Reaction to the BBC’s ‘Pilgrimage: The Road to Santiago’ has been somewhat mixed amongst those who have completed the journey themselves. Indeed even before it began, more than one friend expressed their concern that such a programme could not possibly do justice to the great and ancient mysteries of the Way. I likewise had concerns, but also a sense of excitement. It has taken me nearly six months to get any sense of just what exactly the Camino has meant, been, or done for me. Having seen the first two episodes, it is clear to me that the BBC has faced considerable constraints in trying to bring to life something that must be experienced in the flesh rather than through the screen. The lack of time allowed for the series has meant that the editing process quite obviously cuts off important parts of conversations and presents people in ways that I doubt accurately represents them. Perhaps the saddest thing though, is that the programme has simply ignored or glossed over so many of the important places found along the route. Places like Pamplona, Logroño, Santo Domingo de la Calzada, León, Astorga, Burgos, and so many others in-between. If these great and captivating places have been missed out, it is probably fair to assume that we can expect the same treatment for the humble little places along the Way that really make it what it is.
One of these humbler places is the almost entirely dilapidated village of Montán. There are many such settlements along the Camino, but Montán has one thing most others do not: Tierra de Luz. Tierra de Luz, or Land of Light, is difficult to describe. When I arrived there almost exactly six months ago, I was approaching the end of my Camino. This was far from the first ‘donativo’ I had seen, but the sight of a table full of fresh fruit, vegetables, biscuits and bread was no less welcome. To the pilgrim, donativos are a lifesaver. They are a frequent feature all along the Camino, and offer refreshment for a donation, although Simon, the founder of Tierra de Luz, seemed almost adamant that we shouldn’t donate at all! Such was his hospitality that he even agreed to an interview with this strange Englishman.
Simon is the archetypal enigma, if such a thing exists. He comes across as intense, even cautious, and yet his story subverts this apparent persona almost entirely. I ask him how on earth an Australian who grew up “on a farm inland, in the bush, in the outback” ends up on the other side of the world in an obscure crumbling village. “I walked the Camino maybe five years ago and then with my mum, which is a wonderful experience, really, really special. More than anything it was just really special to spend time with her and to get to meet her in another way.” Simon loves stories, particularly when he gets to talk about people in them. “I fell in love with a place close to where we are today, near Samos, a ruin in the forest, and had a vision to create a healing space for people to be, to stop, to rest, to reflect.” There is something about Simon and the life he has chosen to lead that does just that. Tierra de Luz, as I found out from one of the volunteers, has its own orchard. People arrive for a piece of fruit and stay weeks, or even months. Perhaps I have misread Simon. His intensity and caution seem to me now something more akin to mindfulness, or even perhaps a thoughtful playfulness. I could stay here I decide, if only life weren’t so complicated.
This is, I suppose, the draw for such a place. Simon arrived in Montán three years ago after living in Sarria for a year. He has spent that time planting his orchard, doing up the house and outbuildings, and welcoming pilgrims with fruit, art, and song. “How did you come to the name Tierra de Luz?” I ask. “Well actually one day I was here and I had been here for a couple of months and these people started coming. It was actually a really interesting moment. These people, German, Austrian, Swiss, were coming and they were stopping here and they said ‘Do you have a stamp?’ and I didn’t have a stamp, I hadn’t even thought about it, and I was like ‘Yeah! Yeah, I’ve got a stamp!’ So then I started painting the stamp, and as I was doing that the name just came out.” Simon seems more at ease as the conversation unfolds. Somehow I’m not surprised that he paints rather than stamps; it seems fitting to the Tierra de Luz aesthetic.
Whilst Montán was part of the original Camino route, for many years now most pilgrims have taken the alternative route to see the great Monastery of San Xulián de Samos. The Tierra de Luz project really began to take shape when a group of pilgrims ended up joining Simon and his volunteers for meditation in the courtyard. The pilgrims had walked that day from Samos to Montán hoping to meditate in the church there. “We were cleaning the house and doing a lot to bring it back to life and the day before we said ‘Let’s meditate tomorrow as a group.’” Simon was naturally surprised to see the pilgrims, particularly when they said they were there to meditate, so they all agreed to meditate together in the church. Even more curious was the fact that the group already walked past the church and had to go back. “We all joked that that was the reason; that we had to meet and they had to come and collect us so we could go back.” He explains that he had been thinking on the way that it would be nice to do something as a group back at Tierra de Luz, so when the church was locked and “two older Chinese ladies said ‘Can we go and meditate in your home?’” he jumped at the chance. “It was full of wood and rubbish and things like this because we were still cleaning. So it was a very moving morning having sixty people together. The day before we could never have imagined when we said ‘We should meditate tomorrow’ what that might look like. I think life is like that. You can set a direction and a purpose and an intention, but we shouldn’t be too limited by our own imagination of what we think we should have or how it can look because often life can be so much greater than you can imagine.”
People are often surprised when I tell them that the vast majority of people walking the Camino today would not consider themselves Christian. Many have something of an eclectic approach to spirituality; a growing trend in the western world. “It’s just about being open to life, without having too many labels saying ‘This is owned by the Hindu religion or the Christian religion.’” Says Simon. “To me, if someone has some wisdom that they share with me and it feels relevant, then it’s relevant, without getting too stuck in its origin. I feel that there’s really a lot of value in traditions and in rituals and ceremony, and what is possible when we come together, but I do approach it with an open mind and an open heart.” I ask whether he sees the practical and spiritual as interconnected. “Always. Absolutely. Even that word spiritual, often we have such an aversion to the word, and we interpret it differently, but essentially my feeling is that we are spirit. We all have a spirit and we come from some spirit, and so everything we do has an element of spirit. For me it’s super practical or normal. Whether it’s planting vegetables or saying hello to someone or making someone feel welcome. For me that comes from spirit, or can come from spirit. It doesn’t come from a place of ego.”
This eclectic, experiential approach permeates throughout the community at Tierra de Luz, as well as the community one finds on the Camino. There’s a transience to the Camino that seems to resonate with many people’s experiences of life today, and particularly with younger people. Practically, people’s futures are less settled. They are less likely to own a home, they will probably earn less than the previous generation, they will probably have many jobs rather than one or two. “Like life, there’s lots of symbology in walking the Camino.” Simon explains. “I feel that to be able to take those experiences and integrate them into our lives is really the opportunity of the Camino, so not just to have another experience, but to make it real, to make it a part of who we are.” It seems to me that the transience of the Camino is juxtaposed by the depth of spirituality one can find by doing it. Perhaps it is so popular today because it has become a sort of practical metaphor for life itself. Many people are beginning to rebel against the consumerism that has shaped so much of the world for so many years. For Simon, the Camino should not be consumed, but integrated into the pilgrim’s life. The key, he says, is to do so “with an ease, with that preoccupation that it needs to be just to be in it and to be grateful for it.”