Tuesday, September 29, 2009


When on retreat, I've learned to pay attention to the songs that spring up in my mind. Very often, they're telling me or reminding me of something that hasn't yet percolated up to the upper levels of my awareness. Since my musical turf tends toward rock and folk, very often I find myself mentored by unlikely gurus--one retreat day I spent several hours pondering a tune by Tina Turner that wouldn't get out of my head.

On camino, it was Joan Baez' song "Blessed are" that kept springing to mind. (Along with the sound track to "Jungle Book," but that's a different post...)

Blessed are the one way ticket holders
on a one way street.
Blessed are the midnight riders
for in the shadow of God they sleep.
Blessed are the huddled hikers
staring out at falling rain,
wondering at the retribution
in their personal acquaintance with pain.
Blessed are the blood relations
of the young ones who have died,
who had not the time or patience
to carry on this earthly ride.
Rain will come and winds will blow,
wild deer die in the mountain snow.
Birds will beat at heaven's wall,
what comes to one must come to us all.

For you and I are one way ticket holders
on a one way street.
which lies across a golden valley
where the waters of joy and hope run deep.
So if you pass the parents weeping
of the young ones who have died,
take them to your warmth and keeping
for blessed are the tears they cried
and many were the years they tried.
Take them to that valley wide
and let their souls be pacified.
(© 1970, 1971 Chandos Music (ASCAP))

The connections of this song to our trek require no deep insight to catch--I think it was the sense of one-way-ness that first grabbed me. The arrows on the camino all point to Santiago. There's no going back--like life itself, there's a single direction, and we try to progress, slowly or quickly, alone or together, limping or sound. At the end of the day, pilgrims commiserate and rejoice together, we share information about the trail or the towns. ("Remember that labyrinth at the top of the hill?") Such is not merely what's on our minds--it is a kind of responsibility. The story of the camino is found not just in the walking, but in the story-telling, the pointing out of what caught a pilgrim's eye, or soul, that day. In this song it is mourning that we are called to share--but it is also true that the one-way street "lies across a golden valley, were the waters of joy and hope run deep." We do need to hear that sometimes.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

"Oh beautiful, for pilgrim feet...."?!

Believe me: they aren't! Clearly the author of "America the Beautiful," Katharine Lee Bates never went on pilgrimage. She didn't know what she was talking about. But she betrays a romanticized view of pilgrims and pilgrimage that we encountered on the road -- and in ourselves.

Like ooze from a blister, evenings quickly drained the romanticism out of us. Evenings often brought us to little villages whose only livelihood was the Camino. We could find little else going on. One town, Triacastela, had a listed population of about 90. That meant that when the three pilgrim hostels were full, the town's population more than doubled.

We sat one night on the main drag of Triacastela, writing postcards and watching people's feet. Most folks traded in their hiking boots for Crocs or flip-flops at night, so our view was unimpeded. As we observed them first-hand, pilgrim feet are not at all beautiful: they are bandaged, blistered, and wrapped in every manner of gauze. And the people attached to those feet were limping, leaning, and moving very slowly. A lot like us.

We packed sewing kits for potential wardrobe malfunctions; we used them on our feet. Both needle and thread: thread turns out to be cleverly helpful in keeping blisters drained. Applying the contents of a sewing kit to the feet, however, also invites infection, which could close down a pilgrimage. People walk through blisters; you can't walk through infection. That means a couple of days of topical and internal antibiotics. You toss a coin; you take your chances. Mutely offering a prayer to Nuestra Senora of Second Chances, we sewed our feet.

All the books tell hikers to break in their shoes. All the books tell hikers to pad the points of friction. All this we did. What the books didn't tell us -- at least not the ones I read -- is that everything I put in my pack would create a large sole-shaped pressure zone between my foot and the ground. Every ounce in the pack registered on the soles of my feet. I had to think about what I needed, ounce by precious ounce: my feet demanded it.

After a few days in Santiago, I ran into some fellow-travelers from an earlier stage of the Camino. "You look great!" someone said -- to me! But of course, she was right: I'd spent time that morning making up my face, not my feet. Dressing our feet became a necessary morning ritual. When we reached Santiago, we stopped. Our feet weren't carrying 20 pounds around all day, which lightened our load -- and our spirits. When I got to Santiago, I bought the Spanish pair of jeans I'd been fantasizing about for the last 100 miles. I did look great: I'd shifted from pilgrim to tourist with stunning speed.

Pilgrims don't look great: they look tired, weary, and stressed. Katharine Lee Bates gets the stress. She continues: "Whose stern impassioned stress/ A thoroughfare for freedom beat/ Across the wilderness!" But goodness! how purposeful pilgrims sound! In reality, we dawdle. I can't tell you how many times I packed and unpacked my frame during the course of a day. One friend told the story of a traveling companion who simply had to taste every blackberry bush she passed. This quickly became an ex-traveling companion: my friend went on ahead, leaving her behind to taste every berry in La Rioja. With all her companion's pauses, she simply couldn't get any forward momentum going.

Blackberry bushes aren't the only temptation. We so often saw people taking a break mid-morning for a bocadillo and a brew that we began calling this combination "The Breakfast of Champions." I won't even comment on the hordes of people standing outside the smoke-free zone of a hostel having a cigarette.

The reality of pilgrims and pilgrimage is pretty gritty. We're not Bates' beautiful and beautifully determined band of soldiers. We didn't march -- we writhed into Santiago, like some spineless, gelatinous mass. When we got there, we stank, we ached, we wanted nothing more spiritual than a shower. There's a big pot of incense that's often swung at the daily noon pilgrim Mass in the Santiago Cathedral, the butafumeiro. It's not there for decoration: it cuts the smell, it may even de-fumigate us all.

St. Augustine (d. 430) turned again and again to pilgrimage to describe the reality of the Christian church; he called the people in it pilgrims, peregrini. I used to hear "America the Beautiful" in the background whenever I read this. No more! Now I see that smelly, writhing mass that oozed into Santiago.

It's not pretty, but it comforts me.

It's a lot closer to the truth.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Saints -- and more saints

As a cradle Lutheran, I didn't grow up with a robust spectrum of saints. Although Luther included the "Hail Mary" in his prayer book, he generally frowned on intercessors, advising his flock to intercede for and with each other. Good advice, but it leaves personal prayer a lot of distance to cover on its own -- and it leaves Lutheranism with a very weak grasp of the feminine.

Katy Luther reputedly made great beer, but apparently not good enough for Luther to beatify her. Very quietly, though, some of us already have. At the very least, she gets points for putting up with Luther's rants.

