The Day After

Yesterday was our full day in Santiago after finishing the Camino. We slept in a bit, had morning prayer, and then headed to the Cathedral to have our Pilgrim Credential verified and attend the Pilgrims’ Mass. It was interesting experiencing a liturgy that is basically familiar when it’s in a different language. The Spanish speakers among us were able to discern the basic point of the sermon: that one must always set aside time in one’s life to Camino–the first time we had heard Camino used as a verb! But it makes sense.

The only disappointment was that we did not get to experience the Butofumar, the world’s largest censer. There are various stories going around about when it is used, and I’m not sure what the real story is. But, perhaps not getting to see it is a sign that we are meant to return some day.

After dinner, we returned to our hotel for some down time, then enjoyed dinner together. After dinner, we met an old man on the street who was VERY happy to talk to us in Spanish and French. It seemed to concern the owners of the restaurant where we ate–perhaps he had a bit of a reputation! But, we thought he was great.

We concluded by sharing our reflections on ending this adventure together, and thinking about the stories we will carry with us–and the fact that we will never fully be able to share the experience with others. And we talked about the way in which this experience will always connect us.

Kate and I said “Adios” to Meg and the youth this morning as they headed to the airport. We took a train to Madrid, and then tomorrow we are on to Rome and then England. Our vacation is officially beginning, so there won’t be any more blog entries until August. Buen Camino, everyone!

Camino Day 6: The Last Day

Our last day on the Camino was an interesting one, and full of anticipation about arriving in Santiago. The weather was once again fairly perfect for walking, and initially the Camino seemed almost crowded as we set out from Pedrouzo. Eventually, the “crowd” thinned out as we all reached our own paces, and our group settled into our own rhythm, just as we had done all week.

After lunch we began a series of ascents that would ultimately take us to the top of the hill that overlooks Santiago. We had been told about this hill, and the view available from the top, and that filled some of our group with great energy. So much so, in fact, that two of our number set out ahead of the rest of the group determined to reach the promised view — though the actual top of the hill was further on than we knew. I became a bit concerned when, after an hour, the two who went ahead hadn’t stopped to allow us to catch up, as had been the practice all week when anyone ended up ahead of the group. More time passed, and my expectations of seeing them just around the next corner continued to be disappointed, and my parental instincts were becoming increasingly unsettled. We made a couple inquiries as we passed people who had stopped to rest, but no one seemed to have seen them. I had the sense that they were fine, but still, the father in me wanted visual confirmation. Finally, the rest of our group reached the top and the view (which is, indeed, well worth the effort!), and there they were. The group was reunited after two hours, and all was well.

As we were resting at the top of the hill, before beginning our descent into Santiago, I overheard a woman next to us whom we had never seen say to those she was walking with, “I hear that Chris and Keegan have been found, so that’s good.” Well, these were our two pilgrims who got a bit ahead of us! It seems that after making just a couple of inquiries about them, word had been quickly spread along the Camino that we had been asking after them. I had the thought that this is exactly what Christian community is supposed to be: an extended spiritual family who have a commitment to looking out for each other. It was another moment on the Camino that reminded us of how we belong to each other.

Upon reaching Santiago, we became increasingly excited as we made our way through the city toward the cathedral. Interestingly, once one gets closer to the heart of Santiago, the Camino becomes less obvious. All those big yellow arrows go away, and the only way you know you are on it are the occasional bronze shells that are embedded into the pavement. On the way, we passed what we understood to be our hotel and noted it for later. Finally, we reached massive square in front of the cathedral, took a photo, collapsed, and then went inside. It was overwhelming for some, underwhelming for others. We will return there today for a more proper visit, and to attend the daily Pilgrims’ Mass. We will also have our Camino passport, or credential, reviewed. Since we started in Sarria, they will check that we got at least two stamps for every day of our walk. Once they have verified this, they will enter our names in the book of those who have completed the pilgrimage, and give us a certificate of completion.

