I originally set out to continue walking the Camino de Levante because it is the route that starts from my home province in southeast Spain. I wanted to connect home with the shrine of Saint James during this Xacobeo—the Compostela Holy Year—by walking that particular route. It was very challenging because of the heat on the plains and the long distances between villages and towns, but the extra factor I had not taken into account was the shortage of pilgrim accommodation, or its complete absence in many places. Three other pilgrims I met abandoned the route before I did, and after a final long day’s walk mostly spent on the phone trying to find a bed for the night, I saw a railway station and finally gave up and bought a ticket to Madrid.

On the train after reluctantly abandoning the Camino de Levante, two things stood out as I remembered the charming town of El Toboso, made famous by Cervantes’ novel. The first was a poignant illustration by Heath Robinson[1] that I saw in the town’s Don Quixote museum: it was a picture of the knight’s squire Sancho Panza begging his donkey for forgiveness, in an episode from those adventures. As I limped around the museum looking at the various editions of the book in the glass cases, that image made an impression upon me. Saint Francis always referred to his physical body as “Brother Ass,” and rebuked his body for being weak. I was limping because I had completely overdone it on the previous stages of the Camino, walking crazy distances that I had not intended: 45 kilometers one day instead of the intended 25.

Unlike Saint Francis and more like Sancho Panza, I needed to ask Brother Ass to forgive me. My shins were aching and I had an enormous blister on the sole of my left foot. The Camino is not about acts of Olympian heroism that wreck Brother Ass…

Sancho Panza asks his donkey to forgive him.

The other thing that stood out from visiting El Toboso was the frequent utterance of the guest sister in the convent of the Trinitarians, who would finish any statement with, “Si Dios quiere,” “If God wills it.” Since Sister gave me the wrong opening times for the museum, I had to rush round in half an hour before it closed. She also gave me the wrong time for Vespers in her own convent, so I missed that, and the wrong time for evening Mass at the convent of the Poor Clares. At least I just caught the tail end, arriving just in time for the Agnus. God had not willed it that I should miss these things: there was a clear problem with time management! I formed the amusing idea that everywhere sister went she decided that God had simply not willed all the things she regularly missed by turning up at the wrong time. But I did actually benefit from her reminder that God is in control and sometimes He doesn’t will the things we want to do—like the Camino de Levante—which I had confidently announced I would follow as far as Toledo and if I had the energy, perhaps as far as Avila.

After I abandoned the route, I checked into a really bad hotel next to a railway station to await the early morning train to Madrid. The only picture on the wall was a view of Avila by the 19th-century Valencian impressionist Sorolla, and I could hear the voice of the Trinitarian convent’s guest sister saying “Si Dios quiere.” Maybe God did not want me to do heroic walks to Avila on the Camino Levante across La Mancha? Had I even thought to ask Him? No. It had been my plan entirely, not His, and I had not even given His will a moment’s reflection in prayer.

Cheap print of Sorolla’s impressionist painting of Avila on the hotel wall.

In a backward-facing seat on the morning train I watched the flatlands of La Mancha disappear behind me and then the suburbs of Madrid replace that wide landscape with the narrow egos and spray-can primary colors of the trackside graffiti artists, on dull walls below the drab concrete blocks of high-density city housing. At the railway terminus, I entered into the Friday morning rush hour of the capital city, but I only had to spend four hours there, as I had decided the only solution now was to return to the north of Spain to complete my Holy Year Camino. There was a fast train with bus connections that would put me in El Ferrol before the end of the day.

I would walk the Camino Inglés which would enable me to arrive in Santiago after six days’ walk, completing the distance needed to qualify for the Holy Year pilgrim certificate, the Compostelana. Remembering Sister’s oft-repeated words, I hoped this was finally God’s will for this pilgrimage. Near the station, I found a featureless concrete church with appalling stained glass windows, representing nothing identifiable in Catholic iconography. I sat there for a while. God seemed to be saying, “Why are you asking me if this is my will, when you have already bought your train ticket?”

“Fair point, Lord,” I said, “but I think you have made things clear already. You have been telling me I need to be kinder to Brother Ass and you don’t want me walking heroic distances, but simply doing a quieter sort of walk. Will I find you in it?”

There was silence.

The Friday midday train from Madrid had plenty of passengers equipped with rucksacks and walking sticks, decorated with Santiago shells. They were keen to do the last 100 kilometers of the Camino Francés route in the HolyYear and get their pilgrim certificates. They all left the train at Sarria, the platform ringing with the cries of “¡Buen Camino!” Yes: that was it. The Camino should be enjoyed, not suffered. I continued on the train for another hour going north to start the English route.

After a good night’s sleep in a cheap hotel near the port of El Ferrol, I made my way to the traditional start of the Camino Inglés, the place where English pilgrim ships once docked.[2] The autonomous region of Galicia has now set up a pilgrim office right next to the port, and it is open all day to provide pilgrims with their credencial and route guides to begin their Camino.

The northern Spanish port of El Ferrol, start of the Camino Inglés.