Perhaps that's why I've been moved by the presence of the Virgin along the Camino, particularly the Camino Frances, or the French route. Mary is everywhere: Nuestra Senora de la Vega, Santa Maria de las Estrellas, Santa Maria del Perdon, respectively, Our Lady of the Meadow, Mary of the Stars, Mary of Forgiveness. Indeed, our journey started in Pamplona at a hotel located on the mysterious plaza dedicated to the Virgen de la O. We entertained ourselves for hours imagining what that "O" might stand for.

At a Franciscan church in Santiago, we discovered the delightful Nuestra Senora de Valvanera, Our Lady of the Valley of Venus. My particular favorite is the Madonna de la Leche, the Virgin nursing an infant Jesus. Jesus either looks divinely disinterested or he hungrily reaches for the breast.

The images of Mary are as abundant as her names. The Mater Dolorosa, Our Lady of Sorrows, always wears a black triangular garb, and she often appears with seven swords piercing her heart. We often found her at the altar of a side chapel, the crucified and entombed Jesus lying below her. This was a kind of Pieta, all the more anguished because Mary reaches out for a dead child separated from her by the marble slab of an altar.

More often, though, we saw Mary as the Madonna, with Jesus on her lap. One of them was holding an apple, for historically Mary inaugurates a new creation. She represents the New Eve, just as Christ stands in as the New Adam: Nuestra Senora of Second Chances.

As she participates in the ordinary joys and sorrows of human life, Mary becomes a very plastic image. Perhaps she's everywhere, because she is closer to us than the rest of the Godhead. She's on our side.

Mary really is the Lady of the Camino. The route may be called the Camino of St. James, but Mary presides over the French route.

St. James plays a strange role. He's there -- and in equally fluid form, but the figure of James is more ambiguous. Sometimes he appears as the Pilgrim Saint, having been deputized by Christ to go to Galicia and turn all the Druids there into Christians. He had very modest luck and returned to Jerusalem, where he was promptly beheaded around 44 CE. Legend tells us that his disciples returned with his body to Galicia.

There James gets reincarnated as the Knight, and we found many images of Santiago Matamoros, James the Slayer of the Muslims. Historically, he could never have done this; Muhammed's death is a good six centuries after James'. But the Moors inhabited much of Spain in the early Middle Ages. Once Christian armies found victory marching into battle bearing the relics of James, religious iconography caught up. Who cares about history?! We found lots of images of James alive, well, and on horseback, beheading Muslims. At least, he knew something about beheading....

In the fifteenth century, the conquistadors brought James the Knight with them to the Americas as part of the Conquest. He took on another job description: slayer of the Aztecs, the Incas, the Mayans, and anyone else who got in the way of the Spanish Empire. There are images of James alive and on horseback, this time killing the native peoples.

Those who weren't killed were Catholicized, but the saints of New Spain's Catholicism only thinly covered the already existing gods and goddesses of the Aztec, Mayan, and Incan religions. Native peoples adopted Catholic saints -- and then adapted them. In the Guadalupe, Mary takes on the traits of Tonantzin, Aztec goddess of the heavens. James the Knight takes on traits of Illapa, the Incan god of lightning, thunder, and rainstorms.

With nationalist movements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, we find images of James the Slayer of the Spaniards, Santiago Mataespanois. The conquering saint takes the side of the conquered.

We studied the rich spectrum of saints affiliated with pilgrimage at the fine Museum of Pilgrimage in Santiago. Their images are powerfully labile, telling more about the people who revered them than the saints themselves.

But then, saints always do: they embody the deepest needs of the human heart, both its darkness and its beauty.

I am struck with these two saints and their images, one of carnage and conquest, the other of nurture and compassion. Despite the peace Jesus preached, lived, and simply was -- those hard teachings about loving the enemy -- we still want James to fight for us. But we will always need Mary to feed us and to share our tears.

I'll take Mary, Nuestra Senora del Camino -- the mysterious Virgen de la O.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The ends of the earth.....

Medieval Christians believed that if the gospel was being preached in Finisterre, then the good news had "reached the ends of the earth." Finisterre is a peninsula that marks the westernmost part of continental Europe. I was at the westernmost part of Ireland visiting the cliffs of Moher, and there was a sign clinging to the windswept cliffs that said: "Next pub: Boston!" I looked for a similar sign at Finisterre -- "Next cerveceria: Boston!!!" But didn't find one.

The ancients put Finisterre on their maps painting nothing beyond it but oceans and leviathans. Beyond Finisterre was a realm of darkness. As the German tourist brochure we were reading put it: "Reich der Dunkelheit." The sun descended into this realm every night. Only a miracle brought it up in the morning.

We watched the sun set into the grey Atlantic last night on the rocky coast of Finisterre. A lighthouse guards the treacherous coastline, as well as launching the pilgrimage route that leads from Finisterre to Santiago.

There were lots of other pilgrims huddled in the rocks watching -- and when the sun set, we all cheered.

We were cheering the setting of the sun; we were cheering the sure knowledge that it would come up the next day; we were cheering the end of our various Caminos.

We were cheering miracles, old and new.

And yes, I caught sunrise the following morning, again with a bunch of tired pilgrims. And yes, we cheered then too.

Monday, September 21, 2009


We arrived in Santiago early this afternoon, found our digs for the night, and since then basically wandered the town. Santiago is a pretty big town, about 90,000, while the towns we have been wandering through have been mostly very small agricultural villages. Lots of wine country early on, a lot more dairy of late. One of the joys of the pilgrimage has been catching the sweet smell of silage on the morning breeze, as we walked in glorious rural Spain.

I think the 4 main emotions/virtues/passions or whatever you want to call them of the camino are these: persistence, joy, hope and fear. Persistence, clearly, was what kept us going when it was beginning to rain, or when we were in pain, or when it just seemed like a heck of a long way to the next stop. Somewhere along the road an Irish woman noted we were carrying our own gear and said "you are mighy women, aren't you?" We laughed--not so much mighty as persistent, patient, willing to take another step. Just like every other pilgrim who arrives at Santiago. Persistence makes this kind of thing happen.

Joy makes it worth doing. I've mentioned before how happy we've been at having clean laundry, but also little joys like a hot shower at the end of the day, a meal that's perfectly cooked, the strength of early morning that presages good for the day. Bigger joys include drinking in the lovely woods, like the Tolkien-esque forest we walked through in the early morning light today, or the neat rows of grape vines, a spectacular vista over a mountainside Faces--seeing folks we'd met and wondered about, hoped for, prayed for along the road.

