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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

Walk as far as you can each day for many days, up and down mountains, past high country farms, through rain and sun, past ancient churches and modern towns. Can you explain to yourself why you’re doing this? Or does it matter? You are doing it. You must, somewhere in your mind or heart, know why, whether you can find the words for it or not.

It’s Friday night, and after dinner at a restaurant in Charlottetown, we take our places and watch what’s playing at City Cinema. We’ve done it most Friday nights for years. Sometimes we know what to expect, sometimes not. Tonight it is a documentary called Walking the Camino, and in the lobby I chat with Derek Martin about the fact that this is the second movie he’s shown about the famous pilgrim journey to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The first, he tells me, The Way—which we saw when it was released in 2010—was a great hit with his audience, a sell-out. It appears the new one will be the same. It played in July and will return in September.

Both movies deal with the pilgrimage from the south of France to the shrine of Saint James, Santiago de Compostela, hundreds of kilometres away. Men and women have been making the pilgrimage for more than a thousand years. Originally it was an entirely religious journey, one of a group of pilgrimages recognized as acts of piety by the Roman Catholic church.

In recent years, the pilgrimage has become celebrated. In 1985, according to Wikipedia, 690 men and women were recorded as having made the journey. In 2010, the number was 272,203.

My sense of what it’s all about comes from the two movies, one a down-to-earth fiction, the other a documentary. The films, more or less inevitably, share a number of characteristics. The story is shaped by the map, by the needs of pedestrian travel. Some of the pilgrims are not Roman Catholics, perhaps not even Christians. Asked at the end why they have made the journey, their answers are often vague and maybe not even true. We observe characters who accept the struggle of the weeks or months of walking, and yet remain uncertain of their motives, or at least unable to express them clearly. In The Way, the character played by Martin Sheen takes up the pilgrimage after his estranged son begins the walk and dies in a sudden storm. One of the characters interviewed in Walking the Camino mourns his wife, travelling with the friend who conducted her funeral. Grief may be one of the motives, or maybe some other kind of personal distress.

Other pilgrims appear to be in pursuit of meaning or an undefined wisdom—enduring an experience of humility and discomfort, to achieve a new kind of discipline. Or confronting strangeness, mystery. The Camino offers an indirect approach to religion, an approach mediated by struggle, and demanding only as much faith as is needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Sleeping beside strangers with whom you share only a map may offer a possible revelation.

A friend recently back from a church synod mentioned to me the disastrous falling off of membership in the United Church of Canada. The Church of Rome is closing buildings, has trouble finding priests. And yet hundreds of thousands of men and women want to take the path through difficult mountain terrain to reach the tomb of an apostle. Crowds go to see movies about the pilgrimage. Odd how travel on foot, day after day over a long distance, a protracted sojourn in a landscape of mountainous beauty, should offer such metaphorical resonance.

And serious people, though they may never make the pilgrimage, are attracted to its stories, attend the movies about the Camino, apparently feel some link with the striving souls who are there each day, walking faithfully toward the end.

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