The End of the Journey

The Cathedral at Santiago is undergoing renovation. So its best-known face, the Obradoiro Façade, was shrouded by scaffolding and no one could enter through that side of the church. We used the Puerta de las Platerias, on the south side. My very first impression of the church as we circumnavigated it was that it was a fortress; the Wikipedia entry for the cathedral notes that it is the largest Romanesque church in Spain and one of the largest in Europe. I remembered that St. James is known as Santiago Matamoros, the Moor-slayer, important to Spain’s political-national identity. The development of the Way helped attract Christians to the northern kingdoms of Spain.

Once inside I began to see nuance and detail in the vastness of the structure. We attended the botafumeiro ceremony held before the Sunday Mass for pilgrims. The cathedral was packed with people, many of whom left after the massive censer had finished smoking and swinging; large tour groups were present only for that showy ceremony, and the crowd thinned for the Mass afterward.

Santiago, May 28: The swinging of the botafumeiro was like watching a projectile moving back and forth in space, as if it wanted to reach the high high high ceiling, flashing in a smoky haze back and forth. Ritual writ large, literally. We sat on the cold stone steps and were blessed, as it were, to have a good vantage point on the procession entering the church.

The inside was flashy; we saw the vast pipes for the organ, which mesmerized Bill; fixtures inside glittered. Almost accidentally we got in line to pass by the box holding what are said to be the saint’s remains. There was too much to take in, and we who were inside following the Mass were urged to vacate so the next group of visitors could enter. But we sat on the cold floor for Mass, and that ritual joined us to millions of witnesses who had been here before us, since the cathedral was first begun in 1075.

Fisterra, May 29: This is the end of the (Old) World, so named by the Romans, who knew a lot but didn’t know what they didn’t know. Fish swim in small schools near the harbor walls. 

 

IMG_0502

We finally took a bus to this town on the Atlantic Ocean. It had never been part of our pilgrimage plans to walk here, though some do. Bill ran into a pilgrim he had met earlier, who had taken three days to walk from Santiago to Fisterra.

Spain that used to rule the seas and colonized the southern half of the Western hemisphere for centuries is today a modest and slightly broke country. Things change, they end. Our journey ended here, and both of us were more than ready to return. Fisterra, which once symbolized the end of the world, was the end of making my world bigger, growing it to encompass 46 million contemporary Spaniards, living in beautiful stone houses throughout the countryside, riding the Madrid metro, serving us the menu of the day with a bottle of local Spanish wine, welcoming us at the end of a hard day’s walk.

Today’s pilgrims, ranging from Pennsylvania to Sydney, Australia, (two who walked up behind us when they heard us one day speaking English), all have their homes too, and their boot prints follow in the footsteps of a millennium’s worth of pilgrims. Everyone has a story, everyone has a soul (we were struck by the Iglesia de Las Animas in Santiago, with its colorful relief of souls in the flames of Purgatory).

I summarize my pilgrimage for people who ask by telling them it was both delightful and difficult. I do not feel more holy, but I do feel more whole.

Dublin airport, May 31: Pilgrimage unifies mind/body/soul. The body is taxed and the mind goes a little wacky and the soul is touched.

Walking the Camino, Two: Street cats and other discoveries

If nature abhors a vacuum, perhaps the God of creation does as well, since there may be no difference between God and nature. Leaving old things behind makes space for the new. I kept my eyes open to this new landscape. This was important in order not to fall while walking. The ground dictated the journey: paved surface meant we could make time, inclines called for a slower pace, large rocks required attention to footing, smaller rocks and gravel taxed feet and legs.

The journey was a holistic, unifying one. Body, mind, and soul walked as one; everything was labor, sometimes easier, sometimes harder. I was my feet, and was deeply blessed in that respect. Most pilgrims asked one another: where did you start? How are your feet? My husband got big blisters that turned purple; I got none.

