Her mission was to find enough sponsors to reach her goal of funding a CAFOD World Gift – a Health Centre. This amazing World Gift can pay for the running costs of a life-saving clinic in a remote community. It keeps the clinic stocked with medicines, medical equipment and even provides petrol for the clinic ambulance, giving vulnerable people vital access to much needed healthcare.
Read Jenny’s moving account in her own words…
IL CAMINO DE SANTIAGO; My experience walking ‘The Way’
About two years ago I first watched a DVD called ‘The Way’ which tells the story of a father who goes to France to collect the remains of his son who died whilst walking The Camino de Santiago, The Way of St James. Driven by a profound sadness, and a desire to understand his son better, he embarks on the historical pilgrimage. Along the way he meets a group of people who are walking the route for a variety of personal reasons, not necessarily religious, as was the original intention of the medieval pilgrims. Walking together they form a common bond through talking their lives, their troubles, and relationships, eventually forming a deep friendship from their shared experience of their desire to reach Santiago and the Cathedral of St James.
Sometime later, during a Christian Unity week discussion around the theme of ‘Journeys’ I thought about my own spiritual journey and how it maybe needed a kickstart, maybe an opportunity for reflection and time to better build my relationship with God. The obvious solution seemed to be go on some sort of retreat but, at that time, this didn’t seem to appeal. I mentioned the possibility of walking The Way of St James to other parishioners hoping for some enthusiasm but nothing came of it, possibly because of the physical fitness level required or maybe simply because not many people seemed to know what it was.
Time passed and it wasn’t until a friend, also a parishioner at my church, suggested starting up a walking group in the parish. We both shared a love of walking and met regularly each week for a good walk; it was then that I brought up the idea of walking some of The Camino. We both enjoyed a challenge, European travel and each other’s company. All we needed to do now was to find some more companions and it wasn’t long before the seeds had been sown and two had become four.
The next step was discussion and preparation; we researched The Camino on the internet reading blogs about luggage, accommodation, weather and, above all, footwear. The greatest challenge seemed to be blisters! Having decided on September as the best time to go on account of the weather and fewer pilgrims than during the summer months, the flights were booked and there was no turning back.
In medieval times pilgrims were put up in hostels and monasteries where they could receive food and medical attention if necessary. Today there are hostels which is the choice of many walkers but it is not possible to book them in advance. It was for this reason that we decided to play it safe and use an organisation which would not only book our accommodation for us but also be responsible for our luggage. Maybe a soft option you might say, but as four ladies of pre- retirement or retirement age (average 60), we wanted our first attempt at The Camino to be a positive experience and, most importantly of all, we wanted to complete it. As it happened, we managed to take just 10kgs of hand luggage on the trip, and might have managed with hindsight to carry it daily, but we couldn’t be sure.
Our luggage was very basic and our choice of footwear was a priority; stout well-worn walking boots plus a spare pair, proper walking blister-proof socks, layered clothing for all weather conditions (we had many cold autumnal mornings when we could see our breath), many drizzly days when we needed a handy pac a mac, as well as shorts, sun cream and sun hats for the two (yes, only two!) hot days we had. Spain in September was not all we had envisaged and Galatia, the area of Spain where we were walking, was green and often damp as the part of Wales we had all started from. Packing all the necessities for a 10 day trip abroad in one small case became an art form and we had to include the Compeed, muscle rub and pain killers which we sensibly, and realistically, anticipated having to use given 7 full days of walking on average 10 miles each.
September arrived. Luggage was packed and repacked. Hand luggage was weighed and reweighed, Liquids checked and packed in plastic bags to accommodate airport security requirements. I was excited but a little anxious too; we were off sort of into the unknown. I knew about The Camino from research on the internet and in books but still didn’t know what the route might be like, how our bodies would hold out and, above all, what I’d be like at the end of it. Would I learn more about myself, grow in faith, become more self-aware? Best not to have any expectations at all, as the Dalai Lama wisely advised so as not to have disappointments. So I left very early on that dark September morning with my fellow pilgrims with a completely open mind but with a determination to complete the last 100 kms (73 miles) to the Cathedral at Santiago and earn my sponsorship money for CAFOD.
