I’d never felt exhaustion like this before. We’d been walking for almost 11 hours; that was longer than the amount of sleep we’d had in the past two nights combined. We were running out of water and it was the hottest part of the day. Every single muscle in my leg was screaming with pain and I literally didn’t think I could push myself anymore.
“No, Hannah, I can’t let you stop now,” my friend said. “It’ll only make it that much harder to keep going.”
She was right. We had no choice. We knew that putting one blistered foot in front of the other was the only way to get us to Villafranca – our destination for the day.
The Holy Hike
If you’ve seen the movie The Way, then you know about the Camino de Santiago. If not, go watch it on Netflix. Immediately. It is what first inspired me to make this pilgrimage across northern Spain to visit the remains of one of Jesus’ BFFs: St. James. When I heard FOCUS takes a group of students every summer, I jumped at the opportunity to lead the trip. How lucky am I that I get to do this as part of my job?!
It’s funny how God works, though. I thought I was signing up for this cool adventure where I got to talk about Jesus and go for a long walk with a fun group of people and God was all like, “That’s just a perk. I’m gonna change your heart.”
We walked about 200 miles of the 500-mile pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela starting in Leon, Spain. Every day, we woke up at 5am to begin our walk before the sun was even up. Some days we walked about 20 miles; other days we only walked 10. Our path was guided by little yellow arrows found on the concrete, a street sign, or a rock on the side of the road. Most of the time we only needed to know the name of the town and hostel in which we were staying that night. Following those little arrows allowed us to simply BE on the Camino and enjoy the pilgrimage: to dive into conversation with each other and God instead of a map—to trust that those flechas amarillas would not lead us astray.
The 200 miles that I walked of “The Way of St. James” was without a doubt the best two weeks of my life. That’s not just because of the memories made with my awesome mission group (that by the end became more like family), but also because of the way Jesus used it to show me my path to Sainthood. He used the Camino to show me where I was broken and what finally needed to be surrendered. He used it to stretch me more than I ever thought possible: physically, mentally and emotionally. And all of it – every cramping muscle, every conversation, and every painful step was an opportunity to show Jesus how much I love Him.
That awful day I mentioned earlier was, oddly enough, one of my favorite days on the Camino. Was it one of the most painful? Absolutely. But I shared so much joy with the two students I walked with that day. We told stories. We cried. We prayed. We patched up each other’s blisters. We laughed – a LOT. We kept each other going.
Arriving to Villafranca that day felt like a slice of heaven, but the journey and the experiences that came with it – those are the moments that get us to heaven. That’s what the Camino (and any pilgrimage) is: a symbol of our journey to heaven.
Every Day is a Pilgrimage
Jesus tells us boldly, “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life” (Jn. 14:6). The Way of St. James developed into the pilgrimage it is today because one man knew of the love and sacrifice made for our salvation. St. James knew he had a call to make known this True, Life-giving Way – even if that meant walking to the ends of the Earth.
The Way doesn’t just exist in Spain. The Way is Jesus Himself. This journey begins in our walk with Him every day. How do we listen to Him? How do we make His love known to others? Our own call is to respond to His love for us and bring others to the Truth. He teaches us how to do this every day if we simply listen.
In the days of spiritual dehydration, Jesus reminds us of the thirst He has for our soul during His crucifixion. In the moments of heartbreak, Jesus takes our own scars and adds it to His open wounds so that we may be healed. These moments could be empty and painful, or they can be filled with joy as we recognize the purpose for the path to which He leads us.
Every day – every moment – is just another little yellow arrow that guides us closer to His heart if we allow it. We should be able to look at our lives today and ask ourselves if we are one step closer to Heaven than we were yesterday. Blessed Mother Teresa walked The Way in Calcutta. St. James walked The Way in Spain. I (attempt to) walk this Way in Evanston, IL. Wherever we are is where Jesus invites us to walk this lifelong pilgrimage with Him.
The Camino was only a small part of my bigger, lifelong pilgrimage to Heaven. That walk to Villafranca brought me one day closer to Santiago, but it did more than that. It brought me one step closer to my ultimate goal of Heaven.
Want to experience the Camino de Santiago for yourself? Check out this mission and over 70 other mission trips at FOCUS Missions.