We’d arrived. After days, weeks, or months of trudging the Camino de Santiago, we dusty, blistered pilgrims crowded the altar to see, to admire, and most of all to photograph the spectacle: a cadre of red-robed men had hoisted the famous censor, the Botafumeiro, on its rope and had set it swinging to and fro. Hung from the cathedral ceiling, the golden monstrosity fumed thick scented clouds. It moved slowly at first, and then, swing by swing, gained speed. Soon it was swooping a grand arc through the high transept before the curious pilgrims. A forest of hands clasping cellphones, cameras, and tablets rose to capture the smoking censor in motion.

Yes, we’d arrived, we were really here, in this hallowed place, home to the remains of Saint James, or so they said. The Botafumerio display was our reward, the highlight of a holy mass. Holy to some perhaps, but once the censor slowed to a stop, many dispersed into the city for tapas or wine. The service continued over a general din of voices, laughter, and shuffling about. Westerners in Timberlands and outdoor gear strolled the cathedral floor with amused faces. Posted pics of the gold-leafed altar to Facebook, exchanged high-fives and hugs with Camino buddies. When instructed to give the sign of the peace, one couple began to make out in earnest — hardly a transgressive move in that time and place, where a general lassitude reigned.

Six days earlier I’d left a conference in Madrid and traveled by train to the Spanish town of Sarria. From there I’d walked a mini-Camino, a much abbreviated version for those short on time. Most people I met along the way had begun a month earlier, on the French side of the Pyrenees. By the time I joined them, they were filthy, foot-sore veterans of the trail, happy to have come so far.

The Camino de Santiago is among the world’s great pilgrimages, but were we pilgrims? My motives were pretty secular. I knew little about Saint James, and had no pressing need to petition him for help. I simply desired to see Spain in a new way, on foot. I looked forward to the adventure and freedom of the trail, and the satisfaction that comes with the completion of a long hike.

Though, to be honest, I did think it might be a pleasure to take part in a religious tradition like the Camino. I had the idea that walking it might help me reconnect with Catholicism, which I haven’t much practiced most of my adult life. I imagined I’d encounter other Catholics, lapsed or not, who were seeking some sort of communion or wisdom on the long Spanish trail.

That was not to be the case. Though I only walked it for a week, no one I met on the Camino claimed to have religious motivations. Among my fellow travelers was a funny, tattooed Irishman who’d quit a lousy job in a Dublin bar and hit the trail to relieve the boredom of unemployment. He was one to boast of exploits in brothels and whistle at girls. His Camino buddy, a young German, was hiking to kick a drug habit. Escape seemed to be a theme. You hiked to get away from work, trouble, or other people – like the middle-aged Spanish woman sick of taking care of an ailing mother.

Then there were those with fitness as a motivation – I met several tough elderly ladies of this ilk, hiking the trail to prove that they could. There were randy young men keen on scoring with fellow pilgrims, and others simply in love with the freedom and simplicity of Camino life. One Estonian hobo-turned beggar was such a case. He appeared from a trail-side tent, to ask passers-by for spare change and conversation. He was a real Camino junkie, as was the red-faced Brit I met at a café who seemed to live on the trail much of the year, killing half of each day drinking cheap Crianza. “I just love Spain!” he gushed in boozy breath.

Admittedly, drinking wine to excess is pretty Catholic, but the general vibe on the trail, despite the frequency of stone crosses and churches, was anything but religious. It seemed I was more likely to encounter an atheist than a practicing Catholic. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised; Europe has long been secularized. And in the Camino’s medieval heyday, pilgrims might well have been much the same – driven not by religious devotion, but earthier needs and wants. Still, all those travelers had chosen to walk several days or weeks to one of the most venerated churches in Christendom. Did the destination not matter in the least?

Whether it mattered or not, it was there, awaiting us when we arrived. Its grand portal covered in scaffolding welcomed the hordes of areligious pilgrims. We milled about and gawked at stone saints and angels on high, shuffled past the saint’s remains, and congratulated our weary selves. Not many bent knee to stone or paused to speak with the white-haired priest in the wooden confessional. We came, photographed, and moved on.

In town the gifts shops hawked all variety of Camino kitsch, including Darwin- and Disney-themed T-shirts poking fun at the pilgrimage. For nine euros, you could sport your ironic detachment for all to see. Perusing the merchandize, I wondered if the Camino had become so popular, so downright crowded, in fact, not because the Church mattered more than it had decades back, but because it mattered less.

The institution no longer had the power to instruct the pilgrim, after all. It could not awe or reveal eternal Truth, which had been jettisoned as an objective lifetimes ago. Now that the Church had been sapped of its theological potency, we could walk the Camino in comfort, free of all that religious baggage. Did an atheist’s backpack weigh less than the Catholic’s? Don’t ask me. As skeptical as I am, when push comes to shove, I won’t deny it: I’m Catholic through and through. (Check my pack: it’s pretty heavy.) I prayed in Santiago, lit candles, even confessed a few sins before showering off the dust.

All the same, I had fun with my fellow travelers in irony. We boozed and bantered, played cards and joked in hostels. I got high on scenery and fresh Galician air. I walked and walked, overcame blisters and sore knees, and relished the cool dark of old village chapels. Maybe someday I’ll go back, do the whole thing, from the Pyrenees on. Maybe then I’ll encounter those pilgrims (they must exist) who really do believe in the power of relics, in demons and angels, and the reality of God.

But I wouldn’t count on finding such souls among the Santiago crowds. Traditions as popular as the Camino, like Christmas, aren’t terribly conducive to religious experience. Contemporary culture has a way of hollowing out those few Christian structures it embraces. Today faith flourishes in the margins.

I say this on a hunch. Where are the margins? How to live there? I’m not yet sure, but Roman Catholicism, at least, has always seemed truer to itself when operating not as a centralizing force but a countercultural one. As a peripheral influence, Catholicism resists the materialist machinations of the age, offering an alternative, radically spiritual and aestheticized vision of experience. When the Church occupies the center, public commotion clouds its vision.

Does the Holy Spirit ever descend on the masses? For centuries monks and nuns have courted God’s grace in solitude, far removed from the chatter of Babylon. That’s hardly an option for most of us who make our home in Babylon’s streets, where religious tradition, by and large, has ossified into an artifact of the past.

To revitalize that tradition, perhaps the trick is to practice faith on the sly. Eschew the pomp and circus, the bishops and shrines. Fashion your own relics, find your own secret grottos in the wreckage of time. Once on the Camino, I came upon such a place: in one of those crumbling village chapels, a tired statue of Saint Lucy stands serenely in a dim corner. She holds out her eyes on a plate for all to see, proof of blind faith. I do adore such obscure, freakish embodiments of spiritual vision. I could do without the celebrated bones of Saint James, but I prayed with Lucy in the dark. I am glad to have found her there waiting for me.