Pedrouzo, May 26: This is an opportunity to pay attention to bodily needs: gotta have a toilet! Don’t forget to drink! My feet tingle, my skin burns, my legs are stiff. Nothing super spiritual.  

One day before we entered Galicia, we stopped, and he asked me to go to a pharmacy (farmacia, ubiquitous along the route) for some bandages of a particular size. When I entered, I discovered a sizeable section devoted to foot care, with a dazzling variety of bandages, supports, and ointments for toes and feet. (This is one of many aspects of commercial support for the pilgrimage along the Camino.)

It was not possible to think about much beyond walking while walking. After five hours, walking generally became a burden, and my pack and I felt heavier. But usually mornings had a rhythm: walk early and rapidly, stop for coffee and juice, press on as the sun rose and the air warmed. The rhythm of the rainy days – there were two – was considerably more challenging. Walking earlier was always less effortful, as was walking under overcast skies or in tree-covered areas. Walking near busy roadways could be distressing because of noisy, speeding traffic. The ancient destination of Santiago awaits after you walk past the roar of planes at the Santiago airport. (What would Santiago think?)

The road determines the day. Because of this, simplicity is unavoidable and welcome. All I have to do today is walk X kilometers. The day is structured by a simple goal, and it becomes easier to imagine simpler times before workdays and automobiles existed. Walking each day, sleeping in a different place each night, made it easier for me to imagine the historic life of Jesus, walking up and down Galilee, getting his feet dusty, with no place to lay his head (Matt 8:20, Lk 9: 58).

Pedrouzo, May 26: If you walk, this is more or less as hard to do as it has been for centuries. Take out the paved parts.  

Leaving things behind makes for a simple day: walk, clean up, rest, eat, sleep. Repeat.

Every day was a circus of novelty: valleys filled with early morning mist. Cows trundling down village streets and leaving reminders of their passage as they head to pasture. Ancient trees, tall trees, riots of roses everywhere, the vigorous young grapevines in the sunlight of the Bierzo region. Dry stone walls everywhere, the oldest topped with moss skin. The rosy foxgloves of Galicia, brightening the shade. The hórreos of Galicia; a resident gave us the word but misspelled it, so it took a while for us to understand the function of these small granaries on so many properties. I was astonished the first time I heard a cuckoo sing; then I never stopped hearing them. Street cats: in Molinaseca someone has put out kibble for them, and four of them are eating demurely in a brick-paved alley.

fullsizeoutput_1c9

We stop for the night in Linares, which has no restaurants and more cows than people; our neighbors are cows, who stop vocalizing after their dinner.

Insights into essential simplicity and holism sound enviably profound. They came at a cost. The journey was hard. Some days we walked seven hours. Our first day of rain was miserable; the rain was cold and wind-driven. We stopped for coffee; I was stiff with damp cold and drawn in on myself. The trail underfoot was especially lumpy with scree that required careful walking.

I always found walking uphill challenging. My pack seemed heavier. My husband showed me a way of using my walking stick more effectively on ascents so make the climbs less effortful. Occasionally I simply begged God: You brought me here. Get me uphill! This prayer, in the vein of writer Anne Lamott’s Help, Thanks, Wow essential prayers, always worked.

The fact that so many people were willing to do something that hurt them, to judge by the routine occurrence of foot and toe problems, gave me insight into martyrdom spirituality, which I had found foreign when encountering it in my study of Christian spirituality. I better understood the personal commitment to a purpose that made it possible to do difficult things. Pilgrims managed to overlook personal discomfort in forging on.

The number of people who undertake the Camino are considerable. In 2016, around 280,000 pilgrims completed a pilgrimage, according to the pilgrimage office in Santiago. My husband and I were two of 35,000 people to receive a compostela, a certificate of completion, in May of this year.

