Coming 'Round the Mountain

The author of a widely read guidebook on the Camino Francés does not like walking through cities. It’s understandable that he holds this view, since much of the good of a pilgrimage is to get outside our usual life—and most of us can do that more easily when we are removed from the distractions of cities. In addition, cities are often ugly. The roofless stone structure that seems abandoned in a pasture speaks still of an earlier time, a simpler age, a slower and less artificial life; whereas a boarded up, graffiti-covered building from the mid-20th century is just ugly and sad.

Call me stubborn, but I like walking through cities. (Apart from this, however, I find the guidebook helpful in both practical detail and spiritual insight, and I’m grateful to the author, the late John Brierley, for his important work as a friend of the Camino in its resurgence over the last several decades.) Even in their dreary parts, even in their oppressiveness, cities are still important; they are one of the “layers” I’ve written about, and they are worth walking through, perhaps especially when one is on a pilgrimage.

I think the Camino is an experience that one needs to submit to as a whole, and not pick and choose the agreeable parts. Let me show you what I mean. First picture: You are getting close to León; there are cars and buildings of various sorts and large stores with parking lots and names like “Brico Depot”; it becomes easy to feel you are losing your soul. And then you climb along the hillside above the traffic, and the hill falls away, and you turn to look to your right: and there is the great city lying before you. It is still far away, but you are so high you can see just about all of it. You pick out the old city center, and rising above it, distinguishable although too far away for your phone’s camera to catch it, the cathedral, Gothic, magnificent. I stopped. Others stopped. We all tried to take pictures. But the pictures were nothing like the reality. We were breathless as we saw modern commerce put in its place and ancient religious aspiration rise over it all.

It will take you still an hour of walking, but eventually you will reach that cathedral and enter its gates.


Second picture: You are entering the mountains of the final part of the Camino. Here the land is green and cool; it looks, you think, like the Shire. The next day it is raining; you walk through mud and, perforce, have to keep your attention on your feet. The next morning it is raining still, at times even harder, yet your slippery ascent continues. Then the rain lets up. You reach a turning point at the top of a hill. You step a bit to the side of the trail. The clouds have lifted: all around you, in every direction, are mountains. The view is truly panoramic. Your eyes tear up and you say to those nearby, “This is why we are here!”

The words just sprang out from me. I think what I meant was: we are here, on this earth, to praise God. Sometimes it happens when you come around the mountain and see the heart of a city; sometimes it happens when you make a turn and see distant mountains everywhere. 

In the end, I think, we will take our final turn around the mountain and suddenly see the Son of God in his true glory. To see, to give thanks, to be taken out of ourselves: This is why we are here.


    Hymnody: I’ve been trying to memorize “All My Hope on God Is Founded.” These lines seem particularly relevant to what I have just written:

    “Daily doth th’almighty Giver / Bounteous gifts on us bestow. / His desire our soul delighteth, / Pleasure leads us where we go.”

    And then about praising God for these daily bounteous gifts:

    “Still from man to God eternal / Sacrifice of praise be done, / High above all praises praising / For the gift of Christ His Son.”

    To praise God above all else for Christ is why we are here.

    Out & About: I am soon to emerge from the Camino, preaching on May 26, Trinity Sunday, at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas. And the next Good Books & Good Talk seminar will be at St. Matthew’s on June 2, on Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Rev. Canon Victor Lee Austin. Ph.D., is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Friendship: The Heart of Being Human" and "A Post-Covid Catechesis.: