On the Ancient Path of Pilgrims

May 5, 2015 | by the Office of Communications and Public Affairs

The first lesson Allie Mochizuki learned on the ancient Spanish pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago was that 20-mile hikes can take a physical toll on the unsuspecting pilgrim.

Mochizuki was one of three Elmhurst students crossing northern Spain on foot last summer as part of a three-week-long travel course called Walking the Camino de Santiago: An Intellectual and Physical Journey. The rugged, sometimes mountainous countryside of the Camino left Mochizuki and her fellow students with aching knees and blistered feet. But the journey produced profound insight as well.

“The walking was intense, but it gives you a chance to reflect on your own life,” said Mochizuki, a sophomore kinesiology major from Western Springs. “You see how the Camino can be a metaphor for all the paths you take to get where you want to go.”

The travel course grew out of a First-Year Seminar introduced by Associate Professor Beatriz Gómez-Acuña in 2014 that examines the history, art and culture of the Camino and other pilgrimages from the world’s religious traditions. The Camino originated in centuries-old Catholic penitential devotions, when Europeans pilgrims would walk hundreds of miles to pray at the shrine of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The Camino tradition declined in modern times, but in recent decades the pilgrim’s path has attracted a growing number of spiritual seekers of all stripes.

“Pilgrimage is a natural topic for college students, because the college years are in many ways all about finding a path,” Gómez-Acuña said. She decided that students who had spent much of a semester learning about the Camino in the seminars should have the opportunity to walk the path themselves. Gómez-Acuña said Elmhurst is one of only five colleges to offer a travel course based on the Camino.

Led by Professor Mick Savage, the Elmhurst students flew to Madrid in June, spent two days exploring the Spanish capital, then made a train connection to Pamplona, where they hooked up with the segment of the Camino called the French Way. On their first day as pilgrims, the group walked 20 miles before checking into a hostel for the night. Drained by the walk and by the heavy loads they carried, the students quickly concluded that they had overpacked for their expedition. They jettisoned some of their gear before pushing on the next morning, a decision that Gómez-Acuña said carried its own spiritual implications.

“One of the lessons of the Camino is that you have to think about what it is you really need,” she said. “You have to be ready to leave some physical things behind.”

Over the next 19 days, the students would log 245 miles on their way to Santiago. They learned to greet other wayfarers with the local salutation: “Buen Camino.” They visited with residents of the towns along the Camino, including a professor from the University of Burgos who invited the group into his home for dinner. And they learned that some stages of the pilgrimage that look deceptively easy on the map are in fact made punishingly difficult by the rough terrain.

The final stage of their Spanish pilgrimage was a 12-mile walk into Santiago. The group rose at dawn on that last day to complete their hike in time for the noon Mass at Santiago’s cathedral. Pilgrims traditionally embrace the church’s statue of St. James and receive their credencial, an official passport of the Camino, with stamps representing stops made along the way.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said Karina Sutker, a junior nursing and intercultural studies major from Streamwood who made the trip. “It helped clarify what’s really important to me. It’s not like you’re going to come home and become a hermit, but there is a definite spiritual aspect to the Camino. You feel like a pilgrim.”

For the Elmhurst students, as for the pilgrims who preceded them over the centuries, the walking became its own reward.

“We pushed ourselves physically and emotionally,” Mochizuki said. “And we learned so much.”

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