Epilogue:  “The Camino Will Haunt You”

A pilgrimage ends when the pilgrim returns home.   Or it seems as if it should.  Unlike so many long-ago pilgrims on the Camino whose pilgrimages ended abruptly beneath packs of wolves, or at the sword points of thieves, or from the illness called St. Anthony’s Fire, all of us but one arrived safely in Santiago.  The pilgrim who didn’t make it had slipped on gravel on the second day of walking and broken her ankle.  She was flown home after successful surgery in Pamplona.  

The rest of us, having entered Santiago on foot, boarded planes and were home again in a little over twenty-four hours.  It was a swift end to a short pilgrimage.

But I don’t feel as if things are wrapped up.  I didn’t leave home with questions for which I was seeking answers, or with any particular burdens I wanted to leave on the Camino, unless it was all the burdens anyone accumulates over a lifetime:  family legacies, even from happy families, that you realize too late have been extra weight on your back; all the wrong choices you have made; the sadness you could have avoided and the sadness you could not.

So my pilgrimage remains unresolved, open-ended.  In fact, the longer I spent on the Camino, the more open-ended it became, a path running through Santiago and out to Finisterra, “Land’s End,” and beyond.

Some days on, I still feel the lack of certain things that had already become part of my life:  the flecha amarilla, the yellow arrow, which has disappeared from the streets I walk here; lacing up my boots; hoisting my backpack first onto my right shoulder, then my left.  Having barely begun to slip into it, I already miss the rhythm of walking.  

I miss the camaraderie of my pilgrim group.  For reasons of privacy I haven’t written much about it, but my fellow pilgrims were part of my Camino.  We were a kind of school outing or Episcopalian camp for adults, who were called to attention by someone (usually, but not always, our leader) shouting “The Lord be with you!”, which elicited an immediate, Book of Common Prayer (Rite II) chorus of “And also with you!”  Each morning we claimed our habitual spots on the bus.  We traded that day’s updates on aches and pains, packing strategies, dietary complaints.  We drank a lot of wine, and we laughed a lot.  Walking on the Camino we strung out according to our individual paces and gaits and then came together again at the meeting point, like a spool of thread that unwinds and is rolled up again.

We celebrated Eucharist with a makeshift chalice and paten, with bread saved from lunch, with wine someone had dashed into a store to purchase.  We celebrated it just inside the walls of Ávila, with curious schoolchildren looking on, on an old stone bridge in Santo Domingo de Silos, and on the beach at Finisterra.  We also lit Shabbat candles on two Friday evenings; our group included a Reform rabbi interested in interfaith spirituality and her son.  If “the Lord be with you” was intoned often, at these two quiet hinges between the week and the Sabbath came the words Baruch atah Adonai … .

On the last walking day, on the ridge above Portomarín, I came abreast of a pilgrim from Orange County, California, a trim man in late middle age with an accent I took to be Vietnamese.  It was not his first Camino.  I explained, somewhat apologetically, that I was with a group and had walked only portions of the Camino.  He smiled faintly and said, “The Camino will haunt you.”

I am fairly certain he was right.  What I’m uncertain of still is where it might lead.


The end of the world



Incense and Anchovies:  Santiago de Compostela


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St. James looms over the Camino not in the form of a man, but of a giant gold censer, the botafumeiro, that periodically swings in a great arc between the north and south transepts of the Cathedral of Santiago.  The Cathedral does not use the botafumeiro at every mass for fear that it will become a mere tourist spectacle.  It is that, nevertheless, especially since Martin Sheen’s and Emilio Estevez’s movie “The Way.”

After re-grouping at the end of our long walk from Sarria to Portomarín, we boarded the bus and rode to Monte de Gozo, just above Santiago.  It was sunny and windy.  At the top of a nearby hillock was a large, modern sculpture, a monument to Pope John Paul II, who visited Santiago in 1989.  But the popes are sitting in Rome, one of the three most important Christian pilgrimage sites along with Jerusalem and Santiago, and it seems they don’t feel a strong need to travel regularly to this city of 96,000.

