by Fr. Hunter Van Wagenen One of the most common feelings among pilgrims who have just finished their first pilgrimage on the Camino is a sense of anxiety about returning home. A big part of this is anxiety about not being able to convey the impact the experience has had on them. John Koenig of the website Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows has invented a word for this: exulansis.
How the Camino Shapes Us
Will I Be Able to Describe My Camino Experience?
Each time I have walked the Camino I have had that feeling. No one at home will be familiar with the places I describe. It doesn't help if I can show them a picture or find the words to vividly describe how I felt. They won’t understand the sensations I had while standing in the street of a small town at the end of the Meseta. They won’t truly be able to share the particular emotions I felt, or how a certain sight, sound, or smell struck me. Consequently, I’ll have to field a bunch of well-meaning questions like “Was it hard walking so far every day?” and “But where did you sleep?!”
The Camino Journey Continues After You Return Home
This experience is part of the Camino. The journey home is just as much a part of it as the walking. The month following your return is just as much a part of it as the month you spend on the Way. As many along the trail will tell you, the Camino becomes a part of you.
The Camino Becomes a Part of You
Now, before some of you roll your eyes because that last sentence strikes you as cheesy, know that I am right there with you. I am a man of faith, but I have little patience for some of the would-be deep statements like this one. "The Camino becomes a part of you." That said, there is a simple truth to it that has forced me to repent of my intellectual snobbery and consider the facts.
Apply Your Camino Experiences to the Rest of Your Life
Whether you walk on the Camino for one week or for six, you will make many memories. Some of these memories will be good, some will be bad, and some will be transformed from bad to good by considering the lessons learned from difficulty or other similar rumination. Regardless of how good or bad a memory is, you will carry these experiences with you forever. Applying them to the rest of our lives, it is easy to say that our identity is by and large the sum of our memories. So it is actually quite true that, after walking the Camino, it becomes a part of you.
Camino Memories Shape Your Life
The memories you make on the Camino will be unique. They will stand out because of the Camino’s separateness from “normal” everyday life. It is easy to go on autopilot when you’re on your way to work or school or going about a familiar daily routine, but what you experience on the Camino will be distinct. It can be hard to reflect on lessons you’ve learned or experiences you’ve had while immersed in the daily grind. This is because these happen more slowly and can be as imperceptible as weight loss (or gain). Day to day you may not notice much change. But the change, for better or worse, is apparent when you observe the difference a month or a year makes. So it is with ways we train our minds and hearts back home.
On the Camino Changes Come Quickly
But on the Camino, this process is quickened. Just as your body will go through speedy changes, your mind and heart will go through changes faster as well. This makes the changes easier to reflect on, and therefore they will stand out in your memory more distinctly. In the months after your return, these memories will make the transition from short-term to long and have their effect on your whole life.
It's a Great Gift to Have Your Camino Memories Shape You
The inability you feel to convey your experience fully is normal and can be frustrating, but at the end of the day it is part of the Camino. It is your experience. As your memories become ingrained they will continue to shape you, and that is a great gift.
Fr. Hunter Van Wagenen now serves as an Anglican priest in Vero Beach, FL. He has walked several Caminos since 2007. Hunter and his wife Stephie walked together in 2017. They have two young sons. During their vacations the VWs hope to guide more American friends to walk the Camino, and serve the pilgrim community while they are there.