The Way of the Stars: Journeys on the Camino de Santiago. Robert C. Sibley. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2012.
This is a fantastic book. I couldn’t put it down.
I have made the Camino journey before–I travelled from Roncesvalles to Santiago with my younger sister in the summer of 2005. Robert C. Sibley’s book is a travel memoir with healthy doses of other genres including guidebook, history, spirituality, theology, philosophy, and literary essay.
The only section of the book that runs less than smoothly is the prologue. With stilted, forced dialogue delivered with Pat Morita-worthy gravity–“Patience, my son”–I feared from the first few pages that this Camino narrative would not differentiate itself from the numerous titles that have been published in recent years, many of them self-indulgent and, ultimately, soporific.1 However, Sibley seems to catch himself in this slight indulgence, switching gears in another page or two: “I’m getting ahead of myself and, perhaps, unintentionally misdirecting readers.”2 In fact, the story he relates is not of the pilgrimage he made with his son, but the first Camino walk he undertook by himself eight years earlier.
This story is worth reading–don’t be deterred by the first few pages. If you have not been on the Camino (meaning “way” or “road”) or perhaps have not even heard of it, the Camino de Santiago is one of the most popular pilgrimage routes in the world. The journey supposedly follows the path that St. James took when he was evangelizing the Iberian peninsula (the historical accuracy of this claim has been debated). The Camino’s popularity thrived during the Middle Ages, died out with the Enlightenment, and then reemerged in the 1980s when Santiago became a UNESCO World Heritage City, paths with directional markers were updated, and numerous pilgrim hostels opened for business. As Sibley describes, when a person begins the pilgrimage, he goes to receive his credencial del peregrine, his pilgrim passport. The attendant will ask the person’s reasons for undertaking the journey. He is offered three choices: religious, spiritual, or cultural.
At the beginning of his journey, Sibley can honestly say his reasons are purely cultural–he is there ostensibly to write a piece for the Ottawa Citizen, where he works. However, as he walks the Camino–or, as he puts it a few times, as the Camino walks him, he finds himself more confidently asserting that his purposes have become decidedly spiritual. It’s one of the main joys of the book to read how this transformation occurs. Another of Sibley’s principal topics of reflection is why making a pilgrimage has been and remains so appealing to people from many different backgrounds. Particularly in an era when most people travel for entertainment, what makes walking the Camino different? And, even more to the point, do you have to know why before you start out?3 Sibley’s story is one of spiritual immersion and awakening. Some may think this order ought to be reversed, but, as the author himself points out, relying on Pascal and C.S. Lewis, “faith is an act of will as well as belief.”4
Although Sibley is not himself religious, he takes an approach of openness, which all readers will appreciate. He recognizes that Christians travelling the Camino find grace throughout their journey, and he longs to experience this for himself.5 He seems to come from a life of spiritual seeking, as he hints at his past experiences in a Jewish Kibbutz and a Buddhist monastery.6 For Sibley, time seems to lose all shape as he walks. Suddenly coinciding with Augustine on memory and time, Sibley writes:
“I found I couldn’t recall without effort where I’d been three days, four days, or even a week earlier. The process of walking . . . mile after mile . . . seemed to force a reset of my normal sense of time . . . . My immediate pre-pilgrimage memories–I’d flown to London, taken a train to Paris, caught another train to Bayonne–were sharp and orderly. But somehow it was harder to keep track in a sequential fashion of what had happened since I left Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port [the starting point of his pilgrimage].”7
As he walks through time and memory, he slips into a state of reflection, recalling his past, making the book at times into a memoir of his childhood summers in Alberta.8
These memories, revisited and woven into his present sense of self, help him to heal unknown wounds and begin walking, if not as a whole person, then as a new person, radically open to reality. One his most intriguing observations is when he sees that his walking companions aren’t “walking the Camino to escape reality but rather to engage it more deeply.”9 This deep engagement with reality begins to have an effect on Sibley himself as he moves from acute physical pain to rising above suffering (“learning to walk”), observes profound beauties in the world even as he is stepping through piles of dung, and finds that, as he is waiting for his journey to acquire meaning, somehow along the way the meaning of his trip had found him.
Although he mentions that the Camino is like psychotherapy, he also acknowledges that his experience went much deeper than simply relieving stress.10 While the latter may be a reason to begin the pilgrimage for many people, what they find is often much greater. Amidst the story of Sibley’s pilgrimage, he incorporates what might be described as embedded footnotes. Certainly, he has endnotes for those interested in tracing his sources for their own enjoyment–I know I wrote down a number of authors whose works I was inspired to read because of this book, particularly the Collected Poems of R.S. Thomas, to which Sibley repeatedly refers. But what I am referring to are the little one- or two-paragraph detours he takes to flesh out the experience of his pilgrimage. For example, he briefly offers the etymology of key words such as pilgrim, and he presents snippets of history about the nature of pilgrimage, the Camino itself, and the Moorish influence on the towns he travels through, among many things.
