by Quentin Bet
Blisters, sore legs, and a sense of spiritual rebirth are all common side effects faced by travelers of the Camino de Santiago. Sprawling across the hills and fields of Europe, the Camino is a network of paths leading to the shrine of St. James in northwest Spain. Otherwise known as the Way of St. James, it was first used as a Christian pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in the Middle Ages. For centuries, the Camino has attracted pilgrims near and far, becoming a symbol of contemplation, self-reflection, and transformation. To this day, the Way of St. James is traversed by approximately 300,000 people of various religions, cultures, and backgrounds every year.
With the Camino’s popularity increasing in recent decades, travelers have flocked to Europe in droves to experience its beauty and transformative nature. Boston College has joined the movement, offering students the opportunity to experience the Camino in a profound way––not merely as a retreat, but as an educational and immersive experience. “Self-Knowledge and Discernment: The Experience of Pilgrimage” is a three credit philosophy class, currently led by Professor David Storey, that allows a group of BC students to undertake the contemplative journey for themselves.
Applications for this semester’s pilgrimage course were due in the fall of 2018, with ten students being accepted into the program. Taught for the past several years, the course is uniquely structured into three distinct, yet interconnected, parts. The first portion consists of eight class meetings during the spring semester, which teach students about the history of pilgrimage and the philosophy of walking. Students explore the writings of figures like St. Ignatius, as well as practice spiritual exercises like Buddhist meditation. This preparation gives students context to understand the significance of the Camino, as well as to appreciate the importance of self-reflection and examination. Upcoming in May after the semester ends, the second portion of the class is a two-night weekend retreat to foster a sense of contemplation and community amongst the students. The final portion is a 17-day hike across 200 miles of the Camino, which takes place in the summer.
According to Professor Holly VandeWall, who has led the course in the past, the program was initially formed to “give students the time and space for self-knowledge and reflection.” She explained, “You have so little time in college to reflect on what your experience is doing.” Amid the stress of pursuing schoolwork and making life plans, few students can catch their breath and analyze who they are becoming, so providing the time, space, and community for pilgrimage is important and powerful.
In order to combat the stress and potential superficiality of college life, BC offers students a variety of retreat opportunities, such as Halftime and 48 Hours retreats; however, the Camino is unique in that self-reflection is manifested in a physical way: by walking. The pilgrimage is a long contemplative activity, a kind of walking meditation that exercises the mind, body, and soul. As Professor Storey puts it, “It’s a program that’s taking what BC is already doing well with reflection and retreat culture, and taking it to another level.”
The purpose of the Camino varies between individuals. While some go on the pilgrimage to leave behind a guilt, sorrow, or vice, others may undertake the journey to challenge themselves physically and mentally. Students are encouraged reflect on an intention during the trek, but this intention does not always remain constant as the journey unfolds. Sometimes what one hopes to gain from the Camino shifts as time goes on and new doors open. While the purpose of the Way of St. James is subjective, VandeWall hopes students “have the space to think not just about religion, but about themselves and their place in the world.”
Though the destination of the pilgrimage is the tomb of St. James, one does not need to be religious to experience the grandeur of the Camino. The pilgrimage draws in a massive array of people—individuals from opposite ends of the world walk side by side in a sense of community that transcends borders, languages, and faiths.
Regardless of one’s beliefs, Professor Storey hopes the pilgrimage will “give students a chance to become intentional over their own spiritual, intellectual, and emotional development.” The journey is sure to be impactful for Professor Storey and his ten students as they begin their pilgrimage next month.