What walking the path of St. James can teach about the importance of purpose
Last fall I went on a pilgrimage. I walked the Way of St James, a network of paths that all lead to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. More than 325,000 people of all faiths and walks of life go on this pilgrimage every year for spiritual growth. Its most popular routes, Camino Frances and Camino Portugues, starting in France and Portugal respectively, are listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
The word pilgrim comes from peregrinus (or peregrinari) in Latin and means “to be abroad”. Initially a journey to a far-away holy site, pilgrimages today are not just undertaken for religious purposes. In a digital, always-on world, pilgrimages are a retreat and a way to recharge. A growing number of people go on a pilgrimage for self-reflection and personal growth.
Recommended by colleagues and friends, I decided to undertake this pilgrimage out of curiosity and as a personal endurance challenge. For one week I was focused on a simple goal: to walk from dawn to dusk, rain or shine. Every step, fast or slow, brought me closer to the final destination.
Among the lessons I learned along the way is the importance of focus. Sometimes we have to take a pause to reflect on what is important and differentiate between critical and non-critical elements to achieve a goal. The number of necessities in my backpack shrank every day, down to the bare minimum. It wasn’t an exercise of sorting through my belongings a la Marie Kondo to see whether these things still sparked joy, or not. It was more of a hard look at what I really needed to carry on my daily 12 to 17 miles hike. There was a huge difference between what I thought I would need at the start of the journey to what I really needed to get there at the end. Supplies that I deemed important became superfluous, or worse, a heavy weight on my back, making it more strenuous for me to walk.
Every day I walked for hours through the beautiful landscapes of Galicia, meeting other hikers along the way. Many of them shared their longing for a break from an over-stimulated life. They yearned for a slower pace and embraced the hours of solitude in the wilderness, undisturbed by cellphones. Some hikers brought an easel and painted the scenery, or an instrument to make music. Others were less eager to detach themselves from their mobile devices and tracked every step taken as part of a fitness challenge and uploaded their progress reports in the next area with mobile phone reception. Everyone had a different reason, goal, approach and pace to walk the Way of St James, but we all arrived at the end. We don’t have to take the exact same steps or crave for the same type of experiences, but we can reach the same destination by sharing a purpose. And we can achieve it in our own style.
Walking the Way of St James was a week of quiet self-reflection outside the regular hustle and bustle, the pilgrimage’s learnings can still be applied in the daily routine of our lives. After all, life and work are a type of perpetual pilgrimage for personal and professional growth. There may be twists and turns along the way but going inward can help you focus on what is important and achieve your goal together with others in any situation and environment.