How the simple act of walking challenged me to grow mentally and spiritually.

I woke up in the middle of the night with tears already streaming down my face. Bells ringing in a convent tower — several hundred feet from the room I’d be renting for the next two months — had awoken me, and it seemed like they’d never stop chiming. I had never felt more alone, thousands of miles away from home and crying from the anxiety of culture shock, the exhaustion of jet lag and the fear that I had gotten myself into something I couldn’t handle.

This was the start of the two most monumental months of my life.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to serve in Spain with an organization called Pilgrim House. In my time there, I backpacked 120 miles of an ancient pilgrimage called the Camino de Santiago, served in a welcome center focused on meeting the needs of pilgrims finishing the Camino and grew immeasurably in my faith and character.

Saying Yes

It all started with a simple yes. I had looked into the teams APU’s Office of Service and Discipleship (OSD) was sending around the world for the 2023 summer. I didn’t expect to see anything that was for me, but then I read about the Spain Camino trip which combined backpacking with a hospitality ministry. I couldn’t shake the idea of it.

So I applied for the team, and a month later, the trip was canceled due to a lack of sign ups. I wasn’t expecting to be that disappointed — after all, I wasn’t planning on serving that summer to begin with. But there was an inexplicable draw to this specific ministry that I couldn’t get out of my head.

I never knew something like this existed, and, now that I did, I couldn’t let it pass me by.

A few months later, I was booking a flight to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I had applied to and accepted a position as a short-term intern at Pilgrim House, and now I had the opportunity to engage in the same ministry I would have with the OSD team. Except, now, I would be going solo.

Obviously, the process to this decision was riddled with a lot more doubts and complexities than I have time to get into. But the path was paved with small yeses. Yes by yes, step by step, and, before I knew it, I was on an 11-hour flight, traveling alone to a country on the other side of the world where I’d live and work for the next two months.

I was excited and terrified.

What is the Camino de Santiago?

The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage route ending at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where the remains of the apostle James are supposedly buried — hence the translation of the pilgrimage’s name to “The Way of St. James.” 

The tradition of the pilgrimage began over 1000 years ago. People would leave their homes all over Europe to make the trek to the Cathedral as an act of faith. Now, those paths have been formally established as different pilgrimage routes. The one I walked the final stretch of is called the “Camino Frances,” and, in its entirety, it stretches over 500 miles, starting in a French town near the Spanish border.

When I arrived in Spain, I had one day to take care of final logistics and receive some training from Pilgrim House staff. A day later, I was on a train to Ponferrada, Spain, where I’d begin my 9-day, 120-mile walk back to the Cathedral.

Now, I need to give some context to add clarity to my situation. First, I had never backpacked in my life, and now I was carrying a 15-pound pack everywhere I went. Second, if it helps conceptually, the distance I was about to walk is about the same as the walking distance between Los Angeles and San Diego.

My routine each day was pretty uniform. I would wake up at dawn in a hostel room filled with around 40 bunk beds, gather my stuff into my pack and start walking. On average, I would hike about 15 miles a day, stopping at towns along the way for coffee and sustenance until I reached my target town for the day around noon. Then, I would grab lunch with any pilgrim friends I had walked with that day, look for a hostel with an open bed, get ready for the next day and journal.

This may sound exhausting — and, believe me, it was. But it was also one of the sweetest and most stretching times of my life. As is often the case with formative experiences, though, the growth I experienced came from overcoming challenges and sitting in moments of discomfort.

Learning from Loneliness

When I tell people what I did this summer, their fixation is typically on the physical feat of backpacking 120 miles. Believe it or not, though, the physical aspect of the pilgrimage wasn’t the hard part. It was the mental challenge that sparked the most growth in me.

The first few days in Spain and on the Camino, loneliness was a crushing weight on my mind. For the first 48 hours after my train arrived in Ponferrada, I only spoke a handful of times because I wasn’t sure how to approach other pilgrims, and I was afraid of embarrassing myself with my basic Spanish.