Within those numbers is much national diversity. The largest number of pilgrims comes from Spain, followed by Germany, Italy, the United States, Portugal, France, Ireland, and the U.K. We also met pilgrims from Australia and Sweden. The way is multilingual; a lot of signage is in both Spanish and English, and in Galicia many signs include the Galician dialect as well. The Camino was not the best place to practice Spanish, although it helped in checking in to the albergues. Many restaurant workers spoke enough English to specify a bill total in English, and sometimes menus were available in English or in Spanish, English, German, and French.

One aspect of the pilgrimage that I did not experience deeply, although my husband did, was cross-cultural conversation. He told me that he had sought out conversations with others during the solo portion of his journey. Couples, however, have a different dynamic and appear to relate primarily to each other. This was true for us. I am normally fairly ready to initiate conversations with strangers, but did not find much energy to do so on the pilgrimage. The change of language was somewhat intimidating, and I was frequently tired when occupying common space at the end of a day.

Santiago, May 27: I am so tired. I think the spiritual message is that it is not possible to have a disembodied spiritual message. 

This surprised me somewhat, since it confounded my expectations. I felt I missed some richness that I was aware of around me. People walked at different paces, however, making it hard to stay with a consistent cohort of pilgrims.

Related to this was my growing recognition of wanting living space that I did not have to share with others.

Linares, May 20: No private bath but just sharing with two others and no one in the bathroom when I showered and lots of hot water. … (In my dream) strange men kept appearing in my own home. Last night we only shared space with one person, a woman. Tonight there is a couple, like us. I had no idea I needed my own space this much. 

Staying in albergues is inexpensive because one buys shared space rather than a rom with a door. In Portomarin we had the good fortune to sleep in a two-person cubicle that had access to an actual private bathroom. But the amenity I missed most was a full-size towel, since I was traveling with a lightweight quick-drying travel towel that was smaller than standard size.

Pedrouzo, May 26: What I love most about furnished hospitality: towels. Clean sheets are nice, but the right size towel is a gift from Goddess. God might not think of it, but the handmaid of the Lord would.  

I reflected regularly on hospitality, since I stayed at a different place each night, meeting different hosts, seeing different facilities for the essential tasks of washing self and laundry, encountering kitchens (or not). Many of the albergues had guest books signed by pilgrims from different countries. Bill encountered a few characters (one he called Señor Grito –Spanish for “shout” – from his habit of shouting at guests) but the hosts I met were generally solicitous, some more skilled at English than others. We who walked daily were dependent on today’s innkeepers, who took us in for a modest amount (a bed was often five or six Euros). I was a stranger who did not speak the dominant language.

Hospitality may be a virtue and an attitude, but it is also a business. The World Economic Forum has ranked Spain 1st for the past two years in “travel and tourism competitiveness.” Spain ranks highly for tourist service infrastructure, cultural resources and their promotion, and the prioritization of travel and tourism. The Camino Francés and the routes of Northern Spain are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. People have been traveling the Camino Francés for a millennium, so the way is well-appointed. The pilgrim can find a café-bar every few kilometers, though they may seem farther apart in rain. Each time I felt like grumbling about the commercialization of the way, usually when seeing tacky souvenirs, I remembered Ian Reader’s helpful presentation in Pilgrimage: A Very Short Introduction on the inextricability of the commercial and spiritual along major pilgrimage routes. Santiago teems with souvenir shops, and we spent Euros in one of them.

 

 

Walking the Camino, one: Leaving Behind

The first thing I noticed as my Camino de Santiago pilgrimage began on May 14 was a sense of being deracinated – yanked away from all things familiar — that grew steadily. I left from my house without my purse, and I didn’t leave by the usual door, since I took a different key with me. At the airport, I kept clutching the very small nylon bag that held my official, negotiable self: passport, two credit cards, American currency. I had no book to read. That might have been the biggest difference; I planned to travel without a book. (I was not counting the Spanish phrase book I intended to review on the plane.) Marcia the reader and writer had no computer, no book. Those were the first set of steps away from my usual identity and world of familiar references and habits.

