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'A common walk together': Students on Camino de Santiago pilgrimage encounter faith, grace (and blisters) on ancient track

Touching down at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield after 12 days in Spain spent walking 100 kilometers of the ancient pilgrim route, the Camino de Santiago, Nate Alvey was so energized he pondered hoofing another few miles home to Creighton University.

“What’s another couple miles when you’ve gone so many?” the senior biology major from Portland, Oregon, thought to himself. “But then I stopped and remembered what I’d been thinking about on the Camino — the difference between the knowledge that I can do something and the wisdom of knowing when to do it.”

Alvey caught a ride, but he’s still finding himself drawn back to that long walk he took with 15 of his fellow Creighton students and two faculty members as part of a course in Spanish history and literature, a course that, in its second year at Creighton, is gathering a distinct following of students who are looking not just for academic enrichment, but for spiritual food.

“Learning the history and the culture, it had that academic component,” said Mary Kate Wolken, a junior history and Spanish major from Leavenworth, Kansas. “But I think we went over there knowing it was going to be so much more than anything we could get in a classroom. And it was.”

The course, taught by professors Scott Eastman, PhD, in the Department of History, and Ryan Spangler, PhD, in the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, gives students grounding in the history and significance of the Camino and the more than a millennia’s worth of pilgrims who have traversed its course through northern Spain.

Preparations for the big hike included everything from getting in a few extras laps at the gym, breaking in boots and gear and trying to be mindful of the spiritual import of the Camino. Once cutting their path on the consecrated track, the Creighton pilgrims came to a fuller appreciation of the Camino’s significance.

“It’s originally a route for sinners to do penance,” junior exercise science major Anne Meyer of St. Paul, Minnesota, said. “And there were moments when we could see why. Here I was with all this hiking gear and I’m still struggling. My feet are still raw. A thousand years ago, they had nothing but their feet, maybe simple shoes, to go almost 800 kilometers.”

“Good motivation,” Woken added. “Do your feet hurt? No, you have shoes.”

Eastman, leading the trip for the second year, said this year’s cohort approached the Camino much the way they approached themselves upon first meeting in January.

“This is such an amazing group,” he said. “They came together almost immediately and they sustained that energy through the Camino and beyond. Nobody complained. They knew what they were getting into, and they went into the pilgrimage knowing that they were going to have the highs and lows and recognized it as all part of the experience.”

Students also fell back on the wisdom of other sets of pilgrims. Even met with rough weather and the strains and stresses of a path that could vary from climbing precipitously uphill to narrowing to fit between two closely growing trees, the pilgrims took it, quite literally, in stride.

“To quote from the Odyssey, we were blessed ‘with a spirit tempered to endure,’” he said. “Nobody complained when it rained — and there was a day when it was just sheets of rain upon rain, a true downpour. But we didn’t have anyone who said, ‘No, I’m not going today.’ We talked about embracing the tension, the trouble. And we did that.”

That spirit prevailed from well before the Camino trip began, way back in January at the first meeting of Eastman’s and Spangler’s class in the new semester.

“From the first day, we created a bond that carried through,” said Etienne Brock, a senior history major from Omaha. “When we got back to school after the trip, we hadn’t seen each other in a few days and we were all so excited to get back together and relive a lot of the trip. It’s been like being back there again. The dynamic carried through.”

Sharing stories and reliving moments on their daily travels became a central facet of the trip. Having studied Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in the run up to the Camino, Creighton’s pilgrims made the conscious effort to add their voices to a long tradition of travelers who swap accounts of life on and off the road.

“There was a lot of laughter,” Wolken said. “We also started every day with a poem, usually one that Dr. Spangler had written. The idea of community, of being in communication with one another through the stories, permeated everything we did.”

And they felt they could be interpreters.

“What we were doing, we were bearing witness to those who have gone before,” Alvey said. “With each step, it felt like we were walking and talking to all those pilgrims who had gone before us, saying, ‘Your journey matters. I’m following here with the same principles, the same intentions.’ That was a powerful thing to realize as we walked.”

Like many things on the journey, being compelled forward was as much a spiritual and mental matter as it was a physical one. As the group entered the storied city of Pamplona on their third day of walking, some exuberant pilgrims broke into a trot.

“That was when we learned that when you stopped, you felt everything, every last bit of those miles you’d just come,” said Leo Heinz, a sophomore English and history major from St. Louis. “We learned early on that it was best to just keep going. You put your head down, you talked to people, you thought about what you were doing and why.”

“It was a common walk together,” Meyer added. “A walk in which we encountered one another, we encountered people from all over the world, and a walk where we’re all pushing each other and thinking about where we’ve come in the last hour or two and what we’re joining that has taken place over centuries.”

Looking ahead, each of the 16 students who participated in the Camino pilgrimage is now working on a project to illuminate their experience. There are creative and academic projects being worked on, documentary films in the editing room, probing papers looking at the pilgrimage from all angles.

But more than anything, the Creighton pilgrims agreed, there’s a general sense among themselves that they encountered something greater than themselves out on that wending Spanish path, something to which they will return frequently — if not physically walking the actual Camino again, at least taking the path it cut in their hearts.

“It was a rare opportunity to encounter history” Brock said. “We met something face to face and made a personal connection, both with the pilgrimage and with one another. In doing that, I think it was an illuminating method of writing our own history.”

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