VIRTUAL PILGRIMAGE CAN BE GREAT
In July 2020, Canon Greg Foraker emailed me to tell me about a Virtual Camino he was planning for The Episcopal Church in Colorado. The following month participants would spend two weeks virtually walking 75 miles of the Camino Francais from Sarria to Santiago de Compostela. He asked me if I would be one of the “Camino pilgrims”. The group would meet along the way and would I write a reflection to initiate discussion.
Intrigued, I said yes. I also signed up for his pilgrimage, knowing anything Canon Greg organized would be worthwhile. It was one of the highlights of the year, topped only by my 70th Zoom birthday.
In mid-July, we met for an orientation session. At this meeting, we were given an overview of the Camino de Santiago Pilgrimage. We met our leader guides and reviewed a thorough course syllabus. We explored aspects of our virtual pilgrimage, from prayerful walking to zoom meeting etiquette to sharing photos. Each of the 45participants, mostly from Colorado but some from California, Washington, Massachusetts and Rhode Island (me), had paid $50 for this pilgrimage, of which half would be given to our Anglican Pilgrim Centre project.
For the next five weeks we met briefly first as a large group to open the topic of the week. Then we broke into three small groups of 15 each for further discussion. Our topics, taken from the syllabus, centered on pilgrim readiness. We were given many tools: extensive reading lists, packing lists, strengthening exercises and spiritual resources.Each week we shared walking preparations, debated the merits of walking with or without walking sticks, tried to solve the perennial problem of blisters and too heavy backpacks, struggled to learn how to share pictures, and even how to unmute on Zoom. We made plans to walk in a prayerful and meditative manner.
Led by one clergy and one lay leader we shared our thoughts on how and where to do our pilgrimage- alone, with a friend, in the neighborhood, at the retreat center. In short, we prepared our bodies, our minds and our souls. By the end of the six weeks, I thought of my small group as my “walking buddies”.
Before we set off, each of us received a package, which included a pilgrim passport, a scallop shell, a prayer card, a prayer bead bracelet and a facemask. The day before we began to walk, we gathered for the pilgrim send off. We filled out our passports, prayed together, were blessed and sent on our way. Over the next two weeks, we would walk at our own pace on our chosen route and record the progress in our passport.
I chose to walk each day from my house and return each night to my own bed, trying to see as much of Narragansett as possible.
Day one began in the rain but most days were hot, humid and sunny. Taking advantage of the town’s long coastline, my route each day included a swim in the ocean. I did my share of road walking, sauntered barefoot along the beach and enjoyed the cool shade of historic woodland paths. Like a good pilgrim I ate locally, substituting lobster rolls for bocadillas. I learned my town’s history and photographed its wildflowers, mushrooms, critters and spider webs. I walked alone, carrying pictures of my “walking buddies” taped into my passport. I walked. I dreamed. I prayed. I charted my progress in my passport and on a local map, exactly as I would have done in Spain.
Most days we were given a new “Experience”. I watched virtual Morning Prayer on my phone, perched on a seaside cliff. I heard Evensong with exquisite singing and slept through Compline due to the time difference. Beside my screen, I renewed my Baptismal vows. I lit my candle, filled my shell with water, followed the liturgy and sprinkled my forehead. I found my Cruz de Fero and when the time was right, left behind a stone and la down a burden. My fellow pilgrims did the same.
Even during lockdown, I was able to attend Mass each Sunday, leaving home on foot in the dark, seeing the sun rise over the ocean, and arriving in time for the 8am service.
One day while waiting to cross the road for my morning coffee, the bells of the Roman church began to ring. Summoned in, I watched Mass and heard an excellent sermon, something I had often done walking in Spain. Afterward, I had a “moving” coffee hour as I continued my route.
I talked with strangers telling them of the Camino de Santiago and my virtual pilgrimage. I checked in with my “buddies”, sharing photos and comparing weather. I answered a persistent phone call to discover it was my college roommate. Over the next three miles along the noisy highway, we reconnected after a ten-year break.
I walked down a rocky beach and watched a woman and child throwing rocks at the waves only to discover that when I came closer, it was my niece and her son.
Each of the “experiences” mirrored those of an actual pilgrimage, and I happily colored the “experience shells” in my passport as we had been encouraged to do.
“Discoveries” were also marked in our passports with the Cross of Santiago. We learned about Saint James, Saint Teresa of Avilla, the history of the Camino, and the symbols of the Camino. We toured the Cathedral in Santiago and went to Finisterre. We were given a recipe for Spanish tortilla and encouraged to make it. We sampled Spanish wines and watched a video by Bishop Don Carlos who taught us how to make Paella. Spain and the Camino came alive spiritually and culturally.
Meanwhile, my fellow pilgrims in Colorado were struggling with smoke from the wildfires around Denver. While my walking altitude never exceeded 35ft above sea level, they were hiking high up in the mountains. Much of the time the air quality was so bad they were forced to stay indoors. Thus, it was decided to extend our pilgrimage for an additional week, an unexpected bonus of a virtual Camino
For those of us who had completed the Camino, the extra week allowed us to continue walking to Finisterre, an additional 55 miles. I walked on.
As is the tradition, my husband and I celebrated my arrival in Finisterre. We watched the sun set over our side of the Atlantic with wine and take out fried calamari.
At our first meeting in July, Canon Greg quoted Saint Augustine “SOLVITUR AMBULANDO” – It is solved by walking. That has always been one of my favorite quotes so I was thrilled when a tee shirt bearing those words arrived from Denver to commemorate our pilgrimage.
When we gathered on September 6 for a final time, those words were proudly displayed on the blue shirts worn by many of us.
With our scallop shells and our completed passports close by, we had a closing service of thanksgiving, complete with candles, hymns, psalms and prayers. When it over, we were invited to enjoy a glass something “celebratory” while we watched a video made of photos sent from each one of us.
The video, set to inspiring music, wove together the pilgrimages memories of each one of us. It united us as pilgrims. We were bound together just like those who walk the Camino.
Was the Virtual Camino the same as walking in Spain? No, but it was just as good in every way. I met new friends, discovered new things about my town, my fellow pilgrims and once again, about myself.
I am grateful to Canon Greg and The Episcopal Church in Colorado for the opportunity to walk with them. I am thankful for the donation they have made towards the purchase of our Anglican Pilgrim Centre.