We search in many places to deepen our spirituality and to get closer to God. We search in contemplative silent prayer and in vocal communal prayer; in deeds of mercy to the poor, the hungry, the needy and the marginalised; in service to ecclesiastical hierarchies of the church and to civic institutions. We search in books, buildings, and the liturgy. We search in affirmations of belief and dogma; in creeds, in hymns, or in the saying of the hours; in monasteries and convents, in marriage, in isolation, in communities, in deserts, villages, cities and nature. 

We also search in pilgrimage. Yet, as Rabbi Lionel Blue observes, this last place of looking involves an element of paradox. After pilgrimage to a number of Monastery sites with his friend Evie he says: “I learned from our last spiritual walkabout that the spirituality we seek is already inside us, otherwise we would not want to make such a trip in the first place – the people we meet only trigger it off. 

For centuries, the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (the Camino) has been one of the worlds most popular pilgrimage routes. 

The foundation story of Santiago de Compostela starts long before the high tide of Christian pilgrimage in the early middle-ages, a time that brought the whole of Europe to widespread religious questing. The bible reports that one of Christs apostles, James the Greater, (known as Santiago in Spanish) was martyred in Jerusalem in 44CE on the orders of Herod Agrippa.  According to various sources his body was then removed by two of his disciples from Jaffa, Israel, back to the Iberian Peninsula where the apostle had preached after Christs death. By the eighth century, most of the Iberian Peninsula of Spain was under Muslim rule, but the Kingdom of Asturias remained as a small Christian enclave in the north and west.  Sometime in the ninth century, the abandoned mausoleum that held the remains of James the Greater was rediscovered by a recluse who alerted Bishop Teodomiro of the diocese of Ira Flavia (close to present day Santiago de Compostela).    A church was built to protect his relics and soon a larger one was constructed as early pilgrimages developed. By 1075 construction work began on what is now the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. For the Kingdom of Asturias, this brought a reconnection of the Iberian Peninsula with the rest of Christian Europe. The growing tide of pilgrims from many countries also served to strengthen the eventual cultural and political re-Christianization of Spain.  

In 2023, a total of 442,073 pilgrims (known as Peregrinos) completed one of the Camino routes across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. Newly retired and at the end of my 64th  summer, I was one of them. I was accompanied by my youngest son Connor (not a catholic), aged 24 and newly returned from Spanish Language School in Valencia.  We walked about three quarters of the Camino Del Norte, from Santander to Santiago de Compostela-a distance of about 350 miles. We started on 8th September and returned to the UK on 6th October 2023. We stayed in a mixture of pilgrim hostels, auberges, monasteries, convents, Air B&B rooms, bars and small family hotels. We rested on average one day a week and had an additional few days rest to recover from a stomach bug. When walking, the shortest days distance was about 9 miles and the longest, (and the last), was 34 miles. Usually, we covered about 18 -22 miles per day carrying 17 kg backpacks in temperatures of about 23 degrees celsius. 

We often wondered (vainly!) whether we were walking more each day than pilgrims did in the middle-ages. St Dominics biographer, M.H. Vicaire O.P., records that on 6th May 1220 Dominic had to return urgently from Rome to Bologna and “As he had to be in Bologna on the 16th May he had ten days in which to travel some 215 miles: this was normal”. 

So – a good average in the middle-ages was about 21.5 miles a day–not too different; but then, Dominic would have had to walk ten consecutive days with no breaks! In addition, he would not have had the excellent ‘Buen Camino App’ on his mobile phone. This certainly proved invaluable to us. It provided lists of accommodation to be booked at any potential stop, a detailed a map of the route and live tracking of where we were (or sometimes weren’t) on the planned route for the day.

My own motive for undertaking the Camino was to reflect on,and understand more about, my catholic faith by speaking with other Catholics. Registration for the certificate of the pilgrimage completion (the ‘Credential’) requires you to give a reason for the trip. Of the pilgrims in 2023, 23% gave non-religious reasons for doing the Camino, 43% religious reasons and 35% Religious/other. This is probably why I was surprised to find only limited opportunities to have the sort of deep catholic theological discussions with others I had imagined would be common every evening in the hostels. There were some of course and these were great, but I soon found something else. 

