Marie’s walk was an act of prayer for her brother, who had leukemia.  Alessandro had recently endured a divorce and was walking to find peace.  Klaus was taking time out to decide what to do with his life after losing his job.  Sharon and Chris were on the Spanish leg of a three-month tour of Europe.  Pierrot and Helene, in their late 60’s, were making the pilgrimage to Compostela for the fourth time, because they loved it.  And me?  I was on the Camino de Santiago because I had been asked.

In the summer of 2003, the idea of walking the ancient pilgrims’ way to the shrine of St. James the Great had presented itself to me three times in as many weeks—too often, I felt, to be accounted for by mere coincidence.  The first providential prod came at a campsite in the French Pyrenees, when, in return for a small act of kindness, a stranger had given me a book about the Camino.  I had long known that people still traveled the thousand-year-old network of footpaths to the tomb of the Apostle in northwestern Spain, and that knowledge had pleased my old-fashioned devotional temperament.  I read and enjoyed the book, and it occurred to me that maybe one day I might make the pilgrimage, too.

Back in England a few days later, I met in the street an ex-colleague whom I hadn’t seen for a decade.  “What have you been up to for the last ten years?” I asked him.  “Quite a lot,” he replied.  “But one of the most interesting things I have done has been in the last ten weeks: I cycled to Compostela and back.”  The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

The following week, I was staying at the Chateau de Plassac, north of Bordeaux.  After dinner on my last night there, my host and I took our brandy glasses and cigars on a moonlit stumble around the estate.  He pointed out many interesting details of the house and grounds, told me a little of its history, and concluded the tour at a small late-medieval tower with an arch under it.  “And this,” he said, “is the Tour des Pelerins.”

“What pilgrims, Audoin?” I asked.  “Why, the pilgrims of St. Jacques de Compostelle, of course!” he replied.  “You are standing on the chemin at this very moment!”  I resolved then and there to make the pilgrimage.

Eleven months later, I was sitting down to a predawn breakfast in the refuge in St. Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees, listening to a little speech given to the gathered pilgrims by the laughter-creased, croaky-voiced, rolling-gaited “mère des pelerins.”

“It would be madness to attempt the mountain route into Spain,” announced Jeannine.  “You must follow the main road.  On the high path, there is snow, ice, and fog; you will get lost.”

Well, she was right on all counts—but in my case, not in that order.  I got lost before I even got out of town and ended up committed to the mountain route by mistake.  There was indeed snow and ice; and the fog got so thick that, after a while, I couldn’t see the signs that marked the path—or very much else, for that matter.  My guidebook told me that the critical point of the journey (which should in no circumstances be undertaken in adverse weather conditions) was the cairn marking where the camino left the track and headed off over the grass.  Miss it, I read, and you have had it.

Had I missed it already?  If I hadn’t, how would I be able to spot it in the fog?  These two questions were quickly subsumed in a third: If Providence had put me on the pilgrimage in the first place, was It really likely to abandon me on the first day?  A little gust of cold wind brought the answer.  The fog swirled for a moment, and I found myself in a 20-yard pocket of visibility.  At the other side of it, a dozen or so people were standing at the foot of a fingerpost set by a pile of stones, listening to instructions addressed to them by a man who was obviously a guide.  They were all wearing winter mountain clothing, including gloves, heavy waterproofs, and balaclavas.  In my straw hat and lightweight walking trousers, I had been feeling cold all morning; now, I also felt foolish.  As I walked over to the waymarker, the group set off along a path that appeared through the mist.  The sign said “Camino de Santiago.”

I followed that sign and signs like it for 500 miles over the next three-and-a-half weeks.  All sorts of things went wrong, of course, and I had to put up with a fair amount of pain.  But somehow, the suffering didn’t seem to matter.  Pilgrims quickly learn to accept it, and, once accepted, it becomes insignificant.  Yes, there were times when my blisters were so bad that each step felt like putting a bare foot on red-hot shards of glass, and when the tips of my toes felt as if matches were being struck on them.  My back and (more) my neck ached under the weight of my rucksack pretty constantly, and my shirt was always wet through with sweat.  And yet, all these discomforts were not merely diminished but displaced by the pilgrim’ s most immediate reward: an irrepressible sense of Joy.

