Monday, August 31, 2009

We're off!

Today we left Pamplona and headed for Puente La Reina, about 15 miles west. The first part of our journey was a long climb up the "Alto del Perdon," or "Heights of Forgiveness." From Pamplona we could see the top of the mountain ridge, covered with windmills too tall for Quixote to challenge. This is agricultural country, and all day we passed fields of working farms--hay, corn, vineyards (this is wine country!) and the occasional artichokes, and others. We walked through where others are hard at work. It was a glorious bright day, especially once we summitted Forgiveness and headed down the other side.
It seems people in general are more comfortable with forgiveness if we think we've done something in exchange for it. Especially if that something is hard. One of the good aspects of the Catholic sacrament of confession is that, especially for those with a lively sense of sin, the penance often doesn't seem like enough to "earn" forgiveness. "What? Say a few prayers? Be kind to someone? After all the evil things I did?" The tradition is full of people making spectacular expiation with this or that building--pilgrimage itself has been used as a penance, in which we earn our forgiveness with blisters (and in the past danger.) Instead of sending people on pilgrimage as penance, wouldn't it have been better to say, "hey, try to be a better farmer--be grace for others wherever you are, instead of seeking forgiveness on the road. Forgiveness isn't on the mountain--it just is, right here." In fact, it's even easier than the tradition has it. Forgiveness is just given. Like grace. It's scarier that way--the quid pro quo of "I'll say my prayers, then be off on my sinful way again, thanks very much," yields to a more challenging "yup. Forgiven. Simple as that. Now how do you LIVE as forgiven?" So we crossed the "Heights of Forgiveness" today. But at the top, looking out over the country ahead of us, laid out in glorious tapestry...didn't feel penitential at all, at all.
Once we hit Puente and were situated in our hostel, we traded boots for sneakers and set out to explore the town. The first building we went into was Iglesia del Crucifijo, a little church just beyond another hostel here in town.
In my touring of Spain, I went into a bunch of churches, most of them stunning landmarks. But they all charged admission, sometimes not even pretending to call it a "donation," or any minimal fiction. It added to the post-Christian feel of much of the country--the Church is merely a historical landmark that one visits like any other relics you pass on your travels. Here, though, we walked un-charged into a cool, dark sancturary lit through mica windows with a large, simple but evocative crucifix on one wall. The quiet was enveloping. The day had been a long and strenuous walk--15 miles with a pack is a long way! We wound up, at least for a short visit, just where we needed to be. And were met in the quiet.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Westward Bound!

