It may come to pass that at a certain point in one’s life, one is faced with the realisation that they are no longer content with merely existing. This is what happened to me, anyway, and is how I ended up journeying over 1000 kilometres, from Lourdes, France, across the Pyrenees Mountains, all the way through northern Spain, to the “ends of the earth” in the summer of 2019 on the Camino Frances. Before I continue, I thought it might be worthwhile to give some backstory of how I came to walk this ancient Way that so many other feet had trod before me.
I was raised Catholic, and by grace, I felt a desire to give my life to God from a young age. This desire only grew as time passed, and halfway through college, I decided to leave everything behind and enter a convent.
However, after eight years of living a religious life, I found myself extremely unhappy and dissatisfied. I would wake up each morning dreading the day and it was not long before I no longer recognised the person staring back at me in the mirror.
I knew this was no way to live, so I made the difficult but necessary decision to leave the convent. If I thought entering the convent was hard, the choice to leave was a hundred times more difficult. All these plans for how I thought my life would go came crumbling down before me. Everything seemed so uncertain, scary, and chaotic.
I chose to walk away from the safety net that being a nun was giving me. As time passed, I realised I could not settle for something just because it was safe, nor could I live in such a way where my heart was not fully satisfied. Life is too short and beautiful to settle for anything less than what makes your heart soar. So, despite all the fears and seemingly endless doubts, I followed my heart and left religious life behind.
Once I was out of the convent, I had no idea what to do next. I had entered religious life at such a young age, that I had not had the chance to experience “adulting” in the real world, and did not quite know where to begin. I felt pretty lost and there were times I questioned if I had acted impulsively and made the wrong decision.
One evening after lamenting with a friend over the predicament of having no direction in life, he suggested that I write out a list for myself of things I was able to do that I would never have been able to do as a nun. For some reason completely outside of myself, I jotted down “walk the Camino de Santiago” on the top of that list. The next day, my brother randomly gave me a scallop shell, unbeknownst to him that this was a symbol for pilgrims who walk the Camino. I took it as a sign, and three weeks later, I was on a flight to Spain so I could begin my journey to Santiago de Compostela.
To spontaneously decide to do something like walk the Camino was completely outside of myself. I am typically a planner and list-maker, making sure every last detail has been worked out before I go off and execute anything. Little did I know that the Camino would be full of lessons for me to learn; lessons in how to truly live in the moment, to not worry so much, to know that nothing is ever truly in my control, and to trust that I would be completely taken care of.
On the outset, the Camino is not really anything remarkable. Each day is not much different from the one before. There is one task ahead of you: to walk. And goodness, do you do a lot of walking! But there’s something so refreshing about disconnecting from the busyness of life and immersing yourself in something so simple and primitive as walking.
I came to know that the treasures of the Camino lay deep-down within myself and in the hidden graces that walking a pilgrimage offers. Whether it was from being surrounded by so much natural beauty (beauty that does not exist in the concrete jungles of New York City, where I am from), or from encounters with other pilgrims and hearing their stories, or in the many “Camino miracles” that took place, such as the time I was ready to give up from sheer exhaustion and another pilgrim at that exact moment came walking along and carried my pack for me; or in the silence and hours of being alone conversing with God and sifting through the past decade of my life.
I began to realise these many worldly expectations I had set for myself of where I was supposed to be at that point in my life, and the fears I had of being a failure for not being there were not really necessary at all. In fact, these were expectations others and I had placed on myself, but, in the grand scheme of things do not really matter at all.
I learned that I could live abundantly with everything I needed in my pack, and without any of what I had accumulated, both interiorly and exteriorly, over the last 20 something years of my life. I began to let go of all the things that were weighing me down, and the closer to Santiago I got, the lighter my heart got.
One of the most beautiful gifts the Camino gave me was the friendships that were cultivated with other pilgrims. I met people from all over the world, each with their own stories and reasons as to how they ended up on the way. I was humbled by how vulnerable we became with each other, sharing in each other’s joys and sorrows. Some people I only met briefly in passing never seeing them again, others I ran into sporadically, our lives sort of weaving in and out of each other’s, and then a few people became like family, my Camino family; who to this day remain etched on my heart and will remain there forever. Three members of this Camino family particularly stand out in my mind.
