For more than 1,200 years, Christian pilgrims have travelled across Europe, their footsteps guiding them to the resting place of St. James the Great. This summer, two Houghton College alumni joined those ranks in search of adventure.
The path of Hanna Kahler ’15 and Rachel Woodworth ’15 began long before they stepped onto European shores this summer. Both participated in the East Meets West Honors program at the college as freshmen, where they discussed the Camino de Santiago de Compostela (“The Way of St. James”). Little did they know that, three years after their graduation, they would be fulfilling that “long-shelved dream,” as Rachel calls it, at approximately the same time.
El Camino de Santiago was a major network of pilgrim trails during the Middle Ages, a spiritual journey for Christians seeking penance and enlightenment. The most popular route, the French Way, begins in St. Jean Pied de Port (France) and spans more than 500 miles to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. In 2017, more than 300,000 individuals made the trek.
Hanna’s initial interest in the walk was sparked by her father, David, who was inspired by the movie The Way. Adventure is in the Kahler blood, leading the pair on hikes, climbing the highest point in various states, and now the Camino. What had been an occasional conversation each February for the past few years became a reality as Hanna and her father headed to southwest France, and walked to Burgos, a city in Northern Spain. For weeks Hanna walked alongside “incredibly open-hearted people” from more than 38 countries as they walked “their own camino,” carrying and working through their spiritual burdens. “It was wonderful to have the privilege of getting to be present in the moment, enjoy the scenery and the people around me, and not need to plan anything,” she remarks. While David was unable to complete the Camino due to work commitments, Hanna continued, arriving in Santiago on June 15 with her friends and “Camino Family” that she had met along the way. Upon completion of the walk, she chose to visit Spain’s Cape Finisterra (“The End of the World”), an additional trek that allowed her to reflect on six weeks of physical, mental, and spiritual challenge. Yet the journey is, in Hanna’s mind, not finished: “The final week of the Camino, I started hearing ‘The real Camino starts when you go home.’”
Rachel’s path also centered on family, but one composed of strangers who became brothers and sisters on the journey. “The Camino wasn’t a high-minded and solitary experience,” she notes. “We were a ragtag crew, strangers brought together and transformed into a limping, laughing, caravan of spiritual seekers.” From a young corporate worker from Mexico City, to an Italian economics graduate, to an Anglican vicar who became Rachel’s “Camino chaplain,” the diversity of those on the trail reflected that of the community of faith: countless individuals coming to this spiritual experience from around the world, seeking a sense of place and purpose – and becoming friends along the way. For Rachel, the path did not end in Santiago, nor in Finisterra. The experience was so profound that she spent a weekend in silence as a spiritual director guided her in processing the journey through prayer exercises. “The Camino absolutely affirmed the beauty and value of a winding road,” she adds. “This walking together was LIFE together, really: occupying and honoring the present moment and the crossing of our ragtag paths. These are Camino themes and rich territories of the spirit.”
Six years after their initial connection about the Camino, Hanna and Rachel found themselves reunited once more – this time as spiritual travelers, part of a legacy that has endured for more 1,200 years and prompted millions of individuals to take a road to a deeper understanding of community, faith, and self.