The 15-mile stretch between Calzadilla de los Hermanillos and Mansilla de las Mulas is remarkable for its desolation on the 490-mile expanse of the Camino de Santiago. Built for Roman military conquest in the first century, it remains tediously straight and is disparaged for its lack of charming villages, ancient churches, noisy traffic, fertile farmland, restful shade, and gurgling streams. Not to mention its lack of water fountains.
And yet that long, enduring path brought its own moments of wonder and delight, an awareness of God’s majesty, as I walked where people have journeyed on pilgrimage since the Middle Ages. Over two spans, in May of 2017 and just this last spring, I was a pilgrim—peregrino in Spanish—on the traditional French Way, journeying across central Spain to Santiago de Compostela, where tradition says the remains of St. James the Apostle are buried.
An awareness of God’s glory, the Holy Spirit’s Gift of Awe, was evident pretty much every day, in remarkably common and extraordinary moments. Several times that Awe stopped me in my tracks to revel in the glory, the gratitude, the joy. The beauty of the surroundings, the goodness of the people, the solitude of a dark village church affect the mind and heart in ways that even the mystics of our Faith have long struggled to articulate.
Even that ancient Roman highway, now just really a path, was remarkable. There were mountains far to the north, the occasional bee drawing pollen from a flowering weed, birds providing the journey’s soundtrack along with occasional puffs of wind. I didn’t encounter another person for hours, and yet I was not alone. Like the place where I found myself, I felt “charged with the grandeur of God,” as the Jesuit poet Gerard Manly Hopkins wrote. Indeed, he credits all this to the Spirit.
While most every turn along the Camino brought a stunning new vista or curious discovery, even in the rushed city streets, it was the people I met along the way who brought life and meaning to the journey. We come from diverse places and backgrounds. We are young and old, fit and not so fit, stragglers and racers, alone and in groups. Some of us walk with deliberate spiritual intent, others social or physical; a few really aren’t sure why. Some want to be alone, but most appreciate conversation with a fellow pilgrim, which sometimes can be quite personal and profound.
Those encounters are Emmaus moments. Like the apostles walking late on that first day of the week, we are pilgrims who come to a humble awareness of the person we’re with, a gratitude for that person, a profound sense of God’s imminence. My most reassuring of those moments came on a desolate, wooded section. It was late on a dark, drizzly afternoon; I was not sure if I was on the right path nor had I seen anyone for miles. Suddenly, a young man was walking with me; he’d come from the woods where he’d answered nature’s call. His name was Albert; he was from Barcelona. I’d encountered him twice before—he’d reconciled a misunderstanding with a café clerk who thought I’d ordered five sandwiches, when I only wanted one; and he ran to set me straight in another city when he saw me going the wrong way. Now, suddenly, wonderfully, here he was again. Now he was a presence of reassurance.
He walked fast and was more eager than I to get to his destination, a village still five miles away. Our paths crossed there that night as I was walking to Mass. “Tomas, you made it!” he exclaimed. “I did, Albert, finally. Thanks to you.” Moments later, in yet another beautiful, medieval church, I prayed in “joyful awareness of God’s grandeur,” to borrow a phrase from Pope Francis, as might we all if we were more attentive to the ongoing, remarkable and routine, majesty and goodness of God.
Father Tom Lindner
Pastor of Saint Anne Parish in Wausau
Published December 2019 Catholic Life Issue
Photography by Father Tom Lindner