I wrote earlier about some of the kit we assembled to take on the Camino and you’ll know – if you’ve been following this thread so far – that it was far too much and far too heavy. No complaints, though, about the little Hilleberg tent which was super light, stormproof and very comfortable; nor the Thermarest inflatable bivvy mats which were brilliant too, and the Mountain Hardware down filled sleeping bag. There’s nothing more cheering in the world than feeling safe, dry and warm when you’ve finally found somewhere to pitch up and you’re cold, tired and hungry. I love the sleeping bag so much that when I was driven back sedated from an endoscope exam I preferred to sleep it off in the sleeping bag. As I looked at the kit just now I thought to myself – why on earth didn’t we do the South West Coast Path? or the Coast to Coast?
With a little time for reflection, that turns out to be a pretty serviceable question. What, if anything, is the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk? I’ve already said that before we left I felt I’d lost my way and that any sense of vocation that I once enjoyed was worn down by conflict and self doubt. I think that, at the time, I just hoped that I might find some kind of illumination by walking the Camino.
But there’s absolutely nothing about going for a long walk that prevents anyone, religious or not, from experiencing numinous moments that could fairly be categorised as spiritual without buying into the whole supernatural apparatus. The sense of the spiritual could derive from the emergent quality of a random conjunction of material factors – the sound of cowbells on a distant pasture, the smell of the spring air, the wild profusion of spring flowers experienced in a strange place that makes us feel how beautiful the earth is, or how small and vulnerable we are; or it could also be explained as a reassuring hug from an immaterial universal force. Does Gaia do hugs? Maybe it’s our attitude to those experiences that frames alternative answers, and perhaps on reflection a walk can turn into a pilgrimage or a pilgrimage into a walk. In the end; does it even matter?
There’s another possible answer to the question what’s the difference between a walk and a pilgrimage? when we look at it through the lens of some sort of virtue ethic. Going for a long and possibly arduous walk might call into play some or all of – let’s say – the Buddhist virtues; generosity; proper conduct; renunciation; wisdom; energy; patience; honesty; determination; goodwill and finally equanimity – but that wouldn’t be the objective of the walk. However reflecting on those virtues as the walk unfolds and deliberately putting them to use, frames the walking differently, allowing us to reflect on bigger questions such as what does it mean to be fully human? how do I distinguish between flourishing and just getting by? Maybe the objective of the walk is not so much simply to arrive at some kind of holy place – although that certainly adds a layer of meaning – and it should never be an opportunity for suffering for the sake of it because that would be a display of ego and self importance, but perhaps it’s the manner of the journey that matters. Perhaps it would be better to keep quiet about it. The one thing I am quite sure about is that pilgrimage in order to gain posthumous benefits – a get out of jail free card to be traded in against today’s willfulness, is just wrong! A pilgrimage, then, pays more attention to inner change and that’s why it’s hard to do well and easy to get wrong.
My first and finest lesson in equanimity came while we were at art school; Madame studying sculpture and I was studying ceramics. Quite in alignment with my personality I took up two ceramic disciplines that demanded spontaneity and risk – raku and salt glaze. I had made a kiln load of pots to fire in a self built salt glaze kiln, and spent 36 hours firing them in the corner of the sports field. When the kiln was opened it was dramatically overfired and everything had sintered together in a lump that could only be removed with a crowbar. I knew, as I stood in front of a month’s ruined work. that this was a critical moment. I could walk away and try something less risky or embrace the failure as a profoundly important life lesson. I chose the second option and ate it up -and it’s fed me well.
But back on the Camino, did we really need the lean-back chairs? No, of course we didn’t and they – along with most of the redundant or unusable kit – were sent later on to a friend in Bordeaux where we hoped to pick them up later. The improvised clothes pegs are free and available underneath most conifers. The giant scallop shell is the symbol of the pilgrimage for complicated reasons accompanied by pretty far-fetched yarns but it serves as a badge of sorts. Oh and the cheese comes later in the walk but it’s a reminder that if you’re actually taking part in a pilgrimage rather than a mobile supper club, you have to eat when you can, and put up with being hungry when you can’t: it’s all part of the process. Our worst ever meal was a shared tin of cold (we had no stove) cassoulet complete with the layer of fat on the top, but if you look at the top left photo you’ll see the two trees above us in which a Nightjar sang (or rather churred) gently all that night. I had never heard it before or since. When it all boils down, the biggest load you carry on a pilgrimage in any case, is the mental baggage.