Prelude A couple of weeks ago, a man asked me a question that seldom arises in Canada “are you a practicing Christian?” I answered without much thought “I am a practicing Christian, because I never get it perfect”. The man laughed sympathetically. The answer is a good summary of my Christian journey. I expect it will apply to my experiences and reflections in March 2018 on the Camino de Santiago. I am not a theologian or scholar of pilgrimage. My blog will certainly include errors; if I knew what they were, I wouldn’t include them. Exploration should never end, and my reflections on spiritual issues always evolve as I learn more.
Wikipedia begins its description of the Camino de Santiago with:
The Camino de Santiago (Latin: Peregrinatio Compostellana, "Pilgrimage of Compostela"; Galician: O Camiño de Santiago), known in English as The Way of Saint James among other names, is a network of pilgrims' ways serving pilgrimage to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain, where tradition has it that the remains of the saint are buried. Many follow its routes as a form of spiritual path or retreat for their spiritual growth. It is also popular with hiking and cycling enthusiasts and organized tour groups. The French Way (Camino Francés) and the Routes of Northern Spain are the ones that are listed in the World Heritage List by UNESCO.
If you want to learn more, there are many books. I am walking the Camino de Santiago [shortened to Camino hereafter] because a pilgrimage is an important part of Christian history and experience. I’m young enough to try the experience, and old enough to know that someday my body won’t allow me. Like Iona in Scotland, the Camino attracts interesting people who may educate and inspire me. We will walk together in the day, and eat and stay together in the albergues at night.
BTW an albergue is a dormitory for pilgrims built and maintained by communities along the Camino. Beds in 2018 are 5 to 10 Euros each, a 3 course supper is 7 to 10 Euros, and breakfast is 3 to 5 Euros.
In recent years, I have felt pulled to seek ways Christianity can better support maintaining and restoring the exuberant richness of life on the planet. Is a pilgrimage within Creation, rather than to a place or holy relic, a possible answer? Maybe I’ll know better after the Camino, maybe not. My Facebook page will have pictures and brief descriptions of where my feet went, and my eyes saw. This blog is about what struck my mind, and moved my heart.
Day 1 In a pilgrimage, the starting place is a spiritual state, not a geographic point. My starting place in late January was - trust the moment. In early March, trust the moment remains the starting place, even if it must jostle with preoccupations like travel, weather and ongoing commitments of home.
On Tuesday, March 6, my wife and I stepped off the bus from Bilbao and Logrono in Najera, Spain. As we rode the bus along the Camino route, we saw no pilgrims. Some mountains still have snow, and at night in the towns the temperature drops to near 0C, and almost all the trees are bare. In summer there will a flood of pilgrims, peregrinos, on the Camino but not now. As we come into Najera, I ask the bus driver in halting Spanish where we disembark. He says next stop, points to a hill we will climb, and wishes me ‘Buen Camino’. We have a small lunch, mine including a big cerveza, in a bar near the river, and at 12:30 begin to walk.
Buen Camino – open to the different motivations and experience of each pilgrim – is said by locals who have seen ten of thousands of pilgrims, and from one pilgrim to another on their first and last day. I most admire the locals who wish me Buen Camino, and have sympathy for those who grow jaded at the unending parade of pilgrims. Bravo to the bus driver, and the many like him! When we focus on what is common among us – in this case, the Camino – we can touch each other with such wonderful warmth.
We are all children of God – why do we need Camino to recognize it? Far better to know it everyday, everywhere! Thin places are where we recognize what is common and real – where we recognize the spiritual and temporal worlds co-exist, and other people and the rest of Creation are blessed. We must thin the walls around our heart, and the fog in front of our eyes.
Throughout March I will explore and experience the many layers and meaning of Buen Camino.
Day 2 My preoccupations sit on me like snow on a roof. I will not shovel the roof. The snow slides off or evaporates when/wherever it will. If the roof leaks, maybe my time is better spent fixing the roof than shovelling. If snow lingers in some spots, maybe it can serve a future purpose. Trust the moment.
Day 3 “I’m walking to New Orleans” plays over and over in my mind. “New Orleans is my home, and that’s why I keep on goin”. We walk towards fulfillment, which so often has us uniting with a lover. Why would a pilgrimage be any different!? As always, on day 3 my body starts to harden to the tasks it is given. Still, at 68, I need to be a bit careful. As we experience more, we realize and celebrate better what a gift each day is.
Day 4 Physically, a very long, hard day into a strong wind and moderate rain. From 8 to 4:30, I walk about 30 km, and stop twice for about 15 minutes, for café con leche then chocolate. I’m good at grinding – it’s cold and uncomfortable to stop! - and don’t have many complex thoughts. May today have a purpose, like winter has a purpose. It’s shallow to wish for a life of perpetual spring and summer.
I do two things today that I had not done before.
First, I take a selfie. It is at a memorial for government supporters executed by Franco’s supporters in 1936, the start of the Spanish Civil War. Yesterday, I say an inscription over the door of an ancient church with the names of 7 men who died ‘For God and Spain” in the Civil War. Did any of them pull these triggers? In the Spanish democracy of 1996, the families (grandchildren and great grandchildren, most of whom would have never known the murdered) had the common graves opened, and the memorial built. It’s at the top of a pass, far from any village.
I think of Orwell’s “Homage to Catelonia” and wonder how the murdered would have acted, if alive, when Comintern ordered the liquidation of Trotskyites. Stalin ordered millions killed, including the church where he trained as a monk.
Another song, “You always hurt the one you love”, starts unbidden in my head and has played there since. We are called to love another, but often fail, at times dramatically. Like the 1930s, our societies are becoming increasingly polarized. We all carry the possibility of evil. We demonize the other to make ourselves saints, in a public theatre of virtue. In reality we just damn ourselves. Me too, hence the selfie. We are in a Time of Trial.
Second, in the next village, an historic church is under restoration and open. I feel called to pray, in the Catholic tradition, for the members of my family who have died. I sense that the call is linked to the memorial; I honoured it without understanding why. Trust the moment.
Sharleen is at the Albergue Municipal de Burgos when I arrive. I’m hypothermic and starting to shiver, but my heart lifts when I hear her excited voice. Two hours later, we go to a pilgrims’ mass in the Burgos Cathedral; for whatever reasons I am somewhat distant to the ceremony.
Day 5 Determination is often about pride. I do another day of over 30 kilometers – less wind and little rain, though! My body allows me to finish, though tired. My mind is focused on the hard way forward. No energy to write the blog, and no internet to send it, either.
Our plan for Sharleen to join me at Hotarnos fails, and we spend nights in separate albergues, 11 kilometers apart. I realize more deeply that the pilgrimage is about a time of reflection, and not an itinerary. The pilgrims from the USA, UK, Malta and New Zealand at supper in the Albergue Municipal de Hotarnos were great!