Walking the Way: Pilgrimage Lessons and Gifts

The path to Espagnac-Sainte-Eulalie (Photo credit Liz Keller Whitehurst)

By Liz Keller Whitehurst

The fall after he retired, my husband fell head-over-heels in love—with the Camino de Santiago. This ancient pilgrimage route has many paths winding throughout Europe, all leading to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Camino called him. The inner and outer experience of pilgrimage changed him. Four pilgrimages later, he found the perfect opportunity to share what he’d found with me.

We’d walk a portion of the Le Puy route, one of four major routes through France to Santiago, Les Chemins de Saint-Jacques-de-Compostela. We’d wander through country of stunning beauty and a wide variety of terrain. The walk was shorter—two weeks instead of six.  An added bonus? The food and wine of France. What could be better?

The only problem? I’d have to walk 12 to 14 miles a day!
Every day.
Two hundred miles in two weeks.
Me. A self-proclaimed bookworm and certainly a walking/hiking beginner. I am a practitioner of meditative centering prayer and contemplation, nurturing my inner world in stillness. Though practiced in body work and sensation, I definitely had less confidence in my moving center.

But the Camino/Chemin called me. I was deeply touched that my husband wanted me to go with him. How hard could it be, I asked myself. It’s only two weeks. So, I said, Yes. But I did worry about the physical demands. Was I strong enough? I’d never considered myself athletic, that’s for sure.

Though quite healthy overall, previous injuries and past physical challenges had left me doubting my body. I upped my everyday walking quotient and continued my dance/weight training classes twice a week.  But, by time to depart, my training was not to my experienced husband’s satisfaction. I tried to reassure him. I knew I could walk 10-12 miles in a day. We’d often done that whenever we visited a large city. “It’ll be fine,”I told him…and myself.

Strangely, I focused very little on my inner pilgrimage. I must humbly admit I didn’t really get why you had to travel to another country to find what you were looking for? Wasn’t my way so much better, to be where you are, to find pilgrimage in everyday life? Ugh! Spiritual pride—the worst. My superior attitude denied thousands of years of pilgrims answering the call of these sacred paths—as well as my husband’s own authentic experience.

I knew the physical aspects of this pilgrimage would challenge me. But I never dreamed the greater challenges would come from my inner pilgrimage.

Cracked Open

It started Day One.

We met our congenial group in Figeac. My husband had already hiked with many of them as well as with our guides. For him it was a reunion. It didn’t take long for me to learn that everyone else in the group was an advanced, experienced hiker. A sinking feeling filled my stomach. Okay, you’ll just be last. No big deal.  I couldn’t predict what a colossal understatement this would be.

It was quite hot as we set off on the Chemin. At home, when I’d imagined myself walking, I’d pictured gently rolling hills leading through tiny, charming villages. Not this! The path I found myself on climbed straight up on loose, large, and treacherous rocks, like walking a dry creek bed with nothing stable beneath my feet. Every step demanded my utmost attention as, one by one, the other hikers soon passed my sweet husband and me. How are they going so fast?, I wondered. With my unsure footing, labored breath, pounding heart, inexperience using walking sticks and, most of all, rising panic, I knew I was in over my head!

Photo credit: Liz Keller Whitehurst

Utter focus on my feet and praying, Help! Help! Help! with every step was all I could manage. That, and to keep walking. My boots felt heavy. My feet ached from gripping the rocks and trying to somehow balance. I planted my weight on my walking sticks pulling myself forward, hobbling along on them like canes. Bathroom breaks were off the trail wherever you could find a place beside a tree. Walking on, mud covered my boots, coated my pant legs. I was sweating, panting, and had no idea how I would finish this first day.

But whenever I caught my breath or we’d take a short water break, I couldn’t help but notice the unbelievable beauty surrounding us. Springtime was in full bloom. Our rocky, wet path ran through forests and between sacred dry-stone walls. Trees and fallen branches reached out to us. Everything seemed draped in a carpet of lush green moss, spongy and moist to the touch. Wildflowers lined the narrow paths. Tiny, short daisies wove through the grasses. Chartreuse wiggling worms parachuted down on tiny filaments from branches above. We climbed so high we were walking through clouds, fine mists covering on our faces, hands, and hair.

