This phrase brings back more than just an amazing song from my youth. They remind me of one of the most poignant and memorable aspects of walking the Camino de Santiago – seeing the signs along The Way that helped direct me on the path towards Santiago. I, like all Camino pilgrims, watched eagerly for “las flechas amarillas” or the yellow arrows found along all of the Camino routes, indicating the right path to take. There are many types of arrows, created by many different folks hoping to help us along:
There are “official” arrows and markings put in place by local government authorities, in addition to helpful additions created by people in the communities.
There are spray-painted arrows on fences, building, trees, and rocks – even on the sidewalks at some corners, to make sure we don’t miss a step.
At times, the yellow markings indicate a wrong path, warning us not to continue down that road.
There are signs pointing to places to sleep or alternate scenic paths, even arrows pointing the way that is better for bicyclists. When we saw those distinctions, we knew the path we were on was heading for stairs or extremely rocky parts – very helpful when deciding which path to take!
There are also pilgrim-made or embellished signs – welcome notes from those who had gone before and wanted to encourage those of us following in their footsteps!
On one of the first days of my Camino, a fast-walking pilgrim left this note, carefully listing each of the pilgrims and their respective countries who she started the day with – and a testimony to the universality of the Camino.
One day, I was walking particularly slow. Not due to injury or fatigue or a conscious decision – I was just extra slow that day for reasons I cannot even name. It was one of my favorite and most memorable days, but I was definitely well behind my small “Camino family”. They grew worried and waited at one of the towns until I showed up – to make sure I was indeed okay. I had sprained my ankle a couple of days prior, and although it wasn’t bothering me, they didn’t know that. On the outskirts of the town, we had to cross a field full of the remnants of that year’s harvest. A pilgrim from Australia, one I had met on the very first day, stopped for a moment to fashion this note of encouragement from sticks left behind by the farm equipment. It certainly brought a smile to my face – almost as much as arriving in town and seeing her and two other pilgrims waiting to help if I needed it.
At times, when the patches of yellow are nowhere to be seen, it can cause momentary panic. “Are we on the right path?” If we are walking with others, they may be able to say, “It’s ok – I saw the sign back there, we’re good.” It not only puts that song back in your head, but provides much-welcomed reassurance.
Sometimes, however, a deep discussion with a companion causes us to miss a little arrow or waymarker along the Camino. Likewise, our own thoughts or even prayers can hold our focus so intently that we walk right by the next indicator on the path. Once we realize we have wandered a bit too far in the wrong direction, we need only return to the last arrow sighted to get back on the right path.
I often wish my everyday spiritual life was more like walking along the Camino – with obvious signs from God that I am on the right path appearing just as often as those comforting yellow arrows. It seems almost providential how, just when I was wondering if I had perhaps made a wrong turn (because it had been a while since my last arrow sighting), one would appear around the next bend. There are days I long for the simplicity of the Camino – waking up each day with the sole purpose of walking and following these simple signs to my next destination.
Of course, it is easy to reminisce about the spiritual high of walking the Way and forget about the challenges of the Camino. For example, the signs are not always perfectly clear. In most regions, pilgrims follow the closed part of the scallop shell in order to know the right direction to travel. In Galicia, you follow the open rays of the shell. So, you must remember what region you are in, or you could go the exact opposite way from where you are intending to go!
Conversely, it is very easy to get caught up in the everyday business of “real life” and forget that there are signs all around that help guide me along the right path. There are the “official signs” found in Scripture and the teachings of the Church, and there are informal signs from my parents, pastors, and other elders in the faith, who want to help show me the path of righteousness and Godliness.
There are spiritual books and prayer guides, practices and traditions of our faith that help enrich my life. I have friends who are willing to challenge me to be more holy, to encourage me when I am unsure, and to lift me up when I am falling. They are there to help me discern the will of God in my life and are often the ones who point to the signs He is showing all along. I also have the lives of the Saints to show me the way as I follow in their footsteps. Much like pilgrims who have gone ahead on the Camino and left notes or extra arrows for those of us who walk after them, the Saints have left behind their teachings, prayers, wisdom, and examples to encourage and guide us as we seek to continue on the path of holiness.
Most importantly, when I worry I have strayed from the path, or have become distracted and misguided, when I am in desperate need of a sign I am heading the right direction, I only have to return to the Lord in prayer and seek Reconciliation, then set off to try again.