When I first heard of the Camino back in September of last year, I knew it was for me.
‘I never thought I could do it’
I must admit now that being part of this journey, I had few expectations, and in a sense, that is perhaps what the Camino is about, taking a break from the prescribed way of life, putting one foot in front of the other and simply, walking! This journey was for me an opportunity to take time out, to perhaps take down a book from the shelf of my life, examine it and maybe reflect a little, or indeed learn more about myself.
We, as a group of thirteen students, (accompanied by Dr. Larry Jordan, Mr. Trevor Hussey and Mr. Steven Lynch), were to walk a distance of 200kms from the town of Bolsena in Northern Italy to Rome in a period of six days. A mighty challenge indeed! From the outset, it is important for me to outline that I am not religious in any way and I suppose embarking on this spiritual journey was indeed something very different for me as an individual. What is unique about this trip was that, (and this was very noticeable from the outset), people detach themselves from their own groups to become part of this community. Very often, you can walk alone, or at other times, in the company of others. All the people who walk then are a bit like me, in a sense that we are all looking for something, all embarking on a journey of self – discovery and ultimately all welcomed and received at our own level. We all knew that we were looking for something. Maybe not as deep as something like meaning in our lives, but something! I was only to discover why I walked this ‘way’ when I returned home, and that said something too, as I realised it took some time for the reason to find its voice. For me, this pilgrimage commenced with an early morning coach ride to Dublin airport and a gentle touchdown in Rome Ciampino later that evening! My journey was only to end when I closed my front door upon my return, what was experienced in between is the true value and essence of this unique and personal journey.
When we awoke on the first day of the pilgrimage, I suppose it was interesting to find myself in a strange environment shared with so many others. It was also daunting from the perspective that our first day’s walk took us from Bolsena to Viterbo via Montefiascone, a distance of over 40kms. Having walked through the beautiful Italian countryside, in this, the first day of Holy Week, one certainly gets a sense of the enormity of our task. Life becomes very simple as you put one foot in front of the other, carrying your possessions on your back and living simply. It’s amazing, that even from the outset, I began to feel the vestiges of the material world fall away as the gentle Alpine breeze was to transport the scent of the olive grove, hazelnut and sugar beet across the landscape.
Life seemed to adopt an easier pace and for once, I began to notice the little things, how the sun cast a shadow or better still, how I became an intent listener, as opposed to a disinterested person.
We stopped for lunch in Montefiascone. It’s location at the foot of the Alps meant a steep incline and with lunch badly needed, we were glad to sit in a local trattoria and indulge in some rather tasty authentic Italian pizza! After lunch, our route took us to the top of the town and an incredible vista, dominated by a Renaissance basilica. The fortress which surrounded the basilica was so impressive and we climbed the battlements in order to gain the best view of the Italian countryside and indeed, we were to gain an insight into what route was to lay ahead for all of us. As we exited the town, we discovered a large archway, which overshadowed a small pilgrim statue and a sign, which proclaimed, ‘100kms to the tomb of Peter’.
As the afternoon walk commenced towards Viterbo, the shadow of the basilica was to be seen in the distance as we immersed ourselves in the sights and sounds of this Franciscan world. That same backdrop was indeed to follow us for several days, as the dome of the basilica at Montefiasone was to almost ‘watch over us’ in the distance as we journeyed closer to the ‘Eternal City’. Perhaps there was a meaning in that presence, but whatever it may have been, we all felt a certain familiarity and sense of recognition with the blue dome as it faded only slowly over the days ahead. My interpretation of the fading dome was to represent my own self -doubt when I began this walk and then an inner growth, a goal, and perseverance as I looked back and saw it disappear forcing me to look ahead and complete the task.
(Photo taken by Mr. Steven Lynch).