Hope feeds persistence, and makes it happy. Hope is that we'll see a partucular fellow pilgrim again here in Santiago. (We've met people who've met people they knew from previous treks--hope like this can last years!)Hope at least that they made it. Many days we hoped that today's trek will be easier than yesterday's as we got stronger along the way. Usually they did. (One pilgrim told us that day three was hardest. We had a harder day 2 than 3, and some tought days after. But we hoped.) Hope that, despite the immediate physical awareness that the walking engendered, the subtler spiritual work of the camino was also being done. On hard days, there was little of complex thought, much less deep spiritual work going on, at least that I could sense in myself. But what did St. Paul say about "when you can't pray, the Spirit prays in you..."?

And fear came with us too. Fear that we'd have to stop for reasons big or small. Fear that the rain we ran into late in the trek would soak us and leave us vulnerable to hypothermia. Fear that we'd run into bedbugs again. Fear that this was really only a long hike, not a spiritual endeavor at all. Fear calls forth courage mediated by prudence. We got better rain gear after the first day it rained. We took reasonable anti-bedbug precautions. We trust that the Spirit will do the Spirit's work, if we show up honestly and try our best.

So we did. So we're here. Time to rest--with no alarm set for the morning. Thanks be to God for a rich and safe trip, for the wonderful people we've met, and for the support yove been to us.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Final Day of our Trek

It's 6:30, and we're up and preparing for our last day of walking. Today, 19 km to Santiago, and then we're done. (Barring any mumber of mishaps that could slow us down, obviously.) I feel an odd mix of excitement and melencholy. I'll be excited to get there, but I'm not sure I'm ready for this to be over. It seems like we've only recently finally GOTTEN the pilgrim thing. For one thing, I'm no longer walking from Ibuprofen to Ibuprofen. My body knows how to be a pilgrim. More than that, the getting up and moving on have become the rhythm of the day. We walk, then we get there and rest. Finally. I have come to feel nearly physically the presence of the prople who walk with us from all over--our loved ones, friends, students, readers of this blog, as well as those we meet on the trail, both fellow pilgrims and the locals who help us on ourway. I'll miss the momentum of being part of a community on the road.

But today is still a hiking day, about 12 miles worth. So...it's morning. TIme to pack the pack, find coffee, and set off again. Even if for the last time. This time, anyway.

Pilgrim People

Over on another blog, I posted about our pilgrimage, and about how starkly we're invited on the camino to carry only what we need. Extra stuff is merely a burden that we've felt with every step on our backs and our poor beat-up feet. The people we walk with, on the other hand, lighten our burden. Indeed, we are companioned by a number of people along the way. In this section of the trail, lots of Irish folk. Earlier, we ran into more Germans and Spaniards. And Marty and I tell stories, share songs, discuss what Jesus is up to in the daily lectionary, and settle the various problems of world, school and church as we walk. The kilometers fly by. Well, they stroll by, and at the end of the day they plod by, but they do go by.

As pilgrims, too, there are certain basic attitudes we have. We don't worry whether we successfully order a ham and cheese sandwich or if it arrives with only jamon. It's good either way. We like to find clean bathrooms--actual toilet seats are a plus! While we don't beg for our meals like earlier pilgrims did, still we aim to be pleasant, even ingratiating, as we mangle the Spanish language. We delight in small graces--we nearly jump up and down when our clothes are clean! We try to help our fellow pilgrims, especially if they seem lost (we've met no seriously injured pilgrims so far, mercifully. Most of us are walking with minor injuries of various kinds.) We share food and wine. We don't bother too much with what separates us in ordinary life--language, politics, religion. What we have in common simply as human beings on the road is enough, and to try to foster delight in ourselves and others is part of our task.

The Vatican II document Lumen Gentium described the Church as a "pilgrim church." The seem to mean by this chiefly that the Church is not yet the kingdom, but is on route there. But...does the Church, especially its leadership, walk as pilgrims? I think this would partly mean to carefully de-pack what's not needed, as we minimize our packs. Do we need a regal hierarchy in glorious buildings, or really do we need not much more than the gospels, the sacraments, and the community? (OK, educated leadership--we are seminary profs, after all.) Do we engage those around us--"the world"--in an agreeable, even ingratiating manner, or does the Church more often lead with condemnation? A pilgrim would starve that way! Do we focus clearly on the basic fact that holds us together as Church--our common humanity in need of the good news of Jesus--or do we set up arcane doctrinal tests for membership? Most basically, do we delight in what we've been given--creation, community, call--and try to respond by sharing what we have--the most basic manifestation of both justice and love? A pilgrim isn't a pilgrim only because the end point hasn't been reached. A pilgrim is a pilgrim because of how the trail is walked.

Holding -- and Letting Go: A Camino Cameo

A week ago, we were having a sandwich in the tiny hamlet of Las Herrerias before ascending into O´Cebreiro, our destination for that day. It was a long break, and we´d need it. We´d cross from the province of Leon into Galicia, that part of Spain that abuts the Atlantic. We´d cross into Celtic Spain, where Santiago is.

To get into Galicia, though, we´d have to hike straight up. We´d been steadily climbing all day through beautiful villages, and already the landscape was changing. Red tile roofs slowly ceded to slate, stone supplanted adobe on the houses, stone fences replaced wooden ones. I kept teasing Lisa: "I´m beginning to taste the salt air!"

Suddenly, we heard someone speaking Spanish with a decidedly American accent. It belonged to Richard, and he walked out of the cafe/bar where we were having lunch with a pail of scraps for the dog. The way people greeted him, we could tell he was a local. We decided to greet him too. In American-inflected English.

Richard talked to us for a long time. He was from Chicago, and he´d left behind a bunch of lucrative jobs, a company he´d started, and a condominium. He´d lost track of where he was going, what he was doing, what life was all about.

He landed in Madrid, spent about six days on the streets. One of his former lives as the manager of a trendy night club in Chicago prepared him for the homelessness. Nothing could have prepared him for the Camino. He heard about it in Madrid; he started walking in Burgos.

When he got to Las Herrerias, he stopped walking, contracted to work with the woman who ran the only refugio in town, and started working as a hospitaler there. He cleaned; he cooked; he worked in the garden. He spoke of his work as a kind of ministry: "Some albuergues want the pilgrims to pitch in and help cook, help clean. Not ours. They´re tired, they´re hungry. I feel like they need someone to take care of them." And so he did. He loved becoming a "local" in this tiny town --and we could tell they´d embraced him as one of their own.

What struck us most was how he talked about his work, though. He spoke of holding people -- and then letting them go. There were lots of people he´d like to have gotten to know better, lots of people he remembered vividly. "But you have to let them go," he said. "Otherwise you won´t have room for the next batch of pilgrims." Holding -- and letting go, holding -- and letting go: for Richard it was as natural as breathing, the respiration of the hospitaler.