Pamplona is a city famous for two paths: where the bulls run, and where the pilgrims go--though, mercifully, not at the same time. Today as part of our pre-pilgrimage sabbath, Marty and I walked the bull trail from the edge of the city down the plaza del toros, and we scoped out the trail we'll walk tomorrow morning as we head west.
Marty and I have the somewhat giddy attitude of people who don't yet know what the trail will ask of us, require of us, or take from us. At least, I imagine that the several books I carry will begin to seem less like a minimum than like a luxury of items that cause too much back-ache to be carried. Now, I want to know that I have them. But tomorrow will they feel like pointless over-exertion?
I suspect that's one thing pilgrimage invites from it practitioners. How many shirts do you need? How many socks? How much paper, how many books? Every item in the pack is a burden for each step, and if the trail becomes difficult, we'll be reminded of how our possessions really do possess us.
Of course, this is true of everything we own. Our possessions have a claim on us, of stewardship at least, and at most become a burden of varying onerousness. To carry possessions lightly, and to be aware that they extract a cost as well as offer a benefit, is a fairly facile truism of spiritual life, just as it is a fairly facile truism that refusal to forgive is a burden for the one who refuses. What we own, we carry. So I start this pilgrimage with a facile observation while gazing at my over-stuffed pack. I know there's nothing in there I can't jettison--but I'll discover in the next few days what I'll need in order to be the kind of pilgrim I can be. I expect I'll still have some books with me at the end, just as I'll still have shirts, socks. Maybe fewer of everything.
Because it is also true that the fact of having things, carrying them, being burdened by them, is part of what it means to be human, to be incarnate. I have feet--need boots, therefore socks. The fact that I carry a pack is a statement that humans do not and cannot float through the world as though we had no bodies, no basic needs to be dealt with. The art of pilgriming includes, perhaps, the art of recognizing how to gracefully minimize the excess, in the way that an artist sketches an image with economy of line. To carry too little fails to realistically acknowledge that we need stuff. To carry too much is a tradeoff of degree--do I gain more from carrying this, or from leaving it and thus realizing that it wasn't a need at all? Over-burden distracts--but so does not accounting for the necessary minimal requisites of being a person on the road.
We also carry questions of varying onerousness. I don't think I know yet entirely what the questions of my pilgrimage will be. One, for certain, is of the nature of freedom, its invitation, its contours. Not just the freedom from (of "can I get by with only two shirts? Which of the others will I throw away?") but a freedom for (of the kind of "what lightness of life do I need to be available, truly available, for the life to which God calls me?") Freedom, perhaps, inheres in the balance of carrying what one needs with grace, and not over-packing with that is better not carried. What will be left in my pack? I suspect, in the end, what will be left in this metaphysical pack are the ones I love most--those with whom the burdens of the rest of the trip through life is shared. One recognizes grace by the freedom it brings. Freedom FOR.
I know already I am helped to carry by many others--a monk who asked to be placed "in our rucksack" on the trail, and many others who pray for us, wonder about us, cheer for us. They enable our freedom FOR. Most basically, freedom for Grace.
At the very least, we're not running ahead of bulls...

Sabbath in Pamplona

Made it to Pamplona -- with all connections intact. And there were a lot of them, none of which I had control over. Planes arrived on time (more or less!); Lisa met me at the busy airport in Madrid -- only a few minutes after I got through customs. We found our way on the wonderful Metro system to Atocha train station. We surveyed one very crowded place to buy tickets, but then made our way over to one that sold "same day" tickets -- far less crowded. Arrived in Pamplona as scheduled, and we found our hotel just inside the old walled city, only a kilometer away. Our room faces west, the way we head tomorrow.

I look out the window a lot, observing the wind turbines that the map shows us we will pass, looking at the mountain (that´s certainly what it looks like from here!) that we´ll climb (The Hill of Penance, it´s called) wondering what Pamplona will look like from the top. I´ve studied the maps, noting where all the fountains will be located. From what I can tell, we´ll need them. I´ve tried to figure out how far we might get and where we´ll lay our heads. We´ll have to make a lot of connections tomorrow.

Finally, we´ll have no more control over making them than we did yesterday.

How to prepare? I suppose we should repack; I suppose we should wash clothes; I know we should get a good rest tonight. But do you want to know how we did prepare today? We slept late. We rested. We wandered around. We walked the old city, visited its churches, checked out the neighborhoods, had lunch then ice cream.

In effect, we took sabbath. The right way to begin pilgrimage.

Pamplona, by the way, has walled cities within walled cities. There are three neighborhoods -- and they didn´t get along. The Basques didn´t get along with the Franks. Who didn´t get along with the Navarrans. Who didn´t get along with the Basques. Each neighborhood had its own saints, its own church, its own craftspeople; they all fought constantly. The three neighborhood churches look like fortresses -- and they were! At some point in the Middle Ages, the neighborhoods built walls around their boroughs. All the while, Pamplona itself remains one of the most fabulous fortified cities in Spain, and people came from all over Europe to take notes.

Walls within walls. Maybe the medieval pilgrims had the right idea: the best way to deal with walls is to find the gates.

And simply pass through them. We´ll do that tomorrow, leaving the historically beleaguered Pamplona behind. We´ll wave from the mountain.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Tourist, Pilgrim

I left for Spain about 3 weeks early, in order to see more of the country than our pilgrimage route will allow. I started in Madrid, then Avila, then off to Morocco for a few days, then to Toledo, and wound up in Barcelona, my last stop before meeting Marty to begin the long walk. My fiance has been my companion for this part of the trip, and he'll head home before the pilgrimage. He and I have been relentless tourists, up early, out the door and on the road all day, unless we've been on a train heading to the next launch site.

