of relief happen more often than I have cared to notice before.

I came on this trip hoping to process a thing or two about the world, but I ended up learning more about something equally important–myself. Before I came, I spent months reading about the experiences of others on long journeys like this. I read about the experience of pilgrims in the Eleventh and Twelfth centuries in Europe, the Golden Age of pilgrimage, walking over the same bridges I have seen and themselves being confused by new languages and foods, delighted by taverns, and sometimes miraculously cured of ailments. I read of famous warriors like the Cid in Spain, exiled from his Lord’s kingdom, traversing what we now call northern Spain and regaining his wealth and renown through a series of battles with Moors. I just saw his tomb in the heart of his city of residence, Burgos. I read about Perceval leaving his mother’s home to pursue his knightly heritage. So here I am, smack in the middle of a route of extreme literary and historical significance…and every lesson reverberates back to my own life.  It was jolting at first– I felt misdirected, distracted. I was frustrated that I couldn’t focus on history and culture and writing down sagely thoughts because of the constant necessities of food and shelter and ice for my shin splints.

Yet the truth that I have come to see is that am not denying my studies or forgetting them– I am  enacting them, taking the stories I have read and experiencing them in my own flesh. This is not a walk in the park, and it never was supposed to be. I am enacting a central human experience, one imbedded in Catholic history, in philosophy and nature writing, in old European epics and romances, in anthropological studies on human passages. And at the core of all of these genres lies the centrality of the individual’s experience. I came not to study the Cid’s homecoming, but to walk through his home city myself, to feel in my own bones the immensity of the cathedral where he is entombed, to question on site the religious wars that made this Christian route possible. I came not to share commentary on Perceval’s determined quest for the Grail, but to be more ready to understand it by completing a journey of my own with all of its trials. I came not to learn about pilgrims, but to be one. I have come to believe that all art, all history, all thought, all human sharing, is meant to be internalized. It is meant to hit home not just in our heads and imaginations, but most importantly in our lives and physical experiences. 

Time has slowed. I am here for another month, and I feel already more tranquil than ever, despite unhelpful doctors and the necessity of taking busses and resting and the stubbornness of my own legs. The first and most important lesson of this pilgrimage–one that a fellow pilgrim and priest reminded me of the other day–is that everything is a pilgrimage, if we only recognize it as such. No matter if I walk or bus or fly to Zurich or wake up at home in bed, every day will continue to offer me sunsets and rainstorms and surprise friendships and brilliant stories–a mess of lessons and interactions, running through me and filling me, energizing me and feeding me. What good is a liberal arts education if we only use it to get a grade? Over here, I have finally settled down, stopped worrying about the speed or quality of my hiking or thoughts or speech or writing. Instead, the experience has started to flow through me, to impress itself upon me, and to give me lessons I never would have learned had I not gotten out of the way to see them.

There is a  pilgrim greeting here, one that has been uttered since the middle ages between pilgrims parting from one another–ultreia. It is Latin and translates, roughly, as “onward.” The traditional response is et suseia–“upward.” We sing it frequently in a song, which I have seen translated into French, English, Spanish, and German. It is the perfect way to describe what we do as pilgrims, as students of the world, as humans. Walking is a slow, wearying kind of progress–slower still with stubborn shin splints. But it is progress nonetheless. A symbol of our life stories, the slow pilgrimage leads us onward in a continuous way that, when we look back, does indeed flow into a melody. And, going onward, we rise upward into ourselves and into an ongoing love of the surprises the world throws at us.

Ultreia to you, wherever your journey takes you today!

Some pictures:


The city of Rocamadour, site of a black Madonna statue and the alleged (now empty) tomb of St. Zaccheus


Taking a rest at one of the many rest stops made and supplied with snacks and water by locals eager to help pilgrims


Morning mist


A night of song at a communal dinner in the middle of rural France

2 thoughts on “Ultreia–One Pilgrim’s Progress

  1. Pingback: Speed and | sideways gaze

  2. Pingback: Speed and a Rede | sideways gaze

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