Pilgrim couple on the Camino de Santiago PIlgrim's Way to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Confessions of a dirty pilgrim

It doesn’t always pay to follow the most organised and efficient path

Perhaps it was all those years at Ampleforth College under the tutelage of Benedictine monks, but I can’t deny that when I meet a woman with a striking Biblical name, or who is named after one of the New Testament’s main female protagonists, I find it a bit of a turn on.

But enough of my peccadillos, and I must be upfront with the reader—perhaps drawn here as compensation for the sexless, touchless, mirthless times we are being forced to live through—and confess that this article wouldn’t be as salacious as the title suggests; I wish it could be.

Rather, it will parse what I have seen of the two main styles of pilgriming on the various Caminos threading through Spain and Portugal taken by people—the majority of whom, judging by conversations, appear united as some sort of collective refugee body fleeing the Covid-19 lockdowns and suffocating restrictions in most European countries, trying to squeeze some semblance of value from life—and what lessons can be extracted from this divergence to be applied to wider life.

Following nine years of doing a questionable impression of an army officer in Her Majesty’s Armed Forces, I am struck by how the vast majority of pilgrims—both nonbelievers and the religiously inspired equally refer to themselves as pilgrims on their epic journeys (Camino means “journey” in Spanish)—tackle the Camino with the type of impressive organizational skills that would get the nod from a Royal Military Academy Sandhurst instructor.

Praia do Mar de Fóra, a much vaunted beach at Finisterre on the far western Galician coast, once viewed as the end of the known world, and to where many pilgrims continue after Santiago de Compostela to finish their Caminos at the logical end point where the land travelled meets the sea

Upon arriving at a hostel following a day’s long hike, this type of pilgrim goes through a personal administrational routine worthy of an infantry solider settling into the platoon harbour area: unpacking his or her rucksack—especially if it has been raining—to sort and dry its contents; handwashing the sweat-saturated clothes worn during the hike; then showering, followed by prepping for the next day’s stage, checking the route, possibly ringing the next hostel to reserve a bed; then, finally, time is granted to relax, have some dinner, before getting to bed in the dormitory in good time, with alarm clocks set nice and early.

It is only when you throw caution to the wind that you experience life’s capacity for spontaneity

The dirty pilgrim, however, arrives in village, town or city and eschews the safe option of checking in and goes straight to the nearest—or only—bar, or upon seeing the first group of pilgrims who, having arrived much earlier and diligently completed their personal admin, are now ensconced around a table enjoying a bottle of Rioja wine, embraces their company regardless of whether an invite is offered or not. A spirited afternoon turns into an even more spirited evening, ending with the dirty pilgrim grabbing the last free spot at the hostel and crashing into bed with his unwashed and sweaty clothes piled on the floor (potentially after having been a little sick into a sink). He awakes to find the dormitory vacated by everyone else before sorting his mess of a rucksack with a red-wine-tinged hangover, ready to stumble out into the bright Spanish sunlight.

These two divergent styles mirror what happens in wider society. For the vast majority of people living in the modern developed world, everything is meticulously organized, efficient, even clinical. We rarely deviate from embracing this trend. People are increasingly anxious when they do, and understandably so given the huge pressures our modern capitalistic society exerts in the forms of exorbitant costs of living, mortgages, school fees, and child care if both parents choose to work, which many have to, having settled in cities that charge a heavy premium for the supposed privilege of being able to access their accompanying dynamism (leaving aside the fact that most people, especially if you have a family and no longer have access to the eternal energy reserves gifted in your twenties, are left with no time or energy to do so).

But it is typically only when you throw caution to the wind, like the dirty pilgrim, that you experience life’s capacity for spontaneity and all the joyful surprises that go with it.

“When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth,” the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, famous for his bestselling phenomenon The Alchemist, says in The Pilgrimage, his first major book in which he documents the experiences of his Camino pilgrimage to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela—the supposed resting place for the remains of Saint James—and which he credits with paving the way for his future success:

You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favour from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.

Coelho argues that, “since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive,” which is “why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight.”

Admittedly, any journey or adventure—especially when taken to the degree of the dirty pilgrim—takes an accumulatively exhausting toll. But living a meaningful life usually is exhausting as you deviate from the safe parameters.

“The mountain peaks seemed to say to me that they were there only as a challenge to humans—and that humans exist only to accept the honour of that challenge,” Coelho says.