Pilgrimage and tourism are two modes of attentive travel, and of course tourism is the standard anti-type of pilgrims. Many pilgrims--myself included!-- have been known to sniff at "pilgrimages" that resemble tourism more than pilgrimage. Now having been doing the tourist thing for the longest stretch ever in my life, a few preliminary thoughts on the differences.

Tourists, most fundamentally, I think, seek "experience glut." As tourists, we wanted to see all of the "most important" spots in all the cities we went to. In Fez we wandered the medina, allowing ourselves to enjoy a hamman (combination sauna and vigorous scrub,) and be convinced by vendors to come into this shop, then that shop, then the next. We took hundreds of photos that we'll sort out later, in order to recall and put order into our travels. The hallmark identifier of the tourist is the camera, especially the nearly omnivorous digital camera (1200+ photos and we still have 3/4 of our camera's storage capacity left!!) We walked slowly through many churches, synagogues and mosques (none of the mosques in use would let Christians in, of course, but ruined or rebuilt mosques can be entered.) It isn't exactly that we didn't allow ourselves to be touched by what we saw--indeed, several of the sights/sites we visited were deeply moving. Seeing autograph manuscripts of Teresa of Avila, for example, or the wild wind-etched rock formations that will always signal Montserrat for me, were touching, and required a slower appreciation, but much, and I suspect most, of that appreciation will happen later, as I reflect and express what caught my eye in the moment. The tourist uses her eyes.

The pilgrim uses her ears. One traditional symbol of pilgrims is the clamshell. Look at one sideways, and it looks vaguely ear-like. The gentle curve invites an appreciation of the pilgrimage as process, a development in the moment. Pilgrimage is a process of allowing the experience to unfold as a clamshell curves, from the thick tight whorl at its base to the slender outer wave of the edge. Pilgimage isn't something that is engaged and mostly unpacked later, but must--if it is to accomplish its end--occur in that space and time, in the same way that a retreat is something of its own moment. Of course there is later reflection, and a different kind of appropriation of pilgrimage also, as of tourism, but the heart of pilgrimage isn't "I've been there," but something closer to "there, I WAS..."

This is something that happens on a retreats, of course, at least those retreats in which both the retreatant and God show up at the same time. I recall once leaving morning prayer and seeing a large garden slug on a wooden railing. I nearly wept at the beauty of the slug's eyes, waving gently on the ends of their stalks. Who knew? A tourist might photograph such a slug, if it were novel enough to catch one's eye. But a pilgrim weeps.

Perhaps pilgrims walk in order to facilitate the slowing down. Ignatius' trek to Monserrat, where he lay down his arms and redirected his focus forever, I now know, was a long winding road up a mountain that would have been a grueling trip on a mule. He pilgrimed himself there, and became a permanent pilgrim--for the rest of his life he signed much of his correspondence "the poor pilgrim." We got there on an air-conditioned bus, had a strict time limit, were instructed as to where the gift shop was, and where to stand in line to touch the Black Madonna if we wanted to. The guide informed us that Ignatius had been there, "running away or something." Yup. Something. Rather, someone.

Attentive tourists have their worlds expanded in delightful and humbling ways. Attentive pilgrims never know exactly what will become of them as they walk.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Everything You Need.....

Here are Lisa and I on Kilimanjaro at the Lava Tower, 15,000 ft., Dale and Bob on the right. We're all panting like dogs, which is the way to deal with altitude. Set a pace, no matter how slow, that will allow forward motion; find a rhythm, no matter how shallow, that will allow you to keep breathing steadily. We look like we've found it. We look pretty happy with ourselves, like we have everything we need.

