To be a Pilgrim

Isn’t is strange. I was brought up in a home without religion. I have never been inside a church with either of my parents. And yet I love hymns. I just looked up the words of the hymn ‘To be a Pilgrim’ and they are so familiar and feel very comfortable. This must be because between the ages of 8 and 14 I attended church schools (there was no convenient alternative) and took part in daily religious assemblies, and sang in the school choir at Tewkesbury Abbey for a few years.

As a child I didn’t question this. I don’t remember my parents attempting to influence me in any way. My father was from a strongly Christian family but his faith lapsed as his socialist beliefs strengthened. My mother’s family were Jewish, but as far as I am aware, didn’t practise their religion. My parents’ religion was politics.

As I got older I went to a few church weddings of my friends, but didn’t really encounter religion again in a personal way until my daughters started to attend brownies and I went to church to watch them take part in a Christmas concert. On leaving, the vicar shook my hand and asked me if I had enjoyed the service. I responded that I had enjoyed it a great deal and loved singing the Christmas carols, but as a heathen I felt a bit guilty in taking this pleasure. He told me that I shouldn’t feel guilty and should just enjoy the moment, now and any time in the future, and to keep an open mind about the church.

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However my slight discomfort regarding religion has stayed with me, and I felt very awkward referring to myself as a pilgrim during my camino. However I would regard myself as fair and open minded, and this is why I am writing this post.

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About halfway through my camino I received a comment on my blog from a stranger. I hadn’t expected anyone other than a few friends to see my blog and was quite surprised. This person was taking me to task about my attitude to other caminoists who chose to make their journey in a way different to that which I had chosen. I responded to her briefly to say that I would give her points some consideration and reply more fully at a later date. I am only now getting around to this, although I have thought about it many times.

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Here is her comment:
I have been reading your posts and find them informative, thank you. However, I would not personally have even a little contempt for anyone sending their bags ahead. I have medical issues that would prevent me from carrying a pack… so that might be the only way I’d be able to complete a journey like that. Some people might need to be congratulated for being there at all when physically it might for them be an impossibility. Also, there is no reason for physical suffering to be a requirement. If I did the camino I might skip areas I didn’t like, or send my bag ahead, maybe even skip Santiago. It’s not about a passport filled with the right stamps on the right path or the right way to hike, it’s about a personal challenge being met even if that challenge is, for some people, at a lower bar than for others. One could also do a “way” in Tuscany…or anywhere else…and that would be a similar admirable pilgrimage. I have actually wondered whether a self researched pilgrimage through Tuscany or other parts of Europe might be more visually stunning. In that case someone doing their own trip, self researched and conceived, might frown on camino walkers for taking the road most travelled by without using their imagination, as, if the way has no Christian meaning, hostels and B& B places (many much more lovely than these hostels along the camino) are everywhere, walking trails are everywhere etc. …..I was wondering how those who send their bags ahead do that…. how do they know where they will be or where they will be staying?

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My initial response would be that my blog is written a little ‘tongue in cheek’ and not meant to be taken too seriously. And to answer the last point first, all flexibility is lost by forwarding bags, but there is the comfort of knowing that you will have a bed for the night.

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Whilst walking, Ella and I felt that the only way for us to complete our camino was to walk every kilometre and carry our bags on our backs. Of course, we came across many people who did not feel the need to walk their camino in the same way, as is their absolute right.

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The times when it rankled were when people booked into albergues as foot pilgrims and had their passports stamped, when we had seen them alighting from the bus, and doing the same for several days as we were walking the same stages. These people are actually holiday makers using the beds that are intended solely for genuine pilgrims.

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But if I felt uncomfortable with the title ‘pilgrim’, did that make me just a holiday maker? I guess that must be for individual judgment; and does it really matter anyway?

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What I set out to do was a real challenge to my normal lifestyle and experience. I spent five weeks in my daughter’s company which was an achievement in itself. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment at the end of my journey and wouldn’t have wanted to do it in any other way.

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But that doesn’t give me the right to judge people who choose a different way. And I can appreciate all the points that my commenter makes.

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With time and distance between me and the camino, it all seems a lot less important. Let each walk their own way and if they want to miss the ugly hard slog through the cities then who can (or should) blame them for taking the bus.

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If in the future I decide to walk another camino, I hope I will be less judgmental. But I wrote my blog in the manner that I would chat to a friend, including light-hearted banter and quips not to be taken too seriously.

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I thank my commenter for giving me reason to think all this through and hope that she enjoys her chosen camino as much as I did mine.

He who would valiant be ’gainst all disaster,
Let him in constancy follow the Master.
There’s no discouragement shall make him once relent
His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim.

Who so beset him round with dismal stories
Do but themselves confound – his strength the more is.
No foes shall stay his might; though he with giants fight,
He will make good his right to be a pilgrim.

Since, Lord, Thou dost defend us with Thy Spirit,
We know we at the end, shall life inherit.
Then fancies flee away! I’ll fear not what men say,
I’ll labor night and day to be a pilgrim.

Words by John Bunyan (as modified by Percy Dearmer for the 1906 “English Hymnal” in 1906)

About magwood

Trepidatious Traveller - camino blog is about preparing for and walking the Camino de Santiago. Many future pilgrims have found the blog useful and inspiring, and many who have no plans to walk the camino have simply enjoyed the dialogue http://www.magwood.me
This entry was posted in Camino assessments and reflections, Camino de Santiago de Compostela. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to To be a Pilgrim

  1. etthejet says:

    Magwood, I so admire you!! My husband 65 and I, 63, will walk our first Camino mid-September. Yours is a household name. Thank you so much for your blog. I feel encouraged and inspired every time I read your entries.

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