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Sacred Camino de Santiago: Spain's spiritual journey

In her early thirties, Rachael Sanborn found herself trapped in a difficult relationship, yearning for escape to Spain's Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Inspired by her father's life-changing journey, Sanborn, known for her rebellious and adventurous spirit (she once left college to meditate in India), made a bold decision. She quit her job, forfeited health insurance, and pooled her savings to embark on a two-month trek along the Camino. By the third day, she vowed to return annually. Just nine months later, Sanborn was back, leading her first group of eight pilgrims. Now 45 and based in the Bay Area, she guides grief walks and walking meditations through her travel company, Red Monkey Walking Travel—its name a tribute to Hanuman, the Hindu deity symbolizing joyful service.

Raised with influences from Tibetan Buddhism, Christianity, and Judaism, Sanborn embraces elements from all three faiths. She believes the Camino offers something transformative for everyone, regardless of religious background. "We've had everyone from devout Catholics to atheist Chinese nationals," Sanborn reflects. "For a millennium, the Camino has welcomed people of all beliefs. Some of my earliest Camino friends hailed from Iran, stopping at every locked church to read Rumi's poetry."

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Sanborn represents a growing trend of non-Catholic and non-Christian pilgrims flocking to the Camino. In 2023 alone, nearly half a million people trekked its paths, with about 40% citing purely religious reasons, according to pilgrim office data. Yet, today's pilgrims embark for diverse motivations beyond religious devotion: health, grief recovery, life transitions, cultural exploration, history, and adventure.

Sharon Hewitt from St. John's, Newfoundland, walked part of the Camino in 2016 with friends, seeking purposeful leisure rather than religious fulfillment. "I didn't walk for religious reasons, but there's overlap," Hewitt explains. "Like religion, the Camino demands discipline. After tough nights, you still rise and carry on."

This blend of secular and religious intent resonates deeply with people like Nancy Mead, president of The Friends of the Anglican Centre in Santiago de Compostela. An Episcopalian from Rhode Island, Mead finds spiritual enrichment on her seven Camino journeys, learning universal life lessons amid religious contemplation. She notes the increasing presence of "spiritual but not religious" pilgrims, reflecting a broader trend toward secular spirituality.

Jacqui Frost, researching health and wellbeing among the nonreligious at Purdue University, observes a secular reinterpretation of traditional religious practices. "We've secularized many former religious rituals," Frost remarks, citing meditation, yoga, and atheist gatherings as examples. She sees a growing interest in collective rituals and finding meaning beyond oneself, often experienced in natural settings.

However, this secular shift raises questions about appropriation of religious practices. Liz Bucar, an expert on religious ethics, acknowledges the trend but cautions against dismissing religion entirely from pilgrimage experiences. "Spirituality is cherry-picking aspects of religion one likes," Bucar contends. "Religion offers the 'secret sauce' for pilgrimage's deeper meaning."

Bucar believes pilgrimage, including the Camino, has become a curated spiritual journey, sometimes reduced to a temporary escape. Her insights challenge the idea of pilgrimage as a quick fix for spiritual connection or transformation. She suggests a deeper engagement with pilgrimage's historical and religious contexts, urging pilgrims to confront uncomfortable truths.

For Sanborn, Christianity remains intrinsic to the Camino's essence, even as it evolves beyond Catholicism. She acknowledges the Camino's complex history, encompassing both profound spiritual moments and darker episodes. "It's vital to respect the Camino's Christian roots, its traditions, art, and architecture," Sanborn reflects. "Yet, we must confront its shadows, remembering its past injustices."

Sanborn rejects any notion that non-Catholic pilgrims—sometimes labeled as tourist-pilgrims—cannot grasp the Camino's essence. "Everyone on the Camino finds more than they sought," she asserts. "It's a place of magic, beyond simple understanding—a reminder of life's mysteries."

In essence, the Camino de Santiago embodies a profound journey, where personal quests intertwine with centuries-old religious traditions, offering pilgrims of all backgrounds an opportunity for introspection, growth, and unexpected discovery.

July 11, 2024 4:08 p.m. 643

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