I wrote this article back in June about a Catholic priest who led a group of pilgrims on the Santiago de Campostela. This route of The Way began in Portugal and ranged north into Spain, to Catedral de Santiago de Campostela, site of the remains of St. James and pilgrimage destination for tens of thousands of Christians and believers of other faith traditions every year.
It’s a story not only of the pilgrimage walk, but of the spiritual pilgrimage we all must undertake to achieve, in the words of Fr. Aaron Foshee, “happiness, holiness, and oneness with God.”
A peregrino, or pilgrim, walks on the Camino de Santiago in Spain. (Photo provided by Fr. Aaron Foshee)
When Aaron Foshee visited the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela on an after-high school trip to Spain, he had little sense of what the cathedral, and the path leading to it, would mean in his spiritual life.
Like many college-bound youth, Foshee was struggling to find his path in life.
“I had no idea what I was going to do with my life at that point,” Foshee said. “I had no idea what God had planned for me, or what my purpose was.”
Now, he is the Rev. Aaron Foshee, associate pastor at St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church, and he recently brought his experience at Santiago de Compostela full-circle by co-leading a pilgrimage to the historic cathedral.
The Camino de Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is a collection of pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain. Tradition holds that the remains of the apostle St. James are buried in the cathedral, a belief that has attracted pilgrims since the Middle Ages.
Last summer the Rev. James Goins, pastor at St. Thomas More University Parish and Student Center in Norman, approached Foshee about putting together a group to make the pilgrimage.
“It’s something I’d always been interested in, but I didn’t think I’d really go, at least not now,” Foshee said.
He credits the “grace of God” with giving him the time, spiritual and physical energy to undertake the pilgrimage, which he and Goins began organizing last fall.
Twenty-four pilgrims joined the group, with ages ranging from 30 to 91. A route was planned beginning in Porto, in northwest Portugal, following a well-trod path north into Spain and on to Santiago de Compostela — a distance of about 130 kilometers.
Foshee said each of the pilgrims had their own reasons for undertaking the journey, but all had one common hope: to become closer to God.
“As with any pilgrimage, you don’t really know what you’re going to encounter,” he said. “Our hope is that when we reach where we’re going, God will have spoken to us along the way.”
He said Goins charged each of the pilgrims with a simple direction: “‘I hope we will have brought something we are willing to let go of, and that we’re willing to pick up something along the way.'”
Undertaking the pilgrimage required both physical and spiritual preparation.
“You’ll be walking for hours a day, sometimes by yourself, sometimes in a group, sometimes in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in a bustling metropolis, and you have to be prepared for all of it,” Foshee said.
“Spiritually, a part of it was considering how my life in and of itself is a camino,” he said. “The camino symbolically represents so many facets of our lives — the good, the bad, the suffering and the joy — all of that is a part of our lives and it would all be manifested in this journey, in a beautifully sacramental kind of way.”
The route wound along country paths, through fields and vineyards, and through many small Portuguese and Spanish villages. Foshee and Goins arranged to celebrate Mass each day at one of the many village churches along the camino.
A travel guide helped plan the route, made lodging arrangements, and had the group’s baggage moved each day. Foshee said the arrangements were less rigorous than other pilgrimage groups, some of which backpack the path with no advance arrangements.
“We affectionately came to know it as ‘the gentle way,'” Foshee said with a laugh.
The group set out from Porto on May 30, taking a leisurely pace at first to acclimate the walkers and to account for the age range of the pilgrims.
Foshee said the group “really took it slow in the beginning,” walking only about five miles the first day. By the end of the trip they had built their daily pace up to 18-20 miles per day.
The slower pace turned out to be a blessing, Foshee said, giving the pilgrims time to reflect on the camino along the way.
“It actually gave us time to relish it more,” he said. “We weren’t doing it just to do it. We had time to really absorb our surroundings. When you do it with that sense on non-urgency, you have time to reflect on who all has done this before you, and that you’re traveling on a way that saints have trod.”
Foshee said the meaning of the camino was powerful for him, as he begins a new step in his own journey as a priest. On June 27 he will move from St. Francis Xavier, his first pastoral assignment, to become the associate pastor at Christ the King Catholic Church in Oklahoma City.
“I’m continuing on my own journey in a specific way … and being able to bring that to prayer in this camino was very special for me,” Foshee said.
He said all pilgrims who are open to spirituality find it on the camino, which is open to all faiths.
“Regardless of why you do it, you always come away from it with a spiritual experience,” Foshee said. “You will come away being more in tune with God, or with nature, or with whatever you sense as being greater than yourself.”
“For those of us who have a Christian faith it has a more focused meaning,” he said, “because we know our end, and we know what we strive for: happiness, holiness, and oneness with God.”
He said the experience of the camino teaches the faithful to put their trust in God, rather than in their own control.
“So much of the experience of Santiago is a journey you have to walk by faith and not by sight, as Paul tells us,” Foshee said. “Knowing that next step is oftentimes not the most important thing. Rather, what’s important is to have faith and to be persistent in your journey in life.”
After eight days of walking the group arrived at their destination. All those who started the pilgrimage finished the journey. And Foshee, who had visited there as a teenager without a sense of direction, led the group of pilgrims into the cathedral.
He was invited to assist in the celebration of Mass, serving in a sanctuary that has hosted popes and saints back to the ninth century. He said that service was the culmination of not only the pilgrimage, but also a personal journey of growth in his relationship with God.
“Having the tables turned in that sense, and having the realization of the beauty of life, and seeing how far I have come in my life and in my relationship with God — that was really powerful for me,” Foshee said.
He encouraged anyone with the opportunity to undertake the pilgrimage, and to follow a spiritual path of deeper faith in God.
“No matter what you’re looking for, God will answer in his own way,” Foshee said. “Just be open to his promptings, and be open to the faith of not having to know, but trusting that what happens will happen for our good.”
This article originally was published in the Enid News & Eagle on June 17, 2017. By James Neal, Staff Writer