There are many human explanations for the happiness that pilgrims experience.  Grace, as the Angelic Doctor says, works through Nature.  Walking balances the activity of the brain and the body, establishing a rhythm that generates a sense of peace.  Stepping aside from the cares and routines of everyday life liberates the spirit and allows a sensation of detachment.  Discovering that one can cover great distances carrying a heavy pack inspires self-confidence and promotes a sense of achievement.  Even when added together, however, these pleasures do not amount to Joy, which (as C.S. Lewis found to his Surprise) is a thoroughly transcendent experience.  To the Christian, to know Joy is to know one is in the presence of God.  I had set off with the idea that I was in some way walking to Him but quickly realized that He was with me on the road.

Many of the pilgrims I met told me that they felt the same.  Maurice, a retired schoolmaster from near Dublin, told me that the word that summed up for him the sense of God’s guiding and protecting presence on the camino was held—and when he extended his joined and cupped hands to express the idea, his three companions nodded, saying they knew exactly what he meant.  Stuart and Pamela, from Melbourne, told me in Santiago that they had thought through what had been remarkable about their walk and had concluded that it was that they had spent a month of their lives living in the present—and in the Presence.  Luigi, from Rome, told me that he was inexpressibly grateful to God for the love that He had shown him on every day of his pilgrimage.  The most dramatic expression of it had been after a problem with his bankcard had left him without cash for over a week.  Fellow pilgrims, hospitaleros, and complete strangers had overwhelmed him with their generosity, buying him meals, paying for his accommodation, and giving him cash.

I received many kindnesses myself.  When my knee became so swollen that I could hardly walk, a pilgrim gave me his fancy telescopic walking stick (“Keep it!  It’s the spirit of the camino!”) and another gave me a roadside physio session without which I wouldn’t have been able to carry on.  When I limped into the monastery of San Juan de Ortega, a French woman saw my difficulties and sent her husband off to fetch her medical kit.  “Take your boots off!” she said, announcing herself to be a chiropodist.  She lanced and dressed my blisters and then disappeared with a smile and a wave.  An old man hobbled after me in Villafrancea, took me by the arm and led me back to a turning that I had missed half a mile earlier.  When I got to Melide, I was so tired that I couldn’t see a sign for accommodation for looking, and I asked a stranger if he knew of anywhere I might stay.  It turned out that he was a German pilgrim, and he told me that he had found a wonderful—and wonderfully cheap—little hotel in a back street on the other side of town.  “But it is too difficult to explain how to find it,” he said.  So he took me there.  In San Miguel del Camino, I rested on a bench outside the house of a man who had put out a box of biscuits under a sign saying “Help yourself, pilgrim!”  Beside it was a little pile of handwritten cards.  I have one before me now: “May the Apostle grant you all your wishes.”  It is signed  “Agapito” and dated “27-05-04.”

Buoyed up by so much good will and encouragement, I finally reached Santiago on June 3, as the cathedral bells were clanging, clattering, and clanking for six o’clock Mass.  I showed my credential at the pilgrims’ bureau and was issued a signed and sealed certificate announcing “Dnum. Michaelem McMahon hoc sacratissimum Templum pietatis causa devote visitasse.”  I entered the cathedral by the Puerta Santa, which was open, for I had made my pilgrimage during a Jacobean Holy Year.  When I queued to pray before the casket that is said to contain the Saint’s mortal remains, I was not troubled by the thought that it might not: Either way, I had walked my way close to a man who, 2,000 years ago, had walked with Our Savior.  And, when I climbed the stairs to give the great silvered and gilded statue of the Apostle the customary embrace, I heard myself address it and him in a single, spontaneous word that formed itself without the intervention of thought: “Thanks.”