By Kimberly Knowle-Zeller
Centuries ago in a field in Spain a religious hermit followed a star and found the bones of James, Jesus’ apostle. Years later, authenticated by the bishop, a cathedral was built precisely on that spot. From that time forward pilgrims have flocked to Santiago de Compostela, following a route that became known as the Way of St. James.
Pilgrims from all across the world have desired to pray at the feet of St. James. Many believed in the healing properties of the saint’s relics. Many prayers have been offered and for as many pilgrims as there are, there are as many reasons for embarking on the pilgrimage.
In the summer of 2008, at 25, I became one of those pilgrims walking— and praying—to the cathedral in Santiago. After my first day, I wrote the following in my journal:
June 3, 2008 – Tuesday, Day 1 Complete, 27 km
An old converted barn is my home tonight—bunk beds lined up next to one another. Dim lighting. The smell of sweat and rain. The rustling of backpacks and sleeping bags.
I did it. I am a pilgrim on the Way of Compostela. It was quite the scene to see all the pilgrims coming one by one to board the train taking us to our starting point of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France. I met another young woman from Switzerland and asked her why she was on the Camino. She said, “I go to walk.”
I feel like I am right where I am supposed to be. And how so much of where I’ve been and what I’ve done has prepared me for this journey. As I walked I gave thanks for the people I’ve met and the experiences I’ve had. From Ohio and walks with my mom to travels across the world in Lesotho, Guinea, and The Gambia. A French Canadian I met commented that she just keeps walking and still doesn’t quite know why. I keep asking myself: Why am I walking?
I believe the scenery I walked through across the Pyrenees is breathtaking, but I wouldn’t know. The fog and clouds covered everything. I could hear the cow bells in the distance, or perhaps right next to me. I could only see by placing one foot in front of the other. The way is well-marked by yellow arrows and natural road markers such as rocks and sticks. The scallop shell also guides the way.
With each step, the Way is making me.
Another Way of Pilgrimage
Today I am not boarding a plane to embark on a 500-mile pilgrimage. Yet, I do experience the life I’m now living as a daily pilgrimage. There are lessons I learned on the Camino that continue to guide me, and there are experiences that still shape me to this day.
I came to see that even if I’m not walking a specific pilgrimage route, I am still a pilgrim. I believe a pilgrim is anyone who sees the world with attention.
Many years have passed, yet I still walk. I still pay attention to the ground beneath my feet, and I still give thanks for the people and places that I encounter. Today I don’t walk solo with a backpack on my back. I walk with my children, first in carriers and strollers, and now with their hands cupped in mine. We walk around the park and our town’s streets. We find adventures in state parks and jump in muddy puddles. On our walks we follow squirrels and wave to our neighbors. Some days we bundle up and some days we brush the sweat off of our faces. We walk to drop off homemade meals to families and freshly-made cookies. In our walking we feel the ground beneath us, and say prayers of thanks for the people who have gone before us.
Pilgrimage in Daily Life
If you desire to go on a pilgrimage but don’t have the time or resources to travel across the country or the world, I invite you to see your daily life as a pilgrimage. The following are lessons I learned on the Camino that help me to live a pilgrim life. I hope they do the same for you.
When I walked the Camino, I had to move slowly. I walked without a cell phone and took notice of the morning light, how the wind moved through the grass, the bricks lining the town wall, the sound of water, and the shades of wildflowers dotting the landscape. I heard voices speaking in a myriad of languages and dialects. I tasted fresh bread, hot chocolate, and fresh cheese. All my senses were heightened as I marvelled at that which was before me. My mind was less cluttered and my to-do list almost non-existent. My task each day was simply to walk and pay attention.
Today I still try to pay attention to where I’m going, who I encounter, and how the sun lights the way. It’s harder, though, when cell phones with social media and emails are at my fingertips. Yet, I never regret time moving slowly and paying attention. Maybe your pilgrimage is savoring the first minutes of the morning tasting your hot coffee and listening for the world waking up before you. Maybe you sit on the floor with your children and watch them play. Maybe you find moments to sit in a sanctuary and notice the building before you. Pay attention to what is before you, and you’ll see the world in a new way.
Along the Camino there is always room. There is always food to be shared and laughter to experience. The Way of the Camino is a way where every pilgrim is a friend and helping one another reach Santiago becomes everyone’s goal. Over and over I experienced the community on the Camino as one body, a group of people more concerned with others than with personal ambition. A group of people willing to share burdens and joys. When I make a meal for a friend or open my doors to neighbors, I remember my time on the Camino where strangers offered me their time and care.
On the Camino, one day I went to the Spanish medic to care for my blisters. With my limited Spanish, two fellow pilgrims walked with me and stayed at the medic while I was seen. When I tried to thank them, one friend said, “It’s normal.” This was their way of hospitality, a normal that was concerned for my health and encouraged me to seek help for my blisters. Their way of hospitality was to sit and wait in a hot, stifling office and to translate from Spanish to English for me so I could understand the care needed for my feet.
This is the hospitality along the Camino, and everytime I welcome a stranger or call a friend or seek justice or share my food, I live out a pilgrimage of hospitality.
Feel the ground beneath your feet
I walked roughly 500 miles in 33 days. That sheer amount of walking reverberated in every bone of my body, especially my feet. I learned various ways to care for my feet: lotion, bandages, rest, and sewing thread through a blister. Any time I sat down, I intentionally took my boots off and rested my feet. I’d prop them up and take a few minutes of respite. Everytime I then placed them back on the ground, I said a word of thanks. I walked on dirt, gravel, up mountains, through towns, and across vineyards. Every step became a prayer, and every step a testament to the ground beneath me.
When I’m home I forget to feel the earth that is supporting me. Too often I’m running from one place to the next, dropping my kids off at school, cleaning, or running errands. I forget to stop and just feel the ground. I believe that the path we walk has something to teach us, if we only listen. Today, stop for a moment and feel the ground. Imagine the earth supporting you, and offer a word of thanks for being held.
Wherever you are in your ministry and in your day-to-day life, I pray that you’ll feel the ground beneath you, holding you, and inviting you to feel the presence of all those who have gone before you.
Wherever you go, you are not alone.
About the Author
Kimberly Knowle-Zeller is an ordained ELCA pastor, mother of two, and spouse of an ELCA pastor. She lives with her family in Cole Camp, MO. You can read more at her website, follow her on IG, or sign up for her monthly newsletter.
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