We left Richard and started climbing, but he impressed us deeply. Somehow, we incorporated him into the story we began telling ourselves as we ascended from Las Herrerias into O´Cebreiro. Along with Bianca, Beatrice, and Emilio, Richard figured prominently, his real-life story embellished -- but only a little. Spinning the yarn kept us entertained when pain and sheer fatigue should have soured our tempers and slowed our steps.

Then, yesterday on the Camino, as we walked through another tiny Galician village, I stepped aside for a group of faster hikers -- and who should be among them, but Richard and his dog, Alabar! Surprised, I greeted him by name, and before I could stop myself, I said: "We´ve thought a lot about you --" I thought Lisa was going to swallow her hiking poles! -- "what are you doing on the Camino?"

"I thought I´d better finish it,¨he said. "So I took a break from the refugio and packed my stuff." We talked more, as we walked and chatted with him and a cohort of young high school grads from the United States who were walking as part of a "gap year" before college. We walked and talked.

As we made our way along the road, Alabar ran ahead and darted behind, herding us like the cows we´d seen in Las Herrerias.

Eventually, we had to let Richard go ahead of us. He kept pace with the students, and they were all going faster than we. They had to make Santiago by Sunday, today. And I´m sure they are there.

So we too adopted the rhythm of the Camino: holding -- and letting go.

We´ve still got Richard in our story, though!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Camino rhythms......

I´ve always been a slow learner. That seems to hold true even on Camino. After 19 days of walking and some 235 miles later, I think I finally "get" it.

Caroline got it sooner than I did: "You sleep, you walk, you eat, you walk some more. That´s all you really have time to do, isn´t it?" She´s from a small town outside of Cambridge, England, so she inflected the question as if the answer were obvious -- at least obvious to all but the slow. In my case, the very slow.

We left Caroline and her husband before Burgos, the end of their Camino. They hadn´t intended to do the whole route, just the piece of it that left them in Burgos to meet their son. He´d departed on bicycle from St. Jean Pied de Port some days after they´d launched their walk. They were due to rendezvous in Burgos. We kept finding Caroline and her husband Richard in all the churches we´d visited, and we´d struck up a friendship. We´d comment on the latest crucifix or iteration of the Virgin, who really is the Saint that guides the pilgrims´steps along the way. We´d part in the church of the day, saying: "See you at the next Nuestra Senora."

And it was true: we´d get to the next town, walk into the church -- there they were. We´d been walking with them for a few days, trading stories and good fiction, making the hot afternoons cooler with conversation.

But Caroline was right: sleeping, walking, eating, more walking. That´s all you really have time for.

For days I compulsively kept a journal, noting each day's route, the distance we walked, the towns we passed through, the people we´d met. It´s a fabulous record. And the last entry is Day 11. A week ago.

It´s not that we haven´t covered any distance since then. It´s not that we haven´t passed through towns, one more lyrical than the last. It´s not that we haven´t met anyone. It´s just that I haven´t recorded it all.

I´ve been living it and enjoying it instead.

Dorothy watched me in Ages on Day 11, the last day of my journal entries. I was writing away. When I caught her watching, we fell into easy conversation. An hour later, as she turned to her French novel, she said very drily: "My goodness, I hadn´t meant to interrupt your research."

She knew Lisa and I had a grant. She knew we had a blog. She´d probably guessed how hyper-vigilant I was about all that. And she was nudging me gently: don´t see the Camino through the grant. Don´t see it through the blog. Don´t even see it through your writing. Just look. See it as it is, unfiltered and raw.

Or as Caroline put it: sleep, walk, eat, walk some more. Make that all you really have time for.

They´re so right, of course. Retreat directors talk about how people checking in for an eight-day retreat need at least three days to sleep, shed the skin of their other lives, and be ready for prayer. It took me longer -- and my feet got sorer. But at least it happened.

I´m ready for Camino. Finally.

It´s all I really have time for.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Flight from Burgos

I deliberately want to invoke imagery of the Flight from Egypt, Mary, Joseph, and their infant son heading out to escape the sword of Herod. They must have been desperate indeed to seek refuge in a place that had historically been a land of slavery, terror, and oppression for the Hebrew peoples. Guided only by a dream, they must have been terrified. Yet, they found graces along the way.

We were pretty desperate leaving Burgos. We had no dreams to guide us, only the nightmare of bedbugs. We knew only where we were NOT going to be that night. So we left our pension on the down side of town, knowing only that we were getting out. We headed toward what we thought was a train station for RENFE, Spain´s ultra-modern fast train. Even though Spain stays up all night and wakes slowly, I hadn´t expected to see anyone on the streets. Certainly not anyone I would want to talk to.

As we made our way to the station, a young woman left a bar and began walking. I asked her where the train station for RENFE was. She looked appropriately concerned. "It´s way far away," she said, "you´ll need to take a taxi." And she directed us very carefully, both in gestures and in baby Spanish, to where we might find one.

We got there -- and found a cab waiting. We jumped in, explained where we needed to go. And the cabbie sped his way through streets we´d hiked in on to the proper train station. Young, he was gentle with us, deposited us in front of this very modern station.

Which we found cavernously empty. No one was at the ticket counter. In fact, there was pretty much no one there at all. Except a cluster of women huddled in a corner. They had backpacks and looked weary: pilgrims like us. We struck up a conversation. They were Spanish, just finishing a segment of the Camino and heading home. We explained our situation, and one of the women told us not to worry about getting tickets: "just get on the train. Ask the conductor if there are any free seats. You´ll probably get on. After all, it´s the middle of the night."

She had a point. My fear was that we´d fall asleep in the meantime. But thanks to the notebook Lisa had brought, stocked with movies, we hunkered down and watched "Leatherheads" with George Clooney. Good bedbug repellant.

As the train´s departure inched closer, I found one of the only security guards in the station and explained to him our situation. He followed us up to the track, and when the train came, he motioned us aboard.

We followed him through car after car until he located a couple of empty seats, sat us down, and went to find the conductor. We simply sat there -- and lo! the train started moving. We looked at each other: "Yes!" We were leaving Burgos and Bedbugs behind.

In time the conductor came by, asked where we needed to go. We said Ponferrada -- and held our breaths. He seemed concerned, but took Lisa´s EuroRail Pass, which we decided was a good sign.

When he returned, he had tickets. We exchanged money and official papers. We were on our way!

Four hours later we landed in Ponferrada, which at 7:30am was just shaking itself from sleep.

Our Flight from Burgos had ended. But as we sat sipping cafe con leche in the train station, we remembered the people who´d made it possible. Graces along the way.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Surfer Jesus

We´re now well into Galicia, lovely country that in places reminds me of my native Vermont. Green, rolling hills, thick forests, narrow roads. The local culinary treat is pulpo (octopus,) which, so far, I´m declaring is too expensive, so I won´t try it. Yes, that´s merely an excuse.