Madrid, May 15: Travel light. It’s like I am missing things, like the recurring nightmare I have of losing my purse. My brain thinks it’s midnight.[1] 

When a journey takes the traveler across several time zones, the dislocation is physiological. I changed planes in Dublin, Ireland, at 5:30 a.m. local time, in grey light and steady rain; the connection required us to take an airport shuttle and walk out in the rain to board a plane to Spain. The Dublin airport signs are written in English and Irish, a first wee clue that English is not the only option on the globe. That, and the use of Euros on the plane, which I did not yet have. I nonetheless had a cup of Irish breakfast tea, fortifying myself from an English-speaking culture, before arriving in Madrid. English is the default second, universal language at airports (at least in Europe, which is as far as my foreign travel experience extends), so I found Madrid aeropuerto clearly marked. But oh, the Madrid Metro beckoned, my first step into the wholly unfamiliar, as I slowly deciphered the workings of the ticket machine. I had exchanged money using Spanish and English, and got directions in Spanish and English.

Looking back, I can see myself slowly wading into an unfamiliar sea, strengthened by the knowledge of my destination: I am meeting my husband after a month apart; his Spanish is better and he has been negotiating Spain for a month. All I have to do is board the right train to Astorga, where we would begin our joint pilgrimage.

As I walked in the neighborhood around the Chamartin train station in Madrid to pass time in an edifying way, I was set upon by petition carriers who were distinctly eager to see some identifying information from me to verify my signature. I think retrospectively that Santiago came to my aid; I brushed these two off and afterward found the phrase “leave me alone” in the “helpful phrases” section of my pocket language book.

“Santiago came to my aid” – it’s easy to start thinking this way in a culture that is historically deeply Catholic and steeped in traditional Catholic iconography. The Camino is replete with old churches. Some have been rebuilt; not a few look like fortresses, which the heavy Romanesque structures tend to resemble. Some of them have thrillingly elaborate retablos, others more modest and modern statuary, usually of the crucified Jesus, various renderings of Mary, and the ubiquitous Santiago, distinguishable by his pilgrim’s staff. Santiago is a regular figure in countless squares and plazas, and even occasionally encourages pilgrims who are walking far from town centers, his statue rising along a country road.

IMG_0379

We had one conversation with Ana, our albergue host in Santiago who is a great fan of 1950s American popular music, who helped us understand this relationship with the divine through so many intermediaries and expressions. She mentioned that each day of the year in Spain honors a particular saint. She also showed us her extensive collection of photos taken during trips to Memphis; her relationship to the founding days of American rock’n’roll was almost like a kind of material religion. (She had photos of various relatives and associates of Elvis Presley, and she and I sang a few bars of little known hits from the era.) She had been a pilgrim to America pursuing something meaningful. Her interest in American popular music developed as an outlet for her during the repressive Franco era, she told us. If Santiago came to my aid, Elvis came to hers. (She blogs about the subject at Let’s Keep the 50’s Spirit Alive .)

Outside changes — language, landscape, even change changing (I always had to look at the Euro coins to see what I had) – helped weed interior assumptions. Self-emptying happens acutely for pilgrims.

Rabanal, May 16: The Albergue Nuestra Señora del Pilar has massed pots of geraniums, a yappy little dog that waddles around the courtyard, and clothes drying on the line. The breeze is blowing, the birds are singing. 

When I returned, Christine Valters Paintner’s assertion in The Soul of a Pilgrim made more sense to me: “Peregrinatio is the call to wander for the love of God. It is a word without precise definition in English and means something different than pilgrimage.”

Palas de Rei, May 24: Why walk, indeed? I still haven’t figured that out, but Spain is filled with cool stone churches that invite you to think about this. 

It might mean that the journey is more important than the destination, trite but clearly true here.

[1] All italicized and indented passages are excerpts from my travel journal.