We walked the two and a half miles down into Santiago in silence.  It must have been a somewhat strange sight, this group of twenty-four older men and women walking single-file along the narrow sidewalks of the commercial-industrial area ringing the old city center, none of them speaking a word.  We were still on the Camino, but on a much less scenic one than we were used to.  We passed what had become the sadly familiar sight of empty storefronts to rent, their metal security blinds full of graffiti.  We passed furniture stores, uninteresting cafés, and sooty stuccoed row houses.  We walked around roundabouts and across on-ramps for highways that channeled traffic below and beyond us and made it seem that although you could leave Santiago by car, you were required to enter on foot.  Now and then a yellow arrow or the molded contours of a concrete seashell appeared on a sidewalk. 

At last we passed into the narrow streets of the old city, completely different from the modern but slightly shabby area we’d just been walking through.  Any vague feelings of unease dissipated in the aromas of bakeries, fruit stands, bars and in the voices of people now crowding the streets.  The sun slanted over the rooftops and into these little rúas, as they’re called in Galician, and turned the final meters of the Camino into an open book, one page shade, the opposite page almost unbearably bright.  

Finally I caught a glimpse of the elaborate towers of the Cathedral.  They resembled Tibetan stupas more than medieval spires.  We walked down the steps of a passageway and emerged in the main plaza at the foot of the Cathedral steps.  We had finished walking our short Camino.

The first glimpse of the towers was more exciting to me than the official arrival.  It’s probably different for pilgrims who have walked the entire way.  Or perhaps not.  Perhaps one of their friends has also missed the last step in the passageway, out of fatigue or excitement, and fallen forward onto the stone pavement.  That happened to one of our number, and our concern over whether he had injured himself preempted a little whatever other emotions we might have felt.  So did the fact that they are cleaning the Cathedral façade, half of which was shrouded in scaffolding.  

We shuffled along with crowds of other visitors into the side entrance to the Cathedral and waited in line for our turn to walk up the steps behind the main altar and embrace the large metal bust of St. James, whose back is turned to you.  The following day, which happened to be Ascension Day, it would be carried around the nave on a litter.  Surprise, St. James!  Guess whose arms embrace you:  perhaps someone with your same need, as recorded in the Gospels, to be first, to be better than others, despite (in her case) evidence to the contrary accumulated over sixty-four years.

The following day, after attending the ten o’clock mass in order to be sure to have a seat for the Pilgrims’ Mass, and then the latter beginning at noon, some of us walked to a tapas bar for lunch.  I have been in one kind of culinary heaven in northern Spain, but especially in Galicia:  anchoas, anchovies, available everywhere, on slices of toasted baguette, with olives, as briny X’s atop salads.  So I ordered them here as well and ate them again at our farewell dinner, a tapas extravaganza.  One might say that the end of the Camino was also simply this:  a lunch of anchovies, olives and local white wine in a city two hours’ drive from the ocean.

But of course it was not only that.  Already at the ten o’clock mass we watched maroon-clad monks light the botafumeiro and begin to pull on the massive ropes suspended from metal girders in the ceiling over the altar.  The botafumeiro swings higher and higher, up to the ceiling and then back down low over worshippers sitting, as we were, in one of the transepts.  A local band of Galician bagpipers and horns accompanied the swings.  Ash-colored clouds of incense filled the air. In front of us tears streamed down the cheeks of a sturdy-looking middle-aged woman, clearly a pilgrim who had made the whole journey.  

They also streamed down mine.  True, the tradition began in order to fumigate a cathedral full of unwashed pilgrims.  But the tradition has created its own holiness, and even I, the occasional pilgrim, was part of it, watching our ephemeral offering rise to the heavens.


A Half-Marathon That Wasn’t: Into Santiago

On Saturday, our final walking day, six of us did Stage 29 (out of 33) in John Brierley’s practical guide to the Camino.  Everyone else walked a somewhat shorter distance by joining the Camino five and a half miles farther on.    From Portomarín we all traveled by bus to the outskirts of Santiago and walked the final two and a half miles to the Cathedral.