More churches are open here than earlier on the trail. What continues to strike me is how utterly Marian many of them are. In some places, you have to squint to find Jesus anywhere in the front of the church--he´s reduced to a small cross on the altar, or a little section of a grand [-iose] Baroque reredo. The clear focus of attention is Mary. We see Mary holding a tiny Jesus, we see her with her heart pierced by sorrows, we see her crowned queen, we see her ascending to heaven, we see her visiting Elisabeth--basically, if it´s Mary, we´ve seen it. Usually multiple times in the front of a church, dominating the scene behind the altar.

If Jesus is there at all, he´s generally silent. Either he´s a baby in Mary´s arms, or crucified. Rarely do we see Jesus alive and active. No healings. No Jesus preaching. No illustrated parables. (I thought the Good Samaritan story might loom large on the camino, but no. Once we saw Jesus riding into Jerusalem, and occasionally we see him being tortured prior to his crucifixion.

I am intrigued by what people choose to show and not to show about their faith. What stories are important? What does Jesus do, and what does he look like doing it? And how are we to interpret churches that seem to be temples of Mary rather than of her son? Is it significant that Jesus is generally depicted at times when he did NOT speak, either as an infant or dead?

Wandering Sarria last night, we went out to see the church of Mary Magdalene. At first denied entry, we were finally let in by a curmudgeonly monk, only to find, alas, not a single image of the Magdalene we sought. "Es la iglesia," the monk grumbled, pointing to the floor. But on another church we saw an image of Jesus crowned, blessing passers-by, with an almost surfer-silly smile on his face. Probably 12th century or so. Finally we´d met a welcoming Jesus--not dead, not being tortured, not a baby adorning his mother´s lap. Just gloriously happy, and blessing us all. Gotta love a savior like that.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Lessons contextualized

In recent days, we've been talking about the lessons of the camino, which very often slide into easy metaphors for spiritual life, ecclesial life, or just life in general. Sometimes we learn that the lessons of camino apply to some contexts, but are dangerous or wrong in others.

I've heard the same lesson from two different men in recent days. One was a "hard-core" camino-ista, walking his first time already planning the second. The second will be without comforts like vino at the end of the day, perhaps with more silence. He and his wife (far more moderate in her desired degree of asceticism,) were staying in nice hotels, eschewing the albergues, which I assume will be part of his more "difficult" camino. He spoke, though, of one lesson of the camino being open and ready to meet people on the road, but also to let them go. The taking in, the letting go are both important.

Then there's Richard, a young American from Chicago, who decided to spend some time as a hospitaler--running a refugio--along the trail. For Richard also it's the welcoming and the letting go, letting the pilgrims he meets, especially those he'd like more conversation with, continue their camino, while he continues to clean, welcoming a new cohort of the sweaty, scruffy and lame daily.

The taking in and the letting go. As a teacher, I know this process well. Each fall brings a new cohort of delightfully intelligent and well-motivated students to my school, and their gifts enrich our community. When their education is completed, I mourn their graduation as I congratulate them, and I console myself with hopes for their future ministries in parishes, schools, prisons, or wherever that still small voice calls them. If I fail to really engage them as fully as I can while they're here, I miss out on the richest part of the teaching gig. But I must always let them go with grace and good wishes.

However, this lesson can't be taken too far without danger. In our lives in general, and especially our spiritual lives, we are shaped most deeply not by those we take in and let go, but by those few to whom we commit ourselves in love. We take them in and at least intend never to let them go. Partners, children, a few close friends. The holding on must always give freedom to the others, not constrain them, but it remains a holding on which shapes the holder and the one held. It can be scary to hold, and even more so to be held, this way, but it in those connections that our true selves are formed. I know people who take the letting go too strongly--men especially who never let anyone come close. They miss the point of the taking in and the letting go--that sometimes one doesn't.

The hard-core camino-ista may not yet have learned this. Richard the hospitaler has--he knows that the coming and going of relationships are for a time, but only for a time. For some contexts--teaching, running a refugio--but not for all of life. Jesus said to the rich man "sell all you have, give to the poor and follow me." He never said "sell all you have, engage no one deeply, and follow me." How could he? Jesus wasn't the kind of guy to hold and then to let go. Good thing.


We sat last night in an outdoor cafe in a tiny town in the province of Leon, Triacastela. That means literally "three castles." I walked the town several times, which took all of five minutes. None of the castles seems to have survived.

Then again, maybe they got reincarnated as pilgrim hostels, because there are three hostels. When the hostels are all full, the population of Triacastela triples.

We watched as Triacastela´s newest citizens, pilgrims like us, limped up and down the street. Some had bandages on their heels, some on their toes. Some had knees wrapped, some wore ankle supports. One man´s left Achilles tendon had swollen to twice the size of his right. I looked at my feet: I fit right in.

On the Camino, pain becomes a constant companion. You get to know quickly what you can walk through -- and what you can´t. Happily, pharmacies crowd the trail, and these are staffed with helpful and infinitely patient people who listen all day to broken Spanish with a German, American, British, Aussie, Norwegian, or Korean accent. Then they supply just the right remedy. I watched someone simply bare his foot at one of these shops. The pharmacist contemplated the exposed foot without expression for a moment, disappeared into the recesses of his store, and returned with bandages, ointment, and tape. With great expression and no words, he motioned what needed to happen. His lack of horror was probably the best medicine he could have given the man.

So how do we keep going? The encouragement of people along the way eases the pain immeasurably. As we walk, we have fallen into countless conversations that have made an ugly industrial stretch on the outskirts of a big city suddenly vanish. At other times, the sheer beauty of the landscape takes our breath away -- and for a moment, the pain. We always greet passing pilgrims with an "Hola!" or "Buen Camino!" Sometimes that´s equivalent to about 400 mgs of Ibuprofen, which we´ve taken to downing like M&Ms. There´s nothing like ending the day with our feet up, downing a Vino Tinto or Coca Lite and letting the wind blow through our blisters. Which is actually pretty good for them too. The wind, that is -- not the Vino Tinto.

Lisa and I have weathered the end of several days by telling stories. We´ve currently got a long, shaggy dog story going about a American we met in Las Herrerias. We gave him a background, some dreams, some companions, and some history. Lisa starts, spins the story for a while in her own wonderfully quirky way -- then passes it off to me at a moment when things could go awry in any number of different ways. We´ve had fun -- and walked through a lot of pain like this.

