The Camino de Santiago and that Great, Terrible “Now What?”

By Jon DiNovo, participant at Goud op Zondag

Back in June, I took my first steps from Porto, Portugal towards Santiago de Compostela, Spain on what would be a 280km, 11-day journey along the Way of St. James.

The Camino

This centuries-old network of pilgrimage routes got its spark from the life, ministry, and death of Jesus’s follower and apostle, James. According to legend, James’s followers brought his body back to Spain where it was laid to rest following his death in Israel. Centuries later, his remains were discovered and moved to modern-day Santiago where the impressive Santiago de Compostela Cathedral was erected. 

This cathedral became a popular pilgrimage site for medieval Christians from all over Europe, giving birth to what we know today as the Camino de Santiago (“the Way of St. James”). And while not everyone goes to pay homage to St. James and his Master, the Camino remains one of the most popular pilgrimages in the entire world.

Like St. James, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ and thought the Camino would be an excellent place for recentering myself upon Him amid my overly cluttered and busy life. And I was right! The experience the Camino afforded me allowed for much decluttering and inner reorganization to take place. 

Each day, my walking partner and I woke up, started on the path, stopped for the occasional break, made it to the hostel, slept, and did the whole thing over again. This simplistic approach to each day frees up the mind and heart to shake itself clean of all the unnecessary details that latch onto it. In doing so, greater clarity and appreciation for life comes.

I found it very easy to refocus my senses upon the presence of God as we walked through quiet forests, impeccable mountainscapes, and peaceful oceansides. Furthermore, I was profoundly blessed by the wonderful people we met along the way. The shared experience of walking the Camino does wonders in bringing people together. As we walked with these strangers, shouldering our physical suffering and spiritual seeking together, we became something of a Camino family. I got to know a beautifully wide array of people, hear their stories, eat with them, and share in lighthearted moments as we all took in the same soulful experience.

The End of the Trail

It was bittersweet on the last day, but all the more rewarding after we walked 27km with a high of 35 degrees from Padron to Santiago. At the end, we arrived at that point upon which all Camino routes converge, the grand Cathedral built in memory of St. James and the God he served. 

There I could breathe a sigh of relief but also relish the satisfaction and peace that came with reaching the end of such a marvelous and memorable journey. I fondly recall sitting before the cathedral, watching other pilgrims reach the end of their journeys, and feeling completely at rest knowing I had seen my own through.

It was only later after the dust settled and I was making my preparations to return to Holland, that a sense of bittersweet longing came over me. I was sad. The Camino was over. No more beautiful sights. No more walking alongside the Camino family I had come to cherish. No more simple days that make God’s presence all the more obvious. 

A friend of mine explained that I was going through the “Now What?” phase of the Camino. A normal occurrence for pilgrims at the end of their walk, particularly those who have just completed it for the first time. 

“Now what?” is the end of the honeymoon. It’s the return to the day-to-day life that encompasses all of us. A return to the ordinary. Jobs, families, homes, the commonplace setting of the life the Camino temporarily took us away from.

And for those who find themselves experiencing something special on the Camino, they soon lose it as the learned rhythms of normal life come back in full force. They long for the trail and return to their lives dissatisfied. 

They don’t know what to do next and are left with that great question of “Now what?”

“Now What?” in Our Lives

This is an experience that not only affects pilgrims but each one of us in one way or another. Many of us have had the great privilege of experiencing something truly wonderful and impactful in life. Perhaps that’s graduation, getting that dream job, marriage, or even retirement.

In that moment, we feel amazing. A great sense of achievement, pleasure, and excitement fills us. 

But then life sets in. And that great moment, and all the feelings that came with it, ceases to be. Only the memory remains.

We often get so caught up in the romanticism behind these things that we delude ourselves into thinking that they’ll bring some sort of eternal stability and peace to our never-quite-right lives.

But it doesn’t work. It never works.

It’s a one-way ticket toward disillusionment and disappointment. 

When I finished the Camino and flew back to Rotterdam, I was still at that high point from the whole thing. The experience was fresh and I could still feel it so closely. I felt calmer and had greater clarity over things. 

But I had only just gotten back. I had yet to return to my daily routine and all the familiar things that life was going to throw at me. Now, with almost two months passed since my return, a lot of the feelings from the Camino have faded. Just as I expected them to.

Instead of falling into despair, melancholy, and longing, I’ve tried to approach this inevitable shift from a different angle.

I looked at what the Camino revealed to me and what lessons I could take from it and apply it to the life I was going back to.

I wasn’t clinging to the feelings but instead embraced the experience as one part of the grander journey that is my life.

I learned to slow down and take things easier- to simplify and take off that unnecessary weight. And though the romanticism of the Camino isn’t with me anymore, I have learned from it, and applied it to my life, and now I’ve been able to appreciate it more than I ever did before. 

And this is how we avoid the existential dread of “Now what?” By looking at life as an integrated whole, instead of it culminating in some temporary event or achievement. 

We need to be careful not to build our lives around these, because we will never find salvation from them. They will never purge us of all our discontent.

Now What?

So, then, “Now what?” 

Well, I can’t speak directly to the “Now what?” in your own life, whatever it may be. But, I can tell you this, it doesn’t have to be a defeating question. We can, instead, make it into a brave charge forward, a challenge to take the experience of every day beforehand, the highs and the lows, and turn them into a future where we become more mature and wiser people.

It’s a gift to experience something as beautiful as walking the Camino or getting married or finally obtaining that long-desired job. Let’s enjoy the momentary feelings that come with these great things. But let’s also not treat them like the finish line. Let’s learn from them and boldly step foot into a new season and a new norm.

After all, “Now what?” is just a matter of perspective. 

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