Walking with Prayer on El Camino
by Jen Worthen
Many of you may have heard of El Camino de Santiago in your life and travels. This past
October, I had the privilege of traversing this very old medieval pilgrimage that began to call me about 6 years ago. In a certain way, this article feels a bit self-involved to write, even as Ed and Sue graciously asked me to. That being said, I do write this with the intention of speaking to something within, which I pray will serve you in some way. Thank you for reading! While I do not believe this pilgrimage is ‘Joseph Campbell worthy,’ I have taken some aspects of his writing on the Hero’s Journey and attempted to apply them.
PHASE ONE: The Preparation
Lesson number one…Listen to ‘the Call’
I believe our souls often whisper messages of great significance to us when we are open to listening to them, and paying attention to the moment that ultimately informs us. I watched the film ‘The Way’ a number of years ago and as I watched, my soul whispered, “This is for you. You must do this.” As we often do, I took note of this and promptly filed it away in the large bucket list that often carries a certain weight in our psyches - a weight made of unrealized dreams or unfulfilled potentials. Do we not all carry such a list? How much weight does it accumulate, I wonder?
Callings come in so many ways, shapes and forms. After being with this one for a number of years my soul then instructed…”Now.” So I listened and responded, and began the preparation.
Lesson number two…Gathering the Prayers
As I began the logistical preparation for the journey it occurred to me that my mind had no earthly idea why I was doing this. “Uh, it looked cool and fun..”…just did not seem to resonate in my being, though both are true. I wanted to find the greater teaching and purpose behind what I was about to do. One that would create the resonance and
reverberation that I somehow knew I was seeking. I was feeling a sense of stirring in the collective field around me…my dear friends and family. In a whisper, it became clear what to do. I was to gather up prayer requests for my beloveds. However they came, this was part of the quest. I put the offering and request out to my community and the response I received was beautiful and remarkable. In the form of Facebook comments, messages, phone calls and texts, the gathering. Being mindful to respond to the sender of each request, I carefully recorded each prayer with as much tender care as I was able. It felt important to record each word offered me, so I did so by hand. Prayer by prayer. The energy seemed to build with each one I wrote. They already began to give back to me and I had not even left home yet! I found a medicine pouch that had hung on a door for years with no use. That was to be the prayer pouch, which gradually began to fill up with each slip of paper and the precious prayer written on it. Whispers continued and I continued to stay present and listen to them.
PHASE TWO: The Physical Actualization
Lesson number three…Be mindful of your Expectations
Yes, we hear this message often in spiritual teachings. Relinquishing and banishing expectation is part of the way to a more enlightened and happy existence. We see it playing out in our lives all the time; perhaps sometimes more dramatically than others. I recognize that this is a multifaceted and complex topic. And, what a teaching I received about this after I had finally landed on the ground in Portugal and began what I now see as the second phase of my pilgrimage. I did not feel the ecstatic excitement I had expected to feel. Instead, I noticed that I felt overwhelmed and stressed out. How was I going to navigate all of the comings and goings that needed to occur to make this walk a success, whatever that means? Looking back now, I see that throughout the entire experience I was gifted with many opportunities to concern myself completely with logistical questions and issues. Questions were arising constantly, from the mundane and simple to those with a bit more complexity: “Where did the yellow arrow go? Where am I going to sleep tonight? How many kilometers might I go tomorrow and where might I end up? Where can I find a place to eat? How safe am I at this moment? What does safety really mean? How does the vibrational pull of the moon work its magic and how are we truly affected? What the hell am I doing here on the Camino? What is my life’s purpose this time around, really? Where is the path of service taking me? Why did I ask for all of these prayers? Can I really do this? What is prayer anyway, and how does it work? Damn, where is that yellow arrow again??”
This aspect of the experience did not meet my expectation for deep relaxation, communion with pachamama and with my fellow pilgrims. There were definitely moments when these expectations were met, but my desire for them to be consistent was not fulfilled. In retrospect, I can see that it was truly an amazingly beautiful thing. Thankfully I was able to access a clear sense of knowing that I was receiving exactly what I needed, regardless of what appeared to be happening externally or internally. I imagine that many of you have similar stories from your lives and travels. What might they be? I spent a great deal of time wrestling with thoughts, my sense of longing and loneliness (particularly during the brief periodic moments when I had lost my way on the path)…and my sense of disappointment. Perfect, right?! Yes, in all seriousness, this was perfection. And my observer witness mind knew this as it was occurring.
