In September last year I accompanied a group of 20 pilgrims on the 686 km pilgrim route taken by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1522 from his home in Spain’s Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia. We walked virtually the same route that Ignatius did, passed through many of the towns that he did, prayed at churches where he prayed, and marveled at the same natural wonders that he saw.
This morning I would like to tell you what a great success it was… but instead I will tell you about my failure on the Camino and how that became an experience of conversion for me.
Our days were quite structured. Each morning before we began walking we gathered outside the particular hotel at which we happened to be staying at 8.00am and I gave the pilgrims points from the Spiritual Exercises to pray on during the day. Then we walked the first two hours in silent prayer. In the evenings we had Mass and shared our experiences of the day over dinner.
Walking the Camino somehow gets your head straight. Kierkegaard notes:
Above all, do not lose your desire to walk; every day I walk myself into a state of well-being… I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it… If one just keeps on walking, everything will be all right.
Well, I tried to keep on walking, but sadly, everything was not all right. The first eight days of the Camino, while physically very demanding, went well. Then on the ninth day we had a rest day in the city of Logroño. After the rest day we embarked upon a long, and as it turned out, disastrous stage of the Camino from Logroño to Alcanadre. As we walked through the city streets of Logrono I began to feel the sharp pain of shin splints in my lower right leg. I thought I could walk through the pain, but I couldn’t. As the day wore on the pain started in my left leg too. It was excruciating to walk. After 12 kilometers we arrived at a small town. I wanted to take a bus or a taxi or a train to our lodgings in Calahorra, but none was available. I had no option but to keep on walking. After 19 kilometers we arrived at another small town. Still there were no taxis. So I again had to keep on walking. I walked the whole 30 kilometers in pain. We left Logrono at 8.20am and it was 6.10pm when we arrived. We were on the road for almost 10 hours. It was a very long and painful day only made possible with liberal smearing of Voltaren cream on my legs, popping 600mg Ibuprofen and Panadol tablets and very supportive fellow pilgrims.
I woke up the next morning feeling very sore. It was difficult to even stand up after getting out of bed. I could only hobble. I had set myself to walk the entire Ignatian Camino but I knew I that I could do myself some serious and long-term physical damage if I continued to walk. So I took a rest day in the hotel with ice packs on my right shin to bring down the swelling. When the others left on the walk I had a deep sense of loneliness. I also felt a failure. I could not walk the whole distance and others could. The group carried on without me. I felt frustrated at not reaching my goal and ashamed of my weakness. It took six days of rest, a visit to a hospital, and some physiotherapy before I was able to walk again.
The morning that I recommenced the Camino with the other pilgrims I was filled with deep apprehension. Would I make it through the day? Or would my body break down again? As we began our walk I found myself saying to Jesus, “I need you to be my companion today.” At that stage on the pilgrimage we were contemplating Jesus in his Passion. In this period of the retreat Ignatius suggests that we ask God for the following grace:
 In the Passion it is proper to ask for sorrow with Christ in sorrow, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and deep grief because of the great affliction Christ endures for me.
The last two words “for me” are critical. Ignatius uses these words carefully and deliberately because he wants me to know that the awful events that are unfolding are an act of love “for me”.
As we walked for the first two hours in silence I was filled with a deep sense of Jesus accompanying me and loving me. As I walked with Jesus I had the deep felt-sense that he was walking on his way to Calvary for me, that he was suffering for me. I felt consoled and supported. I had never before had the heart-felt knowledge that Jesus died for me, but I received it that morning. That was my conversion experience.
When I look back on that day I realize that if I hadn’t had the shin splints, if I hadn’t failed in my goal of walking the whole Ignatian Camino, if I hadn’t felt ashamed of my failure, if I wasn’t filled with apprehension, then I wouldn’t have needed Jesus to be my companion and I probably wouldn’t have received the grace of heart-felt knowing that he died for me.
My Camino was not about success or failure. It was about acknowledging my utter dependence upon God. Pain and failure opened me up to God. I met my limits and there I encountered Jesus.
I would love nothing more than to be back on the Camino, to pull on a pair of boots and hike across Spain in search of God and self, but I cannot. I have responsibilities here. A story helps me to come to terms with this:
In the 10th century there lived a man who gave his whole life to pilgrimage. He walked thousands of kilometers until finally, in his old age, his legs told him “Enough!” and he retired to a monastery hidden in the mountains to get a well deserved rest.
The old man, though he never sought such, earned the reputation of being one of the wisest men, if not the wisest man in the known world. As a result, many young pilgrims from far and wide began to come to him in search of counsel.
One day a young Pilgrim arrived at that monastery. Despite his youth, he had completed the majority of the known pilgrimages. He approached the elder and asked him, “Master, what must I do to be a true Pilgrim?” The weathered man looked him in the eye and felt compassion for him. “Son, if you truly want to be an authentic Pilgrim, return home to your family, your neighbours, your friends and enemies and listen to them, serve them, forgive them and love them. In that way you will become a true Pilgrim.”
They say that the young man dropped his gaze, turned and left that place without saying a word, deeply saddened because while he would have been perfectly able to hike thousands of kilometers more with a heavy load on his shoulders, he was incapable of carrying out the task that the wise old man had entrusted him.
Our primary task is to listen to, serve and forgive our families, our neighbours, our friends and our enemies. In serving, forgiving and loving them we will become a true pilgrims.
I would like to finish with a prayer from Thomas Merton:
My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that my desire to please you, does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude, 1956, p.81.