Despite this beauty, my anxiety grew with each step. Falling on the wet rocks was a constant worry. After what seemed like forever, we reached the place to meet the guides for more water and snacks. The other hikers? Nowhere in sight. On we went. The place to meet for lunch at the van? Last and late. We had to eat in a hurry so the guides could drive ahead to meet the other hikers, who were already close to finishing for the day, at our hotel.

I somehow kept going, my sweet husband by my side, slowing his pace to match mine, encouraging me along. Feet aching, knees complaining, dead tired, filthy dirty, miraculously, we made it to our stopping point that first day. Somewhat delirious, I entered the town’s church, lay down on three chairs with my day pack still in place, dropped my walking sticks with a clack to the stone floor, and fell sound asleep. My husband woke me after a short time and I limped after him to our hotel, where the others had been for hours.

In our hotel room, cold and damp, I threw my boots across the room, stripped off every brown, muddy bit of clothing, slithered into a glorious hot bath and pondered my fate. I can’t do this! a voice inside screamed. But a calmer, wiser voice answered, You have to. If I knew anything to be true, it was this.  Maybe tomorrow will be easier, I hoped and prayed.

The second day dawned bright and early. Our route was just as difficult. I struggled with each step, my boots now permanently coated in dust and dirt. Surprisingly, even more challenging than going up was climbing down a hill, struggling with my walking sticks to hold my feet and body back from rockslides. While my feet felt relief at first in the thinner socks I’d chosen, this strategy proved a huge mistake, as my toes were slammed forcefully into the toes of the boots with each step down. Feeling blisters rising and bruised toenails, I had to keep walking.

That did it. A desperate voice inside cried, I can’t do this! I’m last. I’m late! I’m inconveniencing the guides. I’m ruining this for my husband. And the voice didn’t stop. I’m late for snack van, lunch, the end of the day. I’m terrible at this. I’m going to fall and hurt myself. Why did I ever agree to come? I hate my body. I’m not athletic. I’m so tired—my knees, my feet, my hips. How can I be so slow?

In a moment of clarity, I watched myself go over the proverbial waterfall that Thomas Keating and Cynthia Bourgeault often describe in their writing. My witnessing presence became present as I waved goodbye to myself, cracked open, and, losing it, sank to depths of full reactivity. I thought I’d made progress working on these places of internal challenges, the seeds planted in childhood. But I couldn’t seem to do anything about it. Hah! Here we were yet again. Shame and upset making everything worse.

This internal ruckus continued to build the rest of day two, as we were late again to both snack and lunch, the guides waiting for us at every turn. My feet were dead tired and sore, an old injury to my left knee complained loudly, my lower back ached even from the light weight of my day pack. The end of day two found me collapsed in another church, eyes clamped shut, tears streaming down my cheeks.

By the time we got to the hotel and into our room, ugly crying had taken over. My poor husband tried to console me. “Honey, this is just an unnaturally fast group. We are not late—they’re just really fast hikers!”

I didn’t believe him.

I’m sure at that moment he was thinking the same thing I was—what am I doing here? But by allowing all the sadness and frustration to come out, I could witness myself with a little detachment and try to sort through what was happening to me, both physically and spiritually.

I awakened in the night wracked with anxiety and all the voices still going off in my head. Yet a part of me knew I had to find a way to work with this. I never thought of quitting for the simple reason we were in such a remote part of France. One of the guides would have to drive for hours to get me to a train.  There was no way I was asking them to do that. I had to find a way to work with these circumstances and keep going.

Working with My Need

The next few days were more of the same as I struggled with internal and external challenges and fought to keep up. Many of my toes were blistered, along with the sole of my right foot. Two toenails threatened to fall off from the loose boot day. My arms and shoulders ached, extremely sore and cramping from my misuse of the walking sticks.

Photo credit: Liz Keller Whitehurst

That was just the physical situation. The emotional one was worse. I asked for spiritual support from every source—God help me– Mary, Jesus, Joseph. I called on my own circle of loved ones who’ve passed—my parents, several dear friends. The prayer I repeated most was simple and direct: Help!

I strove to stay in my own atmosphere, right in my center. Calming it. I tried to sense energy flow up from my feet, up over my head and back again. I looked for one spot where I could find ease in my body as opposed to listening to my aching hips or feet or shoulders. My pinkie finger? My elbow? Focusing there, I felt the ease spread and sensed a vitality course through my entire body.

