The Rev. Marlene Jacobs, (St. Luke’s, Tacoma) who has walked the Camino several times, said to me a few months before my journey, “ I found it took about two or three days to get into the rhythm of the trail.” I remembered that as we walked, and found it to be true too. When you are only on it for seven days that means it takes about half your time to get into it. But once you do, a lot of things happen. The trail truly is a microcosm of life, this planet, our journey. The world really is on the trail. We met Israeli’s and Palestinians, Indians, Italians, Africans, Jordanians, and people from every continent. It was an amazing thing. And just like life, there are happy people, and not so happy people.
All along the way, the alburgues especially, offer respite, where you can sit, have an espresso, some juice, a meal, and if you want, in most cases, even stay the night, but for us they were rest stops, and some of the best places to meet people, and to see the “life” of the trail with all of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Most of these places were extremely welcoming, warm, fun. Some less so. At one such stop as I was ordering my double espresso and some juice for Marti, a woman almost in tears was arguing with the owner of the shop, as he was explaining in Spanish that his policy was, “no buy, no bathroom”. This went on for a while, and I finally looked at him as I paid for my drinks and said, “she’s with me.” He looked at me suspiciously, and reluctantly but let her use the bathroom.
It comes to me at various times in life that this is the ultimate truth, she is with me. We are with each other. That incident reminded me of an incident I have shared with some of you in various places of visiting the souk, the market, in Hebron, in the Holy Land, a very tense place, guarded with checkpoints. The poverty is high, and there are always 20 or so little children chasing you and trying to get you to buy something from them. As I made my way to the checkpoint on this particular day they were all following and the Israeli guard asked me as I was entering the checkpoint, “are these your children?” The question stopped me cold. Because in our faith, the answer is always, and without reservation, “Yes.” They are my children. The same is true for all on that trail, and all those in detention centers on our border, and other prisons all over the world. We make such things palatable only by making our answer, “no, they are not my children.” We don’t get to have it both ways.
She is with me.
I had this experience, on some level, in some way, over and over again on the trail. There were amazing signs of generosity and kindness and thankfully far more of those than anything else, but there was also disregard, and meanness too. Like I said, the trail is a microcosm of life. You might go days and not see a person you struck up a conversation with, or stayed in the same hotel with, and then suddenly you would see them again, and it would be like seeing a long lost friend, because in a way, it is.
And there were other surprises. I am not totally sure where we came across this, but on the trail, in a little hamlet we were walking through, we suddenly came upon, as we walked with cows that a woman was moving from one field to the other, through the streets, a wall of beautiful black and white photos of obviously other pilgrims. And on the wall was the invitation, stop, take a rest, tell us your story, and have your picture taken. At first we walked by, but then I said, let’s do it. So we did. Marti wasn’t really keen on having her picture taken, she remarked, “I just don’t look very good right now.” But, I said, you look like a pilgrim walking the Camino, just like we are supposed to look. By the way, I thought she looked great!
Turns out it was a North American, from Ohio, a young man, named Michael, who after his experience on the Camino moved his family there. He works on guide books and other books, and this project was for a new book, one not about the trail itself, but about the people that walk it, and why. The project is called “The Wise Pilgrim Portrait Project.” (http://wiseportrait.com/album/may-2019/). His guides are here http://www.wisepilgrim.com.
As he put it, he was looking for interesting stories. He listened to ours and I don’t know if he found it interesting. He didn’t charge, but asked for at least a 10 Euro donation, which I gave, and then he took our pictures, and told us he would send them in a few days. I honestly had forgotten about this when they, just as he said, came in. I am really glad we have them now.
I really liked the slowness of the trail, but as Marlene said, it took me a few days to get out of the, “I have got to make up these miles by so and so time” and move to, “wow, look around, you will see a part of the world you would never get to see any other way.” When we finally did that, we saw and experienced some pretty remarkable things. One day, in a small hamlet, we got out of the sun, by stopping at was most probably someone’s front porch. Taking a sip of water, I looked all around, taking the hamlet in, and then on a whim, looked up, and realized that the entire roof was a grape vine, with small, new, grapes on it, and then as I looked closer realized it was all off of one vine, just over to the side. Remarkable, simple, and yet we would have missed it if our main goal was just to chew up mileage.
It was this moment, and many along the way, that awakened me again to how I walk the trail of life. So often I do it with blinders on. Nothing in my periphery should be heeded as it might distract me from my task, my goal, and so often what is in my periphery is other people, other travelers, other people who are “with me”. I am hoping