Even those professing no faith, or those ‘just doing it for the exercise’ had not randomly chosen to walk the Camino. Most had some spiritual interest. Many were looking for some ‘twitching of heavens curtains’, that might provide a truth about their life or faith in which they could really believe. Many were disillusioned or even angry with, both organized religion and the unjust, unfair, consumerist and nature diminishing world they saw evolving around them. Although many believers seemed particularly dubious about church dogma-they appeared less so about the general articles of faith within the creed. My overall impression was that whilst many may have had forsaken their God, their faith, or their church (…or perhaps felt forsaken by…), the spirit was still at work within them. The reason for their walking often seemed to be to in some way regain what was lost, or to seek some reconciliation with the God or the faith they had once held dear. Others were seeking to come to an accommodation with a big change in their lives, that they knew required some wisdom or metanoia that the routine of their daily lives could not provide. Still others could not really articulate why they were walking this pilgrimage route at this time.

In my discussions with both believers and non-believers, I came to realize that in fact many people of high integrity and definite moral purpose were seeking the truth ‘in good faith’, yet they struggled with what they perceived to be very narrow gates for inclusion in traditional churches, particularly the catholic church. Many non-believers clearly wanted to belong but could not honestly say they believed in everything necessary to join. They did not want to be hypocritical. They could not bring themselves to the act of giving bloodless assent, or the necessary consent, to all the dogma. They were simply disinclined to acquiesce to things to which they could not  not honestly believe. Often their dubiousness was only over certain specific dogmatic injunctions or church practices. Some of these they clearly thought were either implausible, improbable, unfeasible, unlikely or untenable. Some they felt were unnecessary, unimportant, or just plain unkind. Some they even felt were potentially unholy, in the sense of not morally or spiritually excellent. Often sighted here for instance was the refusal to allow the ordination of women deacons and married priests, or the excluding of divorced people from communion.   

My sense was that when they said they did not believe in certain things that the catholic church ostensibly professed, the principal reason was that they could not see or understand how or why a loving God could, would or should intend them. Many also cited their bewilderment with the temporal vicissitudes of shifting dogmatic positions within the Catholic church. They were mystified by how ‘what was once right then, is not right now, and vice versa’ – citing for instance, issues such as the 1000 years or so of married priests and the only recently rescinded ‘doctrine of discovery’. 

They questioned what they saw as a lack of wisdom in the frequent exercise of centralized authority and control within the catholic church, one that seemed to exclude so many good people from membership. They felt that the catholic church privileged  ‘thought crimes of heresy’ or ‘incomplete compliance with the rules’ as exclusion criteria when judging who could be its members-but often discounted the actual goodness, practical service to others, or moral worth of individuals.  

In exploring these issues, many of the conversations I had, were effectively a kind of Catholic Midrash. Yet I felt dispirated that so many felt they could only do this outside of catholic church membership, largely because they felt the church simply would not accept their imperfect, incomplete or heterodox beliefs. 

In his masterful book ‘The Afternoon of Christianity’ Tomas Halik (a Czech Roman Catholic Priest, philosopher and theologian) has much to say about exactly this broad cohort of the seekers after the truth. His book applies Carl Jungs metaphor of ‘a human life as a day’ to the cultural history of Christianity’s development. 

Halik suggests that:  “From its beginning until the threshold of modernity, the history of Christianity can be seen as a morning, a long time in which the church built up its institutional and doctrinal structures”.  Then came the noonday crises – a period of existential distress and frequent moral lassitude which lasted from the late middle-ages until the modern period. Currently as we emerge from that grumbling crises, we stand on the threshold of the ‘afternoon of Christianity’. Here he suggests we can see some features of a new, perhaps deeper and more mature form of Christianity shing through”. 

He suggests, this will require from us that we act as the ‘wise virgins’ of Jesus’ parable; alert to the Kairos; a time when the ‘signs of the times’ are understood and where new and different actions are required. 

In relation to these actions he says: “if the Catholic church is to become truly catholic, it must complete the shift that began at the second Vatican Council: the shift from Catholicism to catholicity. This should include all churches and all Christians that recite the Apostles or Nicene Creed”. He argues “the openness of the church should mirror the open arms of Jesus on the cross”.  This new openness is necessary because “many of our concepts, ideas and expectations, many forms of our faith, many forms of our church and theology must die – they are too small”. 