After my first full day, I wrote in my journal, “It’s really, really hard being alone. That’s not what I expected to be the hardest part of this trip … but I’ve never felt so out of place or lonely before.”

I didn’t recognize it at first, but in these first few days, I actually had the privilege of being alone. There have been few other times in my life where I have been able to spend such an extended time alone with my thoughts. While walking for hours on end, I was able to process feelings and thoughts I had suppressed in the past.

This loneliness also pushed me to turn toward God for help. I would pray, asking God why I felt so alone, conversing with him in a way that felt so personal and raw. This removal of familiarity and comfort helped me to pursue God relationally in a way that recognized my dependence on God.

After my Camino, I read a book called “Reaching Out” by theologian Henri Nouwen that helped me put words to the growth I experienced. He describes a spiritual movement “from loneliness to solitude” in which one is no longer reaching out in relationships with others out of a selfish scarcity mindset but rather from an internal contentment in oneself — this was a huge breakthrough for me.

I remember in this initial period specifically asking God to send me a friend. The next day, I walked 20 miles from Villafranca del Bierzo to the mountaintop village of O Cebreiro with my new friend Joy, a pilgrim from South Korea, by my side.

For the rest of my pilgrimage, I had no trouble meeting new people from different walks of life, but I still intentionally sought out alone time to grow in solitude.

Walking “The Way” with The Way

While the Camino was initially primarily a faith-based tradition, now it draws people for a broad range of motivations. Most commonly, I met people who were searching for greater meaning in life, walking for personal growth or marking a transition in their lives.

For me, part of the draw to the Camino came from my love for stories. I loved the idea that I could apply that passion by walking alongside people in their searching and hurting and love them like Jesus would. When it comes down to it, that seems to be a large part of what Jesus did; he — literally — walked alongside people and engaged with them relationally.

I met a pilgrim from Canada who was walking the Camino for his wife who passed away. We both happened to take a break at the same spot next to a river, and he told me his life story a few minutes after I met him.

Almost every day, I would run into the same pilgrim from The Netherlands. We would walk together for hours, talking about the cultural differences between our homes and encouraging each other to keep on going. When we got especially tired, we’d set a goal for how many kilometers we’d walk before stopping for ice cream bars.

Another pilgrim I met from the Netherlands told me about his fiancé’s terminal lung cancer. We talked about experiences of loss and the hard seasons that followed it. Neither of us had an answer to the pain, but we walked alongside each other, sitting in that space together.

A pilgrim from the United States told me all about how “The Way” — a common reference to the translation of “Camino”  — had provided for her along her journey.

In John 14:6, Jesus says, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” 

I agreed with her; The Way had provided for me on my Camino. When I needed a friend, The Way sent me more than enough. When I was lonely, The Way restructured my thought process. When I was in need of growth, The Way pushed me out of my comfort zone. The Way had been walking “The Way” with me the whole time.

Pilgrim House

After finishing my Camino, I was equipped with personal experience and a passion to walk with others as they processed what they had experienced. During the month and a half after my Camino, I served at Pilgrim House, a welcome center in Santiago de Compostela that offers a ministry of hospitality for pilgrims finishing their Caminos.

I was able to continue unpacking stories with pilgrims and walk alongside them in their processes of discerning how they would take their growth home with them. This period of time continued to solidify my growth in solitude and consistently forced me to grow in discomfort.

But the growth that happened there could fill another page, so I’ll spare the details. Instead, I’ll leave you with a prayer I wrote on my phone after the first night of the Camino. It shows how God was faithful to turn my discomfort into growth, and it reminds me of my constant dependence on the Lord.

May it bring you the peace it brought me.

Here’s an excerpt: “God, I need you now more than ever to walk with me. Let your spirit dwell in me, and pick up my heavy feet step by step. God, I need you to be my Heavenly Father right now. Hold my hand, and pick me up when I stumble. I’m still learning how to walk in your way. God, my soul longs for you, but my lips don’t know how to say it. Fill the gap between my yearning and my silence. God I need a friend now more than ever. My soul confides in you and leans upon you.”