“Do you need a guidebook?” asked the friendly girl from the Galicia tourism agency, after stamping my credencial with the departure stamp.

“No thanks,” I replied. “I tested the first English language guide to the route thirteen years ago. It’s a very easy route and it will all soon come back to me!”

I left the pilgrim office and promptly set off down the wrong street, ending up in a blind alley. Yes indeed, it all came back to me: I have not got a clue what I am doing and I never did have: it is time to learn a little humility. If I had recognized my limitations and set out a week ago to walk the Camino Inglés instead of proposing a heroic hard walk across La Mancha, I could have avoided the wrecked feet and growing signs of tendonitis in my shins from taking on an unnecessary physical challenge. But it has been a mixed blessing: there was a beauty in the flat landscapes and arid fierceness of the tracks across La Mancha. Maybe I needed to do that route for a while and learn from it, in order to appreciate this quieter and easier Camino?

The special Xacobeo Holy Year passport with my first stamps accrediting me as a pilgrim on the Camino Inglés.

From the beginning of this Camino Inglés route yesterday morning, I have been aware of the ecological responsibility of the autonomous Galicia region here in Spain, particularly on the Camino. You cannot escape the constant reminders about care for the natural surroundings, careful use of water, avoidance of waste, and many more themes that have been so imprinted upon the awareness of citizens in this region that it becomes second nature to simply do the right thing. I put an empty plastic bottle in an ordinary waste bin this morning, after emptying the mineral water into the reservoir in my rucksack. A lady who was older than me, who was passing by, corrected me in a very friendly way: “That should go in the plastic waste bin really, just so you remember next time. ¡Buen camino! Have a good walk.”

Pope Francis in his encyclical Laudato Si’ says:

Yet this education, aimed at creating an “ecological citizenship,” is at times limited to providing information, and fails to instill good habits. The existence of laws and regulations is insufficient in the long run to curb bad conduct, even when effective means of enforcement are present. If the laws are to bring about significant, long-lasting effects, the majority of the members of society must be adequately motivated to accept them, and personally transformed to respond. Only by cultivating sound virtues will people be able to make a selfless ecological commitment. A person who could afford to spend and consume more but regularly uses less heating and wears warmer clothes, shows the kind of convictions and attitudes which help to protect the environment. There is a nobility in the duty to care for creation through little daily actions, and it is wonderful how education can bring about real changes in lifestyle. Education in environmental responsibility can encourage ways of acting which directly and significantly affect the world around us, such as avoiding the use of plastic and paper, reducing water consumption, separating refuse, cooking only what can reasonably be consumed, showing care for other living beings, using public transport or car-pooling, planting trees, turning off unnecessary lights, or any number of other practices. All of these reflect a generous and worthy creativity which brings out the best in human beings. Reusing something instead of immediately discarding it, when done for the right reasons, can be an act of love which expresses our own dignity.” (LS 211).[3]

In the pilgrim accommodation here on the Camino Inglés last night, there were five Italians, four Spanish, and one British, and we all followed the instructions placed around the pilgrim hostel for responsible use of water, electricity, recyclable waste disposal, etc. We were all Catholics. If the end result of Pope Francis’ efforts, in Laudato Si’ and other teachings on ecology and the environment, is to make us ambassadors of responsible use of our common home, this is undoubtedly a good interface between the Church and the most basic human concerns of our time.

It is easy for some traditionally-minded Catholics to sneer at these concerns and talk in a high-minded way about ‘purer’ spiritual and theological issues—as if these were higher values—but as Pope Francis says, “All Christian communities have an important role to play in ecological education. It is my hope that our seminaries and houses of formation will provide an education in responsible simplicity of life, in grateful contemplation of God’s world, and in concern for the needs of the poor and the protection of the environment.” (LS 214)

Maybe it is time for all of us to go down on our knees and apologize to Brother Ass for ignoring the abuse of our physical environment? And if the Trinitarian guest-sister sometimes repeats “if God wills it” a little too often, we might benefit from at least stopping sometimes to consider that He is ultimately in control.


[1] William Heath Robinson (1872-1944) is best known for his whimsical cartoons depicting absurd contraptions, giving rise to the popular saying, “That looks a bit Heath Robinson” to describe some improvised device, usually involving string. He was also an accomplished illustrator.

[2] The medieval English pilgrims who could afford to pay for a sea passage from Bristol and other ports in southern England, travelled to El Ferrol and walked this gentle route through green hills and eucalyptus forests to Compostela. Today the route is still known as the Camino Inglés. Johnny Walker of the Confraternity of Saint James produced the English language first guide to the route in 2008 and I was tasked with trying it out and offering corrections. Now, as I sped north in the high-speed train from Madrid, John messaged me and sent me an updated digital copy of the guide.

[3] Pope Francis’ encyclical letter Laudato Si’: on care for our common home (Vatican Press, 2015.)

Images: Header photo: waymarking on the Camino Inglés south of El Ferrol. All photos were taken by the author on 25th September 2021.

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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).

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