Camino de Santiago

What, Exactly, is a “Real” Pilgrim Anyway?

April 4, 2014

Pilgrim. Origin: Middle English: from Provençal pelegrin, from Latin peregrinus ‘foreign’ (see peregrine).

It’s April 4, 2014 and a little over two months before I leave my home in the San Francisco Bay Area to walk 500 miles on the Way of St. James, or El Camino de Santiago, in northern Spain.

This afternoon I have been sitting on my deck in the warm California sun contemplating what it means to be a pilgrim. Does simply choosing to walk on a pilgrimage path make one a pilgrim or is there more to it than that?

This line of thinking is the direct result of reading the thread, “Do I Really Have to Suffer to be a ‘Real’ Pilgrim?” in an online Camino forum. The poster wrote, “A Camino enthusiast’s dilemma: cold showers, heavy backpacks, crowded dorms…does that really make more of a pilgrim?”

Many forum members responded with a resounding but simple, “Yes!” while others answered in the affirmative in much more detail. Some wrote, “No,” while still others poked fun at the entire thing by joking about vows of silence, etc.

Here is the response I posted:

I guess I’d like to know, ‘more of a pilgrim’ than whom or what? And according to whom? What is a ‘real’ pilgrim anyway? And again, according to whom?

I decided to turn to my favorite book, the dictionary, to help me arrive at an answer.

The first two definitions of ‘pilgrim’ in Merriam Webster’s online dictionary are as follows:

1) One who journeys in foreign lands.

2) One who travels to a shrine or a holy place as a devotee.

Certainly ‘cold showers, heavy backpacks, crowded dorms,’ will not make anyone more of a ‘real’ pilgrim by either definition. By the same token, having hot showers, a light (or no backpack), and single rooms in hotels won’t make someone less of a pilgrim either.

The next step was looking up the word ‘suffer’, which according to the Google result definition is:

1) to experience something unpleasant.

2) tolerate (dated version) 

I couldn’t resist looking up the definition of ‘tourist’ also, which turned up, ‘a person who is traveling, especially for pleasure.’

By dictionary definition then, I will be both tourist and pilgrim.

I wasn’t, however, content to drop the subject so my next step in this intellectual/spiritual/emotional journey was to research the history of pilgrimages. One interesting account said:

During the centuries when the Holy Lands were inaccessible or too dangerous to visit, European Christians developed ersatz pilgrimage practices… Other sites closer to home became favored places of pilgrimage during the centuries when the land of Jesus could not be reached… The second most visited site was Santiago de Compostela in Spain… Visiting these sites was as close as medieval Europeans dared approach a “sacred center” of their historic faith.

The author went on to write his/her opinion of what a pilgrimage is:

Yet the essential nature of pilgrimage, making a transformative journey to a sacred center, remained a powerful metaphor for the spiritual life of Christians everywhere… All are rediscovering the transforming potential of sacred travel, of leaving the familiar behind and seeking out places that have special spiritual significance, experiencing these places in quietude and contemplation, being thus refreshed, and returning renewed and transformed.

Those words resonated with me and I’ve read them again and again.

Man in orange robe walking on path to sun setting behind mountain

Since reading the forum post about suffering, I’ve spent more time contemplating why am I doing the Camino. (The “how” I came to be doing it is a much simpler question). On the surface, it has felt like “travel” or “tourism”, long-distance hiking. But every so often, I have shared with friends the longing I feel to connect with Source, Higher Power, Divine Spirit, God…call it what you will. I often envy those with solid faith.

Until now my preparation has been focused on the outward elements of my journey; gear, accommodations, logistics. Because of that “suffering” thread, my journey is becoming more inward and introspective, which is a good thing.

Man lying on dirt road near temple

Pilgrim on Kora of Labrang Monastery by Dominic Lüdin

But back to the question about what makes a “real” pilgrim and the role of suffering…

Is the person who goes on foot more of a pilgrim than the one who rides a bicycle? If so, then wouldn’t the person who makes his pilgrimage on his knees be more of a pilgrim than the walker? And the barefoot walker more of a pilgrim than the walker wearing shoes or boots? Just because one person develops blisters or knee problems, does that make her more of a pilgrim than the one who doesn’t?

