Pack light, and be open to the road: Lessons from a medieval pilgrimage route

Austin Cooke, who has walked the Camino de Santiago nine times, is a self-described “Caminoholic.” Photo: Contributed
Austin Cooke, who has walked the Camino de Santiago nine times, is a self-described “Caminoholic.” Photo: Contributed
Published January 19, 2017

Austin Cooke, a parishioner at St. Barnabas’s Anglican Church in Ottawa, would be the first to admit he’s unusually enthusiastic about the Camino de Santiago, or Way of Saint James, the network of pilgrimage routes to the saint’s legendary burial spot in northeast Spain.

“I’m one of the ‘Caminoholics’—I’m one of these total nuts,” he says earnestly.

Over the past 14 years, Cooke has walked the Way nine times; from 2007 to 2015, he served as president of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, an association for Canadians undertaking the pilgrimage. He confesses to finding it hard to stop talking about the Camino once he’s started.

Ask him to say exactly what it is about it that attracts him, however, and you might find Cooke suddenly at a loss for words.

“I hate to tell you this: I like it,” he says. “I can work out a rationale if you want, but really, I just like it.

“Try it,” he adds, in a slightly hushed tone. “You’ll know what I mean.”

While Cooke’s level of enthusiasm for the Camino seems exceptional, it also seems undeniable that the pilgrimage route, with its origins in the Middle Ages, is gaining mounting popularity, not only with Roman Catholics but with spiritual seekers of all kinds—including Anglicans.

Last summer, the Reformed Episcopal Church of Spain, a member of the Anglican Communion, announced plans for a $5 million Anglican Centre at the end of the route, Santiago de Compostela, where, according to legend, the remains of St. James were buried after being brought by sea from Jerusalem.

Then, in November, the church dedicated its cathedral in Madrid as another pilgrim welcome centre, despite its location off the Camino Frances, the most popular route, which stretches 780 km across northern Spain, from a starting point in southwest France.

In a statement prepared for this event, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby hailed the church’s plan for the centre in Santiago de Compostela.

“In recent decades the Camino of St. James in Spain has grown in popularity but until now, the Anglican church has not been able to welcome its pilgrims,” Welby said. “The Anglican Centre in Santiago will bring people together, welcoming all for a common good.”

Among Canadians, some of the Camino’s most ardent enthusiasts are Anglicans. The Canadian Company of Pilgrims was founded by an Anglican priest, the Rev. Ben Lochridge, and at least one book on the Camino (What the Psychic Told the Pilgrim: A Midlife Misadventure on Spain’s Camino de Santiago de Compostela) was written by a Canadian Anglican, Jane Christmas. Former bishop of Edmonton and suffragan bishop of Toronto Victoria Matthews (now bishop of Christchurch in New Zealand) has done parts of the Camino nine times.

Cooke estimates about a fifth of Canadians on the route each year are Anglicans. In 2015, 4,201 Canadians completed the Camino, according to statistics published by the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.

Cooke says he’s not alone in having difficulty explaining the appeal of the Way. In former times, pilgrims wended their way to Santiago de Compostela from every corner of Western Europe, drawn by a desire to venerate the saint’s reputed remains and also to atone for their sins. But many of today’s pilgrims, Cooke says, undertake the Camino when confronted with an important life challenge or transition. Many also seem drawn to the route by some sort of mysterious impulse.

“I would say a good chunk of pilgrims have no idea why they’re doing it,” he says.

Part of the problem, he thinks, is that the experience defies easy categorization.

“Try to define what it is and you’re wrong,” he says. “Is it religious? Yes and no. Is it spiritual? Yes and no. Is it physical exercise? Is it a cultural expedition? It’s all of these things, but it isn’t.”

Sign marks the way to Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain. Photo: Gena Melendrez/Shutterstock
Sign marks the way to Compostela Cathedral in Galicia, Spain. Photo: Gena Melendrez/Shutterstock

The Camino, Cooke says, is full of contradictions. Part of its appeal is solitude and silence, the spending of hours doing nothing but putting one foot in front of the other. Another part is companionship and conversation; people on the Way often form “families” of pilgrims who walk together and look out for each other, Cooke says. Often, they’re also unusually inclined to open up about their lives.

“You know when you’re on a long-distance bus, and you’re sitting beside somebody and you get their life story, and you get the sensation they’ve never told anyone else? Yeah, it’s like that—all the time,” he says.

Some of the more remarkable people he’s met along the Camino: an 82-year-old German man who had set out all the way from Hamburg, after his wife of 65 years had died; another young woman, also German, walking the route with her father, whom she had not seen since she was three months old.

Currently, Cooke adds, a group of Canadian war veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress plan to walk the Camino together next year.

Many of those who have completed the route say the experience has transformed them, not always in strictly religious ways. Wendy Loly, current president of the Canadian Company of Pilgrims, and not a churchgoer, says she started the route as a walker and ended as a pilgrim. Part of this transformation, she says, had to do with the openness people on the route typically show to one another. But the Camino also, say Loly and Cooke, has a way of presenting wayfarers with odd coincidences or “synchronicities” that seem to point to self-discovery.

“Usually no one says, ‘What’s your last name?’ or ‘What’s your work?’ People say, ‘Why are you walking?’ And so there can be a depth to the conversations that you have with people that you meet as you walk along,” Loly says. “Some may ask you a question and disappear, and you never see them again. And you might think about that question for several days afterwards—or longer.”

Cooke and Loly have two main pieces of advice for those undertaking the Camino for the first time. One is to pack light.

Many people overplan, and as a result, carry too much with them, Cooke says—Bibles, say, or other books. But in practice, they’re usually too exhausted by the end of a day’s walking to want to do much more than tumble into bed and fall asleep.

Pilgrims may find themselves bringing lessons from the Way back to their everyday lives when they return home, he says.

“One of the things I hear a lot about is they look at the use of time differently,” he says. “People tend to spend time talking with other people rather than worrying about deadlines…and they are often looking differently at what are priorities for them.

“Many people tell me they get into maniacal decluttering on their return,” he adds, not only getting rid of possessions now deemed unnecessary, but also generally cutting out sources of complexity in their lives.

The other piece of advice, Cooke and Loly say, is to be open to what the road will show you.

“Be ready for the surprises—that’s advice I always give to anybody planning it,” says Cooke. “They always have ideas about what’s going to happen. Many people have great little journalling schedules all laid out. No, no, no, it’s all going to go by the wayside—don’t worry about it. Just keep your mind open. You’re going to have an interesting time.”


  • Tali Folkins

    Tali Folkins joined the Anglican Journal in 2015 as staff writer, and has served as editor since October 2021. He has worked as a staff reporter for Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His freelance writing credits include work for newspapers and magazines including The Globe and Mail and the former United Church Observer (now Broadview). He has a journalism degree from the University of King’s College and a master’s degree in Classics from Dalhousie University.

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