After our initial visit to the cathedral, we stopped for some refreshment and then proceeded to follow the Camino in reverse to get to our hotel, the one we had passed earlier. Except we lost track of the Camino, and got off of it. At that point, we had to ask for directions a couple of times, and finally found the hotel again. Only the hotel said they didn’t have a reservation for us! We told them the address, and the woman at the desk directed us elsewhere. Only when we tried to find this elsewhere, we were unsuccessful. So I called the number of the hotel that was on our voucher, and it was the same woman we had talked to earlier, who had told us we had the wrong hotel! At that point, I called for the first time the emergency number for the tour company in Ireland that had organized the trip for us. Interestingly, the woman who answered was the same person who had been our agent. She made some calls, and then sent us back to the original hotel that had said they didn’t know who we were. It seems that this hotel has switched us to another hotel without informing the tour company. Finally, at 9 pm, we made it to our hotel. We shared Eucharist together and reflected on the meaning of the day’s events.

We were struck by the symbolism of having stepped off the Camino and gotten lost in what can sometimes be the chaos of life. In some ways, it seemed a fitting end to our pilgrimage, as we all now face the task of having to transition back into our “normal” lives and somehow preserve the heart of the experience. As our pilgrimage comes to its conclusion, this perhaps more challenging pilgrimage begins.

Camino Day 5

Today we walked from Arzua to Pedrouzo, in moderate whether that was nice to walk in, but chilly whenever we stopped. We have been told that Spain is having an unusual summer, with the weather more like autumn. For Camino walkers, this is probably a good thing. Our journey was about 13 miles, leaving us about 11 miles to go to reach Santiago tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that we have covered about 58 miles already, and that tomorrow will be our last day of walking. I think we are agreed that we will both be glad to reach the goal of our journey, but also sad to end our Camino journey.

This morning, we were invited to reflect during today’s walk on this question: How will we take the Camino with us when we return home?

As I carried this question with me today, I was struck by an observation made by one of group, about keeping the peace of the Camino with us when we return to the non-peace of the rest of our lives. This comment got combined in my mind with my own observation about how the Camino runs through the daily lives of the Spaniards who live along it. The Camino weaves through their towns, farms, and yards, and they go about their daily lives as the pilgrims pass through. Sometimes the Spaniards pay attention, wishing the pilgrims well, and sometimes they don’t. What for us is a very special and powerful journey is to them just a part of the dailiness of their lives.

This led me to realize that the Camino can represent one’s groundedness in God, and as one walks, one is reminded of that rather literally as one puts one foot after another on the way. The way I hope to carry the Camino with me, in part, is to remember that the groundedness I feel so forcefully here is always available to me, if I will only remind myself of God’s continual presence. There is a peace always available below the noise and chaos of life, just as the Camino is always here for anyone to walk. If we can use the spiritual practices available to us anywhere we are, we can be reminded of that peace that lies below the surface, and tap into it. We can, in a sense, walk the Camino anytime. And living our lives from that place can change our lives.

One blessing of today came as we realized that we would be having our daily Eucharist in Spain today at the same time as Trinity was having their 10 am Eucharist at home. A wonderful moment of connection reminding us that when we live in Christ, we are never truly parted from one another.

Camino Day 4

We walked today under cloudy skies with occasional mists of rain, and feeling more energetic after having had a longer time to relax and rest after our shorter walk yesterday. Today was another 9 or 10 miles from Melide to Arzua, and it began with a real blessing, as just a short distance from our hotel we encountered our first open chapel, where we were able to obtain our first stamps on our Camino passports from a church. We had encountered a number of churches on the way, of course, but none so far had been open. We were able to enter this small church, obtain our stamp, light candles, and take a moment to reflect in an intentionally sacred space. A few of our party were moved to sing a bit in the marvelous acoustics of this small space. We left happy to have gotten our first church stamp, but it was not to be our last. A short distance later, we came across another open church, and the attendant was able to tell us a bit about the place. It had been a site for pre-Christian Celtic worship before a church was built for Christian worship. The church had a baptismal font dating from the 11th century, and frescoes dating from the 14th century. Later on in the day, we came across a third open church, dating from only 1826 — rather recent by European standards. This meant three church stamps in one day, after three days without a one.