That’s a nice line, I’d venture, though reviews of much of Coelho’s work consistently note its superficiality. His feel-good, spiritually uplifting style on which he has built a whole literary industry—his sales are over 300 million—is called out by many for its banality and repetition. But he appears to be on to something that resonates with the human condition, going off those reader numbers alone, and Ernest Hemingway made a similar point about embracing the challenge:

In going where you have to go, and doing what you have to do, and seeing what you have to see, you’ll dull and blunt the instrument you write with. But I would rather have it bent and dull and know I had to put it to the grindstone again and hammer it into shape and put a whetstone to it, and know that I had something to write about, than to have it bright and shining and nothing to say, or smooth and well-oiled in the closet, but unused.

One of the most common sentiments I hear articulated by pilgrims of all hues is that of gratitude

That sounds like a dirty pilgrim to me, though I’ll leave it to the reader to judge how this sentiment stands up against him turning a shotgun on himself to end his life aged 61. Perhaps the weight of telling throughout his great body of writing “the truth about human fear, guilt, betrayal, violence, cruelty, drunkenness, hunger, greed, apathy, ecstasy, tenderness, love and lust,” in the words of Susan Beegal, an academic on the life and work of Hemingway and editor emerita of The Hemingway Review, eventually proved too much. This is undoubtedly a danger faced by the dirty pilgrim, and by all those who dare to join the “only true aristocracy” that the writer D. H. Lawrence wrote about, which is “that of consciousness.”

One of the tiny number of American pilgrims I met on the Camino, who left a job with one of the most successful social media companies that about one billion of us use, told me that the pilgrimage experience had left her feeling that she had been brainwashed by the lifestyle she embraced before.

“If you live today, you breathe in nihilism, it’s the gas you breathe,” wrote American novelist Flannery O’Connor—and that was in the 1950s.

The author’s backpack, which on the Camino is said to become an extension of a pilgrim’s body.

I’ve heard a similar sentiment expressed by endless pilgrims from all manner of backgrounds and countries, each of them struck by the discord that so much of modern living causes in our souls by going against the grain of what really resonates in our hearts.

“He did not stop on the steps either, but went quickly down; his soul, overflowing with rapture, yearned for freedom, space, openness,” Fyodor Dostoevsky, one of that great group of 19th-century Russian literary canaries in the coal mine, writes in The Brothers Karamazov about the youngest sibling, Alyosha. “The vault of heaven, full of soft, shining stars, stretched vast and fathomless above him … The silence of earth seemed to melt into the silence of the heavens. The mystery of earth was one with the mystery of the stars.”

Like a good pilgrim, Alyosha suddenly throws himself down on the earth, though “he did not know why he embraced it,” Dostoevsky writes.

He could not have told why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss it all. But he kissed it weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and vowed passionately to love it, to love it for ever and ever… What was he weeping over? Oh! in his rapture he was weeping even over those stars, which were shining to him from the abyss of space, and ‘he was not ashamed of that ecstasy’. There seemed to be threads from all those innumerable worlds of God, linking his soul to them, and it was trembling all over ‘in contact with other worlds’. He longed to forgive everyone and for everything, and to beg forgiveness. Oh, not for himself, but for all men, for all and for everything.

As with Paulo Coelho and Alyosha, the most idealistic of the brothers, the criticism can be raised against Camino pilgrims that they are hyped-up on cheesy platitudes and self-indulgently leveraging their privilege—admittedly I have encountered very few pilgrims from black or minority groups though I suspect there are more nuanced reasons for this—to go gallivanting around the Iberian Peninsula. But the pilgrims I speak to don’t strike me as basking in privilege. One of the most common sentiments I hear articulated by pilgrims of all hues, both goodly and dirty, is that of gratitude—gratitude for being able to do the Camino, for the people met, for the things learned, for its balm to the pains and regrets of life that are carried by all.

“I have walked so many miles to discover things I already knew, things that all of us know but that are so hard to accept,” Coelho writes near the end of The Pilgrimage. “This pain that I feel now in my breast, that makes me sob… has been felt since human beings first existed.”

The back of my copy of The Pilgrimage is stuffed with pages advertising much of the rest of Coelho’s spirituality-industrial complex. Apparently Eleven Minutes tackles whether “sex can be sacred,” offering “an unflinching exploration of the lengths we go to in our search for love, sex and spirituality.”

What more could a dirty pilgrim ask for?

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