For centuries, pilgrims have hiked, cycled, and traveled on horseback across northern Spain to visit the tomb of St. James on a route called the Camino de Santiago. The traditional trail takes over 30 days on foot, covering nearly 800 kilometers, but many routes vary in distance, direction and terrain. My journey on the Camino went straight west from Sarria to Santiago, crossing farms, mountains, and little villages along the 115 km path. With each passing step, the pilgrimage opened my heart to deeper trust and greater devotion. 

Historically, the Camino de Santiago is a Catholic pilgrimage. But today many participate in the Camino for a variety of reasons, whether physical, spiritual or religious. According to the Pilgrim Office at the Cathedral de Santiago, 46,673 pilgrims passed through Santiago in May 2019, which was up from 28,851 pilgrims in May 2018. Of those recorded, 40 percent had religious motivation, 49 percent religious cultural motivation, and 11 percent cultural motivation. I saw the opportunity to journey a portion of the Camino as a religious pilgrimage and a perfect post-graduation reflection, both of which were satisfied. 

These stone markers pointed us in the right direction along various paths and also provided kilometer numbers to count down the remaining distance. (CS photo/Josephine von Dohlen) 

Upon arriving in Sarria by train from Madrid, I received a Pilgrim’s Passport from my hotel, with directions to stop and retrieve at least two stamps a day in each town, including one stamp from the local church. Collecting stamps throughout the next few days would become one of my favorite parts, making my passport one of my most prized possessions -- each stamp marking a stop I took to rest my legs, grab a bite to eat or a church I where I visited and prayed. Despite many pilgrims’ varying motivations for participation, it was beautiful to know that each day we gathered in God’s house to mark our day’s journey with a stamp. 

My daily support came from the pilgrim’s Mass that was celebrated at the local churches each evening after a long day’s hike. Priests would often ask us to remember their parishes when we reached Santiago, ensuring us that they were lifting us up in prayer on our way to Santiago. One of my favorite moments at a Pilgrim Mass was when the priest asked the congregation to pray the Our Father in their own native languages. That day I heard the Our Father in Chinese, Italian, English, Spanish, French, and many other languages -- a true representation of the universal Church.

The church in Sarria, Spain, where my Camino began. (CS photo/Josephine von Dohlen)

The journey, however, did not come without trials. The days were long, and the sun was hot. But each step just became another way to say, “Jesus, I trust in You,” which I found myself reciting as I put one foot in front of the other for miles on end. Finding silence along the beautiful Galician landscape was easy, and the fact that my post-graduate plans were still in the works across the Atlantic back home forced my peace of mind to find solace in prayer alone.

I will always remember the city of Santiago as a city full of joy -- limping pilgrims wear wide smiles, and everyone moves so slowly as to enjoy each and every moment and give ease to their muscles and joints. The stunning cathedral represented a place of peace and joy, a true home. As I approached the statue of St. James in the great Cathedral de Santiago to give the “pilgrim’s embrace,” where visitors can approach the statue and hug St. James from behind his shoulders, I was reminded with a grateful heart of all those faithful pilgrims who came to St. James with their intentions before me and all those who will hug St. James in the years to come. 

The Cathedral in Santiago (CS photo/Josephine von Dohlen) 

Buen Camino.