It’s 13.7 miles from Sarria to Portomarín.  Our guide estimated it would take us between six and eight hours.  It took four of us five and a half hours.  That wasn’t a bad pace considering there were 900 feet of elevation gain, some slightly tricky streams trickling down the Camino at several points, and a herd of cows we had to step aside for, and given that we stopped twice at albergues for coffee, pastries and to use the restrooms.
I found myself striding again with Chuck, my walking partner on our first big hike over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles.  Chuck’s legs are significantly longer than mine, he is younger, and he’s a longtime hiker.  So I had to work to match his pace and not slow down on the uphill.  I was wondering how long I could keep it up at whatever speed we were going.

I have been one of the faster walkers, though not the fastest.  I’m also a lifelong runner and veteran of a fair number of road races.  I’ve never run a marathon, but since turning fifty-eight I’ve run four half-marathons.  It’s enough running history that when someone drops me off at Point A and tells me I have to get to Point B, I start fast out of the blocks, calculating as I pass mile markers how long it’s likely to take me to reach the finish line.

But this was the Camino, not a race, as so much of the Camino literature likes to point out.  True, we had an estimated time of arrival, and a group of people waiting to board the bus and drive to that night’s hotel.  In some ways we didn’t have the luxury of a true Camino pilgrim, who might decide to shorten or lengthen any particular day and adjust her plans accordingly.  But that didn’t mean we had to beat our guide’s ETA.

Well, you can walk the Camino like that, like the retired Dutch executive from Shell Oil we met.  He’d hit his stride at 18 miles per day.  He wasn’t doing the Camino for religious reasons.  We never asked him why he was walking it, but he clearly wanted an expeditious journey.

But unlike those marathons that feature rock bands at every mile to keep you going strong, or the water stations where volunteers hand you cups as you run by so you can drink without stopping, the Camino has ways of snagging you and making you slow down, if only a little.

To begin with, there is the scenery.  Poppy fields in Navarra that make you want to lie down in them like the poppies that beckon Dorothy and her companions in “The Wizard of Oz.”  Mountainsides near Astorga blanketed with heather.  Wild flowers along the Camino inviting you to abandon yourself to their intense blue-violets, pinks, yellows, and their whites as stark and assertive as the tops of the waves at Finesterra.

Large farm dogs lie in the middle of the path as you enter a hamlet somewhere in the hill country of Galicia.  They are so used to pilgrims that they don’t move, so you move around them.  A small woman herds a group of six Jersey cows down the Camino, preceded by a little terrier, and you have to stand at the edge of the path to let the procession go by.  Birds hidden in rushes at the edge of a canal or in the bushes that hang over the Camino sing unfamiliar songs in an almost preternaturally loud coloratura.

Then there is the simple necessity of a stop now and then to re-fuel on café con leche, cheese and ham sandwiches or pastries at one of the many cafeterías along the way, which also entitles you to use the bathroom.

And sometimes you come to a fork in the way and have to pause.  Instinctively, you begin looking for a yellow arrow, perhaps painted on the stone foundation of an old house or the base of a garden wall, or below you on the asphalt, and sometimes on an actual Camino obelisk mottled with moss and age.  The yellow arrow becomes a welcome companion, appearing suddenly just when you need it.  “And when you turn to your right or when you turn to your left,” says the prophet Isaiah, “you shall hear a word behind you, saying:  ‘This is the way; walk in it.'”  The yellow arrow is the silent word, not behind you but ahead and below and out of the corner of one eye.

On Saturday we came upon two older American women who were not even carrying day packs:  they had flimsy little book bags slung over their backs.  One of them was saying the Hail Mary over and over, not loudly, but not in a mumble, either.  We passed them, but then I stopped and walked back and said one Hail Mary with them.  One of the women smiled at me and crossed herself and then we walked on, leaving the women behind.  A few more minutes lost, at least by some calculations.

I was not racing to Santiago because I was about to board a bus that would take me almost into the city.  Nor was I racing against my fellow pilgrims, although I sometimes had to remind myself of that.  Anyway, my running days are probably over.  I was learning that the Camino’s rhythms are its own.

Stop.  Start again.  Look for the arrow, and then walk that way.


