For 33 days, then-M.Div. student (and current alum) Kimberly Knowle embarked on a pilgrimage across Northern Spain, a prayerful walk funded with a $5,000 grant awarded by the Fund for Theological Education for an independent study of the student’s design. The following story details her journey along the Camino de Santiago and the lessons learned in this unique course of study.
In front of me, the well-known yellow arrow gleamed. I had grown accustomed to keeping my eyes focused on the yellow arrows directing me along the way. I had come to rely on the yellow arrows. They were my guides, my support, my compass; they represented the Camino.
The yellow arrows could be found on street signs, the corners of buildings, on roads, on trees, everywhere along the way. For 774 kilometers (480 miles), the yellow arrows directed me from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port in Southern France, along the Camino de Santiago through Northern Spain, to my final destination of Santiago de Compostela and the cathedral housing the relics of the apostle James.
Daily I passed yellow arrow after yellow arrow. I thought about how these same yellow arrows had been guiding pilgrims for decades along the medieval paths of the Camino de Santiago. I thought about the hopes and dreams of all those pilgrims. I thought of the exhaustion. I thought of the pain and the joy of walking. I thought of the silence, the prayers, the reflections. I thought of the relief and security found in the yellow arrows. Yellow arrows were visible everywhere. And I came to understand how the yellow arrows were present in my life prior to embarking on the Camino. I came to realize that yellow arrows abounded in my life – the type of yellow arrows that are unseen, but recognized by the heart, given and received in love and compassion from friends and family, mentors and communities. Yellow arrows had guided me throughout my life, providing the support and encouragement to accept a call to ordained ministry. Yellow arrows came in the form of inspiring sermons, quiet conversations, a listening ear, words of wisdom, and opportunities to serve and be served across the world. Yellow arrows both challenged and comforted me.
Yellow arrows encouraged me to consider applying for a Ministry grant for entering M.Div. students from the Fund for Theological Education. I received the grant and continued to be blessed by the experience to design my own ministry project; the possibilities and opportunities were endless. The $5,000 award allowed me to listen, to understand my own gifts and growing edges, to dream, to challenge myself, and to act and experience God at work in my life and in the world. The ministry grant from the Fund for Theological Education allowed me to immerse myself in the world and in the ways of pilgrimage. Prior to embarking on my own pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, I worked with Professor Lisa Dahill in designing an independent study on Christian pilgrimage. I walked, I studied, I read, I reflected, I discussed; I was already taking part in pilgrimage. People from all across the world walk the ancient Way. As I walked, I met and shared conversations, dreams, laughs, hopes, and pains with people of all ages, backgrounds, faiths, motivations, and nationalities. Many, like me, began their journey either at the borders in France or Spain; others I met had begun from their doorsteps in Belgium, Holland, and Switzerland. The international language of the Way could be heard around dinner tables, at local bars, or while resting our feet. As pilgrims, we shared our lives and felt blessed to be walking in a spirit of equality.
|Path markers with the scallop shell, the symbol of pilgrimage.
Preparing to Embark: 774 km. to Santiago
The train to St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, the starting location for my pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, moved slowly through the countryside; a welcome pace after the speed of France’s bullet trains. It was quite the scene at the train station as one by one the pilgrims entered the platform. We were all easily recognizable with the standard pilgrims’ wear: backpack, mats, walking stick. There was a sense of hope and excitement in the air, as well as fear. Pilgrim after pilgrim climbed aboard the train. Pilgrims filled the cars and I thought to myself, “This surely must be something special.” A Swiss girl sat next to me. We greeted one another. I asked where she was going, “I go to walk.” The train departed and I too thought, “I go to walk.”
An old converted barn was my home tonight – 100 bunk beds lined up next to each other. Calming music in the background; incense in the air to mask the smell of wet shoes, sweat, and mud from a day’s hike through the Pyrenees in the rain, cold, and clouds. My first day walking the Camino de Santiago proved challenging. I repeatedly laughed to myself as I looked out to what should have been magnificent vistas and sights of the mountains and valleys below, only to see clouds and gray. I heard the occasional bells from local cow herds. I smelled the fresh, cool air. I walked and knew that I was exactly where I should be. The entire 29 km. were well-marked by yellow arrows, natural road markers such as rocks and sticks in the shape of arrows, and the scallop shell, the symbol of pilgrimage.
While walking today, I ran into a group of French tourists following a tour guide. I found myself a little frustrated with the large group and all the talking. And I somehow thought myself better having walked longer and farther; these were just tourists after all and I was a pilgrim. I had to walk through singing and marching and laughing groups. We walked through a forest and I noticed one man go into the bush and pick some purple flowers. As I approached the man, I realized that he was waiting for me. He gave me the flowers he had collected. He then grabbed my arm and held it for a moment staring into my eyes as a kind gesture. His actions spoke much louder than any words and I sensed understanding and care. The Way continues to teach me and open my eyes. Here was a simple gift and a reminder that grace and love come to us when least expected and from unexpected places. I continued to walk with my flowers and remember that man. We are all pilgrims along the way.
