¡Buen Camino! So the pilgrims greet each other as they walk the Camino — whether Santiago or Ignaciano or your own — in Spain. It’s a greeting in Spanish to wish you a pleasant journey along your pilgrimage.
One of the most enduring metaphors of our lives is a journey. And as much as we would like to imagine our personal lives as being a journey, much of our collective histories as a humanity have in fact been shaped by physical journeys that we call migration. It is fascinating to think that a journey could come to shape and even give meaning to who we are.
In the summer of 2018, after participating in the International Association of Jesuit Universities (IAJU) at Deusto University, Bilbao, I decided to undertake a similar journey. It was a journey that was meant to walk the sixteenth-century historical route (1522) of Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) — that well, we try to recreate now from his Autobiography — from his hometown in Azpeitia to the cave in Manresa where he underwent a transformative experience and wrote his classic, The Spiritual Exercises. Me being a Jesuit for some years now, this journey was also meant to be a pilgrimage to reflect on my own life.
The Camino Ignaciano is a month-long pilgrimage that is divided into 27 stages and covers about 660 km through five autonomous communities in northern Spain — the Basque Country (Euskadi), La Rioja, Navarre, Aragón and Catalonia. However, as one walks through Spanish territory, one can easily notice how the idea of Spain is easily contested and contrasted in these regions. In the Basque town of Oñati, one encounters graffiti on the walls that reads: Independentzia. Moving eastwards into Catalonia, one is confronted with yellow ribbons and flags that cry for attention: Sí. Well, so much for Basque or Catalan nationalisms. While people struggle for their political prisoners to return home, one also meets people who are passionate of their culture and identity, and how they are represented. On my journey to Lleida, I encountered a warm-hearted lady from Fraga, Ana, who in our conversation asked me, “What do you think of Spanish people?”
While the sixteenth-century Spain of Ignatius had come to be shaped by the emergence of the expansionist Habsburg empire that sought to stamp a Catholic culture across the world, its pasts betrayed many layered histories — Roman, Germanic, Islamic and other competing regional kingdoms that show up along the route. Along the journey, these sites became a point of reflection for my own many layered histories — my own disparate pasts.
The ability to own up my own personal histories and know that they still make up for what is me, is a very liberating experience.
Yet, some questions still keep recurring to me.
Thinking of my faith, I wonder on the catholicity of being Catholic. I reflect on my ability to be welcoming of diversity. I look at my own world and I struggle to be comfortable with it.
My pilgrimage began with a visit to the tenth-century Castillo de Javier in Navarre, the birthplace of Francis Xavier (1505-1552) — the first Jesuit to set foot in India in 1542, and whose mortal remains lie encased in my hometown in Goa. These distances between Navarre and Goa speak to our imagination, and I was drawn to reflect at the Eucharist of what drew Francis Xavier this far. Of what a man could be! Of what a man could make of himself! Within the Jesuit community, it was also heartening to meet Antonio Falces SJ, a Spanish Jesuit who had worked in India and from whom I learnt to appreciate the aesthetics of films. Talking of moving images, a recurring image from this visit that remained during the pilgrimage was that of the smiling Christ on his cross1 — death and resurrection commingled in the mystery of life.
Moving on from the birthplace of Francis Xavier to that of Ignatius of Loyola within the Basque town of Azpeitia… the sombre tower house of Ignatius stands in marked contrast to the baroque Sanctuary of Loyola. That evening I enjoyed a warm meal but more importantly an engaging conversation on faith, history and Ignatius with a young Jesuit, Alejandro Labajos SJ. Along the pilgrimage, such conversations would bring so much perspective to my own life. These conversations not only help contextualise one’s life, but also to a large extent validate one’s own faith and life experiences. The next morning I concelebrated the Eucharist with Alejandro in the Chapel of the Conversion2, praying for my own personal conversion to be able to see the world with faith and reason.
Walking through the bucolic landscape of the Basque countryside provided an apt setting to experience the First Week of the Spiritual Exercises — love, sin, mercy and even, detachment! I learnt this in a beautiful way at Arantzazu. Having walked through peak and valley lumbering my backpack along, Arantzazu seemed like an early achievement. Getting the pilgrim passport inked with the Arantzazu stamp — that by now had also been imprinted with Loyola, Zumarraga and its Ermita de la Antigua as well — had lent a special character to my credential. I had come to value it. There was a certain sense of accomplishment to it. So much so, that when I encountered a curious pilgrim later in my journey, I took some pride in showing off the credential! But alas, this was meant to be short-lived. When I arrived in Logroño, and needed it stamped, the credential had disappeared. I had lost it. Carelessness, you might call it, but it was just a fine lesson in detachment. Had I come to value it so much, that it had begun to replace my experience? Perhaps. It set the tone for the remainder of my pilgrimage.
How much more of my preconceived ideas about others did I have to shed before I could be open or welcoming to them? In my own research at the university, what ideas or questions were holding me back from exploring new ones? What attachments were hindering my growth? How could I make my baggage lighter in order to be freer?
After walking three days through the verdant Basque countryside, I skipped my way to La Rioja, walking past neat vineyards towards Logroño. Apart from the grand architecture of the Santa María de la Redonda and the neighbouring Iglesia de Santa María de Palacio, one encounters the embers of faith stoked alive within these magnificent edifices, as a few faithful gather for prayer, novena and Eucharist. It is always worthwhile to contemplate these architectural spaces; they beckon to one’s own hallowed spaces — there’s always space for God, there’s always room to accommodate something more than just me. We are capable of transcending ourselves.