We met right outside these ruins from an ancient monastery about a month after I began my pilgrimage. I had stopped for a slice of watermelon that was offered to me by this kind vendor who had a little standoff the side of the road. We were chatting when he suddenly stopped talking and excitedly exclaimed, “Look!” I turned around and saw two Franciscan friars (I recognised their habits) and a deacon walking together. Something in my heart sensed a familiarity, and before I knew it, I found myself running after them, yelling “Friars! Friars!” to get their attention. In hindsight, I must have seemed like a crazy woman, but in that moment, I didn’t care. Introductions were made and we chatted as we walked the last couple of miles to our destination for the evening. The next morning, we ended up beginning our walk together, and I knew I had just met the people I would remain walking with the rest of the way.
We became like a little community, beginning our days early so we could see the sunrise as we walked. We prayed, walked, shared meals, cried (a lot on my end!) and had many laughs together. I dubbed us “the two friars, a deacon, and ex-nun-on-the-run.” Other pilgrims caught on and called us this, too. It was not long before our little band of four expanded and others joined us. The closer we got to Santiago, the bigger our Camino family grew.
Even though I began the journey as a solo traveller and spent many days when I was the only one walking for miles, I was never really alone. Some of my favourite Camino memories are from albergue living and the shared communal meals we had in the evenings: pilgrims from all over the world, happily jabbering away in our mother tongues with each other (which somehow we were still able to understand each other—lots of hand motions and head-nodding involved), eating delicious food, and drinking so much wine.
These suppers served as mini-reunions, where we delighted in each other’s presence, grateful that we had found rest for the night. There was always joy and sharing among the pilgrims, and the locals were so good to us-generous, helpful, and welcoming.
Never before had I experienced this sort of community, where there was no sense of competition and strangers truly wanted the best for the other, constantly looking out and caring for the other; where pilgrims rooted each other on, suffered together, and celebrated together; where the human condition is so present and at the same time, so lovingly accepted.
The days along the way flew quickly, and before I knew it, I was approaching Santiago de Compostela. I will never forget the moment when we began to see the city in the distance, the Cathedral of Santiago’s spires hazy in the distance. There was much jubilation upon arriving at the Cathedral, pilgrims cheering as we approached the square, celebrating, embracing, and congratulating us upon arrival. It was almost unbelievable that we had actually arrived and finally, as I knelt before the tomb of Saint James, I poured out my thanks for the great blessing of having been able to walk the Camino.
My Camino did not end at Santiago, though. I said good-bye to my Camino family and continued walking solo to Finesterra and Muxia. As I stood on the rocky shores of Muxia, where legend says the Virgin Mary met St. James, my heart was completely overwhelmed and overflowing with gratitude. I knew that the Camino would be a memorable journey, but I never imagined it to be so life-changing for me. Never in my life had I felt so free and fearless. Even greater than any anxiety and sadness that came with leaving the convent, then choosing to go out of my comfort zone by walking the Camino, was a great peace. I followed that peace and it led me to walk many, many miles.
I still do not have life figured out, but I am entirely okay with that. If there is one thing I am certain of, it is that life is a gift, one that is meant to be lived. The Camino taught me that we were made for so much more than merely existing.
The Camino never leaves you. It has remained with me and not a day goes by when I do not miss it. Sometimes as I am going about my now back-to-busy life, I close my eyes and can still picture climbing up the Pyrenees Mountains, the wildflower-covered hills and vineyards, the flat golden fields along the Meseta, and the beautiful vistas at O Cebreiro, all the while catching glimpses of the faces of pilgrims I met along the way.
The broken-hearted woman I was who began that journey returned home a completely different person—a woman whole, healed, and free.
Follow Marilis’s adventures on Instagram.
If you plan to walk the Camino de Santiago, check out my book, A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino de Santiago. I share everything you need to know before you begin your Camino. Read at A Wild Woman’s Guide To The Camino De Santiago or click the link below.