We have no rules for this sport yet, and I´ve often interjected: "Oh, no! Bianca would never do something like that!" Then, we´re almost lying in the dust laughing at our investment in these lovely and utterly fantastic characters. We pick up our backpacks, dust off, and pick up the threads of the yarn. We´ve whiled away miles like this, along with parts of the trail that would simply have been hellish otherwise.

The genre of this tale is somewhere between Gothic romance -- and Jesuit science fiction. Think Mary Doria Russell meets Barbara Cartland.

That´s how we keep going. Then the question becomes: why? We have no other place to go but forward, to the next town. And, we´ve come so far, we just want to get there. While each step brings pain, each step also gets us closer to that destination. It´s intoxicating to be that close to Santiago. Now in Sarria, we are a little over 100 kms from the city, around 60 miles. We should be there in about five days, if we keep our current pace.

And we may not. There´s no rush, and here´s the final thing we learn about pain. A day´s rest, a good story, and a glass of wine are wonderfully restoring.

Now, why is it so hard to bring this kind of rest into our lives in Berkeley?

It´s Sabbath rest.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Los Diabolitos de las Camas!

[Mostly, our posts stick strictly to actual events. This one may be exaggerated, just a smidge. The reader may decide...]

We arrived in Burgos, the big city before we skip to the final section of the camino to finish our pilgrimage. We'd phoned ahead for una reservacion, and were glad we had when we saw a dejected pair of pilgrims walk out of our hotel, saying "completo." [Full.] We planned a half day of rest, then to hop a train in the afternoon. We went to see Burgos Cathedral, had dinner with a wonderful camino-companion, then returned to our quiet hotel room.

I lay in bed not sleeping. Was it the very tasty chocolate we'd had after dinner? Or was it the itching? I scratched idly, thinking I'd perhaps encountered a hungry mosquito on the road. Then I noticed that I was itching in new places, which seemed unlikely if mosquitoes were the culprit. Then I heard...was it the sound of tiny drums? Then...a kind of festive chant, very soft and high-pitched, almost nasal. The drums increased in rhythm and urgency. It was eerie in the dark. I scratched again, and finally decided to turn on a light.

They were everywhere. Hundreds of them. Bedbugs, celebrating something very much like a luau, and the occasion of the feast was me. Some were dancing in little circles wearing ceremonial masks, doubtless thanking whoever their gods are for this more than generous feast. Others carried little torches as they scurried around accompanying the elderly or the lame to the party. (At least some looked elderly, being gray-haired and slightly hunched, if bedbugs can be described as hunched. The crutches identified the lame--even with 6 legs, sometimes life leaves one down a few legs, needing some help.) Others carried tiny bowls of...coleslaw? Potato salad? Jello? What are the side dishes of a bedbug luau? Sturdy bugs were setting up long tables, and it looked like they were trying to actually tie me down, tossing thin threads over one foot to try to hold me still.

I realized we were in trouble. Already a scouting party had discovered that another BBQ was in the offing over in Marty's bed. (I heard the little cheers.) "Marty! We're under attack!" We sprang out of bed, (upsetting scores of little picnic tables.)Marty reached into our medical kit, and lit a phosphorous flare to dazzle their multiple nocturnal eyes. I showered quickly, and we threw our belongings into our packs and fled the scene. We caught a taxi for the train station--we knew there was a 2 a.m. train for Ponferrada, and we could catch it easily. As we hopped into the cab, I heard tiny angry shouts behind us, and the sound of hundreds of hexapeds trying to regain their main course. As the door of the taxi slammed shut, scores of little arrows dinged off the windows.

The rest was routine. The 2 a.m. train delivered us safely, and without delay we have hastened to another hotel, where we are laundering everything we're not actually wearing, just to be safe. Sometimes, there is high drama on the camino. And the lingering itch assures me that it was not all just a dream.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Why do they walk? Part 2

Camino Conversation is a kind of art in itself. I´m aware of how important it is. The way is long, the sun is hot -- and conversation breaks the monotony. More than that, conversation offers the kind of encouragement that keeps tired feet moving. Camino Conversation helped me understand what "encouragement" means, how important it becomes, and what a lost art it is.

After all, everyone has common ground -- quite literally. Where did you stay last night? How far are you going today? How are your feet? Did you run into the five-day fiesta in Belorado?? Questions like these suddenly seem more urgent than the usual others. Where are you from? What do you do -- when you´re not walking the Camino?

We´ve been sneaking in our question: what brings you to the Camino? We had a great answer today from an American couple. Newly retired and recently relocated from California to New Mexico, they said to each of us independently: "We´re in Stage 3. And we need to think about what that means for us." Lisa had been walking with Chris, I was walking with Gil.

Stage 3. They'd grown up, raised kids, tended careers. They weren´t ready to hang it all up. There was life after retirement -- and the Camino was part of it. Chris mentioned that life without service is not really life at all. But she wasn´t sure where she´d serve. This was an interlude to try and figure that out.

Later, we entered Burgos with another couple, this one from Holland. She was a financial planner taking an unpaid sabbatical from her firm to do the Camino. In the aftermath of recession, her company was happy to have her off the payroll for five months. She was happy to be gone. She admitted it had been a pretty rough year for financial planners: "People don´t have money -- rather, it has them!" They were anxious, unhappy, under siege. She´d had enough.

She had interviewed for another job before she left. Had it panned out, she´d have left her firm for good. But she would have had to foreshorten the Camino trip to a week or two. Now, she had five months. She and her husband were doing the whole thing.

I asked if she thought she´d go back to her old job after the Camino -- whether she had a new job or not. She´d thought about this: she´d love not to, she said, but there was a mortgage to pay. Definitely she´d go back in a different way, this time working to live, not living to work.

We left them in front of the municipal albuergue. I´m sure they could have stayed at the finest hotel in the city.

But she sounded like someone who knew exactly what money could buy -- and what it couldn´t.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

One does not live by bread alone...........

......but it certainly helps. Lisa remarked on how poorly "pilgrim" eating habits mesh with Spanish eating habits. Allow me to elaborate.

Most people in Spain stay up late and get up late. That means local cafes, bars, and bistros are closed until about 9am in the morning. Pilgrims, on the other hand, rise early hoping to walk as far as they can before the heat of the day sets in.

We rose this morning at about 5am -- and there was nothing open. Because we carry everything we own -- including food -- we tend to travel light. We are dependent on cafes, bars, and bistros for our daily bread. Happily, we stayed the night before in an albuergue that promised breakfast. Waiting for us was coffee, bread, sweet rolls. And more coffee!

This isn´t always the case. I remember a meal in Santa Domingo -- by vending machine! We kept putting in change to score the caffeine needed for the morning´s walk. We needed sustenance until the first cafe opened. And that was hours away.

