Saturday, August 17, 2013

Intentions: Steady Aim

A friend asked before I left: "Do you have any intentions for your trip?" I looked up blankly from our pizza. "That's OK: you don't really have to tell me."

I couldn't have; I didn't yet have words. But I knew I had intentions, and I knew the words would come.

Augustine wrote: "Solvitur ambulando -- it is solved by walking." No one can find out where, but if he didn't say it, he should have. The same insight could have come from someone else: Kierkegaard pacing the streets of Copenhagen. Kant crossing the bridges of Koenigsburg. Walter Benjamin savoring the streets of Paris as a flaneur. William Wordsworth braving the weather and the peaks of The Lake District. Post-modern hiker and peripapetic philosopher walks through the centuries with each of them in her history of walking, "Wanderlust" (Penguin, 2000).

I'd get some language for my intentions along the way.

An archer bends the bow back to propel an arrow forward; she exerts force in one direction to make something move in the opposite direction. Pilgrimage has a similar physics. Pilgrims walk toward something, but to get there they have to leave something else -- and some ones else -- behind.

I knew I was walking away from some things and toward others. Getting on the plane for Madrid, my biggest intention was to find out which was which.

My body told me. Whatever I carried in my pack registered on the soles of my feet. I paid attention to everything in my pack, re-packing to shift weight, downsizing to leave behind things that got in the way. In similar fashion, whatever I carried I carried in my heart registered in my consciousness. The long stretches across the Cantabrian Mountains, where there was nothing to do but think -- and keep climbing. I paid attention to everything that rented space in my head, discarding what I didn't need and what I did, shifting weight to allow things their proper importance. Sole-care became soul-care. That's part of the point of pilgrimage.

"Teach us to care
And not to care.
Teach us to sit still."

Pilgrimage is a good instructor, teaching the pilgrim to care and not to care -- or at least to be aware of what the cares are. In the same feat of contrary motion that the archer summons, walking allows the pilgrim to sit still.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Where Pilgrimage Begins: With a Place -- or a Person?

The question always comes: Where did you begin the pilgrimage? There are lots of answers, none of them easy.

Mostly, people want a place, something they can locate on a map. This most recent pilgrimage began in Oviedo, the seat of Alfonso the Chaste's (d. 842) ninth century kingdom of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. Word came to him that the bones of St. James had been discovered in Galicia, and he resolved to pay homage. His entourage headed west, traversing the ruggedly beautiful Cantabrian Mountains. He carved out the first of the pilgrimage trails to Santiago, the Camino Primitivo. We followed roughly that route, leaving Oviedo on July 6th and arriving in Santiago on July 20th. Where did you begin? One answer: the pilgrimage started in Oviedo. But that's not quite true.

I could also give my street address in Minneapolis, where I locked the door, shouldered my backpack, and hiked to the light rail for a trip to the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport. Stepping across the threshold ended the long period of preparation: breaking in boots and shoes, getting used to carrying weight, packing, re-packing, endless winnowing gear down to the absolute essentials. Turning the key in the lock meant preparation was over; pilgrimage commenced. Where did you begin? Another answer: the pilgrimage started in Minneapolis.

I could also give the name of our pension in Oviedo, Hostal Alvarez, because we spent a few days touring the old city, sampling the local hard ciders at quaint siderias, dining with friends, and seeing the sights. I wasn't geared up then, but decked out in the red dress that said: "I'm a tourist" and the shoes that moved with ease from nice restaurants to hostel showers. When I snapped that dress into its zipper-locked plastic bag and put on my boots, I transformed from tourist to pilgrim. Where did you begin? Another answer: The pilgrimage started at the Hostal Alvarez in Oviedo.

Medieval pilgrims on the Camino Primitivo began here, prostrated in front of this status of Jesus in Oviedo's Church of San Salvador in Oviedo. As other routes to Santiago de Compostela developed across the Iberian Peninsula, continental Europe, even the British Isles and Scandinavia, this statue came to have unique significance. An aphorism captured it all:

The pilgrim who visits Santiago and not El Salvador,
pays homage to the servant -- but not the master.

Pilgrims would often make the difficult detour to Oviedo to prostrate themselves in front of this status in Oviedo. Where did you begin? For these hearty pilgrims, it started with a person.