It's been a few months since I've returned from my pilgrimage, and I'm surprised by the impact it's had, and how often I think about it. I googled Post Camino Syndrome as a joke to myself, and was amused and somewhat relieved to find 358,000 hits. It made me feel much better that other pilgrims were feeling the same. We all miss the walk, the routine, the physicality, the countryside (and of course, the food and wine!). I think what makes it so difficult back home after the Camino is finding a clear sense of direction and purpose. Over there, you know which direction you are heading and what you need to do: one step in front of the other. My Camino family have been sending each other messages over the months about how hard it's been to come back to the daily grind, to find a rhythm again, and the yearning to reconnect with nature, around and within us, that is stimulated by the walk. In my case, I'm in a transition onto a new exciting phase of my life, and the Camino was definitely an important part of framing it.
The two moments etched in my memory at the end of my pilgrimage are visiting the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela and reaching Cape Finisterre; both moments of complete vulnerability, absolution and contentment.
Cathedral: Santiago de Compostela
In the morning before the final stretch to Santiago, I woke early with my Camino family, excited that the official end was so close. We were all pumped up and in awe as we saw the tops of the Cathedral on the descend from the hills.
It happened to be Pentecostal Sunday in Santiago, and the whole city was pumping. After getting our certificate of completion of the official Camino, the compostella, and a quick bite to eat, we entered the Cathedral to take our place for the midday formalities. It was absolutely packed inside, and the energy was building up. Looking around, most of the people there were other pilgrims, in all their bright fluoro and outdoor gear; not what you would normally expect in a church. We had a spot right at the front on one of the mighty pillars.
A procession began and a hush fell over the masses. Priests, monks, alterboys, and the bishop of the region circled the crowd. A distinct group of monks wearing deep red cloaks unfurled a long rope tied to a pillar to release the Botafumeiro; a huge incense vessel. This is the moment pilgrims come from all over the world to witness; the blessing of the pilgrims (or fumigation, depending on how religious you are; we did smell pretty bad).
The monks pull hard on the ropes, the Botafumeiro begins to build momentum, and as the oboe from the procession starts, I feel a shiver run down my spine. This is one of those moments that will stay with me forever. I look up into the majestic canopy of the Cathedral, and feel the eerie sounds wash over me. I am so in this present moment, and I reflect on the epic travels that brought me to this place. I can't help the tears that come, and look around to see that emotion overwhelms many others too. I feel a sense of acknowledgement for my pilgrimage from this ancient establishment that is the church, but more importantly, from people who I don't know and don't know me. I am a pilgrim, and I feel accepted and heard for one of the few times in my life. I feel seen.
The bishop reads out the numbers of pilgrims who have just registered with the pilgrim office just before the service. As he reads out the number of Australians, again I feel recognised in a really beautiful way. Again, more tears, even as I write this now. It is difficult to describe in words; you really have to experience it for yourself.
The final stretch to Cape Finisterre
After celebrating the official end of the Camino with fellow pilgrims late into the night, and a restless sleep haunted by the thought that 'this was the end', I awoke early, packed quietly, silently bid my Camino family farewell, and slipped through the sleeping city on my way to the end of the world, Cape Finisterre, about 100kms down the road. Legend says that this is the true end of the pilgrimage dating back to the ancient pagan tradition. I can't explain it, but I was drawn to continue by the myth, and the momentum that had built over the last month.
I needed to keep going.
That walk was stunning. Alone again, crossing overgrown fields, ancient bridges, lush forests, and deserted dirt paths. The finale was building to the crescendo of the ocean.
The last day is etched in my mind forever. I'd met up with my Camino brother, Jerry, for the last hurrah to the sea. A 42km walk fuelled by anticipation, passion, and sense of completion. I'll never forget coming over the last mountain pass, and catching the first glimpse of the ocean. We were sore, tired, but our spirits were strong as we were welcomed by the first gust of salt-laden sea air. All that was running through my mind was yes, I've made it.
The elation was overwhelming. Hitting the last beach that wrapped around the bay to Finisterre town was the best, and I stripped off to immerse myself in the water, in what felt like a baptism, a welcome and validation of the epic journey, in some ways akin to the experience in the Cathedral. This time, it was nature that acknowledged me through it's gentle embrace in it's waves.
In the evening, in a final reunion of a few of us who had drawn close over the months, we came together to walk to the Cape, where the western tip of Europe dips dramatically into the Atlantic. We sat basking in the glowing sun as it lowered into the horizon, alone in our thoughts and reflections, but together in solidarity for our pilgrimage journey that we had now completed. I remember the feeling that this was an important moment for us all, and kind of buoyant energy/heaviness that held us there in that point in time. Each of us in turn shared an insight from our trip, and what it meant to each of us. For some, it was the place where regret and shame was left forever; others, a sense that our life mattered. Another, simply wrote their lesson on a piece of paper, then burnt it, turning back to us taller than just the moment before.
I could have sat there on those rocks forever.
The thing that struck me was the power of the ritual of this pilgrimage to the hundreds of thousands of people from all over the world, for thousands of years, who came along it's path. People came to join this walk to find themselves, to forget, to show strength, find self-belief, find friends, love, to escape, and to renew.
After completing the walk to the very end, the pilgrims turn around and return to the world. A world which is changed simply because they are.
The pilgrimage is a beautiful metaphor for our lives. We seek purpose and direction, and to share it with others who are walking alongside us, just in front, or just behind.
We seek signs that we are heading in the right directions, and get anxious when we feel we might be lost. Sometimes, it's just damn hard work and hurts so bad, but other times, we feel like we are gliding on by in perfect flow. In both instances, it's important to be there in the moment and appreciate what beauty we are surrounded by.
We seek the company of fellow pilgrims to give us a sense of belonging, but recognise the need to spend time on our own. We need to respect our limits, in body and mind, but also explore them so we know just how far we can really go (sometimes we can surprise ourselves; 42km in one day certainly did for me!).
And when we get to the end of the path we have traveled, it is up to us where we walk next, knowing that we are never the same person walking the same path twice.
At the end of my life, I know I'll be sitting on those rocks, looking out on the ocean, full of warmth knowing that I've lived my life to it's fullest.
My realisation at the completion of the Camino at Cape Finisterre was that I've come into this world with everything I'll ever need. I'm perfectly imperfect, like we all are. I'm not in need for anything, not wanting, but wealthy in all the important ways. All along my pilgrimage I've felt blessed, guided, and this continues today as life surrounds me with coincidences, serendipities and signs that I'm on the right path.
My pilgrimage hasn't ended, and in fact began a long time before this trip to Spain, and will continue until, well, whenever that will be.
In the meantime, look out for these little yellow arrows, like this one in the Royal National Park, Sydney, telling you that you're going the right way too.