By Dr. Kyle J.S. Small

Dean of Formation for Ministry

I left on July 21 for 33 days of walking the Camino de Santiago, one day for every year of Christ’s life. I teach leadership and spiritual formation, so I organized this part of my sabbatical around expectations I have of my students: grow deeper in Christ and clearer in vocation. (It is risky to live into the discipleship we ask of our students!)

The 1100-year-old Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage across the north of Spain that has received millions of pilgrims, including St. Francis of Assisi and Theresa of Avila. It welcomes 2000 people a day during the busy months of summer, and I became one of those.

I began the walk like most American pilgrims—fast. In the first five days, I completed eight days of my plan. Yet, there is no reward for arriving in Santiago early (my departure date and ticket home were already set). Indeed, there is punishment for haste: by day five this novice pilgrim had blisters on both heels. The left heel became infected, and a visit to the doctor prompted me to slow down. Veteran pilgrims remind the novice: God is a 2-mile-an-hour God.

I was being invited in to the slowness of God, into seeing the revelation of Christ in all creation, and into letting go of my questions and embracing silence.

After a week of walking, what I noticed shifted. I had spent days looking at the horizon covered in vineyards, wheat fields, and sunflowers; it was breathtaking. One morning I shifted my gaze downward and noticed two snails hanging from a rosebush. Suddenly I saw snails everywhere, dozens below my feet slowly crossing the Camino. How many had I missed? The snail became the Camino mascot, as God revealed that life in Christ is slow, not fast.

One day I was standing in a park on the edge of a town as morning light came up over the mountains. In front of me wheat fields, vines and branches, and shepherd’s pastures collided. I thought of bread and wine and of the good shepherd. I rejoiced at the I Ams around me. As I filled my water pack at the fountain, I remembered baptism. The life of Christ unfolds sacramentally on the Camino.

Not every pilgrim is there for religious reasons. Even so, Jesus calls pilgrims to himself, and should a pilgrim desire to see him, Christ is made known. As Augustine wrote, “Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead, He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?”

Most pilgrims enter the Camino with a situation, a burning question, or a plan. I arrived in Spain consumed with questions about work, marriage, and spirituality—determined not to return home with unresolved questions. I had 33 days and 500 miles to demand that God show up and solve my problems.

I was alone most of each day. I began to forget some of my questions and grow irritated with others. I wasn’t sure what to make of it but was finally releasing the worry, anxiety, and frustration hidden beneath my questions. At one point I walked for more than an hour without a single thought (a completely new sensation for me). I felt the Lord saying, “Let those arrogant, controlling questions go.” I was reminded of Moses in Exodus: “Be not afraid; the Lord will fight for you. You need only keep silent.”

Pilgrims are commonly asked, “Why Camino for you?” The answers vary from adventure to challenge to vocational clarity. Few mention Jesus or faith. Whatever I answered early on became dust, and by day 10 I had yet to understand what the Camino was for me. I just kept walking.

By the end of the 33 days, the Camino had moved deep into my soul. I had released my control and questions and moved from merit to mercy, anxiety to gratitude, and from angry to awed. This pilgrimage remains alive in me.

Not everyone needs to walk the Camino. The lessons I learned are available if we choose to notice what is right in front of us. The Camino was an invitation to wake up and see what is most important in life: following Christ and living with him each day. We are all walking somewhere, and Christ is seeking us.

To read more about Kyle’s journey, visit his blog, pilgrimshome.blogspot.com