In Step with the Body of Christ
Lessons from the Camino
by Heidi Wiebe | March 31, 2021
“El dolor es algo temporal—la gloria es para siempre.”
Those words were written on a t-shirt I picked up at the end of a journey I took with my sisters in the fall of 2019. The words, “The pain is temporary—the glory is forever,” seemed to sum up my experience of walking the Camino de Santiago.
The idea came as I approached my 60th birthday when I met a friend for dinner. We talked about how we might celebrate our shared decade birthday, and our mutual love of walking got us thinking about a walking vacation. We talked about where we might go, and we decided to walk the Camino de Santiago. The journey would not only present a challenge to my mind and body. Asking my two sisters and my friend to join me on this adventure also gave me the opportunity to share a once-in-a-lifetime experience with people close to me.
Tradition says Jesus’s disciple James came to Portugal and Spain to spread the gospel. He was unsuccessful and ended up returning to Jerusalem where he was imprisoned, tortured, and beheaded by Herod Agrippa. James’s disciples came to Jerusalem, stole his body, and, climbing into a rudderless boat, prayed that God would guide them and bring them home. The boat traveled to northern Spain where his apostles buried his body. Years later, the devout began making pilgrimage by walking to Santiago where his remains were said to be buried at the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. By the middle ages, various routes from France, Spain, and Portugal had developed to bring pilgrims to the site.
After studying all the pilgrim routes to Santiago, my sisters, friend, and I realized we didn’t have time to walk the whole trail, which is 140 miles, so we decided to begin in Valenca in northern Portugal, right across the river Minho from Spain. This shorter route of six days would give us the Camino experience as well as allow us to walk the minimum distance required to receive a “Compostela,” or certificate of completion, which is given to those who complete at least 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, of the Camino.
As our trip neared, my excitement was tempered by the reality that we were about to walk the length of Spain! After all of our planning—finding the right route, the right tour company, making sure we had the right clothes and shoes to walk for six days—we ran into a few snags. First, my friend received a last-minute medical diagnosis that required her to stay home to receive treatment. Both of us were disappointed that she couldn’t walk with us. (I did keep in contact with her along the way, sending her pictures, stamping her Camino passport, so she could be with us in spirit. Thankfully she is doing better.)
Then my sisters’ departure was delayed, so they missed their connecting flight and we didn’t arrive in Portugal at the same time. The texts flew fast and furious between us as we tried to figure out how to meet in the middle of an unfamiliar country. On that first day right before lunch, I turned a corner in the little town, and there were my sisters, waiting for me! It was the first of many “grace moments” of our journey.
Our first day of walking gave us a taste of what we would experience the rest of the way—walking on Roman roads, through forests, on city sidewalks, along major motorways. We walked on flat paths through tiny villages, up hills and down the other side, through cities. Every day we marveled at the beauty of the landscape. We walked between 15 and 25 kilometers (nine to 16 miles) each day, which took between six and eight hours. We carried backpacks, water bottles, walking sticks, and other supplies we might need during the day. As we walked, it was wonderful to witness the country from the ground and not whizzing by in a car. One of my sisters downloaded our route onto her phone in case we got lost. We had a guidebook that was pretty detailed, and there were markers along the way, but in the cities, where the yellow Camino arrows were hard to find, it was easy to get turned around.
I have always understood the
purpose of the church as having
others to walk alongside you.
How lonely would our journey
of faith be if we traveled alone.
The first day also marked another experience on the Camino—sharing absolutely wonderful meals every day. Food and table fellowship have always been part of our family’s DNA. Whether we ate at our hotel in the evening, headed out into the city to eat, or discovered an out-of-the way place for lunch along the way, eating with my sisters filled me with joy. I also found joy in eating sardines—not from cans, but freshly caught, then grilled or fried. It became a running joke on the trip that if sardines were on the menu, I would order them!
By the end of the second day, blisters appeared. After that, every morning I painfully prepared my feet for the road ahead. Eventually I became thankful in the knowledge that the pain would dull to a throb as we settled into our walking pace for the day. The words on that t-shirt I purchased at the end of the Camino became my daily lived experience: “The pain is temporary.” I wouldn’t experience “the glory” part of that quote until the end of the Camino!
Sore feet, tired legs, and thirst were the inconveniences we experienced each day. Yet in the midst of those inconveniences, we experienced moments of grace—breathing deeply the wonderful smell of grapes as we walked through an arbor, feeling a cool breeze in the heat of the afternoon, meeting other pilgrims of all ages from all over the world.
And we shared stories of why we were walking the Camino. Some were walking to accomplish a life goal. Others saw it as a spiritual pilgrimage, a way to follow in the footsteps of other pilgrims and draw closer to God. To be honest, my initial intention was probably not to make the Camino a spiritual pilgrimage. But as the days unfolded and bodily pain was mixed with joyful companionship, I had space in the stillness of miles of walking to be reminded of God’s sustaining presence in my life.
The last day of our journey, which was our longest day of walking, I experienced God’s grace in an unusual way. We gained about 260 meters in elevation from our first steps of the day. About four miles from our destination of Santiago, I was exhausted, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Just when I thought I could go no further, we found a place to rest and eat. The ordinary lunch of pizza, Diet Pepsi, and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream gave me what I needed in that moment to sustain me body and soul. It wasn’t the food itself; it was that the meal came when I felt like I had nothing left. The food and a rest reminded me of all the ways that God has provided for me, not just on the Camino but during times of great stress and challenge in my own life and ministry. Now after resting and being restored, I was ready to push toward Santiago and the end of the Camino.
Even before we arrived at our destination, we could see the spires of the Santiago Cathedral towering above the city. Finally, after six days of walking, with blistered feet and aching limbs, we arrived at our journey’s end.
As we entered into the Cathedral Square I broke down. I was overcome by what we had accomplished, walking 125 kilometers in six days across Spain! I could no longer tell myself that something was too hard or too challenging. After walking that far, I felt like I was capable of anything, especially with the help and partnership of my sisters, and with God’s sustaining presence! As I looked around the square, I saw others who had finished their journey as well. Perhaps some of them had been walking 30-40 days to travel the entire route of the Camino. Or maybe they had walked for just six days as we had. No matter where we started, we had all arrived in the same, beautiful place. The pain in my feet would go away in a few weeks, but the glory of that moment, the glory of sharing the ending of this Camino journey with my sisters and others I did not know—that glory will last forever.
My sisters’ presence on this journey was a taste of the body of Christ for me. One sister served as navigator. The other taught bilingual kindergarten early in her 30-year teaching career, and she became our translator. I have always understood the purpose of the church as having others to walk alongside you. How lonely would our journey of faith be if we traveled alone. Jesus walks with us and the Holy Spirit guides our feet. As we join with the body of Christ, the communion of saints support us, encourage us, pray for us, and remind us that our faith is not solitary.
Yes, “the pain is temporary, but the glory is forever.” We walk together through joy and pain, through confusion and clarity, through weakness and strength. Jesus always walks with us, our companion for life’s journey, for the pain of this life is temporary, but the glory found in our relationships with other Christians and in our relationship with Jesus, that is forever.