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Medieval Architecture:  A Brief, Subjective Interlude

Yesterday was another tourist day, this time in Burgos, a larger city than Pamplona and on the basis of my very brief acquaintance, a less charming one.  But Burgos is famous for its late gothic Catedral de Santa Maria, so we dutifully trailed behind our official Spanish guide into a man-made Grand Canyon in which the walls are gilded, not metaphorically by the rays of the slanting sun but literally.

It seemed the cathedral consisted less of the main nave than soaring side chapels built for this or that bishop or nobleman and his wife.  They lay with their feet facing east, marble and alabaster VIP’s in square-toed shoes, the wives with little dogs at their feet.  

On one side of the chapels and rising thirty or more feet would be an altarpiece, punctuated by dozens of niches, each niche populated with a gilt or polychrome saint or apostle or allegorical figure.  Two of the altarpieces we saw featured, among other figures, female sculptures one of whom was blindfolded and the other who could see.  The blindfolded woman was old and withered; she represented the Old Testament, while the radiant young woman was the New Testament.  Mary sat enthroned on the altarpiece pinnacle holding the infant Jesus with his little crown globe.  And at the feet of all the altarpiece denizens lay gold and silver:  immense candlesticks, reliquiary boxes, embossed Bibles, jeweled patens.

One of the chapels was dedicated to Alfonso de Cartagena, Bishop of Burgos — and son of the former Chief Rabbi, who also became a Bishop of Burgos, around the time that Ferdinand and Isabela instituted the Inquisition.

Later that day we found ourselves in the cloisters of the monastery of Santo Domingo de Silos, famous for its monks, who sing Gregorian chant.  Santo Domingo is on the steep edge of a plateau, tucked into a wild, wooded landscape sliced by jagged blades of gray rock.  

The cloister is 11th-century Romanesque.  Its dimensions were small, scaled to the daily life of the monks.  And though the columns, capitals and arches had been painted once, they were now the gray of the surrounding rocks.  Parading around the capitals were fantastical processions of leaves, birds and animals, and at each of the four corners of the cloister was a large bas-relief with a scene from the life of Jesus.  The human figures were angular and elongated.  In some the pupils had been drilled into the stone, which gave their eyes a peculiar intensity, though the direction of their gaze was not always decipherable.  But the eyes of the two travelers on the road to Emmaus were fixed on the stranger traveling with them.  According to Luke’s Gospel, he was the teacher, the rabbi, the insurrectionist who had been crucified only a few days earlier, but the two travelers didn’t recognize him.

Today as we traveled in our bus between two of our Camino walking stretches we passed through a small, rural town called Castillo de Matajudios, literally “Castle Kill-Jews.”  Though it is possible the word “matar,” or “kill,” was a corruption of an earlier and less violent word, the current name has existed for centuries.  Recently the town voted to change its name.

I have begun to feel burdened by the weight of a tradition of power and violence, all in the teacher’s name, the person who was walking and walking, certainly in Galilee, perhaps to Emmaus.  It was good yesterday evening to have left the great cathedral of Burgos behind and to be among the flattened, more primitive figures of Santo Domingo.  It was better today simply to be walking the Camino again.








The Running of the Bulls, The Walking of the Pilgrims:  Pamplona to Uterga

It is always impressed upon pilgrims that a pilgrimage is different from tourism.  The pilgrim has a sacred destination somewhere in the world, but she is also on an internal journey.  She is not traveling to take in sights, however beautiful or significant.

Nevertheless, we stopped in Pamplona for two nights and a day during which we toured the city center and rested from walking — or at least, from walking on the Camino.  And of course the first thing our guide Mikel told us about was the running of the bulls during the Festival of San Fermin in July.  We walked the route, heard the statistics on accidents during the running (surprisingly few), and paused before the bust of Hemingway outside Pamplona’s bullring.  Mikel told us a little bit about the Basque language and culture to which he himself belonged, though he was baptized Miguel during the Franco era, when it was forbidden to speak Basque.  If any of us were ever to learn Basque, a mysterious language unrelated to any other (except, perhaps, Finnish and Japanese), we would be Euskaldún:  Basque-speaking and therefore Basque.

