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Grandma, 75, reflects on 500-mile walking pilgrimage

February 13, 2015
Christina Gray

Mary O’Hara Wyman was a middle-aged wife and working mother in San Francisco when she was struck with a sudden yearning to walk El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage route through northwestern Spain that leads to the reliquary of St. James the Apostle.

She fed her longing privately until one day 20 years later when she came across a quote from St. Francis of Assisi: “The journey is essential to the dream.”

“Reading those words pried open my heart,” she wrote in the first chapter of “Grandma’s on the Camino,” a 358-page book she wrote detailing her 48-day, 500-mile journey.

The book is inspired by the postcards she wrote at the end of each arduous day to her only grandchild, Elena, between April 24 and June 10, 2010. The postcards, together with Wyman’s own journal, helped form each of the book’s 48 chapters.

Wyman talked with Catholic San Francisco on Jan. 30, in the San Francisco home she shares with her husband of 43 years, Larry, and son Nathan. The following day she was due to share her story with the St. John of God parish community.

Since “Grandma’s” was published in 2012, Wyman has been invited to speak at dozens of churches, schools, Catholic women’s groups, retreat centers, pilgrim associations, senior centers and monasteries across the U.S.

As she showed us her “credencial,” a passport-like document stamped with each stop along her route, and her “compostela,” or certificate of completion, her joy was evident.

“This was a rewarding experience,” she said, but no piece of cake.

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, also known as The Way of St. James, is a network of five main routes through Spain, all of which lead to the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela. Wyman chose to do the longest one, alone, and with only a backpack but no phone, watch or camera.

“I wanted to experience the Camino with open eyes and open heart, processing the experiences in private without constant commentary and chatter,” she said.

Some suggested she “just take a nice escorted pilgrim tour with other seniors.” But her husband nurtured his wife’s call and was with her when she took her first steps away from him into the Pyrenees.

“No doubt there is a connection to being born into a deeply religious Catholic family and the fact that at the age of 70, I chose to walk out my front door to complete this journey,” she said.

Wyman was raised on a farm in Illinois where her devout parents led the family in the rosary every night. She went to a convent school and a Jesuit university.

A longtime contemplative prayer practice also pushed her toward the Camino, she said, and helped her cope with its rigors.

“Daily meditation never failed to be a source of calmness for me in difficulty,” said Wyman, who leads the centering prayer group at Most Holy Redeemer Church in San Francisco.

Difficulties included a foot injury that hobbled her every step and unseasonable cold that forced her to pile on all the clothing in her backpack including her pajamas to stay warm.

Her postcards became a comforting nightly ritual. Wyman would find a table in a village tavern and “put out my little altar” – her father’s rosary, Larry’s picture, her mother’s wedding ring and her granddaughter’s picture – while she wrote.

Wyman said that as she merged with the Camino over many miles, she found herself in a near-constant state of prayer. Hers were not the prayers of her childhood, nor were they petitions.

“They were pure and unadulterated prayers of adoration for all of creation as I observed it along the way,” she said.

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