Interview by Marta Jóźwiak
MJ: Since the Middle Ages the Way of St. James, the Camino, has attracted thousands of pilgrims, not only believers. It has been enjoying a revival in recent years. You, too, were planning to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and have just fulfilled your plan. What inspired you to go on the Way?
MR: It’s usually curiosity that pushes us to face difficult challenges. In my case the main intention to visit the grave of St. James was asking for health and prosperity for my mother and all my family. In our earlier interview I said that I would make this pilgrimage so the die was cast. There was no turning back. I gave myself a word and had to keep the promise. For me, giving myself a word is a way of self-support.
There are many routes to Santiago. Which one did you take?
My Camino route was easy. I set out on the Northern Way from Bilbao along the coastline. I walked across the Basque Country and further through the regions of Cantabria, Asturia, and Galicia which was about 645 miles. I walked alone for over three weeks. And then my wife joined me. The whole pilgrimage took slightly over a month.
What was your day like?
I began and finished each day with prayer. I prayed for simple things – to have a peaceful and safe night, for water and health. I was very surprised to see how much you can get when you ask God. I felt really safe.
Did you stay at pilgrims’ hostels, the albergues?
I didn’t sleep in hostels because I had a tent and a stove with me. I could stay anywhere. And I stayed in various places – on a beach, in the woods, in the meadows. I walked my paths without any constraint on how many kilometers I have to go and what time I have to get up.
A lonely pilgrimage is being with yourself. Was it difficult?
We often feel beset in everyday life. We have no time for ourselves. We have obligations. We can’t live without a phone. When we get cut off from the things of this world during a pilgrimage, it turns out that we have a lot of time for ourselves, to be with ourselves, talk to ourselves; to enjoy the surroundings; to be happy here and now. It takes time to restore the sense of harmony with the world. Unfortunately, technology does not help us in this respect.
It is said that we leave everything behind when we go on the Camino.
This is the key to understanding the meaning of the Way of St. James. Unbelievable, what happened to me at the beginning of my path. The next day my camera was destroyed. What was more, I lost my phone. The phone I bought to use in Europe also got broken. I had no connection with the world. But I knew that on September 1 st I had to meet my wife in some Spanish town.
Was it easier when your wife joined you?
This was the second part of the pilgrimage. My loneliness was crucial to the whole pilgrimage, also for our further, joint way. Our paths have diverged for years. They were very isolated. I didn’t know how it would work out with my wife after years. We adapted to each other, in fact getting to know each other again, with respect for the other person. This process lasted until the end of the pilgrimage. Prayer helped me a lot. But now it’s good. And it’s getting better. This common way has helped to rebuild our relationship after many years. I dare to say I tend to fix everything.
So your wife decided to go together on such a pilgrimage after years of your separation.
It turned out that it was her dream to go to Santiago de Compostela, but she always lacked time and there were also other issues. I invited her to this pilgrimage because I liked the idea of walking towards a holy goal. Because our pilgrimage wasn’t about the distance.
Such a long hike required preparation …
We prepared by walking 25-30 km on weekends. My wife lives close to one of the Polish pilgrimage routes so first, she walked to the shrine of Niepokalanów and then further on, along the `Way. As for me, I went on foot to American Częstochowa in the freezing cold of January, with the intention that this long pilgrimage would finally take place.
You met some interesting people on your way …
Since my wife joined me, we stayed in albergues and I met there truly remarkable people. We met for the first and probably the last time. After days of a lonely journey, I missed contact with people, talking to others, listening to their stories. The meetings were very important for the second stage of the pilgrimage.
I met a young Polish American from Washington, who travelled around the world and returned to the Camino for several years, setting out from a different place every time. That time he walked 1000 km from Portugal.
I also met a single 20-year-old girl from Brazil, who had been traveling with her dog for two years. The most valuable thing is that others give us ideas; sometimes they bring answers to the questions we ask God.
Cyprian Norwid, a great Polish poet, believed that a pilgrimage is a journey through life and spiritual growth to salvation.
On the Way, I met ever-wandering pilgrims – people who are on a journey for three or four years and come back. The Camino is their way of life. It’s an expression of their trust in God.
Does the pilgrimage culminate in reaching the holy goal?
When you approach Santiago de Compostela from the North, the routes merge like streams into a great river of people. Close to Santiago, this is called “The Original Way” because it is reportedly the path taken by the first reported pilgrim in the 9th century. I could literally feel the feet of people who had walked this historic road over the past centuries. All routes lead to the Romanesque cathedral, and in front of it, there is a huge historical square paved with cobblestone, where pilgrims lie down and get rest. And I liked it the most – just being there, taking my time and enjoying the moment.
At the tomb of St. James in the cathedral we prayed the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy. We prayed together with our family in Poland as we managed to connect with them over the phone. I prayed for my mother’s health and prosperity of the whole family. Each of us had their intention.
But that was not the end of your Way?
No, we decided to go together to the end of the world. It wasn’t easy, but we made it! From Santiago, we went another 150 km further west, to Finisterre. It is the westernmost cape in Spanish Galicia and was once regarded the symbolic end of the world. It was the last stage of the Way of St. James, where pilgrims used to burn their old robes and wash their bodies in the Atlantic Ocean as a sign of purification.
It is said that “Camino does not give you what you are looking for, but what you need.”
Yes, it’s true. We like to have comfortable lives, where everything is planned and predictable. In the poor areas of Spain, you see how little people need for living. You see they have old cars or dilapidated houses, they spend time fishing or just sitting in a bar. They lead a peaceful life. And later you get to a big city that attacks you with advertisements, and you realize how much energy it takes to resist these temptations.
What did the pilgrimage give you?
The Camino gives you more than you expect. It changes everything. It changes you. There is a moment during a lonely journey when you realize what you really need. This lonely, hard way is a soul searching, inward journey. And for me the most important thing is that I have regained the family I lost many years ago, it seemed to me forever.
St. James is the patron of winners. The patron of victory over yourself and over difficulties. He has become the patron of my traveling and my new life. To stay true to me, without compromising. To have no regrets about the past. We often can’t forgive ourselves, but we are human and make mistakes.
Are you planning to go on the Camino again?
I consider the possibility to walk the Way one more time. I am tempted to go on the Portuguese route. But I’m not planning yet.
You like challenges …
A man needs to challenge himself; to get to know his limitations. The whole family is supporting me now on a bicycle trip. But this journey is completely different because I don’t run away from anyone. It is a joint project. I thank the Lord for what I got and I ask for more. I believe that God is on our side.
In what sense you ask for more?
I want more from life – more experience, dreams fulfilled, without worrying about how they can be realized. In my case, it’s trust in God. That’s the way I think about it.
Your are soon leaving for another journey. It is a bicycle trip this time.
This is a lonely bike trip from Florida to California. I called it TransAm 2018. Since I will cycle in winter, I have chosen the southernmost route, the so-called Southern Tier Bicycle Route. I will start from Miami and ride 3,500 miles. It should take me about three months. I will run a blog with travel photos on www.marekr.com/blog – you can follow me there.
translated to English by Dorota Rygielska