Opinions on this topic run the gamut but ultimately, I am clear that it isn’t my place to decide what a “real” pilgrim is or isn’t or how much suffering one must suffer to be a “real pilgrim”.

[Originally written April 4, 2014. Originally published January 4, 2015.]

Featured Photo Credit: Sylvia Nilsen

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  • Lisa January 5, 2015 at 13:36

    For this question I can only answer with my own experience on the Camino. I learned while on the Camino that everyone has their own journey that seems to be whatever it is they need at the time. It’s possible that for the workaholic corporate tycoon, that has no idea of what life is like outside the office, he may be pilgrim enough just by leaving his fast paced money centered life for a walk with or without a backpack. As for a person who meditates and walks on coals, they may need something less comfortable, I don’t know.
    As for me, having no reservations, carrying my bag, on foot, and staying in municipal albergues did something for me that I don’t think I would have experienced otherwise. It opened me to people around me that I may not have crossed paths with in a hotel. It taught me I can survive, and quite happily so, with very little material comforts. It gave me an insight as to how strong I am and how I still matter as a person just being and not the achievements I have, with no make-up and no frilly things, just me. I also heard many “rules” and “opinions” flying around but I understand that as expressions of their rules for themselves, those don’t apply to me. It’s my Camino, and if I get out of my comfort zone and trust the Camino to provide then I have a spiritual experience that’s fit for me. And I can’t say what’s right for, or say who is, another pilgrim.

    • Sometimes She Travels January 5, 2015 at 21:07

      Lisa, thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings about this topic, which often seems to be a controversial one. You have articulated my own opinion so well, “…everyone has their own journey that seems to be whatever it is they need at the time.” I couldn’t agree more.

      • Elisabeth Benedikt-Leth January 6, 2015 at 02:35

        I have walked crawled jumped & almost flown the camino´s for nearly 30 years (not always a slowly, lovely trampling) – not once was it the same BEING a PILGRIM – You will know it long after The End over & over again! You will know if you were a tour-ist or not! EL

  • Jim Jones January 6, 2015 at 05:18

    it has been said, “If you DO the Camino it will Do you. Maybe it’s best to feel the Camino so come with your eyes, ears and most of all your HEART.” BUEN CAMINO.

  • jamesw January 7, 2015 at 03:47

    thanks for sharing

    • Sometimes She Travels January 7, 2015 at 06:05

      Thanks for reading it James. I look forward to following your upcoming journey on the Camino!

  • Ron January 7, 2015 at 08:43

    I agree with the comments that we can’t know what a pilgrimage is to someone else. I cannot sleep in the room with other people–period. I was told, “oh if you get tired enough you will.” No I got more tired and more tired and just got sick. My first Camino was 2012. Walked about 200 miles. Next year I went back to walk the remainder and that’s when I got sick. Was I not a pilgrim the first year because I stayed in pensiones instead of albergues? I don’t think so. Both of my Camino’s were profound experiences. The second one I spent 9 days in a grim hotel sick with a virus. Was that more of a pilgrimage? I agree with someone who said “you will know long after…” Yep, I’ve written a personal essay about my two pilgrimages. They are not over and done. The pilgrimages continue and they live on in me. I hope to go back in 2015 to walk the portion I’ve not walked before. Why? I don’t really know. I’m going with an open heart. The why (or multiple whys) will come….I will add only one more thing. I walked alone, mostly, by choice, but I did interact with other pilgrims, along the walk or over a meal in the evenings–sometimes sharing deeply. It was the perfect balance of solitude and an incredible sense of community. If you do or don’t suffer, it will be a pilgrimage if you are open. Buen Camino!

    • Sometimes She Travels January 11, 2015 at 08:26

      I, too, walked mostly alone, most days and enjoyed, no, cherished, the opportunity for quiet introspection. Meeting my new Camino friends in the evenings was also an integral part of walking the Camino for me. It was indeed, “the perfect balance”. Buen Camino and thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

  • Ana January 11, 2015 at 00:01

    Una cosa es ser peregrino y otra muy distinta, ser masoquista 😛

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