Julia Roberts, Website contributor
Julia arrived in Compostela exhausted but empowered
It's a sign of the current revival in Christianity that a famous medieval pilgrimage route, The Way of St James, is now hugely popular.
Julia Roberts, an Anglican from west Staffordshire, says pilgrims seek God not just by completing the walk but through contemplation while en route.
She describes her experience of it as a way of trial, challenge and fulfilment.
Pilgrims undertake to walk as much as 500 miles to reach the church of Saint James of Compostela in Spain.
Here Julia remembers her experience of the The Way of St James, and reflects on what it meant to her.
In high summer - August to be exact - I set off on foot along the medieval pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, the burial place of Saint James.
Starting from Saint Jean Pied de Port, a small French town in the foothills of the Pyrenees, I was equipped with nothing more than walking boots, one change of clothes, a sleeping bag, water bottle, mp3 player and the traditional St James pilgrim symbol - a scallop shell.
Having never walked further than twenty miles in one weekend and with no prior training, I was slightly concerned about what lay ahead - the 500 mile journey through ancient tracks, mountain passes and never ending corn fields where the temperature soars to 40 degrees by midday.
I had heard about the pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostela from other travellers on my recent trips abroad.
For over a thousand years, pilgrims have been journeying from all over Europe to this Galician cathedral city in North West Spain.
Today, whether seeking outdoor adventure, a chance to escape from the monotony of life or searching for something deeper - thousands are still making their way along the ancient pathways to pay homage to the resting place of St James.
The Camino de Santiago or Way Of St James appealed to me for three reasons: I was in search of an adventure, I wanted to improve my Spanish (!), but most of all I wanted to encounter God at a much deeper and more intimate level.
Unlike my ancient pilgrim predecessors who would have undertaken the journey for penitential purposes, I envisaged my pilgrimage more like a retreat - a chance to reflect, meditate and pray in solitude and peace.
After being issued with my credencial or pilgrim passport and told that all I needed to do was follow the yellow arrows, I set off in the footsteps of former pilgrims such as St Francis of Assisi and King Louis VII.
Over the ensuing days I climbed mountain passes cloaked with wild ponies and sheep, followed tiny tracks through luscious vineyards and sumptuous orchards, slept in ancient Benedictine monasteries set in pine forests, and passed through magnificent Cathedral cities such as Burgos and León.
Accommodation was cheap but basic; a bunk, cold shower and occasional bowl of garlic soup in a local refugio - pilgrim hostel - cost approximately four euros per night.
August is the Spanish holiday season and although I had chosen to pilgrim alone, I found, much to my initial annoyance, I was never more than 500 metres away from another pilgrim.
The Spaniards, Italians and Germans were out in full force and, in an effort to block out the sometimes rumbustious roar, I donned my mp3 player and trudged on.
I was determined to hear God speak even if it meant listening to John Rutter and his Cambridge singers for the eighth time that day!
However, to my surprise, it wasn't in the dulcet tones of Rutter or the blessings received in medieval stone churches and opulent baroque cathedrals where I truly encountered God.
Journey of the soul
As the route progressed people became reflective, self disclosing and authentic.
'The Way' is said to be a journey of the soul. Outwardly the pilgrim faces the weather and the terrain - but inwardly discovers what's important in life.
My mp3 player stopped working, a blister became infected, and I was bedridden for two days with a throat infection.
It was at this point, when I was at my most weak and vulnerable that I became truly open to receiving and encountering God's rich blessings and love...
...through Ignacio, a man from Valencia who stopped to bandage my foot, through Marianne from Germany who gave me her last banana, from Isabel from Barcelona who dried my tears when I felt homesick, from Anders from Denmark who walked the last 60k with me so I didn't arrive alone in Santiago, and from Brenda from Holland, who had returned to the Cathedral in Santigo for three consecutive days in the hope of finding me. When she did find me, she flung her arms open wide, hugged me and with tears streaming down her face she joyfully exclaimed, 'At last, I have found you.'
Therefore, if the pilgrimage represents a microcosm of life, then arriving at the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago must symbolise the glory of what is to come in the heavenly realms - somehow, everything had fallen into place.
Julia Roberts (all photos copyright)
To read a companion piece on the concept of the St James pilgrimage,