Walk it and be changed

By Marilyn Miller

“No one who walks the El Camino de Santiago is not changed.”

Rev. Keith Mariott, pastor of Minden Presbyterian Church, recently traveled 4,779 miles to Spain to prove those words to himself. Why Spain? Why a walking pilgrimage when you are physically challenged? What did you expect to learn from this demanding “retreat?”

“As a peripatetic (moving, wandering) person, I could be there (in Spain), and I’m home,” Mariott said, explaining that his parents were first stationed in the European nation in 1966, and that after coming back home to the United States, he returned there practically every other year until 1990. He even worked there at one time.

In 2010, he returned to Spain, and a passenger across the aisle from him on the plane had a book open with information on the El Camino de Santiago (the road to the way of St. James). The idea buried itself in his head, and stayed there until he experienced it for himself less than a month ago.

“It is a pilgrimage, not a hike,” Mariott said. “Pilgrimages are more about stopping than going. You stop your own life, and you step out of the familiar world so that you can look and listen, reflect and change. You strip away all that is unnecessary so you can hear the voice of God in your life.”

“Everybody walks their own Camino,” he said. And although there are several routes that can be walked, originating from various points in Europe, most routes start in Spain. But they all finish at the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain – at “the ends of the earth.”

The cathedral holds the bones of James the Greater, one of the original 12 Apostles. It is said that James took Christ’s gospel “to the ends of the earth” (the coast of northern Spain) before returning to Jerusalem, where he was put to death by decapitation (Acts 12:2). His headless body was returned to Spain by his followers.

Mariott took the original route (Camino Primitivo) which starts at Ovideo, the capitol of Christian Spain in the 9th century. This route is 205.5 miles over the Cantibrian Mountains, and is “beautifully difficult.” Only about four percent of those who walk use this route. It was the history, the primitive nature of this route, that drew him.

“No two experiences are the same along the El Camino,” Mariott explained. There are, however, common themes. “You will be challenged physically, emotionally, and spiritually.”

“I had all three challenges,” Mariott recalled. “The first day was all physical. I walked 16 miles, with an 850-foot climb upward. It was brutal!” Over the 14 to 15 days of the pilgrimage, he endured walking a total elevation of 32,306-feet (spread out over 200 miles). “After the first day, I asked myself ‘What kind of idiot are you?’ Then it got better. I got stronger and paced myself better.”

Yes, it’s hard for a totally healthy individual. But it is “brutal” for a man who lived in leg braces until his pre-teens because he was born with deformed knees and hips. “I have to give my parents credit…they let me go” to experience what every other child got to go through. They were not, in today’s terminology, helicopter parents. Today, after four knee surgeries and having no ACL, Mariott has high pain tolerance.

“Many people don’t finish the Camino,” he said. Besides the physical pain, he admitted to being “psychologically overwhelmed at times.” But at the end, the Holy Spirit entered in and Mariott felt “an unusual happiness, an incredible ‘lightness of being.’ At times, crippled up as I was, I danced down the country roads alone.” It was not unusual to go six hours without seeing another person.

But the people he met were from all ages, religions, nations, careers… One Korean man was overheard translating from a book, “I didn’t come here looking for Jesus, but He found me.” And many times, Mariott saw people who were from countries where Christ is looked down upon, walk into a church, kneel down, and pray…

There were many churches along the Camino, one which was originally built in the 10th century, the “Hermitage of San La’Zaro.” It was rebuilt in 1689 and has been continuously used since that time. When Mariott visited the small church, there were fresh flowers on the altar.

People related and offered encouragement in different ways. “On a 30K day (19 miles), I was struggling, and a young man passed me. When I didn’t show up (at the 19-mile mark), he back-tracked to make sure I was coming. It probably added three to four miles to his day. Then when we finally got to Santiago, he hugged me.”

“It was an invigorating, exhausting journey, and I’ll probably do it again next year if I can afford it,” Mariott declared. “Just think, I walked on bridges built in 50 AD. At the summit of one (large hill) there were ruins of a pilgrim’s rest stop built in the 13th century and from there you could see ‘standing stones’ from the neolithic period.”

“There are records of kings, popes…actors walking the Camino. But everybody is the same when you are walking. You are stripped of all pretense.”

Another thing he learned from his experience? It is a small world. On the second day, Mariott was having lunch and a man from Denmark joined him.

“He told me that he loved Bluegrass and was in a Bluegrass band in Denmark. He said he had a favorite band in America who often sings with Alison Krauss. They may be struggling now since they lost their patriarch recently. They are called ‘The Cox Family.’”

Mariott smiled and told him he not only knew OF the Cox family, but the Worship Leader at his church, Jason Thurman, was a relative of Willard Cox.

Yes, it’s a small world.