Crossing Paths on the Camino de Santiago
When planning a vacation or time off from work, a grueling 500-mile trek on foot through Spain is probably not at the top of most people’s list of dream excursions. Yet that is exactly what two members of the George Fox Evangelical Seminary community found themselves doing just under a year ago – walking the Camino de Santiago.
The Camino de Santiago is an ancient pilgrimage that has been walked by Christians for hundreds of years. Although there are multiple starting points and routes that pilgrims have taken over the years, the ultimate destination is always the city of Santiago de Compostela, where it is believed the remains of St. James are buried.
“I knew that was going to be my sabbatical,” says Leah Stolte-Doerfler of her 36-day journey walking the Camino. An MDiv graduate of GFES in 2004 and current pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Silverton, Ore., Stolte-Doerfler knows the importance of setting time apart to be with God.
“My life [as a pastor] is so scheduled and goal-oriented,” she says. “What appealed to me about the Camino was that I was leaving all that behind. It was my goal to just go and to be and to listen.”
There is no shortage of books and films about the Camino, and Stolte-Doerfler took full advantage of this by reading everything she could get her hands on before embarking on her pilgrimage.
“I wanted to taste it,” she says of reading others’ experiences. One of the books she read was Walk in a Relaxed Manner by Joyce Rupp, which relates the author’s experience walking the Camino.
GFES Professor of Christian Ministries Laura Simmons also read Rupp’s book, which was her first exposure to the Camino pilgrimage.
“I remember when I finished reading it thinking, ‘Oh, I’m so glad I don’t have to do that!’” she says of Rupp’s book. Yet it wasn’t long before Simmons was preparing to walk the Camino herself. After watching the Camino-inspired film The Way, Simmons says she was “a goner.”
Simmons spent approximately two years preparing for her journey – physically, mentally and spiritually. She put together a training plan that started in February 2014, hoping to work through it until her departure in August the same year. Although her plans were somewhat altered due to unexpected injuries – one just three weeks before she left for Europe – Simmons remained determined to embark on the pilgrimage, which would be the first six weeks of a three-month sabbatical trip.
On Aug. 29, 2014, Simmons set out from St. Jean Pied de Port in the southwest corner of France on her 500-mile journey. Just two days later, Stolte-Doerfler, who spent two and a half years preparing for her own Camino, set out from the same city, which is viewed as the traditional starting point for the “Camino Francés,” or French route.
Neither woman was concerned about her safety on the Camino, although, according to Simmons, others were.
“I think the question I got more than any other question before I went was, ‘Are you going by yourself?’” she recollects. “I don’t know if it’s a naiveté on my part, but I assumed the Camino would keep me safe.”
Stolte-Doerfler, who was a student of Simmons’ during her master’s program at GFES, remembers asking her former professor before walking the Camino whether she had any fears about the pilgrimage. Simmons pointed out to her that the route has been walked and prayed over for hundreds of years by pilgrims, including St. Francis almost exactly 800 years before.
“What better place to travel?” Stolte-Doerfler remembers Simmons remarking.
Although the two women walked separately during the majority of their journeys, their paths did cross for a short time near the city of Logroño.
“There was one day where I thought, ‘I’m going to see Leah today,’” Simmons says. Two days later a woman came up behind her and said, “Buenos dias, señora.” It was her former student and friend.
“It was so much fun to see her,” says Stolte-Doerfler. “I have so much respect for her. She’s a brilliant woman; a gracious and kind person . . . It was so special to have that connection.”
Although the women parted after just a few hours of catching up, that night they stayed at the same albergue – the Spanish name for a pilgrim hostel – and made dinner together as well as attending a pilgrim mass together.
Simmons says the albergues on the Camino usually feature rooms with bunked beds where 20 to 22 people sleep each night. The size of the albergue and the number of pilgrims who stay there varies from place to place, and a range of different organizations run the hostels – from community groups to churches to pilgrim organizations.
Despite the fact that Simmons and Stolte-Doerfler both walked the same route, they experienced the Camino in different ways. While both women have many stories of the people they met during their respective pilgrimages, an important aspect of the Camino for Stolte-Doerfler was having solitary time with God.
“I knew I was creating a space, I just didn’t realize how specially and how specifically God was going to step into that space,” she relates.
A self-proclaimed extrovert, Stolte-Doerfler was surprised how refreshing she found the solitude of the Camino to be.
“I adored the space I had,” she says. “That space felt like breath, it felt like air, it felt like energy . . . I’m longing for that space apart again.”
Simmons’ journey was also instrumental in revealing new truths to her. One of these lessons came in the form of a small miracle.
According to the Meyers-Briggs personality test, Simmons is a “sensate-thinker” – a fact that sets her apart in the general seminary community.
“Most seminary students and faculty are intuitive-feelers,” she states. “I am a sensate-thinker – I gather information with my senses, and I process it by thinking about it. It’s very hard being one of the only people in my community who is wired that way.”
Throughout the Camino, Simmons remembers thinking about how differently her friends would experience the same journey. Looking back through her Camino journal, Simmons has noticed that she experienced joy through her senses – the things she smelled, heard and tasted.
One morning, Simmons strapped her sandals to the outside of her backpack – the only day she did so. After spending some time journaling at a site called the Cruz de Ferro that day, she came across a discarded sandal that looked like one of hers. As a sensate-thinker, Simmons immediately tuned into the details – the type and brand of the shoe, and the fact that it wasn’t broken. If she had not observed these details and realized it was her own sandal rather than simply passing it by, she would have had to endure the rest of the Camino with only her heavy hiking boots to wear. After it fell from her backpack, a fellow pilgrim must have found it and passed her while she was journaling, placing it farther down the road for her to pick up. For Simmons, this was a powerful witness of God’s work.
“It was a little bit like God saying, ‘Let me tell you how OK it is that you’re wired the way you are,’” she recounts. This experience was just one of many ways God was revealed during her pilgrimage.
“This whole journey was a way for God to get through to me,” she says.
Stolte-Doerfler also says she found God in the small things throughout her Camino journey. Sometimes it was as simple as feeling a breeze on a hot day, or receiving encouragement from townspeople along the way. She has enjoyed being able to share those stories of God’s faithfulness since returning home.
“It was a major thing for me,” she says of her journey. “There are times that I’m just going through life and it hits me upside the head: I did that! I walked the Camino.”
Stolte-Doerfler believes anyone who is called to walk the Camino is capable of doing it, as long as they do not rush themselves and they listen to their bodies. Both she and Simmons are emphatic that individuals should feel a call to walk the Camino before simply jumping on the bandwagon to go.
“It has become very trendy because of these movies,” says Simmons of films like The Way. “If you’re called to walk the Camino, you will know it.”