In this ‘afternoon of the faith’ he argues, the model of Catholic parishes will simply not be sustainable for the practical reason that the current church hierarchy will, at least for one more generation, still insist on an unmarried, male & celibate priesthood.  Thus, for the immediate future he argues: “I am convinced that the major focal points of Christianity will not be territorial parishes but rather centers of spirituality and spiritual accompaniment – places not only of adoration and contemplation but also of conversation, where experiences of faith can be shared.”  His final advice is that “the Church must venture out like Abraham along unknown paths and into an unknown future… If the church today can attest to a trust in God who is greater than all our ideas, definitions, and institutions, something new happens: we enter the afternoon of faith”.

Pope Francis seems to have a similar view. He has said that that the church “should not be a museum of saints but a field hospital for sinners”.  He has suggested that the church of the future is not so much about rules as about relationships, both with Christ and with each other, and that “mercy should come before catechesis”. Speaking at the 2023 World Youth day In Lisbon he encouraged everyone ‘to engage others in the opportunity to recognize the Church as their spiritual sanctuary’- not just those who pass the entry test but “todos, todos, todos” (everyone).  

Sadly, however my experience on the Camino was that both seekers and ex-Catholics alike clearly felt that what both Halik and the Pope were describing is still not quite how they experience the Catholic church today. 

On my pilgrimage, I too had openly discussed my doubts and sometimes vacillating beliefs about catholic faith and practice with my fellow pilgrims. Like Halik, I have also often felt the catholic church ‘too small’ in its view of what it is and who should be a part of it. There were times on the Camino when my fits of intense aggravation with the catholic church (but not God) got the better of me. 

One day towards the end of the pilgrimage, Connor, having listened carefully to all of these discussions over many weeks, said to me: “dad, when you discuss your Catholicism, you sometimes sound like a black guy in the Ku Klux Klan!” 

 This made us both laugh. It was funny. But for me the observation went deep. In the weeks and months following our pilgrimage, this comment  more than anything else I heard on the Camino kept returning to me. 

I eventually googled ‘black guy in the Ku Klux Klan’. And there it was – an article on NPR News by Dwane Brown posted on August 20th 2017. 

Its title was ‘How One Man Convinced 200 Ku Klux Klan Members To Give Up Their Robes’. The story is about a blues musician Daryl Davis, a Black man in the USA. He did not exactly ‘join’ the Ku Klux Klan, but for the last 30 years he has been be-friending its members. It all started when he was performing in a bar late one night. A white man maybe 20 years older than Daryl who loved his music came over to thank him after the gig.  They got talking about music and eventually went for a beer and something to eat. Improbably, he confessed to Daryl that this was the first time he had ever had a beer or a meal with a black guy because, he finally confessed, “I am a member of the Ku Klux Klan”. Daryl was at first disbelieving and then shocked. Yet, they each enjoyed the others company so much that the encounter blossomed into a real friendship. Eventually, due to what he had learned from his friendship with Daryl, the Klansman left the Klan and as a symbol of his transformation he gave Daryl his robe. Daryl saw by this that he had planted a seed. He decided to write a book. In the process of that he met many Klan members and Klan leaders and befriended them too. Eventually he convinced over 200 to give up their robes. He said of his experience: “As you build on commonalities, you are forming a relationship and as you build on that relationship you form a friendship. That’s what would happen. I didn’t covert anybody. They saw the light and converted themselves”. 

Connors comment and Daryls story provided a slow epiphany for me.  Whether being a catholic within an imperfect Church, or being a catholic in the imperfect Babylon of this world, the idea that I might think of myself as ‘being like a black guy in the Klu Klux Klan’  provides a deeply rich and spiritually liberating metaphor. It illuminates the paradox of experiencing a simultaneous antipathy with, and hopeful aspiration for, both the church and the world. It implies that it might be important sometimes to be ‘part of-but different from’, them both. It tells me I am not required to be a proselytizing adjudicator of the beliefs of others. It confirms that improbable friendships and countercultural engagements can bring a real change for good, in people and in organizations. It promises that seeking the truth with others, with open arms, ears, hearts and minds can bring wisdom. It signals that non-judgmental spiritual accompaniment may be an important route of spiritual formation for those who have no specific faith and that if we can provide someone with a ‘mobile field hospital for the soul’ then grace will rise. 

 Daryl’s story also has a Dominican echo. In a bar, 800 years ago, two very different men were also deep in conversation late into the night, both struggling to establish the truth of their beliefs and their place in the world. One was a catholic traveler and the other an Albigensian innkeeper. They too had an epiphany. By the next morning, one had found a new faith and the other, a mission for life.

Dominic Harrison (North West Fraternity Group)