Recently, the pilgrimage has become trendy with people of all (and no) religions, who come from the world over to trek across northern Spain, carrying high-tech packs on their backs and sleeping in rustic refugios (hostels). A few years ago, 60-something Shirley MacLaine--dancer, actress, bestselling author--decided to join the fray.
At its most enjoyable, MacLaine's new book, "The Camino: A Journey of the Spirit," reads like the travel diary of a middle-aged woman who discovers self-reliance as she deals with wild dogs, flirtatious men, blisters, fatigue, and cold-water showers. A friend, who has already walked the Camino, starts MacLaine on her journey, but soon MacLaine is left on her own to experience the joy and pain of traveling alone in a foreign country and probing matters of the self and spirit.
Anyone who has ever traveled alone will recognize her insights on the value of friendships (however fleeting), the kindness of strangers, and the burden of material things. These are the random and very real thoughts of a woman, vivacious but getting older, contemplating her world, her relationships, and the changes in her sexuality and sense of self. Many women, especially those who have not ventured far on their own, will find solace and encouragement in MacLaine's walking meditations.
But this is not any 60-something American woman; this is Shirley MacLaine, and so much of the book is a meditation on spirituality and the deep, deep past. If extraterrestials in the Garden of Eden and past-life incarnations of androgynous beings rub you the wrong way, then you best not pick up "Camino." But if forays into the supernatural are a regular part of your belief system--or if you can overlook them while searching for the meaning of life--then MacLaine's story of her 40-day pilgrimage could be an inspiring spiritual travelogue.
As MacLaine walks westward, she falls into frequent dream states in which she is visited by a certain John the Scot, who takes her on journeys to the eighth century, when MacLaine's physical incarnation was a dark-haired Moorish beauty who walked the Camino as Muslims and Christians fought. She meets up with Emperor Charlemagne of the Holy Roman Empire, to whom she becomes both tutor and mistress. John the Scot eventually takes MacLaine further back in time, to a sort of proto-Garden of Eden, where, she discovers, she was part of a great experiment to create two genders from the androgynous beings that until then had inhabited the world.
MacLaine's descriptions of her journeys are detailed and complex: Suffice it to say she has an explanation for everything, from the origin of the world to the reasons for wars between the religions and the sexes. It would be too easy to poke holes through her theories, which are hard to follow even if you agree with them. If you have any need for scientific proof, there's no hope for understanding them, as her scorn for scientists and their reasoning is rivaled only by her feelings for the journalists who eventually catch up with her on the way to Santiago.
Most frustrating about MacLaine's philosophy is its self-absorption. While she voices concern for the problems of the world, she always returns to herself. "All of life [is] a lesson in self-knowledge. The more knowledge we have of ourselves, the more we are able to deal with anything," she says, and this spirituality of the self becomes something of a mantra.
To her credit, MacLaine does ask--and answer--all the big spiritual questions, including the whys and hows of love, karma, and crucifixion. Her explanations, which rely on a belief in reincarnation, won't satisfy everyone. In the end, however, what she describes as her past reality and present yearning is a kind of pure bliss--a harmonious melding of mind and body, dream and memory, self and other--that is universal to spiritual seekers. Others may explain this state as being "at peace," "in the moment" or "one with God." But a rose by any other name smells as sweet.