I focused on the out-breath and waited for the in breath—like a gift. Over and over. A favorite chant rose up from inside me one day. Far as the heavens reach beyond earth and time, we swim in mercy, as in an endless sea. This became my theme song for the rest of the Chemin. The rhythm of my walking and these beautiful words opened my heart and allowed moments of calming and resting in God to seep in.

At those fleeting times, I wouldn’t allow myself to think about how many more days we had on this pilgrimage, or miles that day, even. Time felt distorted as the days seemed interminable and the nights just the wink of an eye. I lost track of what day of the week it was. It didn’t matter. We were walking today. I just focused on each step, planting my foot on the dusty, rocky path, breathing in and out.

Photo Credit: Liz Keller Whitehurst

This breakthrough was great, but I could only access these practices for brief moments. I’d get a hold of myself, relax from clutching, and just walk. Then I’d fall back into panic and worry. When I could make myself pause, I was met by incredible natural beauty—such a contrast to my own state of being. I noticed gorgeous light filtering through the forest trees. Breathed deeply the intense, oxygenated air, fresh and energizing. Each morning we waited for the first cuckoo to call through the forest. Birdsong was our soundtrack all day long. From time to time, we’d pass farms with horses, sheep, chickens wandering about. We saw very few people, a farmer here and there, working deeply plowed fields full of squash, greens, artichokes, onions, peas, beans. Sometimes a loose dog would charge us, barking, warning us away from his farm. He’d follow us, bark at our backs until we’d round a bend.

Relaxing a bit, I also recognized that everyone was trying to help me—the other hikers, the guides and especially my husband, giving kind advice and encouragement. Though he’s an advanced hiker, he stayed right with me every day, patience personified. As we walked, we talked at length about how we could make things better for me and for the group as a whole. Through verbalizing my feelings, I got a better handle on myself and could focus on how to move from “all about me” to “how can we make this situation work best for all?”

We talked with the guides who reminded me, “This is your Chemin, too, Liz.” One smiled kindly and added, “Okay, now. You cannot apologize again!” They started suggesting when I might enjoy riding ahead with them instead of shredding myself by struggling to walk every mile. At first this hurt my feelings and confirmed my internal upset. But I did get over it—thank God. I listened to them and came to appreciate their guidance.

I began to listen to my body. I learned to stop early and ride ahead with the guides, to rest and explore the next town as others finished their walk. That way, too, my husband could walk at his pace, catch up with the others, and enjoy hiking with them. Though I was still walking ten to twelve miles daily, still challenging body and spirit, I knew I had an out if needed. I tried not to think or plan ahead. Both and—both walking all the way or riding the last section of the day were good. No judgement. Humility with nothing to lose.

One of the guides taught me to use my walking sticks so they moved in tandem with my legs. By keeping my weight on my feet, I felt a lightness and the rhythm internalized. I could release my hips, let my legs flow out and away. With this physical release, I could relax more inside, too. One hiking friend shared foot tape for my blisters, another a casing to go over the damaged toes and toenails. All such huge gifts. By then I’d learned to lace my boots as tightly as possible and to wear the thick socks each day.

We rarely saw the other hikers on the trail. Most days, it was just my husband and me. “You’re doing great!” he’d cheer me on, over and over. Not one word of complaint. He actually said, “I’ve really enjoyed slowing down with you and having time to notice the beauty all around us.”

Awareness and Healing

As we headed west, the wet, loose, rocky paths through mossy forests gave way to narrow footpaths through vast cultivated fields and farmlands. Gorgeous but also offering new perils. These paths lay thick with gray, ashy mud, that would cake onto my boots. It was a constant struggle to kick off the mud or scrape it on wet grasses or in standing puddles along the sides while negotiating steep and treacherous climbs and descents.

But we were now walking through incredibly lush, beautiful fields of grain, as far as the eye could see. Amber waves of grain undulated like a vast ocean as the wind whistled through. Later scallions, garlic, and grapevines—miles of them—joined, all verdant and full of life force and energy.

Photo contributed by Liz Keller Whitehurst

When the path left the fields and entered a tiny town, we’d find no one there. It felt eerie, like being whooshed back in time. Our walking sticks clicked and echoed through narrow winding streets lined with timbered buildings. Doors to the tiny churches had been left open. Well-tended and often filled with fresh flowers, these churches held the sense of the presence of others lingering there, of all the prayers said. The silence held strong energies that rose up from the floor the minute we crossed the threshold. We’d light candles, smell musky incense. Other pilgrims had written prayers and requests on scraps of paper and left them on the altar with a stone, a feather, a holy medal. I added my prayers for those at home and for my own receptivity for the lessons the Chemin had for me.

