During the summer of 2014 I walked the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage 1,000 km across Spain. Fortunate to receive a UTSOA travel scholarship, I sought to study refuge in its manifold manifestations along this medieval and flourishing path.
I woke before dawn every morning, gathered thirty or so pounds on my back, and set off. Alone. Always alone, for I wanted to live the insecurity, quiet, and solitude of true pilgrimage. Anxious, exhausted, eager, contemplative-however I started my day-I inevitably confronted frustration and fear along the way.
Every day I was surprised by the cemeteries I passed. Always enclosing cyprus-filled courtyards with beautiful gates and sturdy walls, these communities of the dead were a reminder of the many who had journeyed this way before. Inward-facing, these simple places poetically exemplified the communal way of the Spanish - in this life and beyond.
Hiking under the relentless Spanish sun or trudging through driving rain, I longed for shelter. Thick, protective walls. Again and again, I discovered refuge in "dark" and dimly-lit interiors. Churches, attics, monasteries - these warm, candlelit space gave me pause. I could sit, close my eyes, breathe deeply, and fortify my spirit for the exertion ahead. One afternoon, two companions and I encountered the Eunate Romanesque Church. Abiding within this small, dark sanctuary, we were each overcome with tears. Alabaster windows radiating the faintest glow of sunlight, its still, graceful atmosphere granted us immediate and unsolicited repose.
In architecture today, we regularly praise light's ephemeral, ethereal presence. But only by embracing light's complement - darkness, shadow, depth - can we grasp its mystery. Endeavoring together, darkness and lightness enrich each other as loving partners.
These is an old and beautiful Camino phrase oft-repeated, "Ultreia!", which translates roughly as "onward," "further," or "to the end." Ostensibly an encouragement to endure, "Ultreia!" actually urges pilgrims to search within themselves, to plunge into the depths of their inner journey. Arriving at that final vista, the often dreamt-of ocean in full view for the first time, I felt distilled. Refuge had formed within me. As we pilgrims learned, the real pilgrimage was, and has always been, inside of us.