Drone - and Layers - on the Camino

 It was the drone overhead that did it. I’m walking alone on this particular stretch of the Camino when I hear an unusual buzzing sound. Sunny day, fields of early grain beside me, beautiful weeds (and pansies among them!) in the side ditches of this dirt path for people on foot and on bicycle (and perhaps on horse, although I had yet to see any equestrians): the mountains distant to the right, blue sky, vibrant colors from God’s palette; birds chirping: there are no cars to be heard, no other human voices, no other sounds except those of nature . . . and this darned buzzing thing. I looked and found it, not close to the ground but high, its four propeller arms distinguishable though far away. I wondered how big it was, what was it doing. Indeed, why was it here?

I am likely never to know. I mentioned it at dinner to a peregrina, a woman from Maine. She was a reserved woman, the sort who largely sticks to herself; I had already learned she had moved back to Maine, her home, to take care of her aging parents. In short, she was quiet, reserved, self-sacrificing, and a lover of long walks. But when I mentioned this darned drone she, as we say, lit up. There are people, she says with dismay, who walk their whole lives as if they are characters in an ongoing film. They constantly record what’s happening to them. Someone may have been, someone may actually be walking the Camino now and taking a drone along to film the thing. I might be in someone else’s Camino film. 

Such was her speculation. I hope didn’t say anything inappropriate for the camera!


In the Middle Ages, millions of pilgrims walked to the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostella; in recent decades this “Camino” has seen a resurgence of popular interest. I have a thought to share about what it means to take a pilgrimage walk in 2024. Although these reflections are born out of the Camino, they could apply to any modern walking pilgrimage. 

To walk the Camino is not, it seems to me, a retreat or an escape from the world. Rather, it is an immersement in nature that is rare in our lives, an immersement that comes with a separation from the daily occupations and distractions that surround us, clinging so closely that they suppress contemplation of things bigger than the quotidian. But it is not an escape.

I looked at the landscape around me. If it were just 50 years ago, there would not be any jet stream exhaust streams across the sky. There would not be that blasted drone! There would not be the occasional cell tower stuck on the side of a centuries-old building. There would not be the huge windmills along the ridges of mountains. Go back 200 years and there would be no cars, no tractors, and no roads built to accommodate them. The pathways that cut through the landscape would be different. Go back 500 years and the stone buildings which today have no roofs would have been solid and inhabited. Go back 1000 years and some of those buildings would be new, but only a few of them. Go back 2000 years and there would be no churches, no news of Jesus having been proclaimed yet, no St. James to have traveled here with the gospel. 

 In other words, the landscape is layered in time. What the Camino is, I believe, is not a shedding of the modern world but rather an experience of an older world, a more natural world, a slower world, rising up from the depths. That older world is always with us, but we generally don’t think we need it and accordingly pay it no heed. T. S. Eliot points to this in “Burnt Norton,” the first of Four Quartets: the presence of old worlds in our present one, shadows that sometimes become visible, water in the dry pool, figures dancing. But the speaker in the poem (and here I think the speaker is likely expressing Eliot’s own view) says we have to leave, we can’t stay, that humankind cannot bear very much reality.

Well, on the Camino you can bear it. The Camino is a privileged place for the old to come and be present with the new. We should not want to escape the drones, the cell phones, the cars, and all the rest. What we can do is bring into the present more of the deep past. This is the way of true liberation. It is what all prayer is, and perhaps it is quintessentially what the Eucharist is. The Eucharist has at its heart the call to remember: “Do this in remembrance of me.” In the Eucharist, the most modern stuff is co-present with the deepest thing in reality, and it is so by means of our remembering.

On some days, as I walk where feet have trod for a thousand years, I am able to attend a mass. It is, of course, in a Catholic church, and it is in Spanish (except, as I wrote last week, when it is in French!). To be present for a mass in a language one barely grasps is an experience familiar and strange at the same time. Almost all the churches on the Camino are older than my native country. They were doing this ancient “remembering” in Spain before anyone on the western side of the Atlantic had heard of Jesus. When you pray, when you participate in the Eucharist, all that is coming to bear on you, on our local situation and everyone in it. Jesus, the deepest level of reality, is making himself known. 

It may be that you need to quit social media. In fact, I think you should. It may mean you need to simplify your life severely. We all need to do better about handling distractions. But to pray, to have Jesus present because you are remembering him—this is not a retreat from the real world of 2024, the world with drones and airplanes and a chicken in every pot and a phone in every pocket. To remember in this way is to understand what all those things really mean.

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.: