Pilgrimage Supplement 2019 – Pathways With Purpose
Learning to live the Camino in our everyday lives is the key lesson we need from Europe’s most famous pilgrimage, John Brierley tells Greg Daly
With the possible exception of Martin Sheen, the star of 2010’s The Way, there can be few people in the English-speaking world more closely associated with the Camino de Santiago than Dublin-born John Brierley, author of the Pilgrim’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago series.
A chartered surveyor by profession, he was happily married with two children when 30 years ago he found himself having an “existential crisis”, as he puts it.
“I hit my 39th year and absolutely nothing made sense, almost to an extent where I couldn’t continue the way I was,” he tells The Irish Catholic. “To some extent that was my dark night, I had a very specific intuition and at the end of that year I knew I had to get out. So I convinced my partner that I had to take a year off from work, a sabbatical, and I headed off with my wife and two children in a camper van to go and discover what on earth was wrong and who I was underneath the great facade I had built for myself in Dublin.”
In their travels the family encountered pilgrims making their way to the tomb of St James in Santiago de Compostela, with this being the first time John had ever heard of the Camino. He set out with his backpack on his own road to Santiago a couple of years later.
Now based mainly in Dartmouth in England, though he spends several months a year on the Camino updating his Guide, he says taking time out to ask big questions is key to the pilgrimage’s success.
“The power and efficacy of the Camino, which I discovered in my time out, is that it’s time when everybody on that route has permission to ask the big questions, because it is inherently a pilgrimage route,” he says. “It’s a spiritual route. It’s where people go to ask the big questions, so not only do you get people on the route who can be very helpful in discovering who we are, and in trying to chew on that and work it out, but the route itself carries a sort of permission to explore these things which we wouldn’t normally explore if you were meeting someone on holiday in Madeira.”
Comparing modern life to a drying machine that spins people about so fast that they’re always flung to the surface of their lives and cannot go deeper, he says that everybody who walks a long Camino, from, say St Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees, gets some experience, typically a deep experience, from the pilgrimage. Such a pilgrimage typically takes a month or so – in John’s Guide he works out a 33-day path in line with Our Lord’s 33 years on earth – which gives some time to take the lessons of the Camino on board.
“The problem with most of the workshops in life that we go to, Next Step programmes or whatever it is that we do to help us find our way forward in life, most of them are packaged in a very tight schedule,” he says. “You might take a week off or a weekend, but whatever you take off, if it’s a weeklong programme wherever it is you wind up on Sunday evening, usually at some sort of a farewell thing, and on Monday morning at 8am you’re back in your office so there’s no time to integrate any of the lessons that you’ve learnt.
“You might get really good insights but if we’re back within hours of getting the insights, we don’t integrate the insights, so nothing really changes,” he says.
For a significant number of people, adding an extra stretch to the Camino by walking to Finisterra, the medieval ‘end of the world’ a few days’ walk beyond Santiago can help in important ways to integrate the lessons of the way of St James, and John describes how doing this often means that the total time walking can come to about 40 days, a biblically significant period of time.
“We all get our own experiences, we can cycle the Camino in a week or we can do a week by week as many people do, or maybe they take two weeks and come back another year and finish it up or whatever, and all these things have their own meaning and their own power, because we all have different caminos, as we know, but those who take that block of time, I tell you, nearly always something big happens, some shift,” he says. “Where else do we have permission to take that kind of time out? Because if you’re going to start in St Jean and walk to Finisterre, you need 40 days.”
People who do the Camino will frequently talk about places that mattered to them on the route, whether it be the Hill of Forgiveness just after Pamplona, the iron cross just before Galicia, the miracle village of O Cebreiro or somewhere else, but according to John there is no consensus about which places tend to matter most deeply to pilgrims.
“I think it varies hugely widely, and also it’s not just the physical part – I don’t know, the beautiful woodland you’re walking through – it depends also on our mood and what’s happening to us,” he says. “Many people walk the route and get hooked on the Camino, but I think what we’re hooked on is not the Camino per se, we’re hooked on this idea of giving ourselves times to reflect and the simplicity. Our lives are so full and busy, but when we’ve got a backpack with a couple of items in it – how simple can life be? You get up in the morning, you walk to the next place, you meet some people along the way, you have some supper, you go to bed, and you get up and do it all over again: it’s a very simple existence and I think a lot of people like that because I think our lives are so crowded and busy and confusing.”
Some pilgrims think the central part of the French way, the flat ‘Meseta’, is boring and not worth walking, but John is of the view that the endless plains and skies of the plateau are an essential part of the route and in some ways the purest part of the experience, with a key lesson about this having been taught to him by a relative at home in Dublin.
“A very good friend of mine, a relative who lives in Dublin and is an absolutely wonderful guy, set off to walk around Ireland on his own about 10 years ago, maybe a bit longer. He said goodbye to his family and off he went – he felt he needed time to reflect on his life and where it was going and wasn’t going. He was to be away about a couple of months, but was back within days, and the reason was he suddenly realised that he wasn’t ready to open up to the quiet and the silence and the reflection.”
Describing silence as “terrifying to many people” and noting how hard it can be for people to take a couple of minutes of silence in one of his talks, John says the prospect of the silence of the Meseta can be not so much boring as terrifying. “Maybe for some or for many it’s just terror at having a blank space, a blank canvas,” he says. “If we don’t have anything directly in our lives, what might we discover?”
Silence was the order of the day during John’s own first Camino in 1980, a time when hardly anybody walked the Way.
“There was nobody there,” he says. “I was sleeping in abandoned houses, literally because I’d arrive at the end of 40km and I was tired, and there was nothing around. There were very few waymarks, though they were sufficient. There was very little in terms of facilities and accommodation, it was only just beginning to sort of wake up after a rather long slumber, but there were only a handful of people – you didn’t meet very many – and it was a very solitary experience. And that’s what I needed!”
Maintaining that the Camino invariably entails both a physical outer route and a more meaningful inner route, John says that when he began writing the Guide he never imagined that people would like the format, and have a sense that he was walking with them.
“We’re all pilgrims, even if we don’t know we are, as we travel through this life on some sort of a journey of becoming more than our human selves,” he says, intimating that the Camino can give us strong hints of what this entails, and that if we want to find a way of keeping alive whatever since of a connection with the sacred that we may find on the Camino pilgrims need to find a way of “bringing the Camino home”.
“We have to bring that feeling of deep connection home with us, because otherwise it becomes like church on a Sunday or Friday prayers in a mosque, where what good does that do if on Monday we’re shouting at our wife or our business partner?”
Maintaining that it’s the sense of connection, love, and support that people experience on the Camino that draws people back, far more so than the scenery, since beautiful scenery can often be found on our doorsteps, he says: “We go back to the Camino because we find that sense of deep humanity, that sense of caring and commitment and family and bonding. That’s what we’re looking for, that type of relationship, but we have to find a way to bring it home, back with us to our workplace, back to our friends, back to our family, because that’s what we need to do.”
The final blessing at Mass is a ‘sending forth’, a call to fulfil God’s will in our lives, and John says that spiritual lessons aren’t things to be restricted to religious ceremonies or pilgrimages but must be lived beyond them.
“If I can only find a sense of my higher self and sacredness when I’m walking the Camino, there’s something inherently missing. I have to be able to recreate that sitting here in my office talking to you,” he says, adding that when people go to Mass on the Camino it can be easy to bring that with them, but the challenge is to do this in everyday life.
“It’s much harder to live and to bring the Camino home, but that is the discipline, it has to be the discipline because otherwise the Camino loses its efficacy. It loses really what it’s designed to do,” he says, adding: “We have to find a way to live out our sense of connection with the Divine in our daily lives.”
Describing his office as his temple and his desk as his altar, John says this attitude is essential if he’s to live his life in a spiritually meaningful way.
“I know such a high percentage of my friends and colleagues who go to work on a Monday morning, who really don’t want to go but who need to go to pay a mortgage. What an awful way to live our lives, where we stumble into these workplaces in order to pay school fees or rent! People are desperate,” he says, lamenting how many lack any sense of religious life nowadays or simply have decided that life is too busy and that even an on hour on a Sunday or a Friday or whenever just can’t be afforded.
“The Camino offers this more intense connection with something that we’ve left out of our lives, and we’re missing it, we’re missing it bigtime,” he says.
The modern Camino tends to be more about the journey than the destination, which in medieval times was everything, and one hears sometimes of pilgrims reaching Santiago and feeling a sense of anti-climax.
“The albergues in Santiago can be the loneliest places,” John agrees, relating how he’d once overheard two dejected pilgrims feeling that their journeys were over.
“They had such a high, and had such a deep and meaningful journey, and they suddenly realised that they were going back to the same lives and were really concerned that they wouldn’t be able to hold that which they had found along the way back in their conventional environment. And that’s back to the central thing I was saying earlier about bringing the Camino home. A lot of people get very depressed because that high is over.”
The journey isn’t over though, John stresses. “I think most people realise at some stage in life that while Santiago and the journey to the tomb of St James got them on the journey, and brought them there, we all at some level realise that that’s not the end of the journey. It’s a rather hackneyed phrase, but it’s often in a way the beginning of the journey.”
The Camino is often likened to a journey through life, and if that is so then for others – including me – reaching Santiago can be like a foretaste of Heaven, where we’re reunited at Mass in the great Cathedral of St James with all manner of people we’d met or glimpsed along the way, all glowing with joy and looking healthier and more alive than we had done days or weeks earlier.
“But then don’t forget, if we have a foretaste of something we want the full thing,” John says. “If the taste buds have been awakened we want the full meal.
“The secret for me, and I think it’s the main teaching for me, is to wean ourselves off the idea that the only way we can get a taste of paradise is by going to St Jean Pied de Port and walking to Santiago. We have to be able to get that flavour walking around the block in Drumcondra! That has to be the lesson, I believe,” he says.