 

It’s not Heart Surgery

Last-minute preparations: stop the newspaper, clean the cat litter box, pay bills in advance, finalize lawn-mowing arrangements, fill the bird feeder. Everyday living has lots of details to it that have to be handed off or sloughed off during an absence from home. I told my husband, whom I am joining in Europe, that I feel more like I am going to prison than going to Spain.

I have been paying more attention to little things I enjoy: the flash of the red cardinal in the yard. Cats snoozing in sunny spots in the house. Will those peonies open before I leave, and will they still be in bloom when I return? (The latter is very likely.) Morning sun through the windows. These are good things, being traded in for the unknown rain of Spain, which looks as miserable as rain anywhere else if you have to walk in it. Walking pilgrims have no choice.

The pilgrimage may be in Spain, but it’s not Club Med. It’s Club Camino, for walkers along the Camino de Santiago staying in inexpensive albergues where it is possible to encounter bedbugs, though Bill has made no such discoveries.

I don’t know what I’ll discover, besides how quickly I will adapt. This pilgrimage right now strikes me as extreme retreat, with lots of walking meditation required. I am discovering a combination of travel anxiety + pilgrimage anxiety + being away from home anxiety. On the other hand, it’s not open heart surgery, which I had last summer. There’s perspective. There’s anxiety.

I know what I will miss here. I think of the prophets called by God in the Hebrew Bible, and a number of them said: Why me? This is not a calling by any means, but I can relate to the foot-dragging reluctance before a new vista opens up. FullSizeRenderI don’t have to; I get to.

Shifting to gratitude and prayer always works. Bill was fortunate to get a blessing for his journey from a chaplain colleague at his hospital. I worked last night, and my duties included blessing of the hands of nurses, a sweet ritual that many really appreciate. At the end of my shift the two chaplains who came on blessed me for the road, including my reluctant pilgrim feet.

What I Learned in Seminary (the short version)

I had two goals in coming to seminary: I was planning to become a chaplain and I wanted my Bible back from narrow-minded fundamentalists.

I can check both boxes. I now work part-time as a pastoral care associate at a large Chicago suburban hospital, and in September I will start a one-year paid residency at that hospital that will give me additional training that couldn’t be crammed into one clinical pastoral education unit and will also pay me to learn. (Unlike seminary.)

As to the Bible, I now generally know which part of the book to open when I am looking for something in it. It was actually fun to read the two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John by Craig Keener that was assigned by the instructor –six years in seminary have changed my idea of what is fun – and it was even more fun to read trashy novels about Jesus in the Reimagining the Gospels course and be able to spot the scriptural errors. I have learned enough about the Bible to not take it in vain or hit people over the head with it.

ESR

Here are some of the other things I learned.

  1. How to use soteriology correctly in a sentence: By contrast, post-scholastic theologians have shifted focus within Christology toward soteriology – doctrines of the work of Christ and, specifically, how salvation has been accomplished, a theological discussion that has animated post-Anselm Christology and especially post-Calvinist Christology. I wrote that sentence in 2011 in my introductory theology course. (Bonus point for using Christology correctly.)
  2. How to drive 85 miles an hour, which I did when my first residential intensive in spiritual formation in 2012 was disrupted by my husband’s having a car accident and I had to return home to Chicago. I did not miss a class because the instructor kindly worked out a Skype connection. An update: today my husband is hiking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in Spain, where I will join him next month.
  3. How rich education can be when you do it later in life when everyone in the classroom is highly motivated and brings a lifetime of experience into the room, making for deeply satisfying and stimulating discussions. I often describe the Earlham School of Religion to people who don’t know it as a place where you can learn as much from your fellow students as you can from the instructor, and I did.
  4. How to make spiritual friends. This has been precious and sustaining to me.
  5. How to be still and know God.

