Catholic Medical Quarterly Volume 68(2) May 2018

A Nurse on the Camino de Santiago

Semper IdemChurch of St JamesWhen I told people that I was taking a career break, I got a variety of reactions, the most common of which was a look of concern, in case I was on the edge of something empathetically referred to in healthcare as ‘emotional burn out’. I have worked as a Nurse for the NHS for 11 years and it took me about a year to make the decision to step out for a breather. I came in to nursing specifically wanting to work within oncology. I had no big career plan after that, I just took every opportunity that came my way. At the age of 32, through God’s grace, and most likely led there by the Rosary, I realised that my nursing career was starting to be cemented in management and I was not sure I wanted to commit to this for life. For me, Nursing is certainly my calling, but I felt that I had got lost and needed to rediscover my vocation within my vocation. Granted the career break by a supportive manager, I made plans to kick off this time out by walking the Camino.

The traditional pilgrimage, known as the ‘Way of St James’, has been the most popular pilgrimage amongst Catholics in western Europe since the 9th century when the relics of St James the Apostle were discovered. Often referred to as ‘James the Great’, he was believed to be the first of the twelve apostles to be martyred. Thousands walk the paths every year and there are eight main routes through Spain which lead to St James’ relics within the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostella. I chose the route of the Camino Frances, setting off from St Jean Pied de Port, taking me across the Pyrenees Mountains and walking 500 miles west across Spain.

So I waved goodbye to my NHS colleagues, moved out of my rented London flat, sold my car and swapped my iPhone for a simple Nokia brick. I coined a phrase which was that I was “giving up stability to find some stability”.

It’s ironic that nowadays the phrase ’soul searching’ is over used and has become a cliché for people travelling solo, but this really was what I was doing. I set off with a bag weighing less than 5kg and a Rosary in my hand, feeling as free as I ever have.

The majority nowadays that walk the Camino are not Catholic and few even tick the ‘spiritual’ box when it comes to registering at the end, but the title of ‘pilgrim’ has remained for everyone who walks ‘The Way’. I met so many people who shared stories of grief, heartache and confusion. I ticked some of these boxes too. Many were looking for answers or direction in their lives and strangely enough, many I met had a healthcare back-ground. The question on pilgrims’ lips when you first met was often “Why are you walking the Camino?” It was important for me to tell people that I am Catholic, and this was a pilgrimage above everything else. As Catholics, we know that with a pilgrimage often comes suffering; and with suffering often comes growth. Of course I didn’t escape unharmed, impossible when you are walking 12- 18 miles a day. The wonderful thing about blisters, is that they unite people; everyone had a story or a tip to offer and often, people nursed each other or slowed their pace to help you from A to B.

One thing that the guidebook had not told me, which was a welcome surprise, was that there was Mass every day. Whether in a Cathedral or a small village chapel, an evening Mass was found. By week two, my daily routine was embedded. I started walking early and stopped before the mid afternoon sun took hold, I would find a (bunk) bed for the night, have a siesta and then attend evening Mass before repeating it all again the next day.

PilgrimThe yellow arrows which mark the way are laid out to lead you past every Church on route. The best advice I received was “If you get lost, just look for a Church spire.” This is a lovely reminder of the original purpose of the Camino, to grow in Faith. But the question I am now faced with is “So what did you learn, what’s next?” Well, my ’Camino moment’ did not deliver the man of my dreams or a definitive career plan waiting for me in Santiago. But through the 6 weeks I spent walking, my heart relaxed, I realised that I needed to trust God more and let him lead the way.

Walking with minimal material things, without even a camera, enabled time for reflection. We talk of reflection a lot in healthcare but so rarely allow ourselves the time to truly enter into it. We live in a world of noise, screens and bright lights. Cardinal John Henry Newman said that God created everyone to have “Some definite service/some work that He has not committed to another”. I just needed some time out of the rat race and in to the silence in order to find mine. It has been 3 months since I returned and after digesting it all, I have realised that my vocation within nursing is to care for the dying. 2017 was my year of walking and now 2018 will be my year of getting to where I am meant to be, to do the specific work that God intended me to do. If you are at a crossroads in life or just feeling a little lost, look to-wards the Church and remember the wise Latin words of St Augustine –‘Solvitur ambulando’ meaning ‘It is solved by walking