Imagine the chance to hike thousands of miles along the same mythical forests as King Arthur, follow the same trail that Richard the Lion Heart took as he went off to battle in the Crusade and retrace the same steps of Saints Joan of Arc and Francis of Assisi.
Connie and Mark Meehleis of Anchorage have followed these legends three different times, the latest in 2006. They followed the Camino de Santiago, or Way of St. James from Namur, Belgium to Santiago, Spain.
The Camino is a pilgrimage tradition that dates back to medieval times when pilgrims retraced St. James the Great’s last journey from Jerusalem to his final resting place in Santiago.
The European Union estimates that close to 200,000 people will make the trip this year from all over the world — many of those being young college-age students backpacking across Europe. While Mark and Connie are well past their college years, they have young hearts in their retiree bodies. Unlike many of their fellow middle-age counterparts, the Meehleis chose to walk roughly 16 miles a day as pilgrims — rather than stroll along a golf course or lay on the beach.
"Our primary purpose (for making the trip) was to be closer to God, to enhance our spiritual and interior life and appreciate the history and heritage of our Catholic faith," the couple said during a recent visit with Anchorage Archbishop Roger Schwietz and staff from the archdiocese.
The couple made a conscious effort to approach their backpacking trip as pilgrims and to imitate the lives of the apostles. That meant living simply, taking only two changes of clothes, food, water and guidebooks, packed tightly into two 20-30 pound backpacks.
"It made life much simpler, and required us to live on faith," Connie said. "Life becomes much simpler, your concerns become simple questions like where will I lay my head, where will I eat?"
The couple said the experience of simple life and the solitude of the trail helped them develop an interior life. "I call it walk therapy," Mark said. "You’re out walking, getting the blood moving — you get better conversations with one another."
Faith on the trail
Those conversations with other pilgrims were opportunities to share the faith. The couple said most of the people they encountered on the trail were doing it for adventure and not for spiritual reasons.
Mark had one opportunity to share his faith when he met a Frenchman named Renee. Renee, like Mark, experienced trouble with his feet swelling and blistering after many long days on the trial. The two men helped bandage each other’s feet at night.
"We even were helping support one another physically when we came into one town at the end of the day," Mark recalled.
Besides camaraderie found along the trail, the couple also experienced the rich historical heritage of the Catholic Church on a daily basis. "Every day you would always see some historic church or monastery from miles away," Mark said. "It was amazing to see a steeple off in the distance, knowing that pilgrims four hundred years ago saw that same landmark."
Traditionally, monasteries offered pilgrims refuge at night. That tradition continues today in the form of refugios, places where volunteers open their homes, businesses or churches to tired pilgrims at night.
This time around, the couple took two weeks out of their trip to help lodge other pilgrims at a refugio in Bercianos del Real Camino, Spain. The chance to offer hospitality to fellow pilgrims was an experience that required a bit of faith, because of the different languages and not knowing who would show up at night. The couple woke up early to clean the 400-year old rectory and fret about the evening meal. "Then we would pray that God would send an angel to help us cook," Mark said. Their prayers were always answered — they always had someone who knew their way around a kitchen. During their stay, they sampled various cooking styles, including German, Dutch and Hungarian.
The trail’s end
The Camino offers many different trails for pilgrims, but all end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the final resting place of Saint James the Greater.
After walking 2,300 kilometers (1,426 miles) over 106 days and wearing out two pairs of hiking boots across France and Spain, the Meehleis’ finally reached the end of their journey. Following tradition, they hugged a huge statue of St. James, said a prayer of thanksgiving and went to a special Mass. They were tired, but transformed.
"It was such a joyous, spiritual event that helped strengthen our mind, body and spirit," Connie said.
So after three long walks across Europe, does this mean that Connie and Mark plan to trade in their hiking boots and water bottles for beach sandals and mimosas? "Pray for us as we prepare to walk the ‘La Via Franciegena’ from Canterbury to Rome in 2009!" they said.
The original story can be found at: http://www.catholicanchor.org/local.html