How the Camino de Santiago Taught Me to be Present
I’m often asked about what I learn while walking along Spain’s Camino de Santiago. I say that it’s people that matter. It’s not about me, the flowers, or places. It’s in relationships, short or long-lasting. The universe calms you on the walk and in the wild, quiets you down so that you can truly meet people and listen to them.
In the 600 mile walk in 2016, I did more than just meet people on the trail. I discovered new meaning, and in turn helped someone else.
The meaning came in the form of three unique individuals. Angels really.
Others Can Help Us Believe in Ourselves
The first came to me during my most fearful moments in decades. I held back tears and panic because I was afraid that I would die of exposure while crossing the Pyrenees (a range of mountains between Spain and France). I thought I had such good fortune because I saw a luggage transport van which would take my backpack to my destination. I desperately needed it. Unfortunately in my haste, I forgot to grab my jacket.
The temperature plunged, the rains attacked, and painful hail poured down for two hours, shredding my poncho and leaving me with just my daypack and t-shirt. I could barely see past the fog and my steam-covered eyeglasses, where the trail twisted and where the cliffs threatened.
A figure came from behind me. I only saw his chin peeking out from his hat, a chin where my immediate reaction was “oh, looks like the guy who starred in Jesus Christ Superstar.” What can I say, I’m a theatre fan, and hey, maybe it’s a good sign. He asked me how I was, and I responded with “cold, frightened.” This young man just smiled, saying “You’ll be fine. Where are you going?” I answered “To Roncesvalles on the other side of the Pyrenees.” Calmly smiling, he said, “I’ll see you on the other side” and continued walking into the foggy hail. This was weirdly reassuring.
Interestingly, he wore a fluorescent red poncho, a color so bright that I could actually see it through the fog and follow him along the unseen trail. I followed him into the unknown, somehow comforted, somehow feeling safe, somehow confident.
I wept as the hail stopped, and I made it to my destination – an ancient monastery.
I was back on the trail the next morning when someone placed a hand on my shoulder and said that he knew I would make it. We smiled and he walked with me the whole day.
When I found out that his name was Thore, after the Norse God of storms and protection, my jaw dropped. A sign? Maybe. Guidance to find my way and to remember to believe in myself? Definitely.
Helping Others, Helps Us
Now in Pamplona, I had been upset and fearful that my blisters, earned from wet feet and the struggle over the Pyrenees, would impair me. For now, I was doing better.
I then came across Daniel from Oxford, who simply radiated love. In fact, almost every person who met him, described his intensely caring eyes and his beautiful affection for everyone he met. He was astonishingly humble, touching with almost everyone he met. We talked and walked all day.
I shared that I had started my trip in Lourdes and had some of the water, that some say is filled with miraculous healing power. I brought the water to share with those on the Camino. He was thrilled. He took a sip and I rubbed some into his hands.
You see, Daniel was making his Camino while walking on crutches. Funny, you didn’t notice them after you talked with him, nor his bruised hands and feet. The reality was that his life-long condition slowed him down to just over 1-2 mph and it would take him three months to reach Santiago, three times longer than most. I can’t imagine how he navigated the muddy, rocky slopes of the mountains we crossed. When asked why he was on the Camino, he would respond “so that every day I can walk again.”
Daniel inspired such care in others, as we all cared for him. For example, he would disappear after evening church services, only for me to find him giving alms to a needy man, asking if he had a place to sleep.
Daniel embodied so comfortably, the unconditional love of the universe. Despite his challenges, he didn’t fear. Yes, I shared the healing waters with him, and in his presence, I was the one who felt healed.
Life is About Living
I had the pleasure of meeting a spiritual professor from Hungary. Not only does Annamarie speak 7 languages fluently, she was a real talker, easily brightening every conversation. And it showed in her deep caring about all she met.
Annamarie had this curious habit at every stream she found, off came her shoes and socks, and up came her trouser legs. Wading into the rather cold waters, she’d laugh and thank nature, God, the universe and invite others to wade in with her. Despite my blisters, I would accept her invitation and wade in – albeit briefly – just to share in the invigorating joy of waters full of life. This wasn’t just about refreshing our tired feet. Instead Annamarie said that life isn’t just for just walking, but for living. Even in the streams, mountains and everyday experiences, we need to really live. Take it all in.
How I Became the Helper
I took a rest day in Burgos because my blisters were so painful. And for some reason, on a day I was feeling quite healthy, I saw a grove of trees next to a sign that said “Fuente” (water fountain). I had a lot of water, wasn’t tired, and was only an hour away from my destination. But I felt called to sit under these trees. As I did, I chatted with other pilgrims and learned the well was empty.
Soon, a woman from Italy stopped by looking for water. She became concerned when she learned that the well was dry. I offered her my water since I was near my final stop, giving her almost two full portions of water.
In talking, she realized I had started my Camino in Lourdes, and she expressed her interest in visiting it one day. I offered her some of the Lourdes water, as that was the point of me bringing it. And that’s when she did the unexpected. She burst into tears, hugging me and sobbing. Silvia drank the Lourdes water and asked to be anointed by it.
The entire day, I pondered why she cried. I still don’t truly know. It took several more encounters with her to understand that she was exhausted and spiritually challenged. She had come onto the Camino looking for a spiritual experience. But she instead was coming away just tired and longing for inspiration.
Here I was, thinking I was merely offering her water. But when I got called to that well, I was guided to help her — to share the water, share some rest, and a smile. A simple gesture that connected us, and helped with her calling.
We walk with people who we may immediately recognize as important messengers, telling us to wake up and smell the roses — to find your goal, to be an inspiration. And in doing so, we too may be that angel to others.
Lessons and Help are Everywhere
I walked with three angels, and to another, without realizing it at the time, I was her angel. Life can be like that in so many ways. We walk with people who we may immediately recognize as important messengers, telling us to wake up and smell the roses — to find your goal, to be an inspiration. And in doing so, we too may be that angel to others.
Most often, we’re too close to the stories to realize what’s happening. We forget that we should walk intentionally, always awake, always open to the new. Sometimes it takes a Camino to realize that you’re always on a pilgrimage and should be ever present to those who may be there to help you and guide you. But it’s not required.
We can all take a moment and look around. Messengers and help are everywhere. We just need to be awake to see.
Mel Soriano shares his 2016 Camino on the Living Your Journey podcast. He discusses his overall journey, learnings and how it changed his life. Take a listen.