At a time when more and more people are moving away from religion, this book takes you back to the essence of faith. Conrad Rudolph is not particularly religious, but decides to make the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, walking all the way, staying in gîtes and refugios. He writes about what it really means to go on a pilgrimage and how it can transform people. There is no overt religiosity here, but a sense of spirituality, of being able to step out of the fast-rushing current of modern life into the simplicity of an earlier era, with time to be alone with your thoughts.
Rudolph starts walking from Le Puys, in south-central France to Finisterre—literally, the end of the world—which is just beyond Santiago de Compostela. It takes him two and a half months of walking in rain, wind and searing heat, starting in the Massif Central in France and going over the Pyrenees, through areas where there isn’t another human being for miles around. Through all this, Rudolph maintains a strong sense of history. He situates his journey in the tradition of pilgrimage, especially during the Middle Ages, when hundreds of European pilgrims took to the road. It was the biggest adventure they could undertake: people walked for months, and sometimes years, to see relics of saints and hoping for miracle cures.
This sense of continuity, the melding of past and present, and the experience of progressing towards a destination rather than actually arriving there, are what Rudolph considers the hallmarks of a pilgrimage. It is also a retreat: over time, your mind begins to slow down—you stop making lists of things to do or think about what had happened last week, and start to be in tune with your surroundings, noticing phases of the moon and details of the landscape around you.
The author describes his pilgrimage in a series of vignettes, which gives you a greater feel for his journey than any detailed description might have done. A beggar in Santiago gives Rudolph an impromptu lecture on the sculptures in the church before going back to his spot to beg; a Spanish farmer opens a church for Rudolph and his fellow pilgrims in spite of being forbidden to do so by the priest; and people everywhere extend small kindnesses, slipping in an extra apple or inviting him in for a meal.
The author walks mostly alone, falling in with other pilgrims on the way. His descriptions of the journey are lyrical. There are moments during the journey when the past merges with the present—part of his walk takes him on an old Roman road, now overgrown. He watches an old man cutting grass in the early morning fog with a two-handed scythe, in almost mystical quiet. “What there is is enormous silence and solitude. And the result of all this…was a sense of timelessness, or very slowly moving time; the sensation of a timelessness of progress, that time and distance, the seemingly basic components of all travel, no longer played a leading role in the journey.”
I love this idea, that in the middle of our constant rushing around, brains on overdrive, you can find again this sense of timelessness, and a spirituality that is greater than any one religion, but springs from something very deep within us.