At the other end of the day, most people in Spain eat late, restaurants often only opening for an evening meal around 9:30pm. That´s about a half hour after a pilgrim´s bedtime. To accommodate, many places advertize a¨"pilgrim menu" which gives you a first course, second course, dessert, and wine or water for about 10 Euros. Restaurants serve this meal around 8pm to pilgrims, then open for the locals after we all pack up and leave. It must be quite a workout for the cooks, but it´s been a blessing for us. It´s great food, lots of carbs -- and we have not yet fallen asleep in our desserts.

Talk about sleepwalking: we are sleep-eating!

We have taken to scavenging whatever bread we can, stuffing it into our packs, and noshing on bread and water during the course of the day. It works.

It also strikes me that this is very close to the medieval experience, when pilgrims simply traveled on bread, water, salt -- and the food of good company.

The Country Club

If there were an Epcot or a Disney version of the camino, I´m sure they´d get a lot right. I´m sure there´d be picturesque old buildings, decorated in a layered mix of gothic under baroque under rococco. They´d serve 3-course "pilgrim menus," and marvellous bocadillos (little sandwiches) on crusty bread. Vino, si! You could buy a pilgrim staff and a pair of decent sandals.
But they´d miss things like our lunch the other day. Coming over a hill we found ourselves next to a golf course flanked by several lovely new (expensive!) housing developments. The clubhouse was on our path, and a sign outside explicitly invited pilgrims, so in we went. We tromped into the cafeteria area, where several more usual clubhouse habitues sat sipping wine or chatting. We heaved off our packs and sat down. One at a time (so one of us would be with the packs--a pilgrim reflex,) we approached the bar, where we got drinks and I got a sandwich and some olives. Marty unpacked our lunch stash for the day--some fruit, a final Clif bar, some M&M´s. I furtively removed my boots. Gritty with sweat, clothes not quite as clean as they might have been, needing to rest--we were pretty much completely out of place.
The camino isn´t its own separate world exactly. Instead, it winds through quotidian Spain, osculating ordinary life. None of the clubhouse patrons objected to our presence, though some girls about 13 or 14 showed polite interest. No one tossed me out for de-booting, thank goodness. They left the bags they carry--golf clubs--politely by the door, while we stay close to ours. We pass through, different people in their world every day. Restaurants, even those that serve designated "pilgrim menus", start to serve dinner at 7:30 or later, when pilgrims are beginning to fade. Pilgrims tend to rise early and hit the road--Marty and I have been off before light the last few days, while it´s unusual to see shops open before 10 a.m. So yesterday´s pilgrims are gone before the day really starts in Spain, but are replaced by a new crop by sundown. We came into one town that was celebrating a festival--but then all the restaurants were closed and the pilgrims were prowling for food, looking for somewhere to get a meal, a bocadilla, a cerveza. We are "in the world but not of it," in a sense, though of course we are a small world unto ourselves.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Ordinary time, ordinary limits

We must be getting used to this: the villages are all beginning to look alike.

I was trying to remark on one of four tiny towns we passed through yesterday, and they all seemed to run together. To distinguish this one, I had to tell the story. It had a shaded square where a father was playing with his three children, pushing them on a swingset. They ran off to do something else, and he sat on the swing, rocking back and forth. Then he stopped, went over to his car, fiddled with the dashboard -- and suddenly, the plaza filled with opera! He sat on the swingset and began swinging, this time with purpose. I began singing along, operatic gestures in my hiking boots.

This village we remembered -- and that was how.

So it is with the Camino itself. We remember its parts by the people. Eric and Sophie from the first part of the Camino have now given way to Richard and Caroline, our companions from this part of the way. We keep bumping into Nancy and Linda, who've traveled this stage with us. They popped into the only bar open in Belorado last night, and I exclaimed with the kind of spontaneity that comes with truth: "I'm so glad to see you again: it makes me feel like I'm on the right track." A path marked with yellow arrows becomes marked with people.

For you see, we've had to make some adjustments: our feet need Sabbath. So the two-day trek to Burgos needs to be broken into three shorter segments. We figured this out last night, as we hobbled around Belorado, a "down at the heels" town where the whole town celebrated the last of a five-day fiesta. Nothing was open; we were exhausted; we sat in a very crowded bar trying to refigure the trip.

Hardest in all of this was knowing that we'd lose contact with our friends. They'd pass us -- and go on. We'd never know if Paolo's blisters ever healed or whether Linda's cold got better. We'd never finish that conversation with Nancy about spirituality.

We weren't sad that we'd fall behind schedule, that we'd proven less macho than we'd hoped. We simply missed fellow travelers who'd become friends along the Way.

Just as the villages have become distinct because of the people who populate them, the Camino itself has become distinguished by the people who are on it.

It's less a route to a sacred place, than a stream of people whom we've begun to know.

And it's also true: we'll meet others.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

The cadence of ordinary time

We´re at Day 7, and things begin to fall into a rhythm. I´m getting used to the sun. I´m getting used to the soreness. I´m even getting used to the blisters. The landscape falls into familiar patterns of tightly cultivated plots of beans and tomatoes and grapes. The pilgrims´ faces have become recognizable -- I even know some of their names. Even the yellow arrows fade into the background: I notice them without even looking.

This is different from a week ago. Then, everything was new. Each twinge signaled major disaster; every new landscape begged for a photograph. Now it´s all part of a New Normal.

Cairns are part of this. They are everywhere, mounds of rocks that people have left behind. They all signal something. Sometimes they mark the way. Sometimes they celebrate a surprising view. Sometimes they congregate wildly for no reason in a hilltop or hollow. Yesterday, we came over a rise into a Valley of Cairns. It felt like the place was already populated.

If these stones could speak, what stories would they tell? Perhaps a lost love. Or a dead parent. Perhaps a grace discovered. We spent miles imagining the stories.

Then today we stumbled on a cairn that told its own. It held down a piece of blue paper several days old, a note from ¨Jas¨to ¨Tracy.¨ Of course, we read it, ethicists being voyeurs of a sort, and it was a kind of apology. "I waited for you in Najera at the bridge, but I had to go to the store. Maybe you passed by while I was gone. I´m now sorry I left you behind, but I had to walk faster. I hope your feet are better. I wish now I had stayed with you longer. Let me know how you are." And there was an e-mail address to Germany.

We looked at each other -- and put the paper back, in case Tracy happened by. But probably she had passed by long ago, not even noticing a now-familiar part of the landscape.

In the church year, it´s ordinary time, that long green season of Pentecost. As a child I used to get tired of green on the altar Sunday after Sunday after Sunday. But now I wonder: having things become familiar may not be a bad thing after all. It allows for looking in new ways.

