This May, I served as a program assistant for St. Norbert College’s Global Seminar Course, Walking the Camino: The History and Spirituality of Pilgrimage. The group walked the last 160 miles of the Camino Francès from Astorga, Spain, to Santiago de Compostela. In a series of blog posts over the next few months, I want to reflect upon the journey and the connections I made with my work in vocation back on campus.
My general approach to traveling—and, one might say, to life—is to prepare and research enough to have some knowledge of where I am going and where I am resting my head at night, yet leave plenty of room for the unexpected and unimaginable experiences ahead. I schedule the opportunities I might miss out on if not planned in advance, but keep space for what I find along the way.
Understandably, as one of the staff members responsible for a group of students walking over 160 miles across northern Spain, I leaned a bit more to the side of preparedness. I wanted to be as physically and mentally ready as I could be in order to best support the students.
In this spirit I Googled “Camino Packing Lists” and quickly found myself heading down a rabbit hole of blogs, forums, and online groups that attempted to answer all of my questions while surfacing others I never even thought to ask. How many options for socks could there possibly be? I didn’t even know toe-socks were a thing (side note: they are amazing). Should I rethink my trusty zip-off pants? I had no idea how robust a debate existed over whether to wear hiking pants, skorts or leggings. And do I really need to decide whether or not to spray my gear for bedbugs? I took my chances on that one, but the discussions on this are also vast.
One thing became clear as I read through the threads of conversations and people’s questions and answers: it is a short distance between preparedness and paralysis. Immersing ourselves too deeply in others’ opinions and experiences can leave us overwhelmed and more unsure than ever. At a certain point, I realized that I had to cut myself off from the voices out there. I needed to make my final packing decisions, trust my choices, and know that I could be flexible and adapt to what I would encounter.
In other words, I needed to follow the same vocational advice that I offer to students making decisions and preparing for their next steps in life.
On one end of the spectrum, I’ve known students who ask the advice of as many people as possible and then try to come to a decision that somehow encapsulates everything they have ever heard. On the other end are those who feel like they need to figure out life all on their own. Both are fraught with anxiety. Our conversations are grounded in the hope that they can find their way to a middle place, as I eventually did in preparing for the Camino.
A colleague of mine tells a wonderful story of a conversation she once had with a beloved mentor when trying to decide between graduate school and post-graduate service. She asked him, “How will I know what God wants me to choose?” His wise and unforgettable response was, “What makes you think God won’t go with you to either place?”
I recall this story often when supporting students in the process of making decisions. I point out that they are almost always choosing between goods. That doesn’t make the decision easy, nor does it erase the need to take ample time to reflect, discern, and seek advice. But at a certain point, they need to decide and begin living into that decision.
In some ways, the students joining me on the Camino were better off having prepared and researched a bit less than I had. They had too many pressing obligations and concerns as they wrapped up their Spring semesters to go down that rabbit hole of Camino advice and information. They made sure they put thought into the essentials such as their backpacks and shoes, and they met once a week to learn about the Camino and what they might encounter. They reflected on their hopes and expectations for the trip. But beyond that, they relied on what they already had and knew, trusted their leaders and one another, and opened themselves to the unknown. Then they jumped in.
I hope they can take that courage with them in the coming years. I hope that they will be prepared and seek advice, but in the end that they will trust themselves and take the leaps needed to live out their callings. I hope they trust that God will go with them wherever their leaps take them—160 miles along the Camino and beyond.
Note: The images here are pictures taken by the author.
For Part II of this series, see “Reflections on the Camino: Letting Go of Expectations.”
Rebecca Lahti is the Assistant Director of the Emmaus Center for Spiritual Life & Vocation at St. Norbert College in De Pere, WI. She works primarily with student programming around vocation exploration. She is especially energized by her work coordinating Navigate, a yearlong small group reading and discussion program for sophomores, juniors and seniors. Rebecca also enjoys working with faculty and staff through retreats and study groups.