On the Road Finding Faith Beyond God on the Camino de Santiago
For me, loss of faith was hollowing. Can you believe in miracles without believing in God?
I slid a needle and thread into my own skin at a hostel in Paris. Sitting on the bottom bunk, I poked a sterilized needle through my first blister, which had appeared somewhere between the Louvre and the Sacre Coeur, and liquid oozed out. Relief . I left the thread in as the blogs I’d read had instructed, allowing it to continue draining.
The Camino de Santiago, which I would start the next day, stretched five hundred miles ahead of me. Since the Middle Ages, pilgrims have traveled the eight-hundred-kilometer route across northern Spain to Santiago, where St. James’s bones are said to be buried. There are dozens of churches and cathedrals along the way. Three-quarters of the way, at the Cruz de Ferro, pilgrims lay stones at the base of a cross upon which many have recorded the things or people or burdens they wish to leave behind. And at the end of the road, the Cathedral of Saint James waits for the pilgrims who will jump, cry, hug, or collapse in the plaza below, having completed their journey for whatever reason led them to the Way of Saint James in the first place.
For many, that reason is God. Not for me. I was raised Catholic, but am no longer practicing. I’d once believed that something was out there—a guiding hand, a benevolent being that cared for each of us—even if it wasn’t the God I’d grown up hearing about. But by the time I took to the Camino, I’d been slipping toward atheism for years, prompted by a series of family crises. I was no longer able to imagine there was meaning in the pain and death of people I cared about.
photo courtesy of the author
The loss of faith was hollowing. For me, the Camino was an escape after a painful year—a journey away from trauma, not toward anything. Or so I thought.
Three months before I began my hike, a friend from my writing group had killed herself. Those of us left behind emailed and called each other, crying; shocked. One night I lay awake, thinking about life, death, the seeming impossibility of the divine, my own restlessness, my friend’s shy smile. She was one of the youngest people I’d ever known to die.
And then I remembered another: Sasha, who I’d done an AmeriCorps program with years earlier; who had thanked me for helping her write her college application essay. She would have been the first in her family to go to college. Her death was an accident, and she’d left behind a beautiful little girl. So many young lives, shattered. So many twists and bends in our life’s path, sometimes at our own hands.
Eventually, I did fall asleep, only to awaken suddenly at 3:30 a.m. Nothing seemed out of place. I drifted off again. The next morning I checked my phone and saw that I had a new email. It was from Sasha. For a moment, I panicked. How could she be emailing me? Why now, of all times?
As it turned out, the email contained nothing but a suspicious-looking link. I wanted to click it, but feared a virus, so I just stared at Sasha’s email address. The time stamp on her email read 3:30 a.m.
A few weeks later, I learned about the Camino from a friend who’d watched the movie The Way , which follows Martin Sheen’s character on the pilgrimage after his son dies attempting it. It felt exactly right for me: meaningful, relatively inexpensive, physically demanding, an ocean away from home. It would be over a month of simply putting one foot in front of the other and thinking.
Many people prepare for years for the Camino. Just two and a half months after I first heard of it, I was on my way.
A week and a half after that first blister, my feet had their worst day of the Camino. It was Day 8, and I was supposed to walk 30.1 kilometers from Logrono to Najera. My blisters were most painful near the ball of my right foot, close to the toes. I tried needles and thread again. I tried Compeed, Band-Aids, Vaseline. I carefully snipped bits of dead skin away—sometimes right there on the trail. It’s common to see Camino pilgrims sitting by the side of the road, caring for their feet, and I had no shame about doing it wherever I needed to. My shoulders were used to the weight of my pack. My breathing came easily, even up steep inclines. Every muscle was growing stronger, but my feet were falling apart.
photo of the author on the Camino
I first made contact with Kat, a fellow pilgrim, as I sat soaking my feet in a stream. We were on the meseta, the several-day stretch across flat brown nothing. The sun beat down on us, unrelenting. Water lapped around my red, swollen feet as Kat called down to me from the path, “Good idea!” We had alternated passing each other all day, another common occurrence on the Camino. Like a small-town community, you constantly run into people you recognize, and embrace those you haven’t seen in a few days as if it has been years.
Kat wore a purple bandana with all of her hair tucked up underneath. Her backpack was blue, and the yellow mouthpiece of her water bladder bobbed near her cheek. She grinned at me, looking like a person made for this type of trek—comfortable and at home on the road. I smiled back at her and told her the water felt great. She continued on her way.
We met again in Najera, outside the municipal albergue, or hostel, where pilgrims could stay for five euro. We were told there were no more beds. The woman at the front desk directed us to a gymnasium filled with mattresses across town. Kat was cheerful; I pressed a smile on over my pain. We walked by the main dining area next to the river, where other pilgrims drank wine and relaxed, secure in knowing where they would rest their heads for the night. I envied them deeply.
Kat’s cheery attitude was infectious, and soon we were chattering away like old friends. She was from Serbia and was on the Camino for a vacation; or at least, that was the reason she chose to share. Our conversation was easy—the first easy part of my trip, really. It felt like she’d arrived just in time.
