Compostela – Three friends walk the Way of the Stars (Part One)

Compostela – Three friends walk the Way of the Stars (Part One)

Chantal Lamothe, Suzie Couture and Manon Sévigny (photo Michel Dongois).

The protagonists of this adventure are three ladies, all having links to the Waldorf School Les enfants de la Terre, located in Waterville*. One fine day, Chantal Lamothe mentioned that she would like to do the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage on foot. “If you go, we’re going with you!” And so last spring the three friends spent 36 days walking the Camino Francès (The French Way), from Saint-Palais to Santiago de Compostela, each one equipped with a credencial (pilgrim’s passport): the total distance, 943.8 kilometres.

 

I recently shared a meal with them in Sherbrooke. In reality, it was a meeting of complicity, since I myself had trod the Camino in the mid 1990’s (I covered the 1600 km. via Podiensis, the Le Puy Route, in 46 days.) And the experience feels even more complete when shared with others having made the pilgrimage. We tried to capture exactly how walking the Camino can transform a person. And how it can also become “a path of knowledge which guides the Spiritual in the human being to the Spiritual in the universe.” ** 

 

Chantal Lamothe was at a crossroads in her life: her spouse had died in 2016, and she retired two years later. “I felt the need to walk my life in order to discover what would be the next step.” Indeed, she was in the habit of taking walks before making any important decision. “But would going so far away be an attempt to escape? Since I was in a period of transition, I had to set myself in motion in order for life itself to bring me an answer.”

A Book

Before loading up her backpack, she had read through Manfred Schmidt-Brabant’s volume Paths of the Christian Mysteries, from Compostela to the New World.** The author’s vision gave her wings, bringing her a sense of something infinite connected to the journey. “I often had the feeling that the heavens were guiding me, that the full experience of the history and wisdom of the Camino de Santiago would somehow become available to me. This feeling was shrouded in a great, deep mystery, something along the lines of an inner experience difficult to express.”

 

Manfred Schmidt-Brabant gives particular emphasis to the words spoken by the Chancellor of Santiago University in 1987, shortly before the European Council*** requested that its countries explore and protect the Camino everywhere on the continent. “The way to Santiago, to which individuals came from all lands, actually gave form to medieval Christianity – in other words, it created what today we call the Western World.”

 

The revival of interest for Compostela started up again primarily in the 1980’s. The individuals behind the idea of the New Europe sought for an elegant way to strengthen that concept by going back to the roots of Western civilisation. These basic principles had been undermined by Nazism and communism, both of which had dragged mankind down to a sub-human level. The “financialization” of economic interests and technology have put a stranglehold on civilisation and all sectors of our social life. A symbol had to be found which could encourage people to gaze upwards and to find hope.

 

It was thus that the thousand-year old Way of Saint James was seen as something that could truly inspire human souls.  “The Main Street of Europe” that had been traveled by all the cultures on the continent became Europe’s foremost cultural itinerary. “Definitely the most important one in the world after the Great Wall of China,” according to the Spanish promoters of the Camino, the Consejo Jacobeo.

 

Three Pillars

What are the pillars of the European, Western identity? According to one of the itinerary councillors, Eduardo Lourenço, they are Philosophy, Christianity, and the Rule of Law. Yet, modern Europe was built on economic concerns, the great market place. This was a source of bitterness for political economist Jean Monnet, one of those responsible for the European Union: “If I had known this would happen, I would have started with culture!”

 

The president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, points out that we don’t feel love for the great marketplace (in the Euro zone). Financial statements and numbers cannot compare with “the enthusiasm, the captivating folly that stirred Europe in the far and not so far past.” **** There you have it: with Compostela, it is a question of love.

 

The Camino is the soul of Europe in its threefoldness: Philosophy, Christianity, and the Rule of Law. Rudolf Steiner indicated that Compostela also housed a mystery school linked to the School of Chartres. The Camino, therefore, represents the evolutionary path of the spiritual revival of mankind through Christianity.

 

Susie Couture had dreamt of “doing Compostela” alone. “There was nothing logical there. Something stronger than me, like a call, and even a physiological need.” She had just retired when Chantal Lamothe suggested they go together. She jumped at the chance. “I was tired, I needed a pause. I was looking for a new purpose in life. I liked the idea of travelling on foot, like our nomadic ancestors did.”

