A fellow translator-blogger, Margaret Marks, just remarked that pilgrimages are not what they used to be -- they are now offered as all-in-one travel packages, including tour guides and all the rest. Actually, it's worse than she comments, and the problem also relates to the way we treat the environment.
I have traveled the Camino de Santiago twice by bicycle from France. Once you enter Spain, there is a constant flow of pilgrims, at least during the warm months of the year. Many of them do not have spiritual, much less religious, reasons for making the pilgrimage. Some simply do so for sports and to meet people. But honestly, I doubt it was any different in the Middle Ages, when noblemen would often pay someone to walk in their steed.
The big difference today is that we actually think Santiago is the goal. In the Middle Ages, everyone knew that Santiago was the midpoint; you still had to get back home.
Regardless of why you go on this pilgrimage, I believe that everyone comes back with a different way of looking at the world: more energy, more openness, more willingness to help others, a greater love of life, etc. The pilgrimage is a refreshing experience. Today, people fly out of Santiago back home immediately or take the train. Of the dozens -- if not hundreds -- of people I met on my two pilgrimages, I only met a single person who planned to walk all the way back.
If you spend a few weeks on this pilgrimage, coming back to the real world is quite a shock -- at least, it was for me. You realize that, as much as you would like to take that openness to strangers back home with you, everyone in the real world would think you are simply intruding if you try to come too close. At least you get to keep your greater love of life.
Probably up into the 20th century, pilgrims would walk all the way home. As they walked further away from Santiago and ever closer to home, they would have been able to make the transition at a human speed.
Today, we do not have that kind of cyclical thinking -- that you have to come back to where you started. Rather, when we get somewhere, we expect to have some technology to save us, to get us back home. Too much carbon in the air? Make clouds, or spray stuff in the ocean to bind CO2. No need to change your life.
I remember Reinhold Messner, the famous mountain climber, once being asked in an interview how it felt to stand atop Mount Everest. It's painful and brief, he said (and I am paraphrasing from memory) - painful because the oxygen is so thin, and you are so weak from all the effort it took you to get there; and it's brief because you know that you have not reached your goal yet -- you have to get back down.
That's the way it should feel when you reach Santiago. Arrival should probably be more painful than it is, not for any lack of oxygen, but rather just for the fearful thought that on the way back this whole world where everyone helped each other reach a common goal will gradually disappear as you return to the real world of diverging interests.
I have not managed to find the eight weeks I would need to cycle from home to Santiago and back yet, but -- Lord willing -- I may do so one day. So put in a good word with Her for me, okay?