After our tour we dispersed and I ducked into the Café Iruña on the Plaza Mayor for a late lunch of pintxos, the Navarrese version of tapas.   I’m not a Hemingway fan, but I was dogging him, a female pilgrim in the shadow of the swaggering writer.  He used to hang out at the Iruña, a vast, ornate café from the turn of the last century, full of gilt mirrors and elaborate iron grille-work.  

At the bar I ate a toast covered with a square of olive oil-cured red pepper topped with fresh and cured anchovies, a piece of toasted baguette with cured Iberian ham, and another with cured salmon and cream.  I ordered a glass of vino blanco with my pintxos and then I ordered an espresso.  I was in a state of near-bliss, which had nothing to do with Hemingway but a lot to do with being by myself for half an hour in a European café, eating and drinking food and wine with distinct, vivid favors and textures.  

On my right at the bar was a German couple, on my left two French women debating what to choose from the pintxos and tortillas on display (the Spanish tortilla is more like a quiche).   I was not a pilgrim.  I was my imagined self from my early twenties and for many years afterwards:  a cosmopolitan, a traveler, someone who could slip into other languages and customs.

But this morning at eight we began walking out of the outskirts of Pamplona on a narrow, sometimes stony dirt path that wound up the green curves of a hillside to the Alto del Perdón, the highest point of today’s stage.  We walked mostly in silence, even when a few of us walked together.  The path was fragrant with flowering bushes, bordered with wildflowers, full of invisible bird songs.  Much of it was open to a wide and lush landscape dominated by the white wind turbines along the ridge of the Alto.  Passing pilgrims murmured “Buen Camino”.  

I tried to walk at a brisk pace because I wanted to get as much of our walk done as possible before it got hot.  I find it difficult to meditate on any specific subject while I’m exercising, and the Camino is definitely a physical effort even if it’s not “working out.”  But the rhythm of walking and the rhythmic tap-tap of one’s trekking poles are also a form of meditation.

It is a language the grammar of which is difficult to systematize or pass on, this walking meditation through changing landscapes.  It is not spoken by cosmopolitans, it would have been too monotonous and devoid of drama for Hemingway.  It is as unrelated to tourism or the sophisticated traveler as Basque to any Indo-European language.  But walking the Camino is also blissful, and belonging to it, if only for a few hours, is my Euskaldún. 


May the Schwartz Be with You


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Our first walking day was the scary one:  fifteen miles and 4000 feet elevation gain from St. Jean Pied-de-Port up over the Pyrenees and part-way down again into the tiny village of Roncesvalles.  It is one of the traditional starts of the Camino; the path is known as the Route Napolean.

Some of our group knew before they left that they wouldn’t attempt it and others decided on the eve of that day not to walk the whole way, since there were options to be taxied to a point not far from Lepoeder Peak and then to walk a shorter distance.  In the end only five of us opted to do the whole distance.

But most of us had been thinking about this day for weeks — for months.  We consulted our pilgrims’ guides. We studied the footage of Martin Sheen’s ascent up the mountain in the movie “The Way.”  We calculated the grade of the path.  Was it really 18%?  If so, for how long?  How much of the path was paved, and were there rocky parts?  Would there still be snow at the top?  We talked about it the way children (at least, children of a certain era) talked about sex, trying to piece together details of an irresistable but terrifying mystery we had yet to experience.

I felt I had trained pretty well beforehand, having abandoned running for more walking and hiking in the weeks before the trip.  But I hadn’t managed to do the 12-mile training hike I’d intended, let alone a 15-miler.  And the thought of hiking for eight or nine hours, the average time required for the Route, was daunting:  if nothing else, because of the sheer tedium.

I thought when the day came it would be like road races, where I always arrived at the starting line with butterflies in my stomach.  Or like the first time that, at the encouragement (amounting to insistence) of my former husband, I biked one of the classic Tour de France climbs in the Pyrenees, the Col d’Aspin.  When I first saw the jagged, rocky peaks looming straight up out of the plain, I felt nauseated with fear.