Lesson number four…Walking with and as Prayer
Shortly after, the next teachings came in waves, exquisitely matching the tides of the Atlantic ocean that I was walking beside. The deep inhales and exhales of the prayers that I had gathered began to fill me and leave me empty with each step. I was deeply moved by each one. Each prayer that I pulled out of the prayer pouch that hung faithfully from the walking stick that I carried with my right hand, on my right side - the side from which we transmit energy - felt like a tremendous blessing, generously offering its own vibration and energetic imprint within my being. At the most sensitive moments, I could hear the voice of the beloved from whence the prayer came and would be moved to tears as I felt the connection with him or her. There were times when pachamama would provide messages such as a feather landing at my left foot after walking with a particular prayer, or the wind picking up, or hearing the directive, “Dip this one in the water.” And as the caretaker, the guardian and carrier of these prayers in human form, I got in contact with my responsibility to listen and follow directives. This was tremendously humbling as it became more and more apparent that none of this had anything to do with me or my persona or my story about what was happening. It was just happening! The prayers had a life force of their own and I was simply a vehicle and a messenger. Once again, they were graciously giving back to me as I communed with them. For a number of the prayers I was guided to communicate with the person who shared it by sending them a message when possible, and these communications were incredibly heart opening and touching. The more I walked, the more I opened. The more the path opened me. I would occasionally pull off the trail, take off my pack, work with tobacco or do limpias on myself and then sit for brief periods of meditation. The messages that came streaming in were almost palpable. They were so vivid and clear. I began to sink deeper in to gratitude.
The burden and heaviness of expectation began to soften and my greater purpose for this pilgrimage revealed itself. These prayers needed to be walked with at this time and I was to use this body as a to carry this purpose out. To embody each one and become a walking prayer. To BE them meant to feel them fully. To feel their companionship, yearning, comfort, solace, grief and sorrow and to ultimately release them to Creator, trusting in the highest and best outcome which is unbeknownst to me. Knowing that the collective field of love was being fed with each prayerful breath.
Lesson number five: The Body as Temple
Maybe some of you can relate to having a conflicted relationship with your body at times. That has been certainly one of the healing themes of this lifetime for me. The time spent on the Camino gave me such an amazing lesson in regards to this. There were periods of time as I continued to move forward that my whole body ached with exhaustion and the soreness was almost overwhelming. At the end of the third day of walking I was certain that I was not going to be able to complete the pilgrimage and I was going to have to go home early. I went to bed in the hostel that night feeling defeated and desperate for relief. Miraculously, I finally slept well for the first time since arriving in Europe and felt worlds better the next morning. I was ready to put the pack on again and keep going. Little by little I began to notice slight shifts. I was feeling more and more solidity and strength each day, and more and more grounded in the body as it moved towards its goal. My pack felt lighter. The hills and valleys no longer felt like a struggle; and the hills and valleys of mind became kinder as well. I no longer doubted that I would make it to Santiago, which is the ultimate destination for all of us pilgrims. I felt a sense of love and gratitude for my body that I had never felt before. It was this body that had the purpose of walking with the prayers I had gathered. It was this body that received and answered the call to serve in this way. It was this body that was the specific temple required to do the work that needed to be done.
PHASE THREE: The Return
Lesson number six: It’s not about the Destination
As an experienced Camino walker, a wise elder gentleman from Ireland said late one night while talking to me in the hostel, "The Camino doesn’t answer your questions, but it reveals to you what the questions really are.” A ha!
At last, I stepped foot upon the steps at the cathedral in Santiago to receive my pilgrim’s blessing and to retrieve my Compostella. On one level, I was not transformed at all and on another, I am forever changed. The questions had landed and I recognized that the Camino is a journey that keeps on giving. I know that the lessons and realizations are and will continue to unfold, perhaps over years. This feels good! My intention is to keep my heart open to its whispers and messages. May I never stop listening. May I support all around me to listen to the callings of their souls. To pay attention to their expectations as much as possible. To walk with and as prayer and remember their temple bodies are the ones walking. And lastly, as the cliche goes, to remember that it is always, at the end of the day, about the walk and not about the destination.