‘Grandeur Which Takes Your Breath Away:’ The Ignatian Camino in Spain

By Chris Lowney, Author of Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World)

 The view from Montserrat, Spain at early dawn (photo taken by a Fordham University student on a recent Ignatian Camino; courtesy of Chris Lowney)

The view from Montserrat, Spain at early dawn (photo taken by a Fordham University student on a recent Ignatian Camino; courtesy of Chris Lowney)

One student called it “easily the best academic experience I’ve ever taken part in.” Another trekker found it, at times, “demanding, boring, exhausting and discouraging.”

Not the most compelling advertising pitch?

Well, here’s what the second trekker said next: “But it also provided great happiness, enormous satisfaction and…when the walking was joined with our inner voyage…the pilgrimage brought much peace.” He spoke of contemplating, as he walked, “grandeur which takes your breath away.”

These trekkers were recalling their experiences along the Ignatian Camino (Spanish for “road” or “way”): the fully waymarked trekking/pilgrimage trail that traces the route of St. Ignatius of Loyola’s iconic pilgrimage in 1522, from his home in Loyola to Montserrat and Manresa (all cities in Spain). Today, Jesuit colleges and universities can use this uniquely Ignatian and powerfully transformative resource for their students, alumni and staff.

But first, to anticipate the skeptics: Pilgrimage? Really? Walking a dozen or more miles a day? Didn’t God create the air-conditioned bus precisely to help Adam and Eve’s descendants avoid such unpleasantness?

Well, those tempted to consider “pilgrimage” a kooky or irrelevant sideshow might consider the centrality of pilgrimage to the life and vision of Ignatius. For one thing, in the memoir he dictated later in life, he referred to himself not as “the founder of the Jesuits” but simply as “the pilgrim.”

Ignatius wanted every Jesuit trainee to be similarly molded by the rich experience of a pilgrimage. Many readers of Connections will know that a month-long silent retreat, the Spiritual Exercises, is the defining hallmark of every Jesuit novice’s training. But the most distinctive aspect of Jesuit formation may well be Ignatius’ instruction that every trainee spend “a month in making a pilgrimage.” (I’m aware of no other religious order that affords pilgrimage so vital a place in its training regimen).

Ignatius saw all kinds of benefits in undertaking such a pilgrimage: above all, it invited Jesuit trainees to grow in their reliance on God’s providence. But it also tested their resilience and challenged them to confront their strengths, fears and weaknesses.

Fast forward 500 years from Ignatius’ own trek, and it’s now become much easier for the Jesuit higher education community to avail itself of the same transformative experience. For the past five years, a 400-mile trekking trail along Ignatius’ route has beckoned trekkers. It’s fully waymarked (just follow the orange arrows from Loyola to Manresa!), GPS-friendly (follow the route on your smartphone), and translated into multiple languages through handy guidebooks.

Jesuit institutions can now help students, staff and alumni unlock the treasures of a pilgrimage experience, along a route that invites a unique encounter with Ignatius amid the most iconic sites and moments in the Jesuit tradition. What’s more, an Ignatian Camino pilgrimage can be adapted to suit varying time frames, objectives and populations. A month-long pilgrimage can begin in Loyola, the site of Ignatius’ profound conversion experience; pass through Montserrat, where he laid down his sword in an all-night vigil; and end in Manresa, where he conceived the rudiments of the Spiritual Exercises.

Granted, not every group will have a month available. No problem: Even a one-week trek can be structured in such a way that both Montserrat and Manresa would be visited.

The Camino can be used as a formation experience, as a uniquely powerful way to undertake the Spiritual Exercises; as part of for-credit courses in spirituality, history or Ignatian Studies; and in many more ways. For example, I’ve been privileged over the past three years, to conduct for-credit leadership courses for cohorts of Fordham University Executive MBA students. I don’t know the religious interests or backgrounds of these students: they are coming for a leadership course, and some are barely familiar with Ignatius or the Jesuits. Yet they almost invariably encounter Ignatius in a deeply personal way. They resonate with his life story, which embodies so much of what is essential in a life or organization well-led: persevering through challenge; discovering and articulating a renewed sense of purpose; rebounding from setback; and so on.

Administrators and campus ministers at Jesuit institutions can consider how the Camino brings new life and meaning to the classic images that are part of the Jesuit tradition. Most every Jesuit college or university has paintings or statues of Ignatius convalescing at Loyola; laying down his sword at Montserrat while revering the Black Madonna; and conceiving the Spiritual Exercises in the cave at Manresa. These ever-present images tend to fade into the background of a busy campus. But on the Camino, these same images come vividly to life, for example, when one arrives exhausted in Montserrat after a long trek (just as Ignatius did) and visits the same Madonna statue as he did.

Most important, through the Camino, the person of Ignatius comes more vividly alive. As one pilgrim put it: “No amount of information, data or reading can substitute for the sheer experience of following in Ignatius’ footsteps….I actually felt [like] I was walking with Ignatius, seeing the sights and views he saw along the same route.”

In the past, most Ignatian pilgrimages were organized as bus trips, which will remain the easiest way to visit Ignatian Spain. But the worldwide Jesuit network is discovering the transformative power of arriving in Manresa as Ignatius did: on foot. Pilgrim traffic has been growing exponentially: a half-dozen years ago, fewer than five pilgrims made the full trek; last year, well more than a thousand pilgrims trekked part or all of the route.

Those who want to learn more can avail themselves of numerous resources. The lavishly illustrated, recently updated Guide to the Camino Ignaciano is readily available on Amazon from Cluny Media. It offers background, spiritual guidance and complete details of the route. Would-be pilgrims can also visit the official Camino website (caminoignaciano.org), or join the official Facebook group (“Friends of the Ignatian Camino”). The Jesuits of Spain have missioned Rev. Josep Luis Iriberri, S.J. to oversee the continued development of the Ignatian Camino: he has led more than fifteen pilgrimages along the route, painted hundreds of orange arrows, and is happy to advise individuals and schools who want to consider sponsoring treks. Please write to him at director@caminoignaciano.org. I am likewise available as a resource too: chrislowney@gmail.com.

2022 will mark the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’ pilgrimage through Spain: a seminal moment in Ignatian spirituality and in Jesuit history. The years leading up to that joyful anniversary will surely see the route’s continued blossoming. See you on the Camino!

Chris Lowney (www.chrislowney.com) is author of the bestselling treatment of Jesuit-style leadership: Heroic Leadership: Best Practices from a 450-Year-Old Company that Changed the World. His most recent book is: Make Today Matter: 10 Habits for a Better Life (and World).