 

Manon Sévigny, an organic farmer, has always been an avid walker. She says she does it “for my mental, physical and psychological health.” Treading the Camino seemed to her to be a road to self-discovery, a way to experience a certain freedom. “Now was the time to do it, before I got too old and still had enough energy. However, I had created an idealised picture of what it would be like!”

 

Since she was used to working outdoors, she thought that walking the Camino would be an easy task. “I quickly came back down to earth, my body never letting me forget it was there, from head to toe.” Tight shoes, oppressive heat, water retention due to electrolyte solutions. Her feet became swollen and she developed blisters. She covered half the distance wearing sandals, and had to choose, with heavy heart, to take the occasional shuttle bus. She, who had wanted to walk with her head in the stars, found herself looking at her feet most of the time.

 

The Milky Way

They say that it was a star that revealed the location of what was purported to be the tomb of Saint James the Greater, one of Christ’s disciples, in a field where herds refused to graze (campus stellae, field of the star, or Way of the Star, alluding to the Milky Way). It was Charlemagne who, in a dream, had seen a starry path leading to Compostela (Saint James).

 

The Camino follows the sun’s path westward, to the place where it sets, where all things die. That is the other origin of the name Compostela (compostum, the cemetery, where it is said, the apostle’s tomb was discovered and a shrine erected). Thus, the Medieval pilgrim journeyed to the place where land ended, to the edge of the known world. Beyond the vast ocean, all was still shrouded in mystery, and the pilgrim would contemplate the “death” of the sun in the Atlantic Ocean. We can imagine the effect that would have had on the medieval soul, at a time when the supernatural was a part of normal existence. A time also, let us not forget, when anyone who was 20 kilometres from home was considered a foreigner. A pilgrimage could take months or even years, and all travelling was done on foot!

 

So then, Compostela – star or decomposition? Both, actually, since in searching for our own star, we go to the very edge of what we know, we die to our old habits and attempt to be born anew. We forge ahead towards death, towards transformation, like the setting sun that seems to die only to be born again the next morning.

 

Caring

Chantal Lamothe had certain apprehensions about the plan: “By not travelling alone, was I going to miss out on what I felt I had to experience by myself?” But then she remembered how she had been surrounded by care and support following the death of her husband. “The pilgrimage was a call to open myself up to life. It would give me the gift of openness, a gift I would unwrap together with others.”

 

Each of the three pilgrims point out that the atmosphere was one of mutual attentiveness to one another’s needs, whether it was something physical or a question of choosing and reserving lodgings. This included a mutual respect for what each one was going through on a personal level; slight body ailments, worries, or simply listening to the various individual needs regarding physical and emotional wellbeing. Manon Sévigny summed it up by saying: “We felt united, and more importantly, we were aware that we were experiencing one of the most significant events of our lives.”

 

Each one retained her freedom and walked at her own pace. Chantal, who was often the first to arrive at the place they were to stay for the night, took great pains to choose the beds so as to ensure that all three would be as comfortable as possible.

 

 

The Dangers of the Road

Besides bad weather, three great dangers threatened the safety of pilgrims in former times: wolves, highway bandits, and river crossings. And today? Manon Sévigny admitted: “I was afraid of being overwhelmed by the feverish excitement of the experience, by the constant need to adapt to new places and new people. How would I cope with all that?” And indeed, the road to Compostela is crowded with travelers.

 

Susie Couture had three concerns. One of them had to do with her weakened knees and blisters. The other had to do with the unavoidable lack of privacy in the hostels. In other words, her concern for being able to balance alone time and social interaction. She said that her fears turned out to be for the most part unfounded. “Because when all is said and done, everyone is alone on the road.” And yet, being awakened in the morning by early rising pilgrims proved to be a bit unpleasant.

 

The chore of securing lodgings for three people was a real cause of stress for the “trois Québécoises” – which is what they were called on the Camino. Each of them had a cell phone, to be able to call family members if needed, but primarily to call ahead to reserve lodgings for two nights in advance. Susie Couture explained: “Being able to communicate from time to time was reassuring for each of us as well as a source of freedom.”

