Mosaic in Sarria sidewalk
In recent weeks, I’ve interacted with what I will just term the pilgrim online community. These are people who have walked one or more of the paths of the Camino de Santiago, and now they are online discussing their respective journeys, planning and pinning their hopes on new journeys, and instructing the uninitiated in the gentile art of pilgrimage. A common thread I’ve found in this community is an almost obsessive fear of being perceived as tourists instead of pilgrims or, the opposite, a derision directed against what they term “tourist pilgrims”.
Who falls into this category of being a tourist pilgrim? The attitude among some seems to be that if you’ve watched the movie “The Way” and liked it, you are suspected of being a tourist. If “The Way” was central in your decision to go to the Camino de Santiago then you’re even more suspect, and if, heaven forbid, you thought “The Way” was a factual representation of the Camino prior to starting out, you are certainly a tourist of the worst kind; a gullible, dreamy, souvenir shopper, someone to be watched with suspicion.
Furthermore, if you have decided to only walk the requisite 100 km of the Camino for your Compestela, then you are guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors in regards to slacking a pilgrimage. Disregard for a moment what the Church says about a walking pilgrimage, that it is anything 100 km or further. A “real” pilgrim has to walk the whole route or at least a sufficient amount to suffer as they have suffered, bleed where they bled, forgo the luxuries they have forgone. Disregard the fact that this has been a Catholic pilgrimage for nearly a thousand years, and as such the Catholic Church set the standards on what a walking pilgrimage is. Nevermind Brierley too, the Guide turned God of Camino Pilgrimage, who says to put aside your judgment of fellow pilgrims who have joined you for that last 100 km; send them loving kindness and equanimity, drown them in your blissful pilgrim spirit.
If you complain about the food on the Camino, then you’re certainly a tourist, even if the food is very bland in many places. This Camino is not for you. If you complain about fellow pilgrims’ inconsiderate behavior, you might be a tourist. If you wish for drink refills, you might be a tourist. Sorry to go all Jeff Foxworthy on you, but this is the attitude.
Yet there is also a counter to this. Nearly everyone says “It’s your Camino, just walk it and don’t listen to what others say.” Everyone regurgitates this platitude, but how many really believe it? How many secretly think that their own pilgrimage was the real one, while they saw fakers everywhere else?
All this smacks of elitism. It is reminiscent of the old war veteran who has been in the trenches earning his stripes while the young ones were off in college doing unrealistic things, things that aren’t “real” life. Now those youngsters have crossed the wide ocean with even wider eyes. These upstarts are trying to claim what can’t be theirs. The grizzled veterans think that they have been granted some type of ownership by the Camino gods, an ownership that lets them deem what is or isn’t touristy, who is or isn’t a pilgrim. They send their dictates down from on high, and we are required to obey them.
It reminds me of the attitude I see in so many other areas of life. When I first joined the Catholic Church, I saw a very similar behavior. There were the real Catholics and then the pretenders. The real ones were obeying the true faith while the others just gave it lip service. This usually extended beyond the actual faith into areas of political activism, where the “true” Catholic had a pet political ideology that they wanted others to adopt.
I guess I’m disappointed because I thought that pilgrims were a different breed, that they could just accept other’s journey for what it is, whether it was a 100 km walk or a 1,000 km walk.
With all this discussion of what is a true pilgrim versus a tourist pilgrim, perhaps we should ask what is a true pilgrim? Certainly the Church standard of 100 km seems fair for a walking pilgrimage. We could say that if you walk 100 km, then you are a true pilgrim. For some though, they protest that these folks are just doing it to get the Compostela and don’t care about the pilgrimage. How they can tell who cares about the pilgrimage and who does not is a science I have yet to fathom. They also use other judgments like whether the person had the backpack forwarded during the trip, whether they stayed in private accommodation or albergues, whether they enjoyed themselves or not!
Yet I submit to you that even the most slack lackadaisical pilgrim is not a tourist. A pilgrim, simply put, is someone who travels or puts themselves to some trouble to go to a specific destination. Traditionally, a pilgrim did this to honor a god or gods, depending on their particular faith, or to give reverence to some shrine or relic. That is the traditional definition. 100 km is definitely a distance traveled, yet look beyond this and many have traveled additional thousands of miles to get to that 100 km mark, often at great personal expense. Even the Spanish pilgrims may have jumped on a high-speed train or a plane to travel across country. In this day and age when we can barely get people off the couch, do we need to say that someone who walks 100 km is not a pilgrim?
Consider for a moment the millions of pilgrims, not just on the Camino de Santiago, but on other pilgrimages such as the ancient Canterbury pilgrimage. Many English pilgrims walked the Canterbury pilgrimage, which was typically only a little over a 100 km pilgrimage. How many saints walked that route? Did Sir Thomas More do it? In Spain, did people like Saint John of the Cross do the pilgrimage? What if he only walked 100 km? Would we dare to say that he was not a pilgrim?
Consider also the others who have walked further than even 800 km. There are those who have walked all the way from Russia. Are they more of a pilgrim than those who walked 800 km? Is there only one pilgrim, the man or woman who walked some ungodly distance, perhaps halfway across the world, and only this person takes the title of pilgrim?
Think of the ancient pilgrims who walked both directions. They didn’t have a jet to jump on at the end of the trip. They also started from their doorstep and likely walked a great distance to get to the Camino in the first place. Often they died along the way, or were robbed and endured unimaginable hardships. Are these, then, the only true pilgrims?
No, I think that we can only say one thing about the pilgrim. A pilgrim is a person who intends to walk a certain distance for a certain goal, often religious or spiritual, or at least life changing. A pilgrim might like some touristy stuff. Maybe they pick up a souvenir. Maybe they tarry too long in a museum, or wish there were more dryers or ATM’s. They are still a pilgrim because they intend to walk a pilgrimage. There are very limited number of insane tourists who are going to walk 100 km, endure albergues and other trials, just for the hell of it. The moment a tourist decides that they must walk 100 km to an ancient church called Santiago de Compostela, they have transformed themselves into a pilgrim. Their intention is to do something noteworthy and life changing. They may take a lot of pictures along the way, but they are still a pilgrim.
Gerry D. White and Trail Buddy, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Gerry D. White and Trail Buddy with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.