Tuesday, July 12, 2016, the sixteenth day of walking on El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, which began from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, averaging about 27 kilometers (17 miles) a day over varied terrains and vistas. As I leave the Municipal Albergue of Mansilla de las Mulas (a pilgrim’s hostel), a question comes to me: “What is so religious about this pilgrimage to Santiago?”

I walk, eat, arrive at a destination, nurse my feet, journal, sleep, wake up the next day, and walk again. I meet people from all over the world, sometimes enjoying a spontaneous international celebration like last night. Though some participate in prayers and religious services, what preoccupies us mostly is mundane and personal stuff. The reason for this walk is “religious” for someone like myself, but it is not the case for the vast majority of others walking with me. It may be for them just a different kind of walk on a major trail or a backpacking trip. This pilgrimage though feels like no other hiking or backpacking trips I’ve done before in my life.

Today is an easy day–only 19 kms (12 miles) to León, a major city. I walk rather briskly, passing others. At about 11 km point, I encounter a young German student, age 18. He is surprised to meet a middle-aged Korean American who could sustain a conversation in his native tongue, though faltering here and there. He just finished Gymnasium (high school), did well in Abitur (university qualifying exam), and gained an admission to the Faculty of Law at the University of Hannover. He is quite clear on his position “against” church and religion, especially the Catholic Church. When I share my own critical appraisal of these institutions, he asks me why then I am still a pastor and remain in church. I tell him that religion and church are complicated and not simply this or that. Hearing that he has been active in politics as a youth member of SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany), I ask him whether every elected officer and the running of German government are as ideal as what former Chancellor Willy Brandt (SPD) embodied? He agrees that it’s not always the case and there are problems in politics. “Yet, you are still active in it,” I observe.

He’s been involved with the refugee resettlement. He once stayed at a monastery near Augsburg and–noticing so many rooms had not been utilized–sought out the monks to consider possibly housing the refugees there.  He was met with, “We don’t want those kind of people here.” Just recalling it gets him incensed: “Das ist so unchristlich (That’s so un-Christian)!” A clear evidence and ground to be anti-church/anti-religion. What fascinates me is his intuitive grasp of Christian values with which he criticized the church. I remind him that such would not be in accordance with the current Pope Francis, and add, “By the way, El Camino de Santiago is a very Catholic stuff and without Catholic religiosity, it would not exist.” No tourism marketing scheme or social movement could create and maintain El Camino for thirteen centuries–I am acknowledging–were it not for some kind of deeply felt and sufficiently authentic religious inspirations.

I interject: we need to change many people currently occupying influential positions in all institutions (religious, political, social), and transform the institutions themselves in order to better fulfill their original purposes. These are tasks for the younger generations to tackle, hopefully not repeating the mistakes of my and older generations. He is skeptical about such possibilities because he knows well how young people everywhere are politically and economically so “entrechtet” (disenfranchised; literally, dis-right-ed). We talk about nascent global young peoples’ movements. If young people talk to other young people, together they could engender new visions and possibilities. He becomes excited.  “We could use the social media!” When we arrive in León around 1 PM, we eat lunch at a KFC (!) and part our ways, heading toward different albergues.

At the Albergue San Francisco, four pilgrims from Korea with whom I’ve often walked together had arrived earlier and had my bed reserved. Amazingly, the laundry service is included in 10 euros for overnight. I take a long shower, drop off all my laundry needs, and take a tour of León with the fellow Koreans. The six euro dinner at the albergue offers three selections for both first and second plates. The acoustics in the refectory are really good. I begin to sing a camp song to the tune of Frère Jacques: “God we thank you (x2), for our food (x2), all of us together (x2), thank you God (x2).” An Australian woman in the queue picks it up, others join in, and soon we have a great round going for a while. This feels like a religious moment!

A man from Tennessee with a cane comes over to our table and introduces himself. He hurt his knees on this pilgrimage, received medical attention, and has been recuperating for two weeks. I share my own knee problems earlier on El Camino, and how I had to unlearn my lifelong habits, newly discover and relearn how to walk, and by doing so had healed the damages. He wants to try it himself. After about ten minutes of un-and-relearning, he walks slowly without pain and without his cane. Buen Camino!

Wednesday July 13, 2016, the Seventeenth Day on El Camino. I wake up at 6:30 AM, repack my stuff, and eat breakfast as soon as the refectory opens at 7:30. The server is not as hospitable as the one last night. Yet, to my surprise, I am not critical but understanding. Did El Camino change me?!

As others leave, I return to the room to be alone and quiet. A sudden fatigue comes over me. Setting the timer for 20 minutes, I lie down on my bed but miss the alarm to wake up at 9:05. I rush out to get to the Cathedral for the 9 AM mass, but the door’s already closed, and no latecomers are allowed in. So, I simply resume my walk, following the yellow arrows with the seashell sign.

