Strangers on the Camino: Dr. Sanjiva Wijesinha is a Sri Lanken physician who is currently practicing in Australia. He took 6 weeks off of his practice and University position to take a sabbatical as a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago with his son. The book is part journal, part travel guide and part philosophical musing. Sanjiva was in his early 60’s and his son was 30 when they walked their spiritual path as Father/Son and ultimately best friends. It is fun to hear the Camino described from the mindset of a physician. For instance, he worries about experiencing angina if he were to push himself too hard in cold weather conditions; he frequently comments about the impact of walking on cholesterol and blood glucose levels. His intelligence is not just relegated to the physical exigencies of the Camino, but even more importantly, to the rich linguistic, cultural, and religious history of the regions he traversed on the path to Santiago. Having completed the pilgrimage just one year after his, I have to say I was not aware of half the information he explained about people and places that constitute the Camino’s rich history. Not only that, he seemed so much more relaxed during his walk, taking time to visit out of the way places that were equally compelling. At times he rode a taxi or a train and this likely gave him the energy to take these detours, but I have a feeling that his curiosity would have spurred him to take these detours regardless.
My only criticism of the book has to do with his jaundiced eye toward institutionalized faith. I understand how easy it is to see the avarice or the hypocrisy behind some church practices and a handful of corrupt individuals, but it may have come at the cost of missing the broader picture. The best example I can offer is his description of how Catholics depict torture and pain. He describes the use of icons such as Jesus nailed to the cross or saints suffering tortures of various types. While it is true that the crucifix cannot be divorced from the impact of Jesus (i.e., sacrificing his life for our sins) there are many images of Jesus as Healer, as Provider, and many images of Saints performing selfless acts of love in Catholic churches. His cynical view of the church, and it’s use of St James as a means to achieve an end may have merit but, for me, it detracted from the deeply spiritual experiences I heard him describe throughout his quest for greater meaning. Maybe it stood out because it was repeated at the very end of the book. For me, it detracted from his main lessons, which were sprinkled throughout and had little to do with the hypocrisies of history.
Despite my one significant criticism, it is clear that this author was successful at accomplishing what he set out to achieve: to document a deeply meaningful journey that transformed his life and his understanding of his relationships, specifically with his son. I couldn’t help but smile when I read his reaction to the Cruz de Ferro because I had the identical reaction when I first laid eyes on it.
Dr. Wijesinha’s description of the Camino makes me want to go back and see all the things I missed or failed to understand about the history of this ancient path. If you plan to walk the Camino, this could be a great way to prepare for the things you’ll see and help you look for the things you might otherwise miss.