In the course of our walk today, we encountered an unusual man who had taken up a spot in a forest, where he was giving a pilgrim stamp and a small wax stamp. He had a prosthetic leg, the result of a train accident. He told us about how he had gone all around the world on his bicycle. He made quite an impression on the group.

Later, we came a cross a group of young people from Belgium. They were volunteers who were escorting a group of disabled young people along the Camino. Many of them were unable to walk, and so the volunteers would push them in special chairs equipped with something like bike tires over the Camino. One volunteer spoke excellent English, and had recently visited the Bay Area. He explained that the group got up at 6 am, got their young charges ready, and set out to cover 10 to 15 kilometers by late afternoon. Then they would stop for the day and help their people get changed, eat, and finally to bed. The volunteers would finally have some time to themselves, and to build community with each other, from about 11 pm to 1 am, then get 5 hours of sleep before starting all over again. We were all touched by their commitment, and the beauty of their selflessness.

This helped me to reflect today on the ways in which we hold each other as we walk through life. If the Camino represents the spiritual path that all of us are on, these young Belgians are a powerful symbol of the fact that none of us walks that path alone–there are others who hold us in various ways along the way. And this, in turn, is a reminder of the way in which God holds us all.

Our reflections on the day, for the first time, included almost no mention of the physical challenges of the Camino, but rather on the ways in which the Camino was deepening each of us in unexpected ways. The Camino has certainly worked its way into our bodies, and is working its way into our hearts and souls.

We are now only about 23 miles from Santiago, which we will walk over the next two days. Our goal is ever closer, but our journey is hardly over.

Camino Day 3

Our third day on the Camino dawned with pilgrims perhaps moving a little more slowly, but also with a kind of expectant air as we looked forward for the first time to a much shorter walk of only about 9 miles. Our group seemed to be the last to leave our albergue, and we set out in cool but comfortable temperatures under cloudy skies. Our backpacks (and, in a couple cases, hats) sported small American flags in recognition of the Fourth of July (in honor of American Independence Day, toward the end of the day’s walk, a French couple led us in a rousing chorus of Woody Guthrie’s classic song, “This Land is Your Land”).

Every day seems different on the Camino, from the spirit and mood of the pilgrims to the area through which we are walking. Today seemed to be a quiet day, but with a number of meaningful conversations and moments of walking alone. At our daily Eucharist, which we celebrate just before dinner, our Liturgy of the Word consists of each person sharing his or her reflections on the day, and we were able to share our observations about how different this day had been compared to the day before, and the day before that. It was with joy that we reached Melide at only 3 pm in the afternoon, leaving time for more relaxation after the longer walks of our first two days. It was a gift that we were really able to appreciate.

Personally, from the beginning of today’s walk, I felt my own body wanting to have a slower pace, which led me to be the trailing end of the group today, a place where I felt quite content to be. Unexpectedly, early on, the story of Moses and the burning bush came to my mind. Sensible, perhaps, given that the story also involves someone who is on a walking journey. I immediately thought about the heart of that story, when Moses asks for God’s name, and hears in answer: “I am who I am.” For me, that answer reminds me that God is who God is, and part of my task is to be able to accept that without wanting to make God into someone I would find more pleasing–and who would then not be God. But today, during the walk, I felt led to consider another implication of this: that as God is who God is, so each of us is who we are, and our task is to accept that about ourselves, rather than wishing that we were different, or trying to be someone that we aren’t and thus ceasing to be ourselves.

The Camino, I realized, doesn’t allow you to be anything other than who you are. You can’t really pretend on the Camino. It leaves you with your own thoughts to work through, with your own physical strengths and deficits that can’t be hidden or denied. And the fact that you depend on the hospitality of strangers along the way reminds you that you really never stand on your own, but rather in constant relationship and dependence — an interesting thought on this day when Americans celebrate independence.

