It proved challenging both physically and mentally, but for Stephanie Pena and her family, an ancient pilgrim way proved a rewarding experience

A landmark birthday was looming and I wanted to spend some time thinking about the future. In the last two years, I had experienced a lot of changes at work, in relationships and within the family. Most of it was unwelcome, particularly changing jobs and the death of my beloved grandmother. I wanted to make time to hear God’s voice and to seek his direction for the future.

They say The Way of St James calls you and that was my experience. My dad, mum and sister were to accompany me, so it was a real family adventure. My father is from Galicia and we have been to Santiago for many years. However, this time we would be walking 113km from Sarria, taking the French Way to Santiago de Compostela.

I had never camped before or done any sort of walking pilgrimage, so the prospect was rather daunting. But to my relief, I learnt that all I needed to do was decide where we would start the walk. In true pilgrim style there was no need to book accommodation along the way. You just walk from one town to another, following the yellow arrows and shells, and stay in albergues (hostels especially for pilgrims) or the great outdoors.

My family and I wanted to do the walk as cheaply and simply as possible, so we used our old rucksacks and took only sleeping bags and flannels to pat ourselves dry after a shower. My sister, mum and I decided to go without make-up, so we only needed sunscreen. It really is true that you can fit all you need in one backpack.

The whole journey took five days and it was one of the best experiences of my life. At times, the walk was extremely challenging, both physically and mentally. Walking 10 hours a day meant there was plenty of time to access, process and come to terms with certain things we had experienced. There are things that we bury away in our mind, but when we’re out in the openness of nature there is no escape.

The people you meet along the way are incredible. They come from all walks of life and a variety of different countries. No one asked us where we worked or what our families did for a living. The only question was: Where did you start your journey? We were all equal in each other’s eyes.

As the walk went on, we found that there were certain people we connected with and continued to bump into. We learnt their stories and most people were hoping that in walking the way of St James, they would be able to let go of hurts and start afresh.

A particularly special experience was meeting a nun from Hijas de Santa Maria de la Providencia. It was our third day into the pilgrimage and it came at a time when we really needed some inspiration, as we were all tired and feeling a little discouraged. We seemed to be in the middle of nowhere but then, a bubbly group of nuns welcomed us by an old disused church.

The sister who spoke to us was so happy to find out that we were a complete family doing the walk together. She spoke to my mother, praising her motherhood and complimented my father for his care for his family. We were very thankful and really did need to hear this encouragement at that time. Family life is not always easy, but we have to work together, help each other and make sacrifices in order to support each other and enable each member to grow whole within themselves.
Then the sister gave me a seed stuck on a small piece of paper and, written on the paper in Spanish was Mark 4:31-32:

“It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

I have realised that life is like that seed. All of us, no matter how small or ‘not good enough’ we feel, have the ability to grow, just like the seed and to make a positive difference to those around us and further afield.

Our journey ended when we arrived at Santiago de Compostela on the fifth day, but this ending was really a new beginning. We entered Santiago with blisters, sore backs and muddy feet, but our hearts were strong and our minds at ease. We are left with beautiful memories, experiences and life lessons that continue to guide us. I know that, one day, I will be back on the Camino and I hope to see you there.     

10 lessons I learned

+ Be grateful, have faith; love and look after your family.

+ Walk regularly, embrace the natural world and don’t rush.

+ Take each day at a time and don’t worry about tomorrow.

+ Enjoy the journey, don’t just think about the destination.

+ Don’t judge a person by their label, see who is inside.

+ No matter how tough it may seem, keep moving forward. Never go back. There are no rainbows without the rain.

+ Give thanks to God every day because he loves you so much.

+ Encourage someone every day with kind, peaceful words.

+ You really can live with less and be happy, do not let materialism and consumerism consume you.

+ No matter how small you may feel, you can make a difference. Be courageous and take that first step.