What an amazing dinner of fellowship, laughter, great food, and great company! We gathered around a table for a communal dinner hosted by our hospitality people, brothers who have dedicated their lives to serving and helping pilgrims along the Camino. Taize chants played in the background. Multiple languages echoed throughout the room.We shared cooking stories and local recipes as we prepared the simple meal of soup and salad. We sat down together, toasted in the various languages represented: “Salud! Proost! Bon Appetite! Cheers!” After the meal we joined in song sharing our nationalities and local music. Indeed, glimpses of the Kingdom of God on earth.
Relaxing after a day of walking through rolling fields and vineyards with bright blue skies, I found myself sitting in a Spanish coffee shop, complete with pastries, cheese, bread, freshly squeezed orange juice and other food stuffs available for purchase along the Way. Spanish guitar music played in the background. The shopkeeper shared his own experiences along the Camino, traveling different routes each year for the past seven years. “You learn that you don’t need much in life, all the money and things we have are just extras. If you can live out of a bag for one month, you can do it for years.” It’s been true that carrying all my needs on my back has allowed me to examine those things that are really valuable. And yet the Way also has taught me that the conversations, the relationships, the silence, and the beauty, all provide for me and give me a sense of wealth. I left for the evening wishing the shopkeeper a good night. He wished me a “Buen Camino!” the traditional greeting for any and all along the Way. His final prayer and blessing came in the form of encouragement and a challenge: “Everyone finds their own way. Find yours and make it a good one.”
What a rainy, cold day! It was only 23.5 km. today, but it surely felt much longer. I had a nice, prayerful walk for a couple of hours up hills through fields leading to a cross. Then the rain came….and didn’t stop until I reached my final destination, the city of Burgos. This morning, I finally lost my walking stick. Actually, I finally managed to forget it completely and by the time I remembered where I had left the stick, it was too late and too rainy to go back and retrieve it. I was left to my own devices and strength to maneuver the mud, rain, and large lakes that had formed from hours of rain. As Burgos is one of the larger cities along the Way, the walk into the city doesn’t leave much to be desired as you pass suburbs and industrial areas. However, I couldn’t see much anyway, with my rain poncho covering my entire body and my eyes focused down upon the path ahead. I might have had a breakdown and a “Camino crying” day when I approached the largest puddles yet; however, the Way continued to provide. A little earlier, three Spanish people had passed me. But as I was staring at the large puddle and wondering how to best cross the water, I was alone. When I eventually started wading through the water, one of the Spanish men who I thought had long since passed, came back to help. He offered me his hand and later his walking stick. He guided me through the water until we reached drier land. We continued to walk together through the rain. We shared our names and countries of origin, for prior to this encounter we had only seen each other in passing. He would get ahead of me and yet continued to turn around to make sure I was following. I couldn’t begin to express my gratitude and thanks. I lost my walking stick, but gained the gift and help of a fellow pilgrim. I had done nothing to merit such help and compassion. As we all entered Burgos the rain cleared and blue skies appeared. From a distance you could see the majestic cathedral. I arrived at the cathedral, dropped my bags and rested. I offered my self at the altar and gave thanks for grace along the Way.
For the past few days I have gotten to know two Austrian men and a German man who are traveling together. We have managed to stay at the same pilgrims’ hostel each night and have enjoyed sharing meals and conversation. One of the Austrians is a priest and has led private masses for those who are interested. Along with a group of French women, I’ve been blessed to attend and share in their faith and worship. We offer our prayers in community in a variety of languages knowing that God hears all our thoughts and prayers. Tonight, we were unable to gain a key to the local church. The four of us then sat outside feeling the wind and the sun on our faces as we prayed. In German and English we heard God’s Word in scripture, in prayer, and in our own experiences along the Camino. We were all four people on the Way, yet in this moment during prayer and silence, in word and praise, we were united as one along the pilgrimage of faith.
|The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
I reunited with my two Swiss friends, who have been walking for three months from Geneva. As we greeted, Stefan again wished me the traditional greeting, “Buen Camino. You still have a long way to go.” I thought to myself that I already had made it to Santiago. Then he continued, “We are old men, but you have your whole life ahead of you.” I arrived in Santiago on Day 33. After reaching the cathedral, the yellow arrows were no longer present at every corner, street sign, or tree. I had reached my final destination. I had entered the cathedral, prayed in the sanctuary, touched the statue of St. James, and worshipped with hundreds of other arriving pilgrims. I had walked to Santiago de Compostela! The relief and the tears came; the hopes and dreams, the pain and the joy were brought to the altar. The reunions with fellow pilgrims were joyous and heartfelt; we all had made the Way in our own varied styles and circumstances. I thought about the shop keeper who said, “Everyone finds their own way. Find yours and make it a good one.” I had found my way to the cathedral and along the way I had found once again my heart and hope, a passion for ministry, and a reminder of God’s love and grace in my life. I had been the recipient of grace and love. I had made it to Santiago, but could not have done it alone. Throughout my walk, the communion of Saints, the fellow pilgrims, the presence of God, and the power and the hope in the Way of St. James accompanied me. I had found my way, and yet continued to hope and pray that I would open my heart and eyes to the yellow arrows in my life that were to come – the people, the experiences, the feelings, the conversations, the places; all signs of God’s way touching my life.