 

In Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, located at the foot of the Pyrenees, they learned that approximately 450 pilgrims left for Compostela every day. In the Roncesvalles hostel, which is the first stop in Spanish territory, 200 people were refused lodging that evening due to overcrowding. To be eligible to stay in the official hostels, pilgrims must be travelling either on foot, by bicycle, or on horseback.

 

“It was a shock to see so many people on the route!” exclaimed Chantal Lamothe, who had no idea she would meet foot travellers from as far away as Korea and Taiwan. “That large crowd tended to make me close myself off from the outside world.” Is Compostela a victim of its own success? Last year, the pilgrims’ office in Santiago issued more than 347,000 compostelas (pilgrim diplomas) – 20,000 more that in 2018 (in 1989, 5,324 compostelas were issued). The numbers reach their highest point during the Compostela Holy Years, when the Feast day of Saint James (July 25) falls on a Sunday. The next one will be in 2021.

 

Susie Couture, on the other hand, said: “The crowd did not bother me, because I felt I was part of a large family. I didn’t know the other travellers, but we were all on the same path and undergoing the same ordeals. There had to be something greater uniting us, something more than the physical adventure itself. As I observed the others, I wondered what their personal quests could be. Were they walking for the same reasons as I was?”

 

 

Preparation

Compostela is not exclusively European, it is included in the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. As Goethe wrote: “You must regain what you have inherited from your fathers in order for it to belong to you.” European institutions are actively establishing an inventory of the heritage left by former generations and the elements that united people of the various lands. Compostela provided a stimulus for creating 37 other cultural itineraries, the most recent (2019) being the Chemins de la Réforme, a Protestant pilgrimage route. But not all of these routes are designed to be travelled on foot.

 

And how did our three lady pilgrims prepare for their adventure? Susie Couture was clear: “I planned my route the way I planned my class lessons at school, by reading and researching. When you prepare yourself both physically and mentally, you have already begun the journey.” All three received the help of the Association Du Québec à Compostelle, an organisation which according to them does remarkable work. The association organizes weekly walks with former and future Compostela pilgrims, and also gatherings with those just returning, including individuals whose experience was disappointing. The Association helps them integrate back into post-Camino daily life.

 

On another note, Manon Sévigny remarked that: “You walk the Camino the way you lead your life.” Each individual reveals his or her true temperament on the route. It took them almost 10 days to adjust to one another, to their respective personalities and walking speeds. Chantal tends to be choleric, Susie is more sanguine, and Manon is somewhat of a melancholic.

 

Chantal was always the first to get going, taking a quick breakfast and walking with a determined stride. “I am now aware that my habit of focussing on the day’s task did not always give me time to take advantage of the present moment.” They rarely walked as a group, but would meet up at the hostel to have their evening meal together.

 

Suzie Couture, on the other hand, wanted to experience everything, even if it meant taking a long detour, like, for example, stopping at a public market to savour some octopus, or waiting a full hour until a little church she wanted to visit opened its doors. As for Manon Sévigny, she feels, looking back, that their adventure might have been a bit too organised. “Were the various legs of the journey too long? I would rather have just gone along with where the route happened to take us on any given day.”

 

Some rituals were unavoidable during the journey, namely the occasional regenerative stopovers. But other rituals were chosen freely. Chantal Lamothe encouraged her two friends to share their experiences of the day with one another. When they found some quiet time together, in the dormitory or in a restaurant, each one described what she had found most difficult that day, and what she had enjoyed the most.

 

And then one day, they had the most important encounter of the Camino. In the village of Terradillos de los Templarios, located at the edge of the great Mesata plateau, they met Maria, a massage therapist.

 

To be continued.

 

*Suzie Couture, 59 years old, class teacher for 17 years. Retired June 2018. Chantal Lamothe, 61 years old, class teacher for 18 years. Retired June 2018. Manon Sévigny, former member of the school’s Board of Directors. Retired 2010.

**Manfred Schmidt-Brabant & Virginia Sease, Paths of the Christian Mysteries, from Compostela to the New World. Temple Lodge.

***Made up of 47 member countries. Canada and the United States enjoy observer status.

****Based on the work of historian Fernand Braudel.

Michel Dongois