So, having arrived at Sarria, our starting point for the final 100 Kms of The Camino we set out bright and early to find our first arrow to show us the way. We had been told that pilgrims seldom lost their way on The Camino as there are always yellow painted arrows on the tarmacked roads and more often than not official blocks on the wayside on which are mounted the scallop shell and an arrow. The scallop shell has been the official emblem of the Camino de Santiago since medieval times. The ridges all converge at the tip of the shell which represents the cathedral at Santiago. I was fortunate enough to have found a beach full of discarded scallop shells on a recent holiday in France so I collected a bagful and brought them home specially to give to CAFOD sponsors of my walk and to put one on my father’s grave. I’m sure he would have liked to walk with me.
So back to Day 1. Ironically, it took us quite a while to find the first arrow to lead us from the streets of Sarria to the open countryside. We felt a little foolish and one of the team resorted to getting her phone out. Immediately she was distracted by messages of support from sponsors at home. Oh dear! Was this the way things had to be? Not even being able to follow the way and constant distractions from the busyness of life at home. Surely we had come for higher things; peace, reflection, silence and time to pray? Perhaps I was becoming more focused; the anxieties of air travel, security, luggage weights were disappearing. We were here, in Spain, in Galicia, with just a rucksack (bearing a scallop shell) and holding the minimal bottle of water, money, passport, fleece and, in my pocket, my Oscar Romero cross. The open countryside was across the railway line, the sun was up and the day ahead of us. This was how it would be for the next seven days; days of opportunity, new sights, different languages, for listening, thinking, talking and praying.
I kept a diary along The Way as a reminder of each day as well as documenting in photographs our experiences. Each day was different, landscapes were green and we passed through beautiful woodlands as well as sometimes towns and villages with farmyards where we seemed to have gone back in time when chickens ran freely and cows meandered across the muddy roads. Our first day was not like the rest of the journey as there seemed to be numerous resting places, hostels and cafes to relax. We were distracted at first by the excitement of getting our first ‘sello’ or rubber stamp for our pilgrims’ passports. (In order to gain the pilgrim’s certificate at Santiago Cathedral we needed to have at least two dated sellos each day in our passports. The officials at the Cathedral office in Santiago scrutinised these before issuing the certificate).
Reflecting on that first day some days later I began to realise that it often takes time to retreat from the real world and really understand prayer as listening as well as speaking to God. Although I had been thinking about this pilgrimage for months, once arrived in Spain, out in the countryside, and having slept in a strange bed the night before and gone without the usual pot of English tea to wake me up, the realisation hit me that this was happening. Once this was out of the way, I was now open to what The Way was all about and from then on, my mind calmed. We hear a lot about mindfulness today; living in the moment, open to the sights and sounds around us, our minds calm and open. Some pilgrims refer to this as the Camino ‘rhythm’; the regular crunch of boots on the stony tracks, the shouts of ‘buen camino’ as other pilgrims pass on foot or on bikes, birdsong, gentle rain on the overhanging trees, maybe the click of walking poles or clump of stout sticks. The mind calms and thoughts come in of friends and family at home, parishioners who have asked for prayers, those who have died or who are ill. On Sunday we were an hour ahead of Britain but at 11,00am I thought of all the parishioners at our parish mass and prayed for them. We stopped at an ancient church to not only have our passports stamped but to light a candle for those in our prayers. Then there’s a little refuge offering free lemonade, coffee and a comfort break manned by some very welcoming volunteers. There were bookshelves full of bibles. I mentioned I’m was walking for CAFOD but we then realised they were probably Mormons or from an American Evangelical church as they didn’t recognise it. Never mind, we have exchanged our stories and been welcomed and supported on our way. Outside there is a slate plaque; “I am The Way, The Truth and The Life”. I stand my Romero cross against it for a photo shot. I will remember those words later on The Way.
My diary documents the events of each day. By the last day, day 7 we were quite weary. Two of my companions had leg injuries which were relieved by exercise at the end of the day or having to resort to painkillers. Fortunately, none of us had blisters. Maybe we didn’t need to pack all those blister plasters and Compeed after all (nor, come to it, all that suncream!) so why all that agonising! Yes, we had slowed down. We were excited about being just 23 kms or so from Santiago but aware that this was a longer walking day than usual (about 14 miles) and we were tired. The first part of the day was joyful. We followed a track through the woods with eucalyptus trees towering above us and sweet chestnuts on the path. We had got used to the scents of the woods now our senses were more finely tuned but the eucalyptus was so refreshing and vibrant. It felt like the perfect time to say a novena of the rosary which came so easily to myself and one of my companions who wore her rosary on her wrist whilst walking. We prayed for our parish, and for CAFOD and it seemed appropriate, in view of our troubled times, to think about peace, not only world peace but for a sense of personal peace which this walk was instilling.
