We had decided that on the last day we should enter the Praza de Obradoiro in Santiago and come to face the cathedral together. We designated a street where we would wait for all the peregrinos of our group to gather as they entered the city. As members of the group rounded the corner to the named location, they were greeted with hugs and hurrahs by those who arrived before them. The street filled with the sounds of congratulatory shouts, laughter and sighs of relief. Once reunited we walked together down the final stretch of the ancient street and into the plaza that faces the cathedral. It was a powerful sight to behold – not just the monstrous gothic cathedral looming over us – but all of us together, some arm in arm, taking the last steps of the Camino as one. We had arrived. Together.
We wobbled and hobbled up the steps of the cathedral to cross the threshold of the edifice that legend says contains the remains St. James the Apostle. The statue of St. James was there inside, waiting for us. Dare I say that most of us, in reality, paid the magnificent shrine to St. James little attention at all. Most did not care in that moment to observe the intricate marble sculptures, the elaborate triptychs, or even the crypt of St. James. We were focused on the fact that the end had finally come, that our weary feet would have to walk no more. We went to the offices of the cathedral to present our pilgrims’ passports and receive our Compostela, the document written in Latin and inscribed with a pilgrim’s name, that certifies one has completed the Camino. The staffers looked upon us with kindly eyes and granted each of us a compostela. The students squealed as they surveyed their precious documents.
The Camino de Santiago from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela took 5 days, and we covered a distance of 70 miles. Did I mention the rain? The hail? The wind? The cold? It was a difficult journey.
There weren’t cozy restaurants and taverns to provide respite during the arduous days. Knees, ankles and feet staged revolts against us. The albergues, public hostels, were primitive but clean, if lacking sufficient heat at night and hot water in the showers. A journey such as this – toward something spiritually significant – should contain elements of sacrifice, though. A pilgrimage is not meant to be a walk in the park. It wasn’t. But it was something better, in spite of – or because of – the hardship. Out of deprivation grow appreciation and thanks.
For me, and I think for all of us – if I dare speak on behalf of others – the Camino de Santiago was an extraordinary experience, one that will never be (can be) forgotten. In between moments of fear, strife and pain a sense of togetherness and connectedness blossomed. We held each other up, urged one another to go on, managed to laugh when laughter seemed impossible. And beneath all that rain, friendships grew. The blisters and swollen ankles will recede in our memories. What we will remember is connection, perseverance and laughter. I am incredibly proud of this resilient, spunky, funny group of students. We did this amazing thing together.