A Long Walk in Spain: Student, Scholar, Pilgrim

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By Holly Wendt

In early June, I embarked on a ten-day International Faculty Development Seminar titled “Modern Debates along an Ancient Way,” thanks to generous support from Academic Affairs. The seminar centered on the history and culture of the Camino de Santiago, a medieval pilgrimage route that is still very much in use today. I set out on the journey as a scholar seeking material to enrich my courses and to help me develop new ones, but the Camino is accepting of diverse persons and encourages them to accept diverse roles, and so I found myself wearing multiple hats.

The Camino de Santiago—the Way of St. James—has many arms, many long-established routes. The focus of our pilgrimage was the Camino Frances—the French Way. From one of the traditional starting points, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees, the Camino Frances stretches more than five hundred miles across northern Spain on its way to the shrine of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, a small city in Galicia. Most contemporary pilgrims, absent illness, injury, or side-treks, complete that portion of the Camino in a little more than a month, averaging around twenty-five kilometers per day.

Our route stood much abbreviated; we flew into Madrid, participated in a brief orientation there, and traversed the central portion of the Camino—from Santo Domingo de la Calzada to Burgos to León to Ponferrada to Pedrafita do Cebriero to Sarria—by bus, stopping along the way to visit important sites, museums, and churches, and to enjoy evening lectures from experts on the Camino. From Sarria, we began our walk, completing roughly seventy-one of the final one hundred kilometers on foot and entering the holy city beside many pilgrims. But the point of the Camino is not mileage. The point of the Camino is communitas: the spontaneous community created by pilgrimage, regardless of the motivations for beginning the journey.

The explanation of communitas was made most clear by our visit in León with the Association of the Friends of the Camino, an organization of volunteers who help to maintain the Camino and who serve at the public albergues that house and feed a large portion of pilgrims each year. Additionally, the Friends went much out of their way to build a sense of community with us, though we were only with them for an evening, not only sharing information, gifts, and a magnificent spirit of bonhomie, but also an impromptu tour of some of León’s medieval walls and a rooftop view of the cathedral at night. That is the Camino. At each turn, even and especially on the remote, wooded portions of the Camino, where one’s path frequently crossed with other pilgrims’ with whom the only shared language was the ubiquitous buen camino!, there was community. In that, I found myself feeling most like a student, engaging with that learning edge: not walking in silent (easy, comfortable) individual contemplation but interacting such that it was impossible to ignore the stories of fellow pilgrims, even when the story could only be told in a few gestures, an upturn or downturn of the mouth.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, the inimitable Wife of Bath is among the many famed pilgrims to have traveled the Camino de Santiago, and though the text doesn’t specify whether she went overland or by sea (the traditional Camino Inglés), she visited the shrine of St. James. Fittingly, while I was on the Camino, I was able to view a reliquary of the English St. Thomas Beckett, whose Canterbury Shrine was Chaucer’s pilgrims’ destination. The reliquary was housed in Burgos Cathedral, and I was able to take a photo to bring back to my English Literature I students as clear evidence of the trade and transport of relics and the medieval popularity of pilgrims, but more importantly, I was able to speak a bit about the nature and contemporary relevance of such a journey, even if my own participation was brief.

My own participation, too, was tantalizing, and one of the frankly inevitable outcomes of the seminar is a desire to return, ideally with students in a short-term study abroad course, and encounter the act of pilgrimage again. In the meantime, my IFDS experience has manifested in a variety of scholarly and creative works, including two conference proposals and a short story. The conference proposals, in particular, consider the necessity of engagement with the world—and with the individual self in the world—and how that engagement is both necessary to creating world-ready students and to creating a campus community that can teach and support those students. All of these are things discovered along the Way.

Buen camino!