Tomorrow we have another modest 9 mile walk to Azura. And how strange it is that I now think of 9 miles of walking as modest!

Camino Day 2

This actually ended up as our longest day on the Camino: 16.75 miles. It’s amazing to think that in two days we’ve walked over 30 miles! And the feel of today was much different. We started out already with sore feet after yesterday, and that, of course, only progressed as the day went on. And while yesterday we were quite focused on what it was like to walk as a group, today we seemed to be focused more on our personal, individual experiences walking. We were more interested in the idea that “this is my Camino, and what will I do with it?”. In some ways, that led to more moments of disconnection, times when we were less aware of what was going on with others during the walk.

I was quite aware today of the rhythm of my own body. I was aware of trying to find my own pace, and of the temptation of follow someone else’s pace so I could walk with them. But I learned that I need to pay attention to the wisdom of my own body, and be less concerned with trying to match someone else. In a way it’s a blessing to realize this, and to feel the freedom that comes with the realization. At the same time, it is humbling to realize that you don’t have the capacity to match the rhythm of others.

I was also struck by the way in which we cannot ultimately know what it is like for others to make this walk — what it is like for someone else’s body to experience the Camino. There is a limit to our ability to enter into the experience of someone else.

So yesterday, I was very focused on the Camino as a communal experience, and the way in which it serves as a metaphor of Christian community. But today it was about the individual journey, the bodily challenge of the walk, and the way in which, at some level, the experience is one’s own, and cannot be fully shared.

Today was a triumph, but a humbling triumph, and one that has left each of us with something new.

Beginning the Camino

Today, we began walking the Camino in Spain, with about 16 miles from Sarria to Portomarin. I have never walked so far in a single day, ever. And what a different sort of day it makes to get up in the morning and know that the only thing you have to do that day is walk.

Our group of 9 did very well. After saying Morning Prayer together, we set out for what was a beautiful day of walking. Relatively cool temperatures, mix of sun and clouds, and while rain was forecast, it never happened. While we met other walkers (and cyclists) regularly, there were not as many people on the Way as I thought there might be. And as we walked, our group would break apart into different subgroups, always changing as we walked along. Sometimes, some of us ended up walking alone; different people would be in the lead at different times, and others trailing behind. Those of us on the older end of the continuum were reminded of that fact, as the young people would get ahead of us; and even when we started in the lead, they would easily overtake us. And all through the day, there was the constant rhythm of “Hola” and “Buen Camino” as pilgrims passed and met one another. And we were surprised at how many people walking the Camino are Spanish.

We took a longer break about half way through, at an albergue that was quite lively with a group of musicians made up of different nationalities playing together. When we finally reached Portomarin at about 5 pm, we had a beautiful walk across a bridge and then up a massive staircase as the city’s imposing Romanesque cathedral looked down on us. After checking into our albergue for the night, we shared the Eucharist together, giving thanks for having completed our first day of walking and sharing our reflections on the experience.

Throughout the day, I found myself thinking about how our walk so embodied my experience of Christian community. As parts of our group would go ahead and others lagged behind, I realized how much this reflects the life of every congregation I have ever been a part of. Because in every Christian community, there are people at different places along the path, some ahead, some behind, and others in between. As we walked, the group in front would become aware that they had gotten ahead of the others, and would stop and wait for the rest to catch them up. And this, too, is emblematic of Christian community, for wherever we are on the path, we come together on Sundays as one body, mindful of one another, attending to one another, renewing our relationships and realizing that wherever we are on the path, we are in Christ–and we can never forget about each other.

The Camino is both an individual journey and a group experience. It has the dimension of both the solitary and the communal. This, too, is exactly like the spiritual life. Sometimes, of course, we forget one dimension of the spiritual life, thinking either that it is only solitary or only communal. The Camino doesn’t allow you to forget either. Your own experience of walking, with the physical exertion is requires, never allows you to set aside the solitary dimension, while the rhythms of your fellow pilgrims never lets you forget the communal.

So, after the first day, it is clear that the Camino is Iife and life is the Camino.