I have run again into a few people who make a cult of authenticity. I find that bizarre, especially here, since the pilgrim path from Le Puy en Velay to Santiago, if it ever existed, is certainly not the same routing as the GR 65, the hiking trail that we are directed to whenever we ask about the Chemin de St. Jacques. Some people have a strict set of rules about being a pilgrim.

One must:
start at Le Puy or Saint Jean Pied de Port or some other “official” starting point,
walk a long distance – longer is always better,
keep to the official marked route,
never ride a bicycle,
make a strenuous effort,
carry one’s own gear in a backpack,
visit every religious site en route,
use a wooden staff (in a pinch, the collapsible poles are acceptable),
never allow one’s gear to be carried by car to a destination,
never, never, allow oneself to be carried by car to a destination,
sleep in simple hostels, preferably in a multi-bed dormitory,
eat simple meals, preferably cooked by oneself in a kitchen in a hostel,
eschew anything that seems like fun – this is a serious business.

I think that I am a little unkind with the last point, but it certainly is how it comes across when I am listening to an “authentic” pilgrim.

Before I get started, let me say that if you hold these views and wish to follow these rules in order to authenticate your own experience, then I am absolutely committed to supporting you. I would not presume to judge your view of authenticity … as it applies to you. But please do not use these rules to apply to another in order to accept or deny the authenticity of their experience. It is about not judging the authenticity of the experience of others.

And since you have asked, let me give you my view of all this.

There is no official starting point. Once I have decided to make my way on a journey like this, then the moment I leave my door at home with my gear, I have passed the starting point for my pilgrimage. The pilgrimage starts in my own head, not at a geographic location. Places like St. Jean Pied de Port or Le Puy en Velay are just places on a map.

The distance is irrelevant. The good folks in Santiago have a set of rules that provide the “compostela’, the proof of completion, to those who walk the last 100 kms or cycle the last 200 kms to Santiago. If it is good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. They have been at this pilgrimage thing a long time. For me, while it is true that a longer time en route makes for a more profound experience for me, it does not follow that a short time en route means a shallow experience for someone else. I think that it is folly to attempt to judge the depth of someone else’s commitment to their pilgrimage using a scale of distance.

The route one takes is irrelevant. If I choose to take a different route to get to the same place, does this make me a lesser pilgrim? A thousand years ago and for many hundreds of years, pilgrims travelled anywhere, anyhow they could to get to their intended destination. Why would this be different now? Just because someone has marked a particular route as “the” route, that merely means that this is a route that will get the pilgrim to where he or she wants to go. The marking does not, in my view, exclude any other route that will get you to your destination for the day.

The mode of transport is irrelevant. Riding a bicycle or a donkey or a horse is just as authentic as walking. The reason most pilgrims walked in earlier days is because they did not have an option. I don’t doubt that folks who had access to a horse would use it to make their pilgrimage. A friend of mine in Victoria, BC, told me that she was told that she was not a “real pilgrim” because she rode a bicycle to Santiago. In defense, she stopped telling people how she made her camino.

I think the mark of a real pilgrim is not the level of effort they make to get there. The mark of a real pilgrim is their intention and no-one … no-one except the individual can know another’s intention. Think about it. If the pilgrimage experience starts from your own front door, then the taxi, the aircraft, the train, the bus, whatever means you use to get here is one of your modes of transport on your pilgrimage. And how many pilgrims now walk home after reaching their destination? Used to be pilgrims HAD to walk home. There were no options. Does taking a plane home nullify the authenticity of the experience? I would argue not.

How your supporting clothing and equipment gets from point to point is irrelevant. Carrying it on your own back has a couple of advantages. Firstly, it’s cheap and secondly it really cuts down on what you decide to carry. The authentic pilgrim of years past didn’t carry gear in an Osprey backpack with a Camelback water dispenser and didn’t wear high-tech boots. Again, I suspect that medieval pilgrims, if they could afford it, would have had some-one else carry their gear.

Consider, for a moment, one of the earliest known international pilgrims to Santiago – Gottschalk, the Bishop of Le Puy en Velay, who made the journey in 950 AD. When he got home, he celebrated by causing the erection of a chapel on top of one of the two volcanic cones, the Puys, which named the town. The bishop was a high-level cleric and had access to the wealth of his diocese. When he travelled, I don’t doubt that he rode on horseback and that he had retainers with him who looked after his gear. Since he was a wealthy traveller in a dangerous and lawless time, he would have been accompanied by an armed guard. Someone else made his meals and looked after his needs. He may have stayed in simple stage-places or he may have stayed in the best accommodation available. He may have eaten simply or he may not. He may have enjoyed his wine or he may not. Is he less authentic based on any of this?

So here is my point. Authenticity or the lack of it is not based on anything exterior. It is based solely on how true one is to one’s own intentions. Authenticity, as defined in the list at the beginning, is simply adherence to a set of rules. If they work for you, enjoy your authentic experience. If you choose to follow a different set of rules … or no rules at all but remain true to your own intention, then in my not-entirely humble view, you are having an authentic pilgrim experience.

3 thoughts on “Authenticity

  1. An excellent post Guy. There’s a tendency for some pilgrims to impose their personal concept of authenticity on all those they meet, forgetting that the inward journey, which is usually not visible or apparent, is as important as the outward journey.

    When I walked the Camino three years ago, I was part of a major documentary. Did the fact I was photographed and interviewed regularly for five weeks make my journey any less authentic? I don’t believe so, and in some ways it added to my experience because I was forced on a regular basis to examine what I was doing and how the days on the path were changing me.

    Everyone walks their own journey, and even those who walk together walk different inward paths. Arguments about authenticity only detract.

    Walk well, Guy. I look forward to further posts.


  2. I guess, it is a matter of definition. I agree with our motto back in Spain: “everybody walks his own camino”. There is no better or more authentic way to walk 900km than the one that brings you furthest. But I would not necessarily call every style a pilgrimage. To me, the word implies by definition a time of sacrifice, a religious time-out from the world, denial of the material comforts back home (now and even back then). There is a beauty in simplicity of life: just walk your portion of the day, wash your clothes, find some food and a place to lay your head. Hours of peaceful nature without distraction for reflection, repentance, wonders, epiphanies (if given). I stood away from the catholic extreme of kneeling down after every few steps or punishing myself to relate to the Lord`s suffering, because that is not what HE wants from us. But PILGRIMAGE is a christian term that implies sacrifices, don´t you think? Everything else is a long distance walk, some alone-time (or not) – WHICH IS EQUALLY FINE. To each his own, we should not be judgmental. I am curious what this walk will teach you, wise Guy! 😉 Love, Marina

    1. A question to you: do you think of yourself as a pilgrim?
      I don´t wish to argue that, just asking.
      Hugs, Marina

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