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. 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

Getting ready. Part One.

So the plan is to walk the Camino de Santiago. This Christian pilgrimage route in northern Spain has been trod since the 9th century. It honors the apostle James, according to legend buried in Spain. More legend involves James in the Christian effort to evict the Moors from Spain in a battle in 844 that didn’t actually happen. Nonetheless St. James managed to become the patron of Spain and gained the sobriquet Santiago Matamoros: the Moor killer. This historical context of conquest and killing for religion’s sake will be something to reflect on as I walk the route. History cannot be ignored, but it need not be a mire in which to get stuck.

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Why am I doing this? It seemed like a good idea when my husband said he planned to do it. I happen to like Spain, having visited Barcelona. I like walking with my husband; it is one of our chief shared joys. And when I inquired, I discovered I could get academic credit from my seminary. It added up to a number of reasons to take a long walk.

I see preparation in two ways: spiritual and physical. I’ve started the conditioning, walking with a weighted backpack. My husband has already procured various waterproof sacks into which things one wants to keep dry are to be stuffed. I am wearing my old hiking boots right now, hoping they will suffice. I don’t think medieval pilgrims went out and bought new gear for the journey.

I have begun looking forward to something that has heretofore inspired mostly anxiety. I write to train my thoughts to go in this direction, instead of idling in the shadows. The spiritual preparation is harder and therefore easier to ignore. But at both levels, I have to figure out what I need to carry and what I should leave behind.

Much more later.

Travel Anxiety

I had a period earlier in my life when I was fearful about flying. I remember having some exceptionally turbulent flights that might have been the cause. It took a few years for that worry to recede. But I begin to wonder if it hasn’t been replaced by pre-travel anxiety. I notice I dread getting ready for traveling.

I’m going to walk the Camino de Santiago, a millennium-old spiritual pilgrimage route in northern Spain, in late spring with my husband. I keep waiting to get excited. Instead I’m worrying: what if he gets sick? What if I get sick? What if the accommodations are dirty? I don’t know very much Spanish. Will the cats be OK without us? I hate cold showers. My backpack is too heavy (six pounds).

I started googling. “Travel anxiety” got 54 million hits. The first aha: I’m not alone. You mean I’m not the only one who worries about going to a foreign country where I don’t speak the language and I’ll be walking 250 kilometers and wondering what to do if it rains as I walk? My first step down a path of many kilometers is a small one of relief.

Lots of help pops up when I research the Camino, which I have already started. I may be anxious, but I am also preparing: Tickets bought. Walking with weighted pack. Reading guides. And worrying.

Anxiety about the unfamiliar is normal; this I know, and I know concrete things to lessen anxiety, all of which have to do with reducing the unknown to the extent I can without becoming a control freak: find a cat sitter. Figure out what I will carry and weigh it. Keep up with conditioning.

Some of it is fear of finding out things about myself: I expect to be able to do this. What if I can’t? Then who am I? The farther I go down the road of what-ifs, the more I detour from the main route of learning, planning, hoping. This particular journey is intended to make demands. The Way of St. James is supposed to be hard. It is also voluntary.

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It is also a spiritual journey. For me that means my husband will not be my only traveling companion. Jesus, whom I have gotten better acquainted with over the past six years at seminary, lived a life on his feet, going from town to town. One of his best known journeys took place after the resurrection, when he went unrecognized by two walking companions going to Emmaus. Jesus on the road inspired a lot of Western artists. Carl Jung regards the much (re)told story, stuck in the imaginations of so many, as an instance of the “magical traveling companion.” I plan to remember that while walking.

Wailing is a start

Yesterday I was too tired and too viscerally scared to write. My fear relates to fascism, which frightened me a lot when I was growing up. People being mean really scares me and throws me back to feeling young and helpless. I had already imagined our neighbors down the street with seven Trump signs on their lawn banging loudly on my door, coming to get me.

I see a lot of fear from my friends on Facebook: pictures of a swastika already spotted. A lesbian friend insulted on the street by a stranger. African-American women feeling numb and bone-weary. The weary need to rest and take time to mourn. (I hope Hillary takes a little vacation, too.)

I took a long walk on an insistently sunny day and got some sleep after a stressfully long election night vigil. I also thought about biblical lamentation; never mind that my biblical studies teacher suggested that there is a difference between lament and complaint. Be that as it may, I stumbled on a strong lament/wail/complaint from the Psalms, a wonderful compendium of praise and curse, gratitude and despair:

…As for the gang leader of those who surround me,

Let their mischievous words cover them; smother them in trouble.

Let hot coals fall from heaven upon them

And cast them into the roaring fires.

May they sink into the muddy marsh from which there is no return.

Let no liar find a home anywhere in the land;

Let evil hunt down the violent man and do him in quickly. …     Ps. 140: 9-11

I understand my Bible better this morning: wailing can help. There is a time for that too.

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And then … I have also begun thinking about what I am called to do: what’s my task that uses my talents and not only takes energy but gives it back? I can stand with my journalist friends and advocate for a vigilant press because we’re really going to need eyes on someone who has a track record of dishonesty – he reminds me of Richard Nixon – and who has worked hard to vilify the press in order to undermine its credibility. I am also starting to see fake news stories, which really sows confusion. Lots of forces are at work here, actually, and this is a good analysis for those interested. I just signed up to be a supporter of the Guardian , which I had been reading for free. The press is important; freedom of the press ended up being a constitutional right for a reason.

That argument is a little more abstract than I wanted to make. A better question to pose and answer is how can I keep heart (especially since I had a really expensive cardiac repair job just this summer)? A lot of my progressive friends are angry and calling for organizing. I don’t think that is my call; anger tends to hinder me and make me inarticulate. It’s a tool I don’t use well. I think love and empathy are better tools. These things are lower on the list of progressives, derided as hippie-ish or kumbayah in our postmodern era. Yet one of the reasons many of us find Donald Trump objectionable is what appears to be his total lack of empathy  – the ability to imagine and respect what someone else experiences. As a new chaplain, I’ve had the opportunity to study empathy; it can be cultivated.

I was reminded about empathy when my friend Jana Riess posted Mr. Rogers’ advice about looking for the helpers in a column she wrote about post-election trauma. To that I would add as a Quaker: what is your gift? What is your call? What can you do that will sustain you, your neighbors, and the planet? There’s a lot that needs doing. Pick the need and sign up and in.