By: Vania Dienzo
Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Spain to with my boyfriend Nate to hike El Camino de Santiago. We were invited by our friend, a priest from the Archdiocese of Newark, back in February to attend with a group led by another priest. When Nate told me about the invitation, I wanted to sign up immediately. Embarking on the five week long journey from France to Santiago de Compostela had been on my bucket list since seeing the movie The Way with Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez a few years ago, but five days seemed much more practical in this point in my life. I knew God was giving us this opportunity to go and so we signed up and looked forward to going on a pilgrimage together.
For those unfamiliar with the pilgrimage, El Camino de Santiago (also known as the Way of St. James) consists of many routes starting in France, Spain and Portugal and dates back to the Middles Ages when pilgrims traveled from Jerusalem and Rome. The pilgrims end in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela where St. James the Apostle’s remains are buried. Hundreds of thousands of people a year make their way from different starting points to venerate St. James. We would begin our pilgrimage from Sarria, about 70 miles east of Santiago, to fulfill the minimum 100 kilometers (roughly 62 miles) of walking on foot needed to obtain the certificate, or “Compostela.” We knew this would be an intense journey physically, emotionally and spiritually so we prepared for it as best as we could months leading up to it.
In preparation we did research online on what to expect and gear to get, which Nate is really good at doing when it comes to things like this. We walked several miles on the weekends that we could since April leading up to the pilgrimage. We also prayed the rosary on those hikes. Additionally we watched The Way again and a documentary called “Footsteps” about a group of men taking the five week Camino. In retrospect, even if I had walked and prayed more several months before, I don’t believe I would have been completely prepared for all the emotion and strength required for the pilgrimage.
I came on the pilgrimage to pray for others and pray about my vocation and my relationship with Nate. I knew this pilgrimage would allow me much time to pray in challenging way. A literal example would be on our first day, praying the rosary at the very first Camino de Santiago marker while hiking up a huge and unexpected hill; that was a very challenging prayer to start off with. Other moments of prayer were in the churches we visited, walking through the fields and farms, taking in the beautiful view at the top of hills or focusing to finish.
While walking I thought about how St. James got through much longer than this with much less than we have. He took Jesus’ Great Commission to spread the Gospel to great lengths. This encouraged me to continue as a catechist at my parish. I have to do my part in planning and taking courses to prepare my future students with their discernment to receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. If St. James traveled all the way to Spain to teach the faith, I can teach it in my home parish.
Every day was very difficult. Each day my feet and ankles were in pain, and that pain and soreness carried over into the next day. I kept repeating to myself to offer that pain and temporary suffering to God as prayer for those I promised to pray for. There were moments I was worried I would not be able to walk any further since Nate and I were far behind our group due to my slow pace. There were many frustrating moments, too. We were pushed to our limits and forced to listen to our bodies. Nevertheless, God carried us all through that and got us to our destination by the end of each day.
In addition to God and prayer, the people in our group helped me throughout this journey. The group was very patient in waiting for each other and looking after one another on the Camino. We had people share supplies and their knowledge, which God knew we would need each other for. At a certain point during our second day, a pilgrim became dehydrated. It was a scary situation but thankfully there were individuals in the medical field present. All throughout the pilgrimage, there was a beautiful showing of true concern for each other.
In our sharing group time, I got to hear others profound thoughts, perspectives and struggles. I also got hear reasons for starting the Camino. Learning about each other over hiking and eating reminded me how God is working in each one of us. Our spiritual director, Father Mino, was amazing throughout. He got to know us by making time to talk to us as we walked. He shared his wisdom and didn’t just save it for homilies. I appreciate that time he made for each of us. God brought this entire group together to share in this experience.
The fifth day on the camino was the least difficult day. It was about a seven mile hike from our hotel to Santiago de Compostela. We ran into pilgrims we met throughout the week that traveled various distances. We could see the emotion in everyone’s faces knowing that they’ve made it to Santiago as a pilgrim led and protected by God. Finally making it to the main square, Praza do Obradoiro, outside of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela was a joyous occasion. It was a long difficult journey for us and for other pilgrims, days and weeks longer. We finally made it. It believe it’s a tiny taste of what the kingdom of Heaven is like!
I didn’t cry immediately after reaching the main square like I thought I would, but I did when something some what unexpected happened shortly after. I say somewhat because I had an inkling, but wasn’t definitely expecting it. After our group threw our bags into a taxi to take to the hotel and we began to make our way into the cathedral of the Pilgrim Mass at Noon, Nate grabbed my attention. I could tell he was happy we made it.
He asked, “Are you glad we went on Camino together?” Of course I was!
Then he said, “Suffering. We suffered a lot on this journey together. Would you like to suffer with me the rest of your life?” With that, he knelt down to ask “will you marry me?” I said, “Of course I will!” and began to cry.
I was overjoyed that we just completed a difficult pilgrimage together. Suffering was a recurring theme in our walk and group reflections. I knew God placed Nate in my life to get through it all. These past two years in a relationship with him have been amazing but not without its many lessons. I’m certain God put us together to better each other and I trust God to lead us in our own camino to Heaven in our vocation, no matter what crazy terrain the journey may bring. This moment made the Pilgrim Mass all the more wonderful!
Since coming back from Spain, I often look back on how difficult it all was yet I’m so grateful for the experience. This was hands down one of the hardest things I’ve had to do in my life so far. God is so faithful! He got us all through it. He reintroduced new friends into our lives and we now share this amazing experience. He got us through the unexpected travel woes and unexpected hills. He showed us His beauty in His creation in the countryside. Through the physical and spiritual struggles and joys of the Camino, He gave us a taste of what He promises in Heaven. Our Camino didn’t end when we got to the Cathedral – we just ended one stage and began another. There are still unknowns in our lives to come, but through prayer and trust in God, we’ll complete the journey and join Him in heaven. St. James, pray for us!