It's an illusion. What you don't see in this photograph are the twenty-three porters, guides, and cooks who climbed the mountain with us, carrying our gear. All we had to carry was what we needed for the day. The rest we packed into huge duffles that our porters carried. They scampered past us across the rocks, always taking time to tell us to go slowly: "Pole! Pole!" However, they were not going "pole"; they were not panting. We couldn't have done it without them.

On the Camino, we won't have porters. We'll carry everything we need on our backs and in our backpacks. I'm doing a first edit at the moment, gear strewn across the rug, holding up each item and asking: "Do I really need you?" I'll regret every extra ounce. At the same time, I don't want to find myself missing something I left at home: a compass, the headlamp, a windfleece. I want to have everything I need.

Of course, I know I won't. We'll be dependent on the hospitality of people along the way, the kindness of strangers. We won't be carrying all our food or all our bedding. We'll be dependent on hostels and the people who run them. We'll appreciate "pilgrim discounts" for food and drink. We'll need tips of the other folks we meet.

At the same time and as on Kilimanjaro, we'll share what we have with others. On Kili I gave my altitude pills to a French couple who really needed them. Lisa shared her remaining stash with me. We gave our emergency blanket -- and a massive dose of Advil -- to a porter who'd broken his ankle. Pilgrimage is like that: you depend on others, and you try to be dependable. We'll find the balance between need and abundance, between dependence and independence.

A year ago I finished a manuscript entitled "Everything You Need," after something my husband told me before he died. Those words comforted me enormously in the months and years after he died. And he was dead wrong. I didn't have everything I needed. But the people around me did. And they offered it with grace and consistence and patience. A second invitation -- after I didn't show up the first time. A jazz CD I really wanted. A walk in the hills. In time I was able, not so much to pay them back, but to pay their generosity forward. To others who, like the French couple, suddenly seemed to need it more than I did.

That balance of need and abundance: we'll find it along the way.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Routes, Roots, and Companions Along the Way

People speak of "The Camino," but in fact there are as many roads to Santiago as to Rome, another popular medieval pilgrimage route. The map shows a network of paths coming in from Portugal, France, and inside Spain itself, all converging on Santiago. I visited a spot in Augsburg, Germany where pilgrims stopped, refreshed, received blessings, and continued their journey to Spain.

Which route would we take? Initially, we figured on the Camino Primitivo from Oviedo, one of the oldest. Further research and conversations with some other pilgrims made me think again. More experienced pilgrims recommended the Camino Frances to us first-time pilgrims: it's more populated, which means more hostels and support services. We took their counsel, and with permission from our granting agency, we spread out the maps and refigured.

We'll start August 31st in Pamplona,where Ignatius Loyola was injured defending the city against the French in 1521. The city fell, an artillery shot shattered his right leg, and Ignatius began his conversion from courtier to "pilgrim," as he calls himself. We'll stay close to where the family castle was located. From Pamplona we'll hike to Burgos, about 220 km through the regions of Navarre and La Rioja. We hope to do this in about ten days.Then we'll take a train across the high, hot, dry plateau of central Spain to Astorga. From there we move through Castilla y Leon into Galicia and Santiago de Compostela, another 275 km. If there's time, we hope to get out to Finisterra, literally, the "end of the world." To the medieval mind if there were Christians in Finisterra, then the gospel had reached "the ends of the earth."

Can we do it? People asked if we thought we could climb Kilimanjaro. Then and now, the answer is simply: "We'll see." But then and now, we'll get there by simply taking the next step. In our party climbing Kili, there were seven climbers, then six. With us, though, throughout were 23 porters, guides, and cooks. We have similar support on this trip, and I want to thank the Association of Theological Schools for their enabling grant, Daniel Johnson for his advice, Jan Ruud and Jim Reites for their experience as pilgrims, Ed Peck and Orv Gingerich for their insight into immersion as pilgrimage, and Bob Marino and Sonny Manuel, who helped me think through both the Ignatian and therapeutic dimensions of pilgrimage. You helped us assemble our "gear." And we are grateful!