Recent research from the University of Innsbruck in Austria revealed that Westerners no longer give a fig about whether their lives have meaning. Tell that to the more than 400,000 people who trod the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (literally, the Way of St. James in the Field of Stars) in the last few years.
Modern-day quests usually begin with the universal complaint: “How can I escape the insanity of my life?” Before you know it you’re trolling the aisles of Mountain Equipment Co-op convincing yourself you’ll be perfectly comfortable hiking through a country you’ve never visited and whose language you don’t speak.
Walking Spain’s ancient 800-km pilgrim’s route with the barest of necessities has become a popular New Year’s resolution. It’s not for wimps, but many a wimp (I am one of them) has been known to hike the entire thing. There are steep hills aplenty—more than you can shake a walking stick at. The trail ends at the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela, where it is said that the bones of Christ’s apostle James (a.k.a. Santiago) are buried. As legions of pilgrims will attest, the Camino is a life-altering experience that resonates years and decades after you’ve pried your hiking boots from your hot, blistered feet.
Three recent books tackle the spiritual and emotional challenges that accompany a journey of some consequence.
An unlikely Australian duo—a man in his fifties and a woman in her twenties—take on the Camino in The Year We Seized the Day. They aren’t romantically involved; in fact they barely know one another, having met briefly at a writers’ festival. He’s a travel writer looking for a book subject; she’s a confidence-lacking writer trying to improve her literary prospects by riding on his coattails. Beneath the intense glare of the Spanish sun in July (an utterly mad time to do the pilgrimage, by the way), each begins to come clean about the reasons that have brought them to the Camino. Wavering between the visceral (“I am hit by a wave of loneliness so intense, I almost double over as if kicked in the balls”) and the humorous (“We are edging along a cliff face, there is a sheer drop on one side, a stumble will see her over the edge and my workload for the book immediately double”), we gradually discover a truism of Camino pilgrims: the person you perceived to be the strongest turns out to be weighted down with weakness, while the one you thought was a lightweight shows surprising strength and resilience.
Julie Kirkpatrick discovers her own truth in a much different way in The Camino Letters. Before setting out with her 17-year-old daughter, Kirkpatrick asked 26 friends to give her a task a day (she figures the Camino will take 26 days to walk). She receives orders that range from the tough love (to ask herself why she continually falls for people she knows will hurt her) to the banal (to list five things for which she’s grateful). Kirkpatrick’s introspective responses, delivered in the form of letters to the day’s taskmaster, are personal and raw as she ruminates on family, bereavement, and the stress of the elusive work-life balance.
The Miracle Chase has nothing to do with the Camino but everything to do with miracles, which, incidentally, abound on the Camino. In this case, three American women, each of whom has experienced a miracle, decide to launch a collective quest into miracles. These are smart, ordinary gals—they could be your neighbours—armed with not much beyond a healthy dose of skepticism and a ton of curiosity. Over a 10-year span, they research the history of miracles, interview miracle recipients, debate the validity of miracles, review the scientific evidence, and try to come up with a modern definition. Their own miracles are vastly different but equally harrowing: one of the women recounts her escape from serial killer Ted Bundy; another is diagnosed with breast cancer in the midst of the trio’s miracle chase; the third one’s life changes when her infant daughter is abused by a babysitter. Told with wisdom and humour, The Miracle Chase is as much about miracles as it is about the power of friendship and of once-in-a-lifetime journeys, minus the steep hills.