Next stop, Zaragoza. This was a welcome halt in the Camino Ignaciano, as I walked through Zaragoza’s many streets, enjoying its cultural pasts. Apart from its two-thousand-year history dating back to the Romans and the Visigoths, it is the city’s Mudéjar idiom that speaks so much in its architecture and culture. One is easily captivated by the immense baroque Basílica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar — its sanctuary is a peaceful abode from the bustling activity outside — that borrows much from the Mudéjar. A visit to the exquisite Aljafería Palace to study the Mudéjar architecture was worth the two-kilometre walk from the Basilica. Nevertheless, it is difficult to stress on any of the city’s singular pasts, as their diversities evolve into something more complex, ever more beautiful. I couldn’t help reflect on my own hometown, Goa, whose cultural pasts that are so often couched in binary readings of Indo-Portuguese or Hindu-Catholic rob it of its diversity. That’s so much true of our personal histories too. Zaragoza was an important insight on how not to take our identities for granted — we are always evolving, and we will continue to do so. In the quiet sanctuary of Our Lady of Pilar, all I could implore to her was: pray for us!
Summers were definitely not the best time of the year to walk the desert of Los Monegros in the Aragón region. Moving into Catalonia, I began from Fraga and proceeded towards Lleida, where I was delighted to meet Roger Torres SJ, the parish priest at the Church of Sant Ignasi de Loiola. However, from my brief conversation with Roger, I so regretted that I would not be walking to Verdú, the birthplace of the Catalan Jesuit, Saint Peter Claver (1580-1654). At the height of the transatlantic slave trade in the seventeenth century, Peter Claver dedicated himself to advocacy and care of the slaves in Cartagena de Indias, in present-day Colombia. That night in Cervera, I promised myself to walk to Verdú on another camino.
During the final triduum of the Camino, the destination of Manresa slowly eased itself into my memory. During these days, spiritual conversation and companionship helped nourish the journey. Until now, the camino had been undertaken alone, though there had been occasional conversations with the Santiago pilgrims like the pleasant Swiss father-daughter duo in Cervera or the Basque gentleman and police who guided me in Zumarraga. However, treading along from Cervera to Igualada, a Basque pilgrim on her bicycle, Blanca, stopped by as we discovered we were on the same Camino, Ignaciano!3 Blanca was also on her own personal journey of self-discovery, and the sharing of spiritual conversations made this walk enriching, for it also enabled me to be guided by another fellow pilgrim. The next day from Igualada to Montserrat, she put away her bicycle and walked the Camino along.
As much as the road to Montserrat winds into an arduous climb, it reveals a mystical experience to the walk. With the unfolding of the mountain peaks of Montserrat, one is easily drawn to converse with these mountains as also with oneself. One is led to search within oneself. In his Autobiography, Ignatius notes his own self-examination and confession at Montserrat that led him to renounce his rich attire in Montserrat and take on the pilgrim’s path to Manresa. What had I to renounce or leave behind? What was it that I needed to be detached or freed from? What did I need to embrace? What was I seeking? I just began to realise that these were recurring reflections during the Camino.
Walking from Montserrat to Manresa was an experience of gratitude. As one leaves the mountains of Montserrat behind, one is blessed with a rich vista of these very peaks. For all that you can’t leave behind, for all that you remain detached from, you in fact become a beautiful picture of yourself. Gracias.
While the final day of our Camino was a mere 24 kilometres downhill, what amazed me was what took Blanca and me that long to reach Manresa. Conversations and a few pitstops apart, the beauty of the Camino lies in the journey within. Late in the evening when the gates were shut and the streetlights had well embraced the night, an elderly Jesuit, Lluís Magriñà SJ, opened the door for us at the Cova Manresa. We then saw love and humility serve us a warm dinner with wine and friendship. Psst! That was the Superior and Director of the Cova as well as the former Provincial of the erstwhile Jesuit Province of Catalonia.4
The next day, I had planned to proceed to Barcelona. But in the end it was more appropriate to stay back at the Cova Sant Ignasi in Manresa — to look back at Montserrat and my life’s vista, and say with gratitude: thanks. Gratitude can be so much of a Cardoner experience for one’s own life!
And so until the next Camino, next year, let me say it again: ¡Buen Camino!
For a more visual experience of the Camino Ignaciano, see “Feet that walk, hearts that see”.
- The Smiling Christ is a thirteenth-century crucifix carved in walnut wood, on which Christ is visibly smiling while suffering on the cross. The crucifix is located in the “Tower of Christ”, a gothic chapel within the Castle of Xavier in Navarre, Spain. The walls of the chapel are decorated with fifteenth-century murals that depict the “Dance of Death”. Francis Xavier, along with his family, is known to have prayed in this chapel. According to popular legend, the crucifix sweated blood when Francis Xavier died off the coast of China. ↩
- Pilgrims are welcome to participate in the Eucharist (in Spanish) at the Chapel of the Conversion at 8:30 am, before they begin their pilgrimage. ↩
- Meeting no pilgrims along the way might seem strange. Consider that while last year (2017) alone, 301,036 pilgrims had undergone the very popular Camino de Santiago, there have been just about 2000 registered pilgrims that have walked the Camino Ignaciano in the past few years. While the Ignaciano statistics should improve in the coming years, its less-crowded trail offers much solitude for the seeker. Its website and guidebook also offer an immersive and well-planned spiritual itinerary based on the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. That makes for a truly soul-searching experience. ↩
- Ever since June 2014, the five Jesuit provinces within Spain have been integrated into a single Jesuit Province of Spain. As of 2018, the Spanish Jesuit Province consists of 980 Jesuits. ↩