Lastly, he offers a travel guide of sorts for the Camino. While there are dedicated guidebooks to use if you are actually planning the trip, Sibley offers helpful advice on what to pack (and what not to), where to start and how, the most (and least) enjoyable restaurants and refugios (pilgrim hostels), and an orientation to the varying landscapes a pilgrim will encounter. (He fails to note the critical importance of bringing earplugs and an alarm in order to get a good night’s sleep before beginning your walk before the sun gets too hot!) As an added bonus, he talks about the most notable pilgrim symbols and aspects of pilgrim life, such as the scallop shell that many pilgrims wear around their necks or on their packs. But all of these seeming tangents are rightly embedded in the body of Sibley’s narrative because he uses these brief scholarly notes as fuel for his deepened reflection upon the meaning of the journey he is taking, both physically and spiritually. These additions are yet another reason to enjoy the book.
Another richness to be found in this book is Sibley’s numerous cultural allusions. He connects the concept of pilgrimage and the Camino itself to the Song of Roland, Canterbury Tales, and Hamlet, and to the works of poets such as Dante, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Goethe.11 Artists such as El Greco, Hieronymous Bosch, Peter Paul Rubens, and Velázquez are evoked for the figure of the pilgrim as a cultural symbol. Then add to all these such theological and philosophical giants as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Augustine, Plato, and Hegel, and Sibley finds that “going on a pilgrimage . . . was the most human thing I could do.”12 In seeing how many people of the past have connected to his experience of walking, he finds in himself “a preternatural awareness of the past,” and a sense that he is not walking alone, but rather in “the presence of all those souls” of those who had walked before him.13 From another cultural standpoint, the Camino is bursting with people from numerous (mostly European) countries, so Sibley recounts his most interesting encounters with some of his fellow pilgrims–and those who cater to pilgrims on their way (one restaurateur regularly burns alcohol in a giant bowl and serves his customers small portions of the concoction as he chants seeming nonsense).
To be clear: the vast majority of the people traveling and providing hospitality to pilgrims are generous, kind, and often quite miraculous in the help they are able to offer when a weary walker can’t stand his blisters anymore. The point of making a pilgrimage, whether one is religious or not is discussed–but at times not as thoroughly as other aspects of the journey are. Sibley never explicitly mentions monasticism, but he talks around the idea, perhaps unknowingly. For example, he hears another pilgrim talk about “prayer and walking” as all he does, and this resonates with him.14 Not dissimilar to the monastic vocation of ora et labora, prayer and walking combine the physical aspects of life with the spiritual, giving the mind space to reflect as the body goes through its daily tasks, whether a person is doing the laundry, commuting to a job, or walking on the Camino.
Sibley later hears that to be a pilgrim is “discovering the things you need and the things you don’t need;”15 this process of sorting through life and detaching oneself from the nonessentials can only be accomplished with sufficient space and reflection, both of which Sibley finds in abundance on the Camino. Sibley does incorporate a few theological reflections–albeit mostly sociologically-based ones. For example, he briefly discusses the notion of liminal experiences in connection with the pilgrim journey. While he doesn’t take these reflections far, his intimation that understanding “the Camino as a liminal event is to re-enchant the disenchanted world, to recover the extraordinary in the ordinary”16 correlates to the sacramental worldview as understood by Augustine. In terms of spiritual practices, Sibley presents some research on the psychological value of pilgrimages but again does not delve further–the concepts of regular meditation (again, religiously motivated or not) or a yearly retreat do not arise.
There are some minor issues: a few narrative motifs become more repetitive than helpful.
Some photographs would have added to the enjoyment. Having made the journey myself, I would have liked to have revisited some of the sites more than in just my own mind; for those who have not been on the trail, a few visual highlights–perhaps of the Virgin of Roncesvalles, the white windmills on the Alto de Perdón, the iron bicycle sculpture at El Acebo, the Refugio Gaucelmo, a Camino directional marker, and the cathedral in Santiago–would have added to the journey’s appeal.
In addition, Sibley’s experience is often not the most pleasant; while some may be turned off by the idea of slogging through endless rain and mud, facing down packs of ferocious dogs, and struggling through inflammation of his legs, knees, and feet, I encountered none of these things during my month-long trek in mid-June to mid-July (The journey is certainly not easy, but it need not be quite such a slog!). Also, this book makes it sound as though churches are open everywhere; unfortunately, I found that not to be the case except in the largest of cities.
Sibley leaves the reader with the tantalizing question of how and when the seed was planted in his mind to make this pilgrimage. He had known about the Camino for decades, having read James Michener’s Iberia in the 1970s. “Was it possible,” Sibley queries, “that Michener’s book had planted the seed for a pilgrimage and it had lain dormant all these years, waiting for the right season and a fertile psyche?”17 Whether or not you have heard of the Camino de Santiago before this review, Robert C. Sibley’s book about his pilgrimage on The Way of St. James will definitely foster the desire in the reader to take the trip for himself.
1.Sibley, Robert C. The Way of the Stars: Journeys on the Camino de Santiago. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2012, 2.
2. Ibid., 5.
3. Ibid., 16-17.
4. Ibid., 7.
5. Ibid., 32.
6. Ibid., 46-47.
7. Ibid., 58.
8. Ibid., 63.
9. Ibid., 108.
10. Ibid., 65.
11. Ibid., 30-31, 34-35.
12. Ibid., 109.
13. Ibid., 36.
14. Ibid., 20.
15. Ibid., 25.
16. Ibid., 110.
17. Ibid., 152.