It was after a 30-kilometer stage of the Camino de Santiago that I found myself at a long, old, wooden table in the dining room of the albergue in the tiny Spanish farming village of Boadilla del Camino. Seated around the table was the usual eclectic assortment of pilgrims. To my right sat a group of faithful French pilgrims in their early 60s in a rather giddy and talkative mood. Across from me sat a young Italian signorina in her late 20s speaking Span-talian with an Argentinian signorita of about the same age. Next to her sat a Japanese woman who, I would later find out, had just left a Buddhist monastery in search of something better. To my left at the head of the table was a rather imposing Spaniard named Pablo who contributed to the surreal table party with his body-builder physique and high-pitched nasal voice. Seeing that Spanish would be my best bet for dinner conversation, I struck up a conversation with Pablo the Spaniard, whom I discovered to be a self-described spiritual-yet-atheist Nietzschean making the Camino for athletic reasons.
Knowing that many saints and generations of faithful Christians from every corner of Christendom have hallowed the pilgrim route to the tomb of Saint James, one might well be disappointed by the motley band of atheists, lapsed, and spiritual seekers that tread the path today. But after having met everyone from a nominal Jew fascinated by Galician paganism to Pablo the Nietzschean spiritual atheist, I believe that there is something tragically beautiful happening on the Camino today.
The tragedy of the spiritual yet faithless pilgrim is not unlike the tragedy of a character who has forgotten his story. As if at the very foot of Mount Doom, Frodo Baggins were to suddenly forget everything about this whole Ring business, and be stuck standing still with a sinking feeling that there was something terribly important for him to do that he just couldn’t remember. The faithless pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago is such a character, walking through a beautiful medieval tapestry whose biblical messages he cannot decipher. Without the cosmic narrative of the Christian faith to give a transcendent meaning to his journey, the pilgrim has the tragic burden of either creating a story for himself or just struggling from one story to the next, looking for something that fits.
Within this tragedy is revealed the beauty of the restless soul wounded by sin that cries out in desperation for a second chance and the transcendent hope that a secular post-Christian culture cannot offer. This cry itself is a sign of the presence of the Creator, who has made our hearts to be restless until they rest in Him. While it may seem like a rather grim reason for hope, the cry for something more is evidence of a great opportunity to proclaim the grace of repentance and the one escape from nihilism: Christ. The dirt path of the Camino de Santiago is fertile soil for the New Evangelization. Over 270,000 pilgrims completed the Camino in 2010 alone. These pilgrims came from all over Europe and from all over the world. Just imagine how the faith would spread if these pilgrims were to receive the grace of conversion on the Way.
We who have faith would do well to learn from the tragedy of the faithless pilgrims. We are not immune to the amnesia of modernity, that creeping practical atheism and forgetfulness of the providence of God. We can all use a constant reminder of who we are and where our true hope lies. Praying the Creed every morning is a great way to do just that. The articles of the Creed remind us of the sweeping plan of the Author of History, the true story into which we were born. We are reminded that we were created by God, that He sent our Lord Jesus Christ to redeem us by the Paschal mystery, and that we await His coming in glory to judge the living and the dead.
As we let the Creed shape our lives, the true story of Revelation becomes our story: the one story that fully corresponds to the deepest longings of the human heart for meaning and purpose. We are no aimless wanderers, for we know where our home lies. Our Father has shown us the Way. Let us take up our cross then with the hope that at the end of our earthly pilgrimage we will sit at a heavenly banquet table filled with the most eclectic assortment of rejoicing pilgrims. Let us pray that all men, including Spanish Nietzscheans, will encounter the Way to that blessed table.
Image: Br. Dominic Mary Verner, The Camino de Santiago in the Castile-Leon region