Beauty, kindness and insights in the Italian hills.
I’ve done some great long-distance walks, but never a pilgrimage. My first sign of the difference was when my friend sent me my pilgrim credential card - written in Latin. This enables you to stay at monasteries and other special places on the way.
I vaguely imagined that a pilgrimage is walking along a dedicated route with some kind of special intent. It is that, but far more. It’s also the fellow-pilgrims, the wonderful network of people who host and support the travellers, the shrines and special places on the way, and the saints (more on them later).
But let’s start with the landscapes. They were idyllic and uplifting: mostly at 1000-2000 metres, exquisite forests and upland meadows. The wildflowers were abundant in May, and there was birdsong and butterflies everywhere. To be out in such beauty for days should make anyone’s heart sing, and it was this deep immersion in nature that got me thinking again about Thomas Berry: see separate blog.
One of my big learnings from the pilgrimage was about vulnerability. We were on a lot of steep uneven paths, and by day two, it was clear that I was struggling with the weight of the rucksack and had a lot of pain in one leg. I asked our host that evening, Rita, for help: amazingly she found me a physio in this small remote village on a Sunday afternoon, and then arranged for our host the next day to drive over and collect my rucksack.
I was brought up to believe that you shouldn’t ask for help: it was sign of weakness, and an imposition on others. Here, it was a relief to admit that I was struggling, and touching to realise that our hosts really understood the nature of our journey and were truly happy to support us like this.
Which brings me to the saints: we should start with Saint Benedict, since the Camino is named for him, and goes through major sites linked to his story. Saint Benedict offers a powerful role model for leadership in any values-based organisation. He would have preferred to spend his life in solitary contemplation, but accepted repeated calls to bring some order to the chaotic and sometimes corrupt monastic world of the middle ages.
The monastic rules which Benedict established have provided guidelines for many other orders too, and he showed great integrity and even courage in living and teaching these principles. The Guide to the Camino is beautifully written, and has a lot of useful details about Benedict’s life and work, which provides great food for thought during the long hours of walking.
Praying to a saint may sound a bit old-fashioned or even superstitious, but I found ways to do this on the pilgrimage which helped me. Try imagining that the shrine, the image, or the idea of a saint is really a focal point for particular qualities which that saint embodied in their life, and that praying to a saint is a way to connect yourself with that quality in some way. One of the significant saints on our journey was Santa Rita, known in Italian ‘la Santa del Impossibilita’ – the saint of the impossible. She had an inspiring life overcoming many huge challenges, and our prayers to Santa Rita certainly felt like they had been met, including the appearance of a physiotherapist in the middle of nowhere!
If you imagine meditating, or seeking guidance, you may well imagine a sitting position. What the pilgrimage reminded me is that walking to meditate or seek insights is a powerful alternative. Somehow, it means that the body is fully engaged with the process and the physical journey becomes an illustrative parallel to the metaphysical one.