But the morning of the walk, after all the discussion, training, build-up and anxiety, I felt surprisingly calm.  Before our bus left Roncesvalles (we were already installed there and had to drive to the starting point in St. Jean Pied-de-Port) I’d gotten an e-mail from Jim entitled “May the Schwartz be with you.”  It was a line from Mel Brooks’ film “Spaceballs” and was of course a spoof of the “Star Wars” line “may the force be with you.”

So was the Schwartz with me on this partly foggy morning?  

Chuck was with me.  An accomplished hiker, Chuck was in fact with me all the way over the Col de Lepoeder and back to Roncesvalles.  We parted ways early on with our three fellow pilgrims, who were taking things a little slower.  We drank tea and shared a sandwich fromage at the refuge at Orisson, nine kilometers from the start. We took pictures of cows — blondes Aquitaines — with big, rectangular bells around their necks, of shaggy sheep, of the wild horses on the plateau just below the peak.  Chuck gave me occasional tips:  lengthen my poles for the steep downhill, tighten my bootlaces, walk backwards uphill for a few yards to take the strain of my quads and Achilles’ tendons — because the uphill for the first seven miles or so was indeed very steep.  We talked about this and that, we talked with other pilgrims.  We learned — because we almost set off on what would have been a disastrous downhill detour —   that a white line crossed with a red meant:  “Do not go this way.”  (Two horizontal lines, one white and one red, are signs of the Chemin de St. Jacques, as the Camino is called in France.)  

My past was with me, because the deep, green valleys, the outcroppings of white-washed farmhouses and then white stones on a grass-carpeted plateau, belonged to a topography I knew and loved, though mine was in the Central Pyrenees.  It was similar enough.  Now I was revisiting the Pyrenees by way of an ancient pilgrimage route, not on a bicycle but on foot. 

The thoughts of friends who know I am on a pilgrimage were with me.

Jim is always with me while we’re both still walking, or maybe some day just sitting, unable to walk.  He has helped trace the generous and forgiving boundaries of our life together.

And God?  

Was He just behind me when my heart was pounding on the rock-encrusted, winding dirt road below Orisson?  As my hip joint started to feel as if the top of the bone was rubbing a little too close to the socket?  When suddenly we saw a marker on the pavement that showed we’d come half-way?  In the intense pink wild hyacinths or tiny, white-and-rose daisies along the side of the chemin?  Or along the last three kilometers through the woods, where Chuck and I ran into a retired Canadian who told us about his hiking trips through Turkey and helped pass the final three-quarters of an hour until we finally emerged in Roncesvalles?

I think so.  Unless it was Schwartz.  




What Is Left of Saint Teresa 

“Christ has no body now on earth but yours/No hands but yours … .”

Teresa of Ávila

Yesterday morning in Alba de Tormes, the town in which she died in 1582, we saw Saint Teresa of Ávila’s heart and one of her arms, or more precisely the bones of one of her arms.  The heart, shrunken over the centuries to a slender, wooden-like husk, is encased in an urn-shaped glass reliquiary and the arm bones in a tube-shaped glass reliquiary bent in the middle to accommodate the elbow joint.  Most of the rest of the saint is in Ávila, although Franco kept her right hand in a reliquary on his bedside table during the decades he ruled Spain.

You access the relics from the Carmen Museum of the Carmelite Order.  They are displayed in a kind of pass-through shrine on the museum’s top floor; beyond the shrine you look down into a small basilica.  Thus you can venerate them either at eye-level or by looking up above you from the floor of the basilica.

Most of our group did not grow up Roman Catholic so the concept of relics seemed comically ghoulish.  I suspect that even for Catholics, relics have become a strange and even slightly embarrassing aspect of their tradition.  Much has been written about the American avoidance of death, and nowhere in the developed world do we confront disease, death and decay as people did in Teresa’s time.  For them the idea of severing a saint’s arm or removing her heart was not a dissection but more akin to a reverential scattering of holy matter, or so I imagine.