By the time we arrived at the gym, having lost our way twice, it was nearly seven o’clock. The woman at the front desk led us into the large gymnasium with its blue painted walls, wooden floors, bleachers, and a heaping pile of mattresses. We chose the least stained ones from the pile, two each, and set them up near the bleachers. “Homey,” Kat said, her voice echoing.
We showered and changed, intending to head back to the waterfront for dinner. But my feet were throbbing intensely by then, and I told Kat I didn’t think I could make it. I could barely hobble out to the lobby. Kat insisted she would help me find a doctor, and when we stepped outside she looked to her right and laughed. We had ended up right next to the town hospital.
I felt surprised—and something close to blessed—as I looked up at that neon green cross. That feeling grew when the doctor patched me up and told me I was fine to continue walking if I wanted to. In the hospital lobby, the receptionist waved me away. “No charge,” she said.
You could chalk this up to human kindness; a superior healthcare system. Or to the laws of probability: After so many bad days, surely there had to be some good. As a nonbeliever myself, that’s how I view it. All the same, as I emerged from the hospital to find Kat sitting outside, smoking while she waited and ready to greet me with a big smile, I felt a surge of healing and hope I hadn’t felt in months.
I lost Kat after Najera, after deciding to take the bus to give my feet one day’s rest. She walked and perhaps decided to go on ahead farther than I did. I kept looking for her in the days that followed, but I never saw her again.
Carrion de los Condes to Calzadilla de la Cueza was approximately 17.5 kilometers, the shortest hike of my trip. It was a flat stretch through brown, open fields, with no villages or cafés to stop in on the way. There was only one lean-to more than halfway between the two towns. That morning, nearly three weeks in, started off with a drizzle but became a torrential downpour within the hour. The “waterproof” rain jacket I wore was soaked through by hour two. I pulled the strings of the hood, tightening it around my face like a bonnet. I hoped the rain cover on my pack was actually waterproof. There was no stopping to check. There was no point in stopping at all that day, because there was no cover for miles.
My feet were soaked, too. The blisters that had forced me to ride the bus, had driven me to the doctor and the pharmacist for every remedy they had, were secondary to the cold, driving rain. I felt the water squish up between my toes and cursed the salesman at REI who suggested the lighter-weight non-waterproof boots. Not for the first time on my hike, I felt vastly unprepared and inexperienced.
By the time I reached the lean-to, a few miles out from my destination, my red jacket was translucent—I could practically see the goosebumps on my arms through the fabric. A group of pilgrims huddled beneath the structure, arms wrapped across their chests, shivering. Like commuters on a train, we stood in close quarters and commiserated. A few more miles to go. Doesn’t seem to be letting up. Where are all the trees?
photo courtesy of the author
Finally I left and walked onward. I knew the town was just a few miles past the lean-to, and I picked up my pace. It didn’t register that my feet had stopped hurting as I flew past other poncho-clad pilgrims. I didn’t reflect on how far I’d come, what I’d seen, who I’d met. Who I was. I could only think of a warm shower, my sleeping bag (hopefully still dry), and a roof over my head. I walked quickly, and I walked alone.
Like many Camino towns, Calzadilla de la Cueza appeared suddenly. At the top of a hill, like magic, I spotted the bright yellow sign for the municipal albergue, a rainbow painted on the side of the otherwise plain white building. A woman I’d met earlier, Nancy, had injured her foot and took the bus ahead; now I saw her waiting just outside of the albergue, smiling as I approached. “I saw your smile from a mile away,” she said as she hugged me.
The rain had let up, I realized, now that I’d arrived—of course. I hadn’t been aware of my grin, but Nancy told me it was the biggest and brightest she’d seen yet on the Camino.
The next morning, as I prepared my feet for the day’s walk, I realized they were healed. The skin was soft and new—the old, hard flakes washed away; the burning spots calmed, softened. It felt as if I’d been given a second pair of feet; as if my body remembered it’d had a spare set in the trunk the whole time.
Can you believe in miracles without believing in God? There’s so much we don’t know, so many explanations we have yet to discover. Why did the email from Sasha arrive just when I’d been thinking of her? Why did I end up staying next to the hospital, with a friend, just when I most needed both? Why did it rain so hard, for so long, that day on the road to Calzadilla de la Cueza?
photo courtesy of the author
When we don’t have explanations, we might use words like miracle or divine , turning each significant moment into a warm hand guiding us through life and providing for all our needs. To me, God is the 98 percent of the universe we have yet to explore. So many answers are still hidden in those dark pockets that are, for now, untouched and undiscovered. A lack of religious faith doesn’t make these moments, these rare gifts, any less beautiful. Months after returning home, I would look back on my experience on the Camino and feel warm and well cared for. Even loved.
I looked at my new feet for a long moment. Then I took out the medical tape I had been using for gauze patches to cover my blisters. With my Swiss Army knife, I cut long strips and wrapped my feet, covering both from ball to heel, like mummies: This miracle was one to protect. I pulled on my boots and headed out, ready for another long walk.