And finally. How to discern and enjoy the fruit of the Spirit, which is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I do wish the apostle Paul had added gratitude – a lot of us wish Paul had said a few things differently – and as a trained exegete I am prepared to argue that’s surely what he meant.

Thanks to you all, faculty, staff, fellow students.

 

Make America Smart Again

Once again, as with the women’s march, the signs were the best thing about the science march.

Hard to say which one was my favorite, but “97 percent of scientists say Donald Trump is a dumbass” made me laugh every time I saw it. The knit hats that looked like brains were also nifty, but you didn’t really need them on a sunny April day. In Chicago I was one of an estimated 40,000 people who walked and waved mostly homemade signs. The one my heart supported urged: Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education. It’s truly not normal when people have to make a statement in support of real facts as opposed to alternative ones. At least alternative facts have inspired many a satirist.

FullSizeRender

The Chicago crowd was very family-friendly. My friend Kate and I stood behind a family of four with two boys, one stroller-age, and there were plenty of young scientists among the marchers. Also people wearing lab coats, and I overheard science teachers talking shop. My guess is the crowd was a mix of professionals and tree-huggers. My son is a scientist; I wrote that on the back of my sign, a picture of Mother Earth. Science saves medical patients and keeps the air we breathe and the water we drink clean (except when it doesn’t, as the people of Flint know). We take this for granted. The proposed funding cuts for the Environmental Protection Agency means we shouldn’t continue to assume this. No one seems to have pointed out to the current occupant in the White House that jobs will be lost if he has his way. Research employs people as well as makes lives healthier. I know this; my son works as a research assistant.

The speakers – whom we actually heard this time – were diverse, and I especially appreciated hearing the African-American neuroscience PhD Garry Cooper. African American boys have a graduation rate of 57 percent from Chicago public schools, according to CPS figures. That’s in the overall context of improving graduation rates in the system. That rate is dismal. We can and must do better. I happened to be reading Howard Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited on the train ride to the city. What Thurman says (he wrote in the 1950s) about the responses of people without social power is relevant to understanding this structural discouragement and disadvantage.

Make America Smart Again – Support Public Education.

Left Behind

My husband left me, and I drove him to it.

I dropped him off at the airport this afternoon. He is going to Spain to do the entire Camino de Santiago and is starting tomorrow. He will wake up over the ocean or, if he is lucky, in the Madrid airport at the end of the flight.

Ohareterminal5

I am back at home; the house is not empty. One of the cats is curling up for his evening nap. But the house feels quieter. No big running shoes waiting by the door. The bed looks bigger. I am noticing something catch in my throat every so often.

I must explain: I have always been the one doing the leaving. I traveled to Europe in 2007 and 2011. I have been in nine short residencies at seminary in Indiana since 2011. I used to travel for business several times a year. I had a three-month internship in Wisconsin right after we married and before that a three-month academic quarter in Washington.

My husband has never been over salt water. This is his first passport that he has actually used. He usually stays home and feeds the cats and mows the grass (or shovels the snow) and brings in the mail. Yesterday he showed me how to use our lawn mower; he will be gone for six weeks and the grass does tend to grow in spring. I need to feed the bird tonight; I’ve never changed the paper in the cage and it needs changing. I already forgot to feed the fish.

Householding has been a two-person operation for us since 1983. I’m not expecting to need to turn off the main water valve for the house in the next six weeks, though for some reason my husband showed me how to do so. I’m more worried about falling asleep alone than flooding.

Six weeks is a while. The cherry trees are in bloom in the back yard, and he saw them before leaving. I was looking at the honey locust, which has not leafed out much, and our new hackberry. The downy woodpecker was rapping loudly on the locust trunk this morning. These later-leafing trees will be suited up for the season by the time of his return. I can be his eyes; he is usually mine, watching movies in my absence. I hope I can get into the Netflix account.

Yes, I am joining him next month in Astorga so we can do a part of this together. But he is now on the road, literally, and I am checking email, a pilgrim’s tether.