For us the idea that matter could be holy is unaccustomed.  At most we would concede the possibility of holy places, but not of single objects, much less the flesh of a dead person.  True, Christians reverence the elements of Communion and the cross, Roman Catholics certain statues of the Madonna, Anglicans the ornately bound Gospels carried each Sunday into the center of the sanctuary.  But these are symbols and liturgical objects, or representations of Jesus or his mother.  They are not flagrantly, obstinately matter in the way that the body is.

How can anything destined for decay and dissolution become holy?  More to the point, how could we possibly regard it as such today?   Teresa’s body is said to have been “incorrupt,” undecayed weeks after her death, a sign that she was a saint.  But even  so we empiricists would prefer to sort the sacred out from how things work in the physical world, the real world, the fallen world.

We know that Teresa really lived once because her writings have come down to us and because the religious order she founded, the Discalced Carmelites, still exists.  We know this as historical fact.  But the relic is a kind of message in a bottle from the days when the saint still walked the earth.  The message is the saint, or part of her.  The reliquiaries insist that holiness is not somewhere in the ether of our imaginations but embodied in flesh and bone.

Traversing First Travails 

For medieval pilgrims the travails of travel were part of the pilgrimage: were it not for their intent to join the Camino, they would not have left home.

But we have to weave a spiritual intent into the secular drudgery of modern travel.  It is not usually a mark of piety to suffer cramped legroom and flight delays.  It might be a mark of piety to ask, as our group leader has urged us to do, where God is in Terminal 2 at Madrid-Barajas.  

Actually, he didn’t specify that we should look for the divine in Barajas in general or Terminal 2 in particular.  But that is where we all converged this morning, most of us several hours later than planned.  So the lesson of accepting the   vicissitudes of travel with patience and grace has already started. 

By this afternoon we were walking the streets of Segovia and through the vast and chilly halls of the Alcázar, where we fought jet lag as our animated guide raced us through several centuries of Spanish history.  Feisty Queen Isabella.  Poor Queen Juana “La Loca,” locked away in a castle for forty-six years.  Poor little Prince Don Pedro, who fell over one of the 250-foot high parapets, according to some accounts while he was playing soccer; but he was only one of sixteen children.

Beyond the Alcázar stands a monastery where St. John of the Cross lived, the mystic facing the military might of the Spanish monarchy across the tiny Eresma River.  Beyond Segovia is a rolling, glaciated countryside, rich green and yellow, studded with small oak and olive trees.  And above everything soar the storks, their white, black-tipped wings in sharp relief against a blue sky.

It was an afternoon that called for physical stamina, and more than that for the stamina to bear so much beauty and history.  

Physical challenges await even us abbreviated pilgrims.  In three days we will begin to walk like all pilgrims through the ages, over the same terrains.  But perhaps the real work for modern pilgrims is to absorb these natural and man-made landscapes.  One wants to incorporate everything one sees or to become part of it, but the landscapes are too rich and too beautiful and pass by too quickly.   The question may not be only where God is in this countryside, but also how to endure His presence, how to find the strength to take Him in.


Departing, Starting

“And when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left, your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying ‘This is the way; walk in it.'”

Isaiah 30:21

The start of the Camino is not in St. Jean Pied-de-Port or in St. Puy-en-Velay.  It’s at home.  Centuries ago pilgrims set off on foot from their towns and villages, walking across Europe to the traditional starting points of the Chemin or Camino.  

This morning I found myself sitting in the small lobby of the shuttle service that would take me to Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport.  In the history of the Camino 24 hours in transit are barely the equivalent of seconds.

Nevertheless, like pilgrimages in all ages, this one requires leave taking —  leaving the embrace of loved ones, watching familiar and beloved landscapes recede.  

When I was younger, setting off was an adventure. I wanted to be everywhere I wasn’t.  Nowadays I find myself holding tighter and tighter onto what I know and love.  In short, I feel more apprehensive than anything, and today is no exception.  

But after all, I’m not embarking for the entire Camino, and over the next two weeks I’ll be in the company of the pilgrims in my group.   The question is whether I can hear “the word” behind me or find the way to walk through my personal fog of apprehension, or in the sped-up time I have to make my modern pilgrimage.