The roses we saw throughout these towns, in each small home garden, were in peak bloom, all colors, the climbers especially full and fragrant. The roses were one of my greatest delights and never failed to raise my spirits. Their fragrances carried me back to my dad’s beloved rose garden when I was a child.

One morning, after pausing to smell a huge pale, yellow rose, I felt my panic ease in a new way. With a start that echoed through my entire body, I realized the subtle action that had been taking place inside me. I finally got it—besides the spiritual help surrounding me, this glorious country, the Earth’s energy and aliveness were feeding me. As I could find a little ease, release, and not cling to this experience, it allowed me space to see, to notice and understand that the earth, the rocks, the mud, the trees, the plants, the flowers, the water, the animals—were all helping me on this pilgrimage. Realizing and naming it, this subtle energy grew stronger and I could call on it more and more.

Photo credit: Liz Keller Whitehurst

Slowly, as I walked, I could sense energy—aliveness and awareness—coming from all around me. The narrow, sometimes muddy, paths were lined with grasses and wildflowers, mint, and sweet pinks growing tall on either side that all seemed to wave me on in my super-effort of body and spirit. The ups and downs, the steep hills to climb were a constant. But so was all that beauty combining to create an atmosphere of the senses, a presence itself—penetrating my body and saturating me with energy and love. Green, generative, gracious. Healing those places of pride, the old wounds. Once yielded, it filled me with a new kind of aliveness. Something like a whisper, like a gentle, invisible hand on my shoulder, a fullness, a subtle presence was there, too. A presence that never left, even during my worst moments. I was definitely accompanied.

With each passing day I grew stronger and my inner state continued to entrain to the outer world. Thanks to my practices, answered prayer, my husband’s love, and our guides’ care, each morning I could awaken to birdsong, lie in the comfy bed beneath a clean, starched comforter, and wonder with curiosity what was to come today. As I walked, I was able to return to my feet, one step at a time, and stay in each moment from point A to B, not ahead. When I found myself hunched over or tightening my back, I’d ask myself, Are my ribs moving? Am I breathing? Returning to the breath released my pelvis, hips, and lower back to allow my legs to swing out and away, allowing breathing through my entire torso.

As I grew tired, I’d work with where can you find some ease? and sense energy flow up through both feet and down through my head, filling my body with sensation. By staying with my body—breathing, finding my feet, staying in the moment, connecting to the energy and beauty of the natural world surrounding me—I had a way to work, to walk.

Once I got into this flow of pilgrimage, all these energies working together, I discovered a lightness of being—a sense of doing, rather than thinking. The inner talk quieted. What the guides would label an “easy” day was always a challenge for me, but on a few days the second week I felt strong enough to walk every step. I learned not to despair at another hill, not to look up—just focus on my feet. To allow the energy in. To be there, with each step.

Why did the Chemin/Camino call me? I’ve pondered this question. As an humble pilgrim, I see myself as I am—a simple human being. I know I will always need healing. But I found myself at more times during the day staying in the moment and experiencing time as spreading out. I had all the time I needed—and less of that incessant buzz of hurry. I resisted anxiety, or people-pleasing or trying too hard. That lightness I found on the Chemin accompanied me back home, along with a deeper awareness and new sensitivity to the vitality of the energies of the natural world.

At home now, I connect to my own garden, lush and green with summer rains. The trees in the park in my neighborhood, the birds, the squirrels, the dogs, the people. I sense into it all in a very different way, allowing it to accompany me as I offer love and appreciation back. I’m continuing to walk and to enjoy my stronger physical and spiritual body. I touch the earth with the soles of my feet, not worrying about where or how far or how many steps. I sense energy pouring into my body, smell the air, feel the breeze on my skin. My chant pops in unexpectedly, We swim in mercy, as in an endless sea, and I’m back in France, traveling through fields of grain, hearing the cuckoo’s call, smelling a rose.

Photo credit: Liz Keller Whitehurst

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2 Responses

  1. Outstanding post! Thank you Melanie. I could feel every ache and pain, and marvel at her devoted partner on the trail.

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