I left the hotel joyfully in the morning, knowing that I was walking the final ten kilometres to Santiago. On the way I met the three amigos (Frank, Jill and Brett) and we stopped at Monte de Gozo, five kilometres from Santiago, to catch a glimpse of the city below. An hour or so later we entered the old town with its narrow streets and lovely artisan shops. Although they were charming, all I really wanted to see was the cathedral spire, and when it came into view, all roads led to Santiago de Compostela. Once we arrived in the square in front of the cathedral I left my rucksack in the care of others while I headed for the swanky Parador to use their facilities and Brett went to find his hotel.
Inside the cathedral we searched for a seat, but it appeared they were all taken until some people squeezed a little closer to accommodate Frank, while Jill and I pitched our rucksacks against a stone column and got ourselves comfortable. Then we waited, and when Brett arrived he joined us on the floor. During Mass I felt completely at home. I thought of my mother, in particular, whose anniversary it was, and of a friend who was having an operation that day. I didn’t say formal prayers – I didn’t have the words and they didn’t seem necessary – I just held them in my heart and hoped that would be enough. Then I walked to receive Holy Communion, each footstep a sincere prayer of gratitude for the privilege of being there.
Outside after Mass, I looked around to see who else I knew and I met Eugene. He told me that he had decided to leave Santiago in the afternoon and take a bus to where his wife was staying in Portugal. That had not been his intention when the day started and he still had to break the news to his walking companion, Heather. While I was surprised that he wasn’t staying to celebrate, at the same time I understood his desire to be reunited with his wife. Such a journey has a profound impact on the heart.
In the evening I met my Brazilian friend Manoel who had been such a significant support to me in the first two weeks. The last time I had seen him was in Ponferrada where he was recuperating for a few days. I was delighted to learn that he had walked the last one hundred kilometres, despite the injury that had stopped him in his tracks ten days earlier.
Later I joined Mike, Jackie, Brett, Frank and Jill among others for the last supper and had a wonderful meal, followed by churros (doughnuts) with hot chocolate. But afterwards I headed away early to be alone with my loss, while my comrades seemed to be in more celebratory mood. In the last few days leading up to my arrival in Santiago I didn’t want the Camino to end. Of course I wanted to arrive in Santiago, but I didn’t want the adventure to be over. I had been on a long walk with my soul, exploring and discovering its deepest longing, and although it had been the most difficult experience of my life, it was also the most transformative, all of which meant that being in Santiago was bittersweet – the joy of arriving and the sadness of ending. For me, it was like being without my best friend.
Earlier in the day when I had picked up my Camino certificate, I noticed how little it meant. In 2011, I had received a certificate of completion for walking the last one hundred kilometres of the Camino and it had meant a lot to me. Second time around I didn’t need it; I knew I had walked the Camino. It had taken me thirty-four days and my achievement felt deeply personal. Its meaning was something only I could know, and there was no certificate for that!
Next day while I sat in a café over breakfast, I noticed a line of rucksacks resting against the counter and my heart jumped with longing to still be part of the pilgrim community. I assumed they were heading to Finisterre to meet the sea and what is known as the end of the world, and I wanted to go with them! But this part of my Camino was over. I had just one call to make before leaving; my last trip to the cathedral. Outside, a security guard prevented tourists entering during Mass. As Mass was already in progress, I knew it was pointless to pretend that that was what I had come for, so I told him the truth: I wanted to say goodbye. He indicated that that was good enough and stood back to allow me to enter. Inside, Mass was in full flow and I rested against another of the stone columns, absorbing fully what I was experiencing in my heart. I felt full of gratitude and love for the one who guided me, while I acknowledged, too, the heartbreak of the losses along the way.
At the time I didn’t know what affect the Camino would have on me or how it would change my life. Now, I see it as the threshold that divides my life: the life before and the life after.
The Camino is in me now.