Camino Reflections from Ali Newell

The Camino pilgrimage for peace was an experience that involved body soul and mind. It was about transcending difference and yet celebrating our uniqueness. Our pilgrims were 6 from Edinburgh University and 6 the US. We were from 7 different nationalities and 6 different faiths.


gathering to share stories

Our plan was to walk 120 miles of the ancient Camino pilgrimage route along the coast of Spain, the Camino del  Norte. We each carried only what we needed in small backpacks. This journey was about simplicity, getting down to the essentials, finding out what really mattered for us, walking for peace.

overlooking the sea

overlooking the sea

We began our week with a meal where we shared our intentions and ended our week with a meal where we spoke of the blessings and insights we had received   and wanted to carry away with us to share

 Some of the intentions expressed at the beginning were: ‘to be wholehearted’  ‘to listen and develop dialogue’  ‘to grow in a knowledge of oneness’ ‘to surrender to whatever happens’ ‘to become more patient’ ‘to let go and trust’ ‘to experience diversity and shared goals’ ‘to seek stillness and be still’ ‘to “take the next step” – whatever that step might be, and to be a pilgrim’ ‘to create a living art experience which holds everyone’s intention’ ‘deep trust’

There was something about walking together that invited conversation in an easy way,  that allowed for space leading to unhurried explorations of our differences, shared visions and views of what makes for peace. The simplicity of our days meant that often it was the mundane things that connected us to each other and deepened the sense of our shared humanity as much as the inspirations:  the sharing of a good blister bandage or a helpful ointment for sore feet, the finding of a good fruit shop, the noticing of the Camino scallop shell that kept us on the right path.

pausing for lunch

pausing for lunch

It was the lunches that became a symbol to me of the way hearts opened to one another as the week progressed. We started with individuals buying bread and cheese to have with their water. By the end of the week it was a shared feast, each person offering something to the common cloth spread out on the grass – olives, cheeses, tomatoes, fish, breads, peaches, strawberries, chocolate. And we became experts in discovering local fresh Spanish foods of the area.

The weaving of our lives was through often through story telling. Each participant was given a morning or afternoon opportunity to speak from their tradition or to share their scripture, songs, prayers or story. We would find a suitable spot on the way: a cliff top, in a wood, in a churchyard, up a hill, by a spring and then gather in a circle. I found myself full of anticipation to listen and learn and always we would leave room for dialogue at the end. Refreshed and inspired we would then head off on the next part of the route

We had agreed at the beginning that pre breakfast early morning yoga, tai chi or meditation would be a good way to begin our day. On the first day the only place available was a patch of grass overlooking motorways. We learned that we could manage to make do with what was possible. I remember thinking in the midst of rumbling traffic that the daisies looked amazingly bright at my feet sparkling in the freshness of the new day.

morning yoga

morning yoga

Singing to sustain us as we walked became a wonderful way of imbibing another’s spiritual tradition. We sang, feeling the harmonies echo within us, feeling the sound of the different languages, Hebrew, Hindi, Arabic, Gaelic English, Spanish.  And if singing brought us closer together so did silence. We would have a time every day to walk in stillness, attentive to the land and to what it had to teach us about the preciousness of our planet, present and mindful of   the cowbells or the waves and the rhythmic trudging of our feet.

joining Adam and Fayaz in Salat

joining Adam and Fayaz in Salat

Early in the week we joined Adam and Fayaz in Salat. We were by a well and the ablutions in the heat of the day felt refreshing as we prepared for prayer. I found touching my head to the earth and smelling the goodness of life to be a wonderful way of expressing my surrender to the Creator of all.

For many in the group it was a breaking through into different experiences of spiritual practice and this happened as we chanted Om with Piyush, shared  Jewish Shabbat on the Friday evening with Saul, shared Zikr from the Islamic faith  moving in a circle on a cliff top on the Saturday with Adam and Fayaz or yoga with Maggie, Michelle and Laura.

Being open to other pilgrims not in our group was also important. We had always thought that if other pilgrims wanted to join us for our gathered times they would be welcome. Once a young woman walked with us and sat with us during a Torah study. Her face was a picture of curiosity and pleasure. Another time an older German pilgrim sang with us and then shared a song before she walked on ahead. Another time a pilgrim called Paloma (meaning peace!) spoke to one of us of how  she and her friends had  seen us at two albergues and watched us over a couple of nights observing our circles of reflection and meditation. The atmosphere around us had touched her, she said.

evening conversation at Paula and Rueben's albuerga

evening conversation at Paula and Rueben’s albuerga

It was half way through the week at Paula’s albergue that our discussion around the table reached a new depth. It was over difference and how we made room for each other without excluding one another. There was real honesty, tears shed, laughter and a sense of caring and compassion and everyone contributed as the different reflections speaking of the dinner  below show

……. ‘I had never before had the privilege to be a part of such an honest, challenging, and yet deeply respectful conversation. I find it’s so easy to get defensive, or offensive, and to shut yourself off to what someone else might have to say. But to sit around a table with other people who were so ready and willing to really listen and be open to what everyone had to say was an amazing honor.’

……… ‘ at dinner when members share their inner words. Almost everybody cried. I was shocked and deeply touched by the honesty  and sincerity and how powerful they are :breaking the ice. We should be very honest with ourselves and others.’

…….. ‘an incredibly organic, honest, and beautiful sharing occurred from every member of the group…. genuine community ..…It was something I knew to be possible, had sought for years, and finally felt that evening.’

