Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers
Eva Michaelsen, 50, is from the small village of Alken in the Danish Lake district. She is educated as a coach and process consultant, and has a background in visual arts and eurythmy, a meditative form of movement, a sacred dance, the art of expressive movement. She has made the 800-kilometer El Camino pilgrimage three times, and works with others through guided pilgrimages, lectures and walking meditations.
Eva’s path and mine intersected as a result of a trip I took to northern Denmark, at a time when I was only just beginning to embrace the concept of life as a journey. After a few decades of concentrating solely on the goal, the prize, and having an attitude that everything was a means to an end, I was exhausted by continually reaching my “destination”—and finding it wasn’t where I wanted to go. By always chasing the “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow, I missed out on a lot—and felt perpetually thwarted and frustrated. I can still revert to thinking it’s all about just “getting my diploma,” but the more I practice keeping my focus where my feet are—and it is practice!—the more I can appreciate that the way will become clearer as I move forward, to take time to pay attention to my fellow “pilgrims,” and recognize I am indeed part of something bigger than myself.
We hope you enjoy this conversation with Eva as she takes a trip down Memory Lane in describing her Camino experiences, and shares how those jaunts have shaped her philosophy of living in the present. (photographs are courtesy of Eva Michaelsen. For photos of northern Denmark see “Travel Photos” on homepage)
Meg: Can you describe El Camino?
Eva: El Camino in northern Spain is an old pilgrim’s road from the French border in the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Millions of people have traveled its 800 kilometers over the last 1,000 years to the grave of Saint James—Santiago in Spanish.
The Camino has a long history. Buildings, churches, monasteries everywhere remind you that hundreds of thousands of pilgrims have traveled here for centuries.
The holy shrine with the relics of Saint James is situated in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So it is not an ordinary grave, but a shrine downstairs in a crypt. From Monte de Gozo (the “Mount of Joy”) about 4 kilometers before Santiago you can see the towers of the Cathedral, so you follow the signs—yellow arrows or scallops which have marked the way from the Pyrenees.
It is a great moment to arrive. The last few kilometers you walk through the town. You face the Cathedral and are welcomed by the artistic jewel of Pórtico de la Gloria, a marble entrance with Biblical scenes and Christ and St. James in the middle of the column.
Inside before entering the Cathedral there is a central marble column where you place your hand with thanks for a safe arrival. There is a deep hole in the shape of a hand in the marble from all the millions of pilgrims who have held their hand there. When you walk into the crypt, the silence is sometimes very “thick,” even if there are many people. You end the ritual with embracing the sculpture of St. James behind the Central Altar.
After that you go to the Pilgrims Office to get your “diploma,” the Compostelana, which proves that you have walked from the Pyrenees, or wherever you have walked from. At least 100 kilometers—it is the last 100 kilometers that counts. Then you take part in the Pilgrims Mass which is celebrated every day at noon.
For many people, arriving at Santiago is the goal of the pilgrimage and all the rituals are of great importance. For people like me and many other who are not Catholic, but spiritually open-minded, Santiago is a great experience, and arriving makes you still and thankful. You have managed. And you see that you definitely took part in something which is much bigger than your personal life. Many of us, however, are longing to continue, to walk further on to the coast, to stay moving, which you have now got used to during the last 4-5 weeks.
There is evidence that many pilgrims during the medieval times continued to go west beyond Santiago, to the Atlantic Coast, to Finisterre, or “The End of the World” as it translates from Spanish. It is said that pilgrims burned their clothes in Finisterre—a symbol of having fulfilled the pilgrimage and been “new-born”—and threw their walking sticks into the ocean. And actually Finisterre is also the place where you find a lot of St. James Scallops on the beach. So Finisterre is an extension of the Camino, but on the other hand part of it.
You can also say that the pilgrimage is a symbol of your life journey. You walk from the beginning—the birth—and end up at the grave—of St. James—and at The End of the World. The interesting thing is—the Camino is never ending! Once you have been there you have it for the rest of your life! It continues in you!
Meg: What is the significance of the scallop shell?
Eva: The scallop shell is a symbol of the Camino de Santiago. According to one of the legends of Saint James, he once saved a drowning horseman, who at the time of the salvation was covered with scallop shells. Another legend tells about St. James’ dead body arriving on a boat on the Galician Coast, and for that reason the scallop is connected to him.
The shell is an old symbol for Venus, and the shape itself has a feminine form: open like a hand. It is also a Christian symbol of Mother Mary—and the pearl inside the shell is the Christ or Logos. And pilgrims also used the shell for practical reasons—as a spoon for instance!
Meg: Is there is a “season” for walking the Camino? Do you generally go at a particular time of year? And what is an “average” length of time to complete the walk?
Eva: You can walk all year. But I would avoid July and August, because of the heat and because of too many people! April and May are wonderful. Spain is still green and fresh. But September and October are also great, and the temperature is still nice. I heard of a German woman who every year walks from the 24th of December to the 6th of January during the most holy time of the year.
Five weeks is an average length. It took me 35 days from France to Finisterre—almost 900 km. And then you need some time to relax, and “land” before you go back home. 4-5 days in Finisterre is fine!
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