Mary Daniels knows where her faith lives. It's not in her heart or in her head, or even in her soul.
It's in her feet.
Daniels, a broker with Dain Rauscher in Edina, Minn., and friend Kathy Coskran, set out on July 6 for a 75-mile hike along the historic Camino de Santiago (the road to Santiago), which begins in southern France and ends in Santiago de Compostela in northern Spain. The town is the burial place of Christianity's first martyr, Saint James.
Although she was raised Catholic, Daniels says she was somewhat reluctant at the outset, unimpressed with the grandeur of ancient cathedrals and skeptical about the spiritual value of her pilgrimage. But her friend twisted her arm.
“I was a little cynical about all the relics and the indulgences and all that stuff,” Daniels says. “So, I came in with a little bit of a jaded view.”
In fact, the night before her departure, Daniels remembers gathering with other pilgrims outside a storefront in Le Puy, France, where the travelers were served a glass of local liqueur and shown maps of the route. Instinctively, she wondered when someone would hit her up for money.
“And there was none of that,” she says. “They were just there to help us.”
Even before her feet hit the pavement the next morning, Daniels says her heart was softened. She remembers spending the twilight hours inside a monk's quarters, enchanted by the sound of authentic Gregorian chants wafting up from monks in the cathedral below, and the sight of swallows soaring overhead.
“You sit there and think, ‘This is not your normal experience,’” she says.
As the cathedral bells began ringing for the mass that would be conducted the morning before the trip, a priest wished Daniels and her fellow travelers a safe journey. And off they went, winding their way along dirt paths and country roads, through wheat fields and wildflowers. They ate lunch atop centuries-old stonewalls along the way, sharing the scenery with local farmers and their herds of sheep and cows. At night, Daniels slept in gites — small homes along the route that are free of charge for pilgrims.
“The idea of a pilgrimage is to strip away all of your material needs and just get to the basic elements of life,” Daniels says. “It really is a spiritual experience.”
It seemed that everyone around her was aware of the spiritual significance of her trip. On the way out of Le Puy, Daniels says three separate villagers stopped their cars to wish her a safe journey. “That's what makes you realize the importance of the tradition of it,” she says.
A week later, on July 13, Daniels and Coskran finished their journey in Figeac, France — still a long, long way from Santiago, Spain. But life is a journey, not a destination, Daniels says.
Before the trip, she had three simple goals in mind: to finish the trip uninjured, to strengthen her friendship, and to leave El Camino de Santiago with the intent of returning some day.
“I absolutely made all three of them,” she says.