Compostela was designated a sacred site by the Roman Catholic Church, and the route became the “first great thoroughfare of Christian Europe.” In 950, the Bishop of Le Puy in France led the first known pilgrim group, and his route, called the French way, is still the most traveled. Beginning in St. Jean Pied-du-Port in the French Pyrenees, it follows the Milky Way across the mountains and continues 500 miles through fields, woods, villages, and towns to the cathedral. This became known as The Camino de Santiago de Compostela (still a synonym in Spain for Milky Way), or simply, The Camino or The Way, signifying the road itself and the spiritual journey of seeking one’s own way to enlightenment or redemption.
Hollee had wanted to make this pilgrimage for more than 15 years, since first learning of it, and the time was right. “I had reached the end of a long and intense season in my life, and I wanted to mark that,” she said. She’d married her high school sweetheart while still studying at Covenant College, and six children arrived in the nine years that followed. She hadn’t planned on a big family, but she was given “these immortal souls,” and she was “all in,” making a home, homeschooling the children, “being COO of Brock Enterprises,” she says affectionately. Now they were grown, she had the resources, and she was ready.
From ancient times, people have been asking (after what’s for dinner and where can I sleep tonight), some version of these two questions: why am I here, and where will I go when I die? One way to find answers was to embark on a journey to an unknown or foreign place, to leave worldly concerns behind for a time and focus on one’s life purpose and connection to the Divine. Both an external and internal journey, this one requires a willingness to trust whatever happens, to go wherever one is led, physically and spiritually. The hope is to expand one’s understanding of life, to experience personal transformation, or to expiate sins and cleanse souls. It is also a way to demonstrate one's devotion to God.
Many modern-day pilgrims share these same hopes. Each has individual reasons for undertaking such a journey, some now for more secular reasons, including athletes and cyclists testing themselves or travelers wanting to experience new places and new cultures. But for everyone, it’s potentially a form of self-discovery: of who we are, of our courage, endurance, beliefs, and faith; an exploration of our soul’s yearnings and our connection to All that Is; an opportunity to experience a new dimension of existence; and ultimately, a life-affirming spiritual renewal.
Hollee’s motivation was three-fold, beginning with a certainty that she “really wanted to do it.” It would be an act of worship, an expression of her dedication to an ever-faithful God, of giving thanks for all she has been given. She also wanted to share this gift (the means to make the pilgrimage) with others and was led to establish a fund in support of a local organization that assists refugees resettling in Chattanooga, called Neigh’tions. Its name signifies that we are all neighbors, whatever our nation. Having met the people there, her journey was enriched by knowing that any monies it generated would go, in entirety, to benefit people who’d been cast, without their consent, on the ultimate journey to a foreign land.
From the first day, the physical aspects became real. “It was one of the most challenging days,” said Hollee, noting 16 miles up a 4,000-foot ascent and a 1,700 foot descent down a very steep grade. The seed that had been “planted in her heart” had blossomed into strenuous, repetitive physical exertion. It’s “boots on the ground, one foot in front of the other, over and over, day after day,” she said. But walking is an essential part of a pilgrimage. Noticing fields lying fallow, being renewed before growing new crops, she realized that “walking The Camino, the mind becomes fallow, rests and settles down.” The connection with the earth, the extended time, the suspension of the ordinary allows something new to grow.
At the outset, Hollee set an intention she called “Holy Imagination,” defined as “imagination God is in charge of.” To her, “life can’t be boiled down to what we know about it - it’s much more mysterious and dynamic. There’s something richer and more magnificent going on in our universe than what can be held in our brains … Imagination works with facts but isn’t limited by them … and doesn’t deny the value of something because it can’t be logically explained.” She asked God “to grow her imagination … and to take her beyond what she knows.”As a result, she regularly observed an “interplay of what actually happened and what could have happened.” It wasn’t always easy to tell the difference, and it made the experiences even richer. She often found herself “in the midst of impossibly possible” situations, alternating with the mundane: dealing with blisters and sore feet; yearning for a favorite food; hoping to make it to the next refugio (hostel) before dark.
Another challenge is finding the signposts on the route. The early pilgrims adopted the scallop shell as a symbol, which according to legend, covered St. James’ coffin when it was brought ashore. The symbol is on the pilgrim passport, and shells are worn around necks or on backpacks. Most importantly, it’s found on signs, walls and trees to point the way west. The other big symbol is the yellow arrow. “There were plenty of times I wandered around looking for that,” said Hollee.