Friday, September 4, 2009

I have an agreement with several friends of mine regarding how I should be memorialized after my death. I don´t care much what they do with my sorry carcass, but I´ve asked that someone spraypaint "Finitude Sucks!" on a highway overpass somewhere. So if you ever see that somewhere, (or if you see some, hopefully superannuated, friend of mine tottering over the edge to try to tag for me,) mention me to God.
I don´t entirely mean it. It is, after all, the fact of finitude that gives our decisions meaning. What we choose to do, what we choose not to "have time" to do, who we spend our time, energy and love with, are all only important because we cannot do it all, accomplish it all, love everyone.
Finitude is a central message of the Camino. Despite being in pretty good physical condition (heck, I DID climb Kilimanjaro last year, after all,) I´ve been very footsore these last few days. Nothing else is problematic--few blisters, my back handles the pack, my legs are still strong at the end of the day, but my sore feet reduce me to hobbling like an octogenarian trying to spraypaint a highway overpass. I find this utterly irritating.
There are lots of the lame and the halt along the way. We trade tales of dealing with blisters, compare shoes and boots. We start conversations not with "what do you do?" but "How are you doing?", especially if the person is clearly not doing all that well. We met one young man, "Eric the Lame," who is clearly in fine shape, who is hobbling at a near standstill. But he goes on. He chooses to do this. He, like me, is running smack into his own finitude in a way most healthy people don´t.
Don´t get me wrong. My encounter with finitude is self-inflicted, I expect temporary, indeed improving daily, while lots and lots of people wrestle with their limits in a much more profound way. My aversion to walking downhill is nothing compared to those who require accomodation or equipment to move around at all. And of course, we all share the ultimate finitude--eventually, our time will run out, and our friends will have to make good on those promises we asked from them about how to remember us. Finitude makes our decisions worthwhile. Footsore is a hint of ultimate finitude. Finitude is an echo of the packs we carry that we keep light but have to have in order to function on the road. Finitude still sucks, but it does teach, doesn´t it?

Why do they walk.....?

This is the question we´ve been asking people along the Camino: "What brought you here?" People are here from all over the world -- and their answers are all over the map.

Sophie, a Swedish jazz dance teacher, said that she needed to let go of some things. This was a good time to do it. Linda from Australia echoed the sentiment: "I wanted to lose some things, leave some things behind." I thought of all the things Lisa and I had literally left behind, building tiny altars of "stuff" in Puente la Reine and Estella, two early stops. Pilgrim hostels regularly display "stuff" for the taking. Books, maps, gear that at home seemed absolutely essential. And now was simply extra weight. Someone else in need of an extra pair of socks, a book for the evening then picks it up.

Why do they walk?

Giovanni, an Italian journalist about our age, told us he filled out a form on Roncesvalles that asked the same question. There were four options: religious, spiritual, cultural, and sport. He simply checked them all. He´d wanted to do the Camino for years: he loves medieval history and art. The Camino is loaded with both. We asked how long he had for the trek -- and he told us he had an open ticket home. He didn´t even know whether he would have a job when he got back.

A German woman walking alone said she had wanted to do the Camino for 35 years. Now was the time. She looked elated -- even after the day´s trek.

Nancy, a retired government scientist now living in Redding, California, simply said with delight: "You´re the first person to ask me that question -- and it is exactly the right question."

She didn´t get a chance to answer, because at that point a Korean woman with whom we´d shared water during a hot, dry stretch walked by and greeted us. She looked immeasurably revived. The conversation wafted somewhere else.

Why do they walk?

My favorite response so far came from Eric, the Danish biologist/therapist who walked with us on the first day out. We saw him again in Viana at the end of Day 4, walking through the streets with a couple of young SpĂ nish men with whom he had been traveling. He had a loaf of bread under his arm and was in high spirits. He assured us he wasn´t drunk, but was headed for a beer with the Plaza with some friends. The cobbled street was crowded and packed with people, and he yelled at us over a stream of townsfolk, tired pilgrims, and children: "I´m a child again!!!"

That option wasn´t in the form issued at Roncevalles.

How would we have answered the question we keep posing? Probably like Giovanni, we would have checked all four boxes, then added some of our own.

A few of which will only become clear as we travel further.

Yes, we´re sore. Yes, we´re sunburned. Yes, we´re be-blistered. Yet, after a shower and a move from the vertical to the horizontal, we´re ready to meet friends and explore the town, visit the church and simply be grateful to have made it as far as we needed to go today.

Tomorrow will take care of itself.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Archangel Michael

Leaving Estella yesterday, we immediately got lost. A man noticed our ¨deer in the headlights¨look, and tried to point us in the right diredtion, and then we were joined by another man who walked with us about a kilometer to the edge of the trail. His Germnan was pretty good, and Marty speaks German better than either of us speaks Spanish, so we were able to communicate pretty well. Our guide, a man of about 60, had been something of a wild child. Among other things, he´d run with the bulls in Pamplona many times. Finally gored, he quit that particular hobby. He asked if we were religious. We admitted that we were, and he said that he used to be, but ¨Vatican, it´s...¨and he smacked his forehead. ¨Crazy?¨¨Si, si crazy!¨he has decided that when he wants to talk to God he´ll just do so, and he also always tries to be nice to people. When we reached the trail, he wished us a good trip, and gave each of us a handful of Starburst candies. Viaticum. ¨Su nombre?¨¨Michael Angelo.¨Michael the archangel. No dragons slain that day, but surely a message for us. At least a redirection back along the right path. With Starburst!!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Marking the Way

As Lisa noted, there are two paths through Pamplona, one for the bulls, one for the pilgrims. I wanted to check both of them out. I wanted to see the first path, just to see where all the carnage happens. I wanted to see the second, because I wanted to get my eyes used to looking for signs that marked the way. We would do well to get used to the markers, before we put on our packs.

And there they were: yellow arrows marking the way ahead. Sometimes there would be an arrow along with a scallop shell, but always there would be an arrow. And when I started looking, I noticed them everywhere. Just when you were beginning to wonder, there would be a yellow arrow on a pole, a tree, a stone, a marker set into the path. There were yellow arrows on the sides of houses, signs pointing to somewhere else, even in the middle of the road.

Just when I needed one, just when I began to wonder whether we´d wandered off the path, there would be an arrow. It was as if someone had been there before. Not just anyone, either. Someone with my own special set of anxieties. It gave me great heart.

The arrows I loved the best were the ones that were just there, in the middle of a long stretch where there had been no turn-offs. There had been no choices to make, no forks in the road, nothing. The yellow arrow was just there, a sign of encouragement.

And that´s the Camino: you see these, and you try to become a sign of encouragement to someone else.

Buen camino!