This walk has been a journey of many memories, almost like a tapestry of life unfolding before us each day. For the first time in my existence, I began to appreciate the sunrise each morning. This was because I was awake to see it, but also because, (as the week proceeded); I was becoming more at one with the world and all within it. It was interesting that the vestiges of modern technology had begun to fall away and I only noticed that by the fourth day, I had only looked at my mobile phone twice! I began to notice the world around me, indeed, I discovered myself becoming more present to the people around me and indeed listening more intently to the stories of my fellow students. This almost new breath of existence which was beginning to grow ‘within’ was in no small way attributed to this journey, the sounds within it and the lived experience with each other as walked. In essence, life had become so simple and that simplicity had almost brought a serenity within ‘self’, casting a new lens on the world, a place where my own existence was now growing and my inner realisation had been reignited to what really mattered in this life.
On this journey, there were many memories and indeed keepsakes of the heart, but one which evoked a presence and special mention for me was our approach, (on the fifth day of walking), into the town of Compagnano De Roma, a small town approximately 35kms North of the Italian capital. Having walked for over 30kms in the heat of a spring day, we were all exhausted and indeed very anxious to arrive in Rome the following day! As we entered a forest path, the landscape was enveloped into a veil of shadow, as the trees plunged the group into total darkness. As we contemplated this darkness and discussed its sudden arrival, we had not noticed how we had begun to ascend once more, and without warning were immersed into a tremendous light, a light which was to reveal a bustling town, a place of life, a place far removed from the darkness of that forest path, one of welcome and indeed energy. As I wrote my reflection on this in my journal later that night, I surmised that life, in essence, can indeed be so similar in form. How many times have we been plunged into darkness, into a place where we struggled and could not find an answer? Then without warning, the answer and solution came in the light, that gentle coaxing of the spiritual presence within our lives. This very simple story perhaps captures a very integral part of what constitutes life itself. It has certainly left an indelible mark on this pilgrim. It was interesting too that we had arrived in Compagnano de Roma on the eve of Christ’s death, (on Holy Thursday), a night where Christ himself was plunged into darkness only to be bathed in light after the resurrection. As the priest celebrated the Holy Thursday liturgy at the basilica in the town, our own journey was indeed even more special as the central theme of the ceremony involved a sharing on the journey of life. As I sat there in the church, I couldn’t help but feel an even greater presence, in this, my humble and ever evolving life.
The following morning, (Good Friday), an early start and the final walk to the ‘Eternal City’, we were to journey with a new determination, a new outlook on life. As the Via Trionfale stretched towards us and the rounding of a corner brought the vista of Rome into sight, a shudder of excitement was to be felt within the group! Yes, we had arrived, stretched out before us was the view of the Coliseum, Piazza Venezia, (and its famous monument), the basilica of St Mary Majors and more importantly, in the foreground, the ultimate embrace of St Peters Basilica and the tomb of the apostle Peter.
At 4pm, we arrived in St Peters Square, we had set off as one, as individual, but we had arrived as a group, one which I very much had developed a sense of belonging with and one I am proud to call my friends. As I clutched my grandfather’s Munster medal, (one I had worn around my neck for the entire trip), and a picture given to me by my aunt as part of my journey, I prayed for both of them and for all my family as the communion of saints peered down from a stunning colonnade on the exterior of the basilica. Here in this place, peter had been crucified and now St Peters square had become a central site of pilgrimage for all those in the world who journeyed. We had arrived in this sacred place; this was indeed a moment, which would live forever in my heart.
Yes, I had achieved the ultimate; I had persevered and embraced the ultimate goal. The Camino with all its challenges had taught me so much. In life, when the challenge is too much, never give up, when the mountain seems impassable, you should always try and climb it!
Having walked over 200kms with a very unique group of people, I have grown within, I have learned so much about myself as a person and I look at life now in a far more simplistic way, one which truly captures the real essence of the person I am, and aspire to be.
I never thought I could do all this, but I did!
Submitted by Evan Judge.
For more information about the Camino experience, please visit: https://www.followthecamino.com/educamino