Along The Camino we passed so many different people speaking different languages, wearing full walking gear and heavy rucksacks, or simply out walking part of the way on a Sunday with no luggage at all. We met a group of ladies from Ireland we were obviously on a parish pilgrimage some solitary walkers others listening to music with headphones. The couple with the pushchairs which was so humbling. It made us wonder what had brought them here from all parts of the world? Every so often we saw a makeshift wooden cross or a cairn on which had been placed offerings from pilgrims; a photograph of a child, a pair of trainers, a crucifix and an empty cigarette packet. Maybe they were remembering someone who had died, a broken relationship, a kicked addiction? Everyone had a story to tell and all hoped they would find some sort of peace, internal strength, faith or self- awareness before reaching our shared destination, Santiago.
I had imagined our walk into Santiago as being a triumphal one but we were tired and weary after a long day and reaching the outskirts of Santiago noisy and disorientating after the peace of the countryside. But, we had made it! It’s amazing what a good rest, a bath and a celebratory meal together can do for the soul! The next day dawned, warm, even hot and we made our way to the Cathedral for the pilgrim’s mass. Although it was packed out and we didn’t have seats (well, perched on the base of a stone column) it was a wonderful event concelebrated by 20 priests and the bishop. As well as my Romero cross in my pocket I wore a silver cross which was a retirement present from a good friend which had never been blessed. Quite by chance, on leaving the cathedral after the mas I saw the bishop out of the corner of my eye in the cathedral book shop and asked him to bless my cross. I always wear it now as a reminder of a special day.
The last day arrived. Two of my group wanted to attend the English mass in the cathedral before we left for the airport to fly home. It turned out to be a very special as I was asked to read the psalm before the Gospel reading and I asked for the intentions of all CAFOD workers and those who benefit from their work to be prayed for. The priest celebrating the mass gave a moving homily about the Eucharist. He talked about how we, as pilgrims had all followed the arrows and followed the way. He held up the host and reminded us that Jesus, the Real Presence, is the only Way. Then he said loudly and clearly with great emotion,” I am The Way, The Life and The Truth”. I began to realise that these words were of great significance to me.
Once home there has been time to reflect on The Camino and to prepare a presentation for the parish and those who have sponsored me for CAFOD. My diary reminds me of not the days on The Camino but the special people we met:
The Hungarian pilgrim and his donkey, “Chewie”
The old man from Basle, in Switzerland, who started on 2nd July and had already walked 1,000 miles and crossed the Pyrenees when we met him
The couple both pushing pushchairs containing twins of 2 and a little girl of 4 (so excited at seeing the donkey!)
The old man with his grandson offering us apples he had picked off the trees
The farmer’s wife offering us lunch by the wayside made up of homemade bread, local cheese and fruit
The busker in the woods playing Galician bagpipes to encourage us on our way
I can best finish my reflection on The Camino using a quote from a poem by Michael Leunig;
O God our Father,
We pray for another way of being,
another way of knowing.
Across the difficult terrain of our existence we have attempted to build a highway
and in doing so we have lost our footpath.
God lead us to our footpath where we may move at the speed of natural creatures
and feel the earth’s love beneath our feet.
Lead us where step by step we may feel the movement of creation in our hearts.
We give thanks for places of simplicity and peace.
Let us find such a place within ourselves.
We give thanks for places of refuge and beauty.
Let us find such a place within ourselves. ….
May we always remember that
nothing can be loved at speed.
God lead us to the slow path;
to the joyous insights of the pilgrim;
another way of knowing;
another way of being.
Our enormous thanks go to Jenny for her amazing efforts for CAFOD. Her gift will make a big difference to a remote village. The clinic will be stocked with the medicines and medical equipment its staff and patients need. And it will also run the clinic ambulance so that it can provide emergency care to those in crisis. THANK YOU!
Case study: The amazing work of the Guarjila health clinic
“Patients don’t have to go to the city to see the doctor. They can have their problems treated here.” Dr Dagoberto Menjívar, El Salvador
During the civil war in El Salvador, the community of Guarjila was cut off from the rest of the country. To receive essential healthcare, the villagers decided to set up their own clinic themselves.
CAFOD is providing funding for the clinic so it can offer specialist medical support, including gynaecology, paediatric care, nutrition and counselling.
Head Doctor Dagoberto Menjívar says the quality of healthcare has been transformed. “The clinic is very important for people here because it’s local and provides quality healthcare”, he explains.