Weather Sins


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It has been raining pretty much constantly for the past two weeks in northern Spain.  Possibly it has been raining longer, but before two weeks ago I wasn’t checking the weather regularly.

We pilgrims are prepared, as pilgrims are supposed to be:  we have our Patagonia rain shells, our REI rain pants, Goretex hiking boots, backpack covers, and rubber ponchos.  Medieval pilgrims walking the Camino may have had more opportunity for spiritual preparation, not having had to spend so much — or actually any — time worrying about, and acquiring, technical gear.

For them, walking in the rain would simply have been a trial to which they were resigned or even a form of penance.  One of the traditional purposes of making a pilgrimage is to purge oneself of sins during the long, hard journey to the place where the Apostle James’ relics are said to lie.

Over the course of sixty-four years one can look back on a lot of sins depending on how hard you’ve tried to lead a good life and how well you can stand up to temptations you know you should avoid.  So I’m going to focus on one recent sin I’ve committed, and it has to do with weather.

A few weeks ago I was scheduled to fly to Dallas from Tucson to visit a dear friend from my Madison days.  Several years ago she and her husband moved to Dallas, and shortly afterwards Jim and I started spending most of the year in Tucson, so we have seen each other only a few times since.  Last fall my friend had a major health scare, and though it looks like her surgery was completely successful, I wanted to visit her.

Now, March and April are the stormy season in Dallas, and the forecast for the week of my departure was not looking too promising, at least to me.  I get very concerned when I see thundercloud icons on my weather apps:  I’m a nervous flyer who always requests a seat by the window, where I compulsively scan the sky for aggressive-looking clouds.

As Thursday approached the local forecasts in Dallas got more ominous, and I called my friend to tell her that I hoped the weather wouldn’t interfere with my visit.  But in my head I was already deciding not to go, and in fact I waited until the night before my flight on Thursday morning to pack my bag.

When I woke up the next day, my flight was still showing an on-time departure, though subsequent flights were already delayed; the storms were supposed to start later in the afternoon.  So Jim took me to the airport and dropped me off.  I went through security and sat down in the boarding area.

And then I took one final, fateful look at Weather Underground, which displayed an hour-by-hour row of tiny lightning bolts on Saturday, the day before I was to return, as well as storms all day Sunday and much of Monday.  I wasn’t scheduled to leave Dallas until 5 p.m.  What if my flight was delayed or cancelled?  What if I spent much of my visit fretting about getting home?

I had wavered back and forth for days.  Now they were announcing the start of boarding.  I went up to the desk and informed the airline representative that I wished to cancel my flight, and then I sat down and called my friend and told her I wasn’t coming, that it just looked too iffy for my return.  She was very gracious, and I told myself that since she had also entertained out-of-town friends the previous weekend, she was probably relieved not to have to take up yet another weekend with me.

Once I got home, Dallas became off-limits as a focus of weather interest, and when I talked to my friend a week later, she told me that I wouldn’t have had any problems getting out.  And in any case, I could have stayed an extra day; it’s not as if I had professional appointments on Monday.

I had committed the sin of cowardice.  Cowardice is usually thought of more as a character flaw than a sin, but in this case cowardice caused me not only not to love my neighbor as myself, but to fail to love even my friend above my dislike of dark clouds.

“It benefits me little to be alone making acts of devotion to our Lord, proposing and promising to do wonders in His service, if I then go away and when the occasion offers itself do everything the opposite,” writes St. Teresa of Ávila in The Interior Castle.  Teresa would also have said that we ourselves are not courageous except as God gives us courage.  But cowardice is all ours.

I’m not looking at the forecast for the day I leave for Spain.  Of course, unlike the Dallas trip it would be considerably more drastic, in all sorts of ways, to back out of the pilgrimage because of trans-Atlantic turbulence or low visibility in Madrid.  I don’t have to rise above my own irrational fears for this trip, or at least for its beginning.  In short, in Teresa’s words it isn’t an “occasion” offering itself.  But perhaps the weather along the Camino will remind me to stop using thunderclouds as a low and convenient ceiling on the house of my Self.