By DAWN PROSSER
Director of Communications
“The Camino is commonly referred to as a journey that is a metaphor for life. You meet and journey with different people for an hour, day, week or entire month, some never to see again. You do not go backwards. We understand pain, joy, gratitude and live an entire life cycle along the way,” Danielle (Dani) Fennessy wrote of her Camino de Santiago pilgrimage this summer.
The Sioux City Mater Dei parishioner and administrative assistant for the diocesan Catholic Schools and Faith Formation Offices traveled to France and Spain to make the 31-day, spiritual journey with her younger sister, Mary.
The Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James) is a series of pilgrim routes across Europe which culminate at the tomb of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwest Spain. This pilgrimage has been in existence for an estimated 1,000-plus years. A monastery was built on the site of St. James’ tomb and pilgrims began to visit once they learned miracles were occurring there.
As there are several Camino routes, the Fennessy sisters took the Camino Frances, departing from St. Jean Pied de Port in France. They walked a total of 790 kilometers or about 490 miles to Compostela, Spain to reach the monastery. The sisters walked for six to seven hours daily covering about 15 miles each day. The long walks provided time for prayer and contemplation as the young women walked separately.
“For me, it was a lot of virtue growth and like a form of intercessory prayer, offering up a lot of the sufferings and the pains of walking six hours a day going up the hills and mountains and having blisters. It also really drew me, just like walking through pastureland drew me to Christ as a shepherd,” she said.
Her younger sister described her prayer and contemplation during the journey as it was like “Jesus walking alongside her the entire time.”
It was during middle school when Fennessy first thought about walking the Camino. Last year a friend resurrected the idea with her. Once on the Camino, she was surprised to learn that not all the Camino pilgrims were on a spiritual journey.
“I was kind of shocked by the amount of people who were not Catholic doing it (for secular reasons) because for me, that was always the point of going on the Camino,” she pointed out. “I would say I met more younger people who were doing it as a Catholic pilgrimage.”
Many of the pilgrims were in their 50s or older, taking a break from work or desiring a break from their daily life.
“You would always ask people where they’re from and why they’re walking the Camino before you found out their name,” Fennessy said.
Although she had “trained’ for the month-long journey by walking distances of up to 14 miles in “flat Iowa,” the pilgrim said the first day, which was through the Pyrenees Mountains, presented a physical challenge she did not expect.
“It was just the first day and it was so extremely difficult and hard. I (thought) if this is how every day is going to be, I give up - immediately,” she said.
However, the pilgrim was able to focus on her faith and blessings despite the difficulty. A survivor of mesothelioma, during the climb she compared the trials to her former cancer treatments.
“There were four hills so I said each one will be a round of chemo - I had four - but the hills just kept coming and so I told myself this is the sanctifying grace so that others don’t have rounds of chemo,” she wrote.
Fennessy explained the difficult climb provided a spiritual breakthrough to guide her through the next 30 days of her journey.
“My prayer was, ‘Lord, I’m unable to do this right now. You have to help me.’ And if I hadn’t had that moment, I don’t think I would have ever grown along the Camino…the prayers were just so pure and honest. I don’t know if I’ve ever had such honest prayers,” the pilgrim said.
The journey includes two other high peaks along the Camino Francis Way –the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) and the O Cebreiro. Fenessy said the trek to each peak was different from the other geographically and spiritually.
The Cruz de Ferro is the highest elevation of the Camino “and the easiest to get to.” After the physically demanding climb on the first day, Fennessy feared another difficult climb similar to the Pyrenees experience. However, it was a beautiful day and easy climb.
Pilgrims bring a rock to leave at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro as a sign of “your intention of why you’re walking and this is something that (secular pilgrims) do, too. They don’t fully realize what they’re doing.”
“The rock is meant to symbolizes what a pilgrim brought on the Camino, then they leave it behind at the cross and move forward without the burden. I’ve carried a rock I brought from Sioux City - St Luke’s Hospital - to lay at the base of the cross,” she wrote in her blog, noting St. Luke’s is where she received her cancer diagnosis. (She celebrated her first anniversary of remission on day 19 of the Camino.)
As is the Camino custom, the traveler who leaves their stone at the Cruz de Ferro leaves their burdens behind. Fennessy was no exception.
Fennessy was so struck by the experience on the mountain that she included her reflections in her blog for friends, family and coworkers back in the United States.
“But outside of myself, I was more struck by just all of the metaphorical baggage everyone is carrying and how important it is to lay it down at the feet of Jesus. All these people on the Camino searching and adventuring and haven’t met Jesus and walked past this cross,” she wrote. “The thousands of rocks and all of those who don’t know and just walk past. All of this baggage that all of us are carrying and we literally just have to put it down at the cross.”
Three weeks into the journey, the pilgrims tackled the third and final high peak of the Camino - O Cebreiro. Fennessy wrote in her blog that it was “a challenging mountain to climb,” but fulfilling.
“If every day on the Camino was like that day, I could do that day over and over and over again. It was just absolutely beautiful,” she said, noting she was renewed from reaching the peak and had the energy to keep walking. “We were just overfilled with joy and just so happy to be on it…It was like the redemption of the first day when it was so rough.”
Above, worn out shoes of the Camino pilgrims. Right, Dani and Mary Fennessy.
Above right, Dani places a symbolic stone at the foot of the Cruz de Ferro or Iron Cross. Top, Dani on a mountain hike on the Camino.
Aside from hiking up three mountains, the Camino pilgrims walked through varied areas including roads, through forests, through towns and through farmland. However, most of the journey was walking on gravel roads and paths.
Encountering many other walkers on the Camino, the sisters made many friends from around the world. However, Fennessy said she usually met her sister and the other pilgrims in the towns along the journey.
Once they selected the town where they would stop for the night, they would stay in albergues or hostels for pilgrims. The albergues are similar to dormitories with kitchens and common spaces.
“We were up by 5 a.m. every day and walking by 5:30 a.m. or 6. We were in town by noon or 1 p.m. for lunch. Then you take a nap and do your laundry,” the pilgrim explained, noting they would often have supper with the other travelers at night.
The sisters each carried a backpack with two spare sets of clothing, three pairs of socks, a pair of sandals for the showers and evenings, toiletries, a towel, first aid and a blanket that served as a sleeping bag. Some days, they would carry water and snacks.
After walking an average of 15 miles per day, Fennessy dealt with sore muscles, sore feet, some pain and many blisters.
Church of Santiago
After nearly 500 miles and 31 days of walking on now worn-out shoes, the sisters and their traveling companions reached the Church of Santiago (Church of St. James).
“We woke up at 4:45 a.m. and arrived in Santiago around 10 a.m. We stopped at a cafe outside of town and marched in as a group of (about) 20 people. We wanted to finish as one big group,” Fennessy wrote in her blog. “Mass was at noon and the afternoon was spent shopping and sitting in the Santiago square watching the pilgrims come in. It is still surreal that I have finished walking. It’s honestly anticlimactic arriving in the square.”
Encountering the Camino with their fellow pilgrims was one of the best parts of the experience for Fennessy and her sister. However, it was difficult to say goodbye as each went their separate ways. Some went home and others continued their journey to Finisterre on the Atlantic coast, at a spot named Edge of the World.
“Mary and I took a car to Finisterre with friends we met and it’s been a good afternoon of reflection. I felt St. James’ presence as I stood at the ‘edge of the world’ and great joy to be able to stand where he once traveled to evangelize,” Fennessy wrote on June 21, her last day of walking. “’Consider it pure joy my brothers and sisters when you face trials of any kind.’ James 1:2.”