Before the movie projector stopped flickering, he knew what he would do.
In that Northern Virginia theater in summer 2012, he pledged that in the coming fall, God willing, he would walk the Camino de Santiago.
Another idea, even more extraordinary, began to flicker in the imagination of Lek Kadeli that day.
If schedules could be worked out, someday he would walk the camino with his family: wife Ellen, daughters Mrika and Elizabeth, and sons Peter and Gjon.
It seems heaven was willing on both counts. Lek completed his first camino three months later, in November 2012.And the entire Kadeli family made its own pilgrimage six months later, May through June 2013.
There were struggles along the way — a religious pilgrimage is no vacation after all. But every difficulty was dwarfed by abundant blessings for each member of the family.
A ‘Very Cool’ Idea
Lek Kadeli “got the bug” to walk the medieval pilgrimage route across northern Spain while watching the movie The Waywith Ellen, Elizabeth, then 13, and Mrika, then 20. The Waytells the story of a father who travels to Spain to claim the body of his estranged son who had died on the camino. The father completes the 500-mile journey in place of his son — and in honor of him.
Before leaving for Spain on that first solo pilgrimage, Lek tested the family pilgrimage idea with Elizabeth. Looking back now, Elizabeth laughs at her childlike exuberance at the time.
“The idea of going to Spain was verycool to me,” she recalls. “I was going to do this with my dad no matter whatmy siblings were going to do!”
Ellen was unsure about the proposal, especially considering Elizabeth’s longstanding fight with Crohn’s Disease, a chronic affliction of the digestive tract. What if she had flare-ups on the road?
But Elizabeth had another take on her illness — a courageous one.
“I have spent a lot of my life in the hospital getting basic treatment,” she says. “I felt if I am able to do the camino with my family, it would be a nice symbol of my fearlessness, of what I have had to overcome.”
From that point on, Ellen and Lek engaged in much prayer of discernment. Pilgrims often talk about experiencing “camino miracles,” out-of-the-blue occurrences that are hard to explain naturally. The first camino miracle for the Kadeli family was Elizabeth’s health significantly improving over the winter. A second miracle: Gjon’s summer job was delayed at the last minute, and he was able to make the trip.
“I felt like the Lord started opening doors. We seemed to jump over one obstacle after another,” Ellen explains. “It was becoming clear to us the family pilgrimage was a gift from the Lord.”
The family decided that Ellen, Elizabeth and Mrika would do the shorter route to Santiago. They would begin in Sarria and hike the final 60 miles through rocky Galicia to Santiago, thereby earning the compostela, the certificate of completion awarded by the Pilgrim’s Office.
Peter and Gjon, both in their early 20s at the time, would join Lek in taking on the camino starting on the French side of the Pyrenees. After three weeks of hard hiking, they would meet the Kadeli women in Sarria. From there the family would walk into Santiago as a unit.
Splendor of Catholic Culture
“One camino miracle was being able to spend such extended time with my sons,” Lek shares. “We would walk together, have quiet conversation, then separate a bit. Seeing them meet people from all over the world, I actually saw my sons grow and mature as men.”
Another reward was “experiencing Catholic faith and history.” The Kadeli men marveled at the ancient cultural reminders — the wayside shrines to the Virgin; the elegant ruins of monasteries; the centuries-old refugios, or hostels, that still shelter tired pilgrims; the Gothic cathedrals in Burgos and Leon — that testify to how Catholicism once imbued and elevated European society.
The artistic beauty was so profound for Lek that “there were times that I experienced tears,” he says, especially once while praying before a brutalized and bloody Christ on the cross.
One roadside chapel, whose interior shimmered like gold, bespoke the “dedication of the people of the time to create a place of worship that takes your breath away,” says Peter, now a graduate student at the University of Michigan. Gjon appreciated these glorious examples of Catholic culture in spite of pesky tendinitis in his Achilles tendons
“But he stuck in there,” Lek says with admiration, even though “one went bad and then the other went bad. But he would not stop, although he limped a good bit of the way.”
Lessons Learned from Struggle
The Kadeli women were blessed with insightful experiences as well, and they were not immune to the travails of the trail, either.
“My dad had just passed away and I was reflecting a lot about him,” says Ellen, whose memories were often prompted by passing through primitive farming settlements. “He grew up on a dairy farm in Vermont. The livestock, the agricultural ways of Galicia, they made me think of my dad and his family.”
She adds: “I felt like the Lord did this for me, allowing me to grieve the loss of my dad.”
Ellen recalls another touching episode, when Gjon and Peter took Ellen and Mrika’s backpacks, strapped them onto their backs and generously hauled them to the next refugio.
One problem, though: The women’s water bottles were still in the packs! That created a potentially dangerous situation on a hot day.
But, says Ellen, “We prayed the rosary; we sang songs. We really had to fortify each other to get to where we needed to be.”
Elizabeth remembers how her Crohn’s symptoms did flare up once — “I was in so much pain I couldn’t move.” To this day, she is astounded by the kindness of some passing pilgrims.
“These pilgrims came by — they actually offered to carryme to the next town,” she says. For Elizabeth, the selflessness she encountered from total strangers and her own loving family “was the beginning of my finding some answers to the mystery of suffering.
“You may be in pain. You may be slower than other people. You will just have to rely on other people for support.”
Family of Fellow Pilgrims
On a sunny morning in June, the Kadeli family reached their goal, standing side by side in the vast plaza before the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, mingling in spirit with hundreds of other grateful pilgrims. The next day, they attended the noon pilgrim’s Mass, where they witnessed the swinging of the botafumeiro, the gigantic incense vessel that swooshes across the cathedral ceiling.
“I’m not sure I can properly express the awesomeness of being at that Mass,” Ellen explains, “especially looking around at fellow pilgrims we met along the way and theirfamilies. And that we walked this incredible walk together.”
Since 2012, Lek Kadeli has hiked the camino seven times and by five different routes — including one trip to raise money for drinking wells in Uganda. He concurs with Ellen: “Every time I’ve been to Santiago, I’m just overwhelmed being in the cathedral in unity with all these people throughout the world.”
Go for It!
Lek advises reserving sleeping accommodations beforehand if you are going as a group. As for advice of the spirit, consider this maxim: “Everyone walks their own camino.” Each person is called to the pilgrimage for his or her own reasons, and those reasons are to be respected.
Peter firmly believes in this code of the camino. The best gift to offer a fellow pilgrim, he says, is a listening heart.
“A lot of people on the camino are broken,” he says. “Not everyone is Christian. I think God finds them on the camino as they are.
“Take the opportunity to listen. And be open to God speaking to youthrough other people.”
For Ellen, the greatest gift of The Way is the shared family memories of “that window of opportunity the Lord provided for us.”
The most important lesson for Elizabeth: “Don’t compare your journey to other people’s journey. And if you are going with your family, you will experience them on a deeper level.