Embarking on a pilgrimage is something that Christians—indeed men and women of all faiths and none—have been doing for centuries. The activity of stepping out and into that which is unfamiliar can often lead to an experience of something greater than ourselves, even an experience of the sacred.

The following reflection has been provided by Diocesan Archivist Rachel Naughton and is a glimpse into her 2016 walk along the Camino de Santiago. With her fellow pilgrims, Rachel walked approximately 130km from the northwestern Spanish town of Sarria towards the great Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, praying the Rosary and stopping at ancient churches and towns along the way.

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Walking a Little Camino

by Rachel Naughton

Harvest Journeys began in 1988 when Philip Ryall, aged 23, experienced ‘a personal faith encounter’ while visiting the Holy Land. At a time when pilgrimage was not a common Australian practice, Philip began offering opportunities for grace-filled travel experiences based on the ancient concept of pilgrimage. In this way, Mr Ryall has made a major contribution to the awakening of religious pilgrimage for Australians.

Over recent years I have had the great privilege to visit many special places such as the Rue de Bac of the Miraculous Medal (the chapel where the Sacred heart appeared to Sister Margaret Mary), Lisieux, Lourdes, Fatima, Nevers, Padua, Rome, Assisi and Pietrelcina, followed in the footsteps of St Paul in Greece and Turkey and many other holy sites. All of these tours have been inspiring and faith enriching and all were with Harvest Pilgrimages, now called Harvest Journeys. They were within a spiritual framework with daily Mass and prayer together.

In 2016, I went on a fully walking pilgrimage. It was well organised with pre-booked accommodation and pre-arranged dinners and sometimes lunches. So the daily life stresses were removed. For busy people with limited time or other limitations, it was ideal. Our pilgrimage was with an American company, 206 Tours. It was Harvest Journeys in Australia who arranged for us to join this pilgrimage.

When walking, the place or destination becomes of lesser importance than the process of getting there. Just to walk each day becomes the goal.

Our Camino was not a long pilgrimage but it was still a challenge for us. Our journey took six days, with five days of walking and a day’s rest in the middle. There was a group of us, with six Americans as well as Father Leo McDowell from Montana, Quico our Spanish guide, Davey our Spanish bus driver who took our luggage each day and us two Aussies [my husband Philip and I]. The distance was approximately 130km.

We officially started in Sarria. But first, we visited the village of O’Cereibro for Mass in the ancient church with its Baptismal font from the 9th century. There was a lovely wooden statue of the Madonna and also one of St Francis of Assisi who walked the Camino in 1214. We walked 5km from Foncebadon to the famous iron cross. There I laid my stone, quietly declaring that my pilgrimage mission was for the healing of all relationships amongst my family, loved ones and friends, including that with their Heavenly Father.

We left Sarria on a Monday 17 October, bright and early after Mass at the Carmelite Monastery Chapel. We also said the Rosary immediately after setting off before we began to naturally spread out at our own walking paces. Fr Leo led us in the Rosary. The hill immediately out of town was hard work. We walked 22km on that first day as we headed for Portomarin. We walked past and enjoyed valleys, farmhouses, stone walls, chestnut and apple trees. The corn was being harvested and there were wild herbs and blackberries beside the road. Along the way we saw cattle, some sheep and a few horses. We were among the first of our group to reach Portomarin and sat to enjoy a glass of cider with Fr Leo. Quico expressed surprise as with one other exception, we were the oldest in the group. He thought we’d be the slow ones.

On Tuesday we walked 25km to Palas de Rei. We began with Mass in the Knights Templar Church, an awesome experience. It was built like a fortress. During the day, Phillip and I stopped for a break in a lovely cemetery full of crypts. That day my first blisters appeared from the downhill walks. We walked through forest glades with a stimulating and rather mystical beauty. We walked at a steady, comfortable pace together; enjoyed being in the moment, and were the first in.

On Wednesday we walked 29kms to Arzua. The walk was harder that day so we stopped at delightful cafes for breaks. They appear here and there, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. They stamped our pilgrim’s passports. These passports have been required by Church authorities since the 13th century as proof of having walked the Camino. Phillip ate too much octopus at lunch. We were offered a ride but we felt good walking and enjoyed the experience together.

At Arzua we stayed for two nights to have a day’s rest. While there we celebrated a group member’s birthday. Phillip went to a concert of local music which, although Basque, sounded Celtic. He said the music and the dancing were superb.

On Friday we walked 24km to Arca de O Pino. On the way, we encountered the grove of eucalyptus trees and felt welcomed by nature. A lovely experience. My two middle toes were now bleeding so I had them well wrapped each day with bandaids. A week later I would lose both toenails. We walked at a steady pace behind the lead group. Our fellow group members Ruth Anne and Peggy were now into their stride and walking the entire section.

All of the churches seem to be restored and cared for. During our journey we acquired some scallop shells to tie to our bags. The scallop shell, often found on the shores of Galicia through which we were passing, has long been the symbol of the Camino de Santiago (or the Way of St James).

On Saturday we walked the final 22.5km to Santiago. It was still dark as we set off so we used a torch for the first half hour. Ruth Anne and Peggy led us along. There was a lovely misty rain. The weather had been wonderful. We all met near Monte del Gozo. We had Mass in the San Marcos chapel and then walked for an hour before a final lunch together. We did not usually meet up for lunch, only at the end of the day. As we walked along through the streets, we could see the towers of Santiago Cathedral in the distance. It was an exciting moment. We walked into the city and went straight to the Cathedral. Then we headed for the office to register and receive our pilgrim’s certificates.

We stayed in an old converted Franciscan Monastery, now called the San Francisco Hotel. The monks continue to live in a smaller section of the hotel. The “chapel” is huge, bigger than many cathedrals. We couldn’t get into the Fado Concert because it was booked out so we went to an Irish Session nearby with some of the others and stayed until midnight.

On Sunday, we were back at St James, as we waited with great anticipation for our Chaplain, Fr Leo, to emerge as a concelebrant for the 10am Mass. Afterwards we watched the performance of the famous Botofumeiro, a famous thurible in the Cathedral. Eight men in dark red liturgical cassocks with capes, plus one Captain, swung the Botofumeiro. They were clearly experts and swung it so high that it was close to the huge ceilings of the Cathedral and it swung the full length of the nave, a trajectory of 214 feet. In only a minute and a half, the Botofumeiro reaches 68km per hour. What an extraordinary sight. We did a guided tour of the Cathedral and its Museum and surrounding buildings. The age, history, beauty, magnificence and size of everything was jaw dropping.

We had a final meal with our wonderful group, professing vehemently to all stay in touch! We did for a few emails until daily life took over again. One thing I did regret is that I hadn’t allowed in our initial plans to continue the pilgrimage, even by bus, out to Finisterre to throw a stone into the Atlantic Ocean as a natural conclusion. But that was a small thing in our overall experience.

Walking the Camino was unlike anything I’d ever done before. The closest experience was walking long distances as a child and young person, moving mobs of sheep for my father. As you walk along, your body is proceeding with its normal regular activities – your heartbeat, your breathing, your walking pace, even the clacking of your walking poles are all in a soothing unhurried rhythm like a little symphony. And your mind rests in the presence of God amidst the surrounding natural beauty balanced by the evidence of ancient rural industry.

For future walks, I may write some walking poems that I can sing as I step along. Because this is what the walking pilgrimage was all about for me – simply being in the moment but aware of a greater, loving presence.

This reflection originally appeared in the June 2021 edition of Footprints, the official journal of the Melbourne Diocesan Historical Commission, and has been republished with permission.