Over 500 miles, the terrain varies dramatically. Near Burgos, the route literally skirts the entire length of the airport runway. The Meseta plain extends 135 miles, mountains and woods present challenges, and the road goes right through towns. Local people living along the route were warm and welcoming, calling out buen camino, or barely civil, totally ignoring the pilgrims. Like many, Hollee was walking alone, though people do walk for a time with those they meet, often seeing them again along the trail. Hollee called this “the regional appearance of oneness” - people with compatible souls keep reuniting. The first of these was Pete; when she saw him again, she renamed him RePete.
Much of her time was spent “pondering.” She came to a deeper understanding of God’s gift of free will. We’re granted volition, and we can return that gift by pursuing our desires in ways that honor God, in a process of reciprocal giving and receiving. She looked at “unimportant” places, like a hill, and considered what might have happened there that, at the time mattered, or what could happen in the future. “This makes every place possibly holy ground.” She began to see the churches as a “string of lights along the way, as we walked to wherever we will meet God.” She stopped in them as an active part of worship, attending a Pilgrim’s Mass in Pamplona and visiting the Santa Maria, the silent church of the Knights Templar ,who, a thousand years ago, dedicated their lives to protecting pilgrims. Many more churches and masses followed, some breathtaking, some humble, several dedicated to Mother Mary. The church in Villafranca has a Door of Forgiveness; the legend is, if one leans on it, all sins are forgiven.
Pilgrimage also involves limiting physical comforts. Most people carry minimal clothes, food and water, first aid basics, maybe a sleeping bag. Meals are available at some refugios, and cafes offer a Pilgrim Meal – simple, heavy on potatoes, limited veggies, but always wine! They sleep in bunk beds or on the ground, and take cold showers. It’s somewhat like what early pilgrims experienced, but safer and less unprotected. Only twice did Hollee feel unsafe. “I was on high alert, but not in clear and present danger. Mostly, the people were wonderful.” She had her share of blisters, aching knees, and sore feet, but physically held up well and wisely took three rest days. “I think that made a lot of difference,” she said. If the need (or the overwhelming desire) arises, the towns have hotels and restaurants, and taxis or buses will get one to the next town.
A surprise and an inspiration were the determination and the “sheer number of people with infirmities” on the Camino, people compromised physically in numerous ways. One of them, Martha, had planned to walk with her husband. But he died and she contracted a condition that severely limited her. “But there she was. I think she averaged about two miles a day.” Many people don’t finish, and many intend to walk only portion of it. Everyone finds his or her own “way” on the Camino.
After five weeks, Hollee arrived at the The Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela and was awaiting the Pilgrim’s Mass, which occurs only twice a week. Frustrated and fearful she wouldn’t get in due to hordes of tourists, and feeling entitled because she was a pilgrim, she experienced another moment of grace. She was shown that despite what think we know, we are all pilgrims. As they packed in, the service began. At the end, the enormous censer, for which the Cathedral is famous, began swinging back and forth in the Cleansing Ceremony. Each time, it swung faster and farther until it covered the length of the church, incense smoke filling the building. Everyone received the cleansing, and somehow, there was room for all of them there.
Most people stop here, but Hollee was determined to go on to Finisterre, where the path meets the Atlantic, the place the ancients called “the End of the Earth.” The tradition is to swim in the ocean, signifying “a baptism of sorts; a new self [emerges], born by means of walking the pilgrimage.” Two Spanish men failed at videoing her experience but added to it even more significantly: they presented her with the ultimate relic of her journey, a shell they’d chosen for her. Some pilgrims carry them from the outset; Hollee planned to choose one at the end of her journey. Instead, it came to her “from the hands of others … what made it even more sacred was that it was hand-picked for me, not by me.”
The actual walking of the Camino is Part A of Hollee’s journey. Part B is the series of podcasts she produced and reads. These “playful ponderings” describe her experiences, frequently provoking the listener to stop and ponder, too. Unique in format, they’re highly recommended to anyone interested in the Camino and in exploring “holy imagination” for themselves. This article only touches on the ideas she explores. Entitled “Along the Camino,” each just 10-15 minutes long, they delight, charm, and inspire listeners to find “their way” to expand their spiritual lives. Available on all podcast platforms, they are also accessible by computer at https://www.buzzsprout.com/1198439.
When asked for one essential take-away from her experience, Hollee replied, “Life is a pilgrimage. If we live it more that way, we can be more connected, to each other and to God.”
by Carol Lannon