Reflections on the Camino: The Gift of Space

Pilgrim statue at Alto San Roque

Three months after our journey, I am especially grateful for one of the many gifts of the Camino: space. Our twelve days of walking the Camino had no shortage of it. Our experience of both external and internal space found its way into many of our evening reflections and no doubt has had some lasting effects.

The external spaces of Camino life were marked by contrast. The often-tight living quarters of the albergues were starkly different from the wide, open mountain vistas that grew evermore beautiful with each step. The crowded trails we encountered as we neared Santiago hardly compared to the beginning days of the trek when one might walk for an hour without encountering another person. Both sides of the contrast held lessons to share and food for reflection.

Internally, we each had a lot of space for thinking and reflecting. We began each morning with a commitment to an hour of silence. Many of the students reflected on how important this time was for them. It allowed them an opportunity to think about life and big questions in a way that is difficult in the rush of the academic year. It was a gift that they hoped to bring back to their post-Camino lives and one that we can all help our students cultivate through our work in vocation.

In the Spring semester course leading up to our travel, we read a selection from Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust. In it, she references a description of pilgrimage as liminal: “a state of being between one’s past and future identities and thus outside the established order, in a state of possibility.” We used this as a way to anticipate our journey and to open ourselves to what this time and space might teach us.

Outside of Astorga

On the one hand, liminal space isn’t a perfect description of our experience on the Camino. The characteristic uncertainty of this in-between space was held in check by the fact that we knew where we would be sleeping each night. The trail was well-marked. We knew when our journey would be coming to an end and we would be flying back home. On the other hand, we still experienced the uncertainty of whom and what we would encounter on the path each day. And none of us knew exactly what this Camino would stir within us or what seeds might be planted only to reveal themselves at a later time.

One of my favorite metaphors for liminal space comes from Joyce Rupp’s Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self:

Being in liminal space is like swinging on a trapeze. Once the handle is released there is nothing to hold onto until the handle on the other side is caught. We are no more sure of what lies beyond the threshold than the trapeze artist flying into the open in-between space knows for sure she will catch the other handle.

Joyce Rupp, Open the Door: A Journey to the True Self

Like the trapeze artist, we certainly had to accept the mystery of our pilgrimage and fill our hearts with trust. We signed up for this adventure and let go of the trapeze bar without truly knowing what we would find on the other side.

I wonder, then, how this experience might prepare us for those unchosen times in life that are truly in-between and liminal: waiting for the results of an interview or a test or an application, suddenly losing a job, facing a serious illness, enduring the end of a relationship. Perhaps the experience of having placed ourselves into uncertain and unknown space on the Camino will better equip us for these unexpected times.

Near the end of our travels, we reflected on mantras and images that encapsulated what we had learned and wanted to remember.  I chose the phrase, “Keep walking.” It was something that had been rolling around inside me throughout the pilgrimage and was the one thing that I knew I needed to do each day. Just keep walking.

As the academic year begins I look forward to connecting with my travel companions again and finding out what wisdom they have brought back from the Camino. How will the pilgrimage become part of their stories? For me, I know that there will be times of uncertainty ahead. This is part of any life. Anticipating this, I keep the little wooden pilgrim that I bought in Santiago next to me on my desk. I hope that when uncertainty rises and I need a little encouragement, she’ll whisper, “Keep walking.”    

{For the first and second installments of Rebecca Lahti’s reflections on walking the Camino, see part I, “Preparation and Decision-making” and part II, “Letting Go of Expectations.” The images here are pictures taken by the author}.

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.  

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