Sr. Mary Carol McClenon, seated on right, rests with fellow pilgrims at a small inn along the Camino de Santiago.
Camino de Santiago is a network of routes that pilgrims take when they journey to the shrine of the Apostle Saint James the Great (one of the 12 apostles of Jesus) in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. The remains of the saint are said to be buried in the cathedral. Many follow the routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. The pilgrimage is also popular with hiking and bicycling enthusiasts and organized tour groups. Camino de Santiago is also called the “Pilgrimage of Compostela” or “The Way of Saint James.” Sr. Mary Carol McClenon walked the camino on a pilgrimage last fall.
Why did you walk the Camino de Santiago? What prompted you to take the pilgrimage?
Ever since I saw the movie The Way some years back, I have always daydreamed about walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. And I always knew it was just a daydream. Too long, too many logistics, etc. When I was re-appointed as Local Leader of the Good Shepherd Services community last January, Sr. Madeleine asked me to take a 6-week mini-sabbatical. So I planned one, running from the end of February to the middle of April, mostly road trips.
Almost as soon as I finalized my plans, we made the decision to close the Baltimore program. It was a terrible time to take a long break. So, I changed my plans, took two weeks, and jumped back into the closing process. As summer approached, I was reminded that I still was supposed to take the rest of the mini-sabbatical time. At that point, I was feeling emotionally drained and had no interest in doing any of the things that I had previously planned. Nothing held any attraction for me. But I had to make a plan, so I surfed the internet. I googled “Catholic pilgrimages.” I found that the company 206 Tours offers a safe and manageable way to get some of the Camino pilgrimage experience. I was intrigued immediately. .
What did you hope to gain from the experience?
I don’t know. The main thing was that I felt excitement and anticipation, at a time when those emotions were hard to come by. That’s how I knew it was a good idea. That, plus immediate and strong encouragement from several Sisters and Sr. Madeleine’s support and interest.
Who did you go with on the pilgrimage?
Rather than doing the whole 500-mile pilgrimage route, 206 Tours allowed me to take a 12-day trip. The shorter trip included walking the last 115 kilometers of the ancient pilgrimage route to Santiago, the Cathedral-shrine dedicated to St. James the Apostle.
The company arranged for hotel accommodations and meals, with a bus transferring our luggage and providing checkpoints along the way several times each day. Every pilgrimage has a priest-pilgrim in the group, so daily Mass was part of the itinerary. I didn’t know anybody until I got there. That didn’t concern me because I felt I would be safe in a group. As it happened, we were 13 pilgrims, plus our tour guide and bus driver. The whole group gelled very well and we developed a strong family spirit.
When did you walk the Camino de Santiago?
I left Baltimore on September 2, 2017, and flew into Madrid, where our group assembled. The next morning, we got on the bus and spent most of that day driving west. We stopped briefly for a short hike up to the Iron Cross, the highest elevation on the Camino. It felt like it was straight up! I was the slowest in the group, although I almost caught up to the 86-year-old man at the summit.
We then continued for some more hours on the bus until we reached Sarria. There we received our Pilgrim Passports and began the real work of the pilgrimage on September 4. We averaged about 15 miles of walking per day. We had one day of rest in the middle. We arrived in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, northwest Spain, on September 10. We attended the Pilgrims’ Mass the following day and I flew home on September 12.
How did you prepare for the walk?
I read all their tips carefully and bought good hiking shoes, wool socks and nylon sock liners. I broke them in for about a month before the trip. I built up my hiking distance to 10 and 11 miles. I also got a few blisters which healed into nice calluses before the trip. This all helped me. Everybody gets blisters on the Camino, but I didn’t get many and they weren’t very bad.
How did the experience impact you?
The only word I can use to describe my Camino experience is “Amazing.” I had several important take-aways. One was the realization of how competitive I am, and the need to lay that aside because I could not walk any faster than I did. I was often the last in our group. We were constantly reminded, “Walk at your own pace.” Slow and steady had to be good enough for me!
My most lasting lesson from the pilgrimage is the reverberation of the motto to “live in the present moment.” If I thought about how far I still had to walk and how many more hours it was going to take me, I got discouraged and overwhelmed. But if I remembered to take one step at a time and to notice, at each moment, that the scenery was beautiful and that I was enjoying the solitude of walking without a companion and that the weather was provided by God and that I was fulfilling a dream of being on the Camino, and that most of the time my feet weren’t very sore, then I was content in spite of my struggles with the steep climbs and descents.
How did walking the Camino de Santiago prepare you for the work you have been facing with the move to Pennsylvania?
The “one moment at a time” has been a very helpful and grounding attitude during our community’s transition from Baltimore to Danville. Breaking everything up into small goals and reminding myself to think that it’s “complicated” rather than “chaotic” has been a huge gift.