In September 2013 I accompanied a group of 20 pilgrims on the 686 kilometre pilgrim route taken by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1522 from his home in Spain’s Basque country to Manresa in Catalonia. We walked virtually the same route that Ignatius did, passed through many of the towns that he did, prayed at churches where he prayed, and marveled at the same natural wonders that he saw. I would like to tell you what a great success it was… but instead I will tell you about my failure on the Ignatian Camino and how that became an experience of conversion for me.
Our days were quite structured. Each morning at 8.00am, before we began walking, we gathered outside the hotel where we were staying that day, and I gave the pilgrims points from the Spiritual Exercises to pray on during the day. Then we walked the first two hours in silent prayer. In the evenings we had Mass and shared our experiences of the day over dinner.
The first eight days of the Camino, while physically very demanding, went well. Then on the ninth day we rested in the city of Logroño. After the rest day we embarked upon a long, and as it turned out, disastrous stage of the Camino from Logroño to Alcanadre. As we walked through the city streets of Logroño I began to feel the sharp pain of shin splints in my lower right leg. I thought I could walk through the pain, but I couldn’t. As the day wore on the pain started in my left leg too. It was excruciating to walk. After 12 kilometres we arrived at a small town. I wanted to take a bus or a taxi or a train to our lodgings in Calahorra, but none was available. I had no option but to keep on walking. After 19 kilometres we arrived at another small town. Still there were no taxis, trains or buses. So I again had to keep on walking. I walked the whole 32 kilometres in pain. We left Logroño at 8.20am and it was 6.10pm when we arrived. We were on the road for almost 10 hours. It was a very long and painful day only made bearable with liberal smearing of Voltaren cream on my legs, the popping 600mg Ibuprofen and Panadol tablets, and very supportive fellow pilgrims.
I woke up the next morning feeling very sore. It was difficult to even stand up after getting out of bed. I could only hobble. I had set myself to walk the entire Ignatian Camino but I knew I that I could do myself some serious and long-term physical damage if I continued to walk. So I took a rest day in the hotel with ice packs on my right shin to bring down the swelling. When the others left on the walk I felt lonely. I also felt a failure. I could not walk the whole distance and the others could. The group carried on without me. I felt frustrated at not reaching my goal and ashamed of my weakness. It took six days of rest, a visit to a hospital, and some physiotherapy before I was able to walk again.
The morning that I recommenced the Ignatian Camino with the other pilgrims I was filled with deep apprehension. Would I make it through the day, or would my body break down again? As we began our walk I found myself saying to Jesus, “I need you to be my companion today.” At that stage on the pilgrimage we were contemplating Jesus in his Passion. In this period of the Exercises journey Ignatius suggests that we ask God for the following grace:
 In the Passion it is proper to ask for sorrow with Christ in sorrow, anguish with Christ in anguish, tears and deep grief because of the great affliction Christ endures for me.
The last two words “for me” are critical. Ignatius chooses these words carefully because he wants me to receive the grace of knowing that Jesus’ act of self-sacrificial love on Calvary is for me.
As we walked for the first two hours in silence I was filled with a deep sense of Jesus accompanying me and loving me. As I walked with Jesus I had the deep felt-sense that he was walking on his way to Calvary for me, that he was suffering for me. I felt consoled and supported. I had never before had the heart-felt knowledge that Jesus suffered and died for me, but I received it that day. That was my conversion experience.
When I look back on that day I realize that if I hadn’t had shin splints, if I hadn’t failed in my goal of walking the whole Ignatian Camino, if I hadn’t felt ashamed of my failure, if I wasn’t filled with apprehension, then I wouldn’t have needed Jesus to be my companion and I probably wouldn’t have received the grace of heart-felt knowing that he walked to Calvary for me. My pilgrimage was not about success or failure. It was about acknowledging my utter dependence upon God. Pain and failure opened me up to God. I met my limits and there I encountered Jesus.
With thanks to Dr Michael Smith SJ who is a lecturer in Ignatian spirituality at Australian Catholic University and helps to form spiritual directors in the Ignatian tradition in the Arrupe® Program. He walked the Camino Frances from Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostela in 2011, led the first group to complete the Ignatian Camino from Loyola to Manresa Spain in 2013, and walked the Jesus Trail from Nazareth to Capernaum in 2016.