…… ‘I don’t think I had ever been involved in such an honest, mind opening, heart-opening discussion with a large group of people. Each person spoke straight from their heart and it was so inspiring. On that evening I understood really and truly on a deep level how God is in everyone and that it doesn’t matter what path each person is on. I realised at the level of my heart that every human being is different, each of us is at a different stage in our spiritual growth and so no spiritual path is higher or lower than any other. They are just different paths to the same destination.’

……. ‘The conversation started due to trying to respect differences religion-to-religion while at the same time trying to respect differences within each religion… while at the same time trying to respect an individual’s life choices. It really resulted in an exposure of some of each person’s deepest feelings and troubles, and (re-)established an extremely deep trust between the pilgrims. It was hard and it was emotional, but it was certainly the most memorable moment, and the best part of the week’s experience for me as well. While it was difficult, it also made me fall in love with my fellow pilgrims.’

…….. ‘Our conversation was marked for me by deep listening and thoughtful words, by a safety for vulnerability, an awareness of our oneness as a group, and by peace.’

We had chosen not to arrive at the medieval pilgrimage destination, but to walk part of the way of the 6 week Camino together. We understood that we were not arriving anywhere but discovering together along the way,  and our way was filled sometimes with beauty and hope (Michelle was a constant reminder of that as she carried the 16th baby pilgrim within her with such joy,) and sometimes the dirt and dust of industrial surroundings  reminded us  of  struggle,  hard work,  and the environmental issues of our time.

The surprises and the spontaneous moments were part of the joy

learning new songs and chants

learning new songs and chants

A wonderful moment came after asking the pilgrims to teach each other their sacred songs or chants. Saul, a Jew from the University of Edinburgh had just taught us a song in Hebrew and we walked down a rolling hill through pastures and into a little green valley, singing and singing. At the bottom of the hill, the two Muslims in our group, Fayaz and Adam came running up from behind, their eyes bright with something to share. It turned out that they recognized the tune! In fact, the exact tune of Saul’s Hebrew chant was one that they knew very well, but with different words and in Arabic. We sensed this deep sense of connection between these three as they discovered this common thread. And as if the story was made for a movie, Piyush, who is Hindu and originally from India, also recognized the tune as it was made popular by a famous musician who spans that part of the world. All of this spoke to the Oneness for which we were walking. The power of building relationships,  the practice of walking, prayer and singing. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the melody of a song pointed us to the reality that we all come from the One.

After a few weeks the pilgrims sent in their learnings from the Peace pilgrimage:

‘….One part of the profound impact the pilgrimage had on me was realizing that I can fall deeply in love with a range of faith traditions without compromising my Christian faith. Prior to the pilgrimage I questioned whether it was possible to go beyond coexisting with multiple traditions, to a place of experiencing and loving other traditions, without watering them all down.  My answer came our first day on the Camino as our entire group engaged in salat.  Throughout the week the answer came again and again with a resounding YES!’

‘….. One of my biggest take aways, however, is my restored belief in the possibility of change. The other group members, who in their own ways are all thoughtful, compassionate, caring people dedicated to working for peace, reminded me that when we come together and actually listen to one other, great things are possible.’

the way

the way

‘….I had this notion that Christianity (or at least the versions of Presbyterianism with which I have been associated) was missing vital practices confirmed, as I looked at those around me engaged in deep personal and corporate practices.  I am encouraged to try and cultivate this within folks of my tradition.’

‘….what I wasn’t prepared for was the depth of those emotions and the reality of those experiences. That they had the power to transform oneself.’

‘….I realised that I am a very reserved person, and this has had a large impact on me. I would like to be much more open. This is something that I pledged to do at the Newell’s flat on the last day: to be more truthful with others in my life. I am going to try to speak my mind much more often, and tell people who I love that I love them! Also, I definitely rediscovered my singing voice!’

‘….I came on one of Europe’s oldest Christian Pilgrimage routes as a Hindu. I experienced the truth that I am a Hindu because I was born as one. But I could also have been born a Jew, a Christian, a Muslim, a Jain, a Buddhist, a Sikh… and yet be No More or No Less Spiritual…& No Less Blessed a Human who completely surrenders to the Will of the Divine! It was a truly life changing experience and a heart warming journey of peace and unity in our troubled,   skeptic times…’

‘….Respecting and appreciating diversities and keeping the mind open. Gaining inspirations through dialogues and listening, Keep on exploring how religion and spirituality can have a positive impact on people, life, society and the world. I may seek a chance to do  PHD studies focusing on spiritual education and see in the future whether I can introduce such kind of program into China’                

‘….There are many ways to God as there are souls on this Earth’

‘…..That I can be true to my religious heritage and still open myself to all the others. My tradition is not dulled by an experience with another tradition; rather it is made more vibrant’

‘…..that the experience of sharing traditions, practices, hopes and dreams leads us not to a shallower, but a deeper truth.’

….. ‘One thing I am taking away are the reflections which began and ended our time together: our intentions and the ways in which we each want to be a blessing in the world. I am grateful for this way of framing our time because it acknowledges that while there is a common thread that brought us and keeps us together, we were all there for different reasons,.The pilgrimage has left me with a re-focused intention to live as truthfully as I can, to live with the bold honesty which I, and I believe our world, are craving.’

‘……I could not have imagined getting the chance to share so deeply with a group of such wonderful people. I have never before felt so at ease with people, knowing that each individual was totally accepted for who they are by every other member of the group. Everyone was different and had their own inspiring story to share and yet the bond that was formed between us was so strong. I am truly grateful for having had the opportunity to walk alongside each one of the other pilgrims. Thank you!’

…….’It was enriching, it was life-transforming’

‘He will judge between the nations and will settle disputes for many peoples. They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.’  Isaiah 2:4