A Secular Pilgrimage: Exploring Spirituality on the Camino de Santiago, Portugal

by Thom Brown

A pilgrim of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela questions ideas of spirituality and religion as he makes his way through Portugal.

Vamos, vamos,” bellowed a distant voice, as a flurry of characters chaotically scrambled toward the cathedral entrance. The embrace of the gold-adorned hall sucked us in, ushering us toward the front pew, just to the right of a life-sized plastic statue of the Pope. His arms were raised as if inviting us for a hug. Then, a similar-looking figure – made of flesh this time – in a pristine white dress with a purple scarf draped around his shoulders, marched confidently toward the altar. He had a jovial glint in his eyes and a warm smile, radiating inner calmness in a space that was the epicenter of his comfort zone.

The same couldn’t be said for me, nor my fellow travelers, who left home for a hike and found ourselves awkwardly smirking as a man in a dress preached from the stage. I listened intently to the entire speech, picking out keywords like importante, Deus, and família. Though the exact wording was lost on me, the message was clear: he wished us a safe passage as we began the world’s most famous pilgrimage: the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

The priest came forward with a ceremonial metal bowl and spoon in his hands. He flicked cold holy water droplets at my face, the sprinkles dancing along the whites of my eyes as I stood stoically out of respect. While the whole ceremony felt ridiculous and ritualistic, it was at least a clear occasion to mark the beginning of an epic journey. Upon exiting the church, a stamp satisfyingly slammed down on my Camino passport, marking the first checkpoint on the historic trail. 

In the 9th Century, relics of Saint James were discovered in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Word spread across medieval Europe, inspiring devout Catholics to travel there by foot to prove their faith. Thus, the Camino was born. Pope Alexander VI declared this one of the three great pilgrimages, along with those ending in Jerusalem and Rome. Here, on this ancient trail, I joined millions of pilgrims before me who had traced the footpaths up the coast of Portugal. I wouldn’t go the whole way, but I’d dip my toes in the pilgrim lifestyle at least as far as the Spanish border, despite my lack of belief in a higher power and little veneration for so-called saints.

The path began in Viana do Castelo, a beautiful little town that served as an entry point for explorers during the Portuguese Age of Discovery. The town center was dotted with religious buildings, which looked like they were carved into rocks over hundreds of years, leaving them strong and resilient, but also delicate and intricate. The exterior of houses were clad with blue and white tiles that, while very pretty, seemed as though they’d been stripped straight from my grandmother’s bathroom. This was the starting point not just for our little group, but for pious peasants throughout the ages. Like those before me, I soaked in the architecture, then picked up my backpack and set off on the trail.

The 134 kilometers from Viana to Santiago could hardly be simpler. Just follow the yellow arrows and you can’t go wrong. It was made easier for me because I was hiking with Quinta da Quinhas, an albergue and co-living space for pilgrims, nomads, and misfits. Together, we’d trace the shoreline, our footsteps layering upon the footsteps of others, connecting us not just with one another, but with generations of wanderers who came before and those who were yet to come. 

Or, as Ecclesiastes 3:15 puts it, “That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already has been.”

The trail passed from town to town, capturing the spaces between: the spots where we hardly stop because we think there’s nothing there to see. Except, by going on foot, we realized there was an entire universe in every blade of grass, in the shells of derelict farmhouses, and in the thrashing of the ocean, a constant companion: the soundtrack of our trek.

Rural northern Portugal was a humble retreat. The mountains were not imposing, but pleasantly inviting as they rolled up and down the horizon, their surfaces softened by dense, deep green forests. The stone footpaths had hardly changed since the Middle Ages, battered and worn but sturdy and reliable like an old pair of leather boots. We were free to wander the trail alone, keeping distance to sit with our thoughts or come together for deep conversations, free from the distractions of daily life.

“So, are you religious?” I asked a German pilgrim as we reached the outskirts of town and looked ahead toward the incoming natural scenery.

“No, not at all,” he responded in a very matter-of-fact, very German monotone. “Actually, I don’t like these rituals. I think they are ridiculous.”

I nodded in agreement as we powered up the stone steps that took us closer to the blank bits of the map that marked – in my head at least – unexplored territories. We’d been lucky with blue skies, but at this point, the rain began to batter down. Along with a dozen other nomads, I took shelter beneath a road bridge and waited for it to pass.

“Are you religious?” I asked a Spanish pilgrim.

“Actually, that depends on what you mean by religious,” he answered with typical Spanish indirectness. “I don’t follow any specific religion, but I believe it offers something: community, connection, something bigger than ourselves.”

As the gray clouds began to fracture, a burst of yellow light pierced through the cracks. I channeled Kerouac and imagined I could see “the great image of God with forefinger pointed straight at me.” But, of course, I didn’t see anything but the bonds of human beings enjoying a shared experience – a shared suffering – as we struggled with ponchos and dodged puddle-filled potholes.

Passing Carreço, the sleepy villages became fewer and further between as the path snaked off into the forest. The solid stone floor reached its conclusion and merged onto soggy, muddy tracks. A vast cluster of tall, skinny trees provided welcome shade, and dried-up river beds offered a natural path to follow. This phase of the pilgrimage felt even more ancient, divorced from human history, and closer to the transcendent.

Two Portuguese pilgrims confirmed my suspicions that they, too, were not religious.

“These days, 90% of pilgrims doing the Camino aren’t religious,” one of them said.

“But I am spiritual,” the other replied, the first agreeing emphatically. “I know there is something more, I just don’t know what it is. I don’t believe this life will be the end of us, but really, I don’t know.”

And that’s the crux of it. The one commonality that bonds all living humans is that we have no idea what happens when we die. Until then, all we can do is enjoy the journey.

A seasoned pilgrim explained, “There’s a magic to the Camino, but the magic isn’t out there in the world; it’s inside of you. The Camino is just one way to bring it out.”

That inner magic, combined with the Camino-created community, is what differentiated this walk from the rest. There was a natural spirit of generosity that lined the length of the trail. Homes opened up to weary travelers in a way I’ve never experienced. I’ve hiked, God knows I’ve hiked, but a pilgrimage is something different. It provides a deeper connection to humanity, nature, and the unknown. No matter what we believed in the moment, the Camino united us under a shared agnosticism.

A town called Caminha marked the most northern point of the Portuguese section of the Camino. A wooden boat with a small motor pulled up, and we climbed aboard one by one, ready to cross over to Spain, the final destination of this great pilgrimage. As we sat facing each other, gently rocked by the calm river mouth that unfurled into the Atlantic Ocean, we shared a moment.

Together, we crossed a national border, but we also crossed a border within our minds. Our journey transformed from secular to spiritual. And we had transformed, too, from mere travelers to bona fide pilgrims.

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