El Camino soon splits into two. The original path follows a major highway, and the alternative route goes through a more scenic countryside (though it’s 6 kms longer to Hospital de Orbigo). I take the alternative.

An elderly woman stands in the middle of a long ascent, observing a large anthill with legions of ants working diligently in full cooperation, carrying food that is so much bigger than they.

“Increíble (incredible),” I comment.

“La palabra correcta (the correct word),” she responds, and continues to describe the unity of purpose the ants display in achieving something beyond themselves. We humans should emulate them. I answer in my limited Spanish, “Well, yes for working together for common projects. No for being programmed like the ants. We are not robots. Inspired to join, yes; forced, no.”  She points to the road, saying, “El Camino de Santiago is that inspiration which unites us. The Holy Spirit illuminates all.” She lives in León and walks 4 kms everyday on this road praying her rosary until she reaches a small chapel ahead and returns. While I’ve been mulling over what makes this walk religious, here is someone for whom it’s never anything else. She invokes Santiago to guide me on my pilgrimage, and I reciprocate with the only blessing I know in Spanish: “Que Dios le bendiga (May God bless you)!”

The sun is strong yet the air cool at this elevation. The frequent breezes make this quiet, lone walk pleasant. I stop at a hospitality point in Oncina to rest and write, move on, eat a late lunch at Chizas de Abajo, do some more writing, etc. By the time I arrive at Villavante at 6:00 PM after walking about 37 kms (23 miles), I am so exhausted and am suffering from nagging pains in my right hip that I need to stop.

While waiting at the only albergue there, a man ahead of me laments that we would miss the opportunity to sleep at the Parish Albergue in Hospital de Orbigo that we hear so much about. That was my original destination for the same reason. He would push himself for extra 6 kms, but the girl with him is in too much pain. Upon hearing it, something stirs inside me. I go to the bar, order an orange juice and croissant, rest for ten minutes, and take off again.

At the outskirts of Hospital de Orbigo, I ask for a direction. Noticing the shape I am in, the gentleman offers me a ride to the church about 1 km down the road. I answer, “Gracias, pero necesito caminar (Thank you, but I need to walk),” and inch away. I am not sure how to describe my feelings as the narrow, ancient bridge connecting to the old town comes into view with the church staple right in front me, only a couple hundred meters away. Stepping onto its rough pebble surface, I am greeted by a girl in Spanish: “You’ve finally arrived.”

It’s all true. Entering the Parish Albergue is like being transported to an oasis in the middle of a desert. Beautiful trees, a courtyard with murals and soothing water fountain, a garden.  Every detail–even to the toilet door handles–is carefully, aesthetically appointed. The place welcomes me as if to home! A Hungarian volunteer registers me, gives me a bed, and informs me that the evening mass is at 8 PM. It’s 7:58. I drop everything, and go to the church next door for a 30-minute mass. On returning, two college students gently offer me a simple Korean meal of rice and spicy soup with potato, zucchini and pork. I eat first, take a shower, do my laundry while trying to catch the last of the sunlight, and clean the dishes as an expression of gratitude.

A pleasant reunion, Alejandro from Oregon and Ollie from South Africa are in the kitchen, cooking chicken pasta in spicy Spanish seasoning. Alejandro thanks me for my earlier suggestion to change his shoes and way of walking. He could even run now without issues. Ollie informs me that the American professor from Lebanon I had a pastoral talk with is doing much better.

A white American woman on two crutches is nursing her feet. She talks about how she takes time to notice things as she walks and balances her alone and social times. She then declares, “I don’t get those who just walk and walk, just to get there fast. What’s the point?”  “Well,” I respond, “the Spirit of El Camino is so wide and generous that it embraces all kinds of reasons and ways of walking, each with its own validity. I think this generosity is what helps us find whatever is needed at the moment. We feel this intuitively or unconsciously. That’s why we walk religiously every day  and do not give up, even with all these pains and injuries.”

It hits me! “Religion” etymologically means “binding again.” All those loose ends are ultimately bound and given back to us with enough sign posts to give our life an overarching orientation that is life-giving. It is not a specialized part of our life as many assume. Similarly, God is not one most supreme being among many beings, but that which allows the beings to be: the Ground of Being (Paul Tillich). There are many “ism’s” and entities claiming to provide such a framework and function like a religion. The theological task is to critique these, to see if they are really life-giving or not.

Could our church then become as generous and open as El Camino, to the point where even atheists and anti-religious folks benefit from its grace?

I turn off the light for the night and rest in that grace.


Created by: Charles Ryu

About the Author: Charles is a United Methodist pastor in Middletown, NY, who is always seeking what is divine in the most mundane. He is a bit of a pianist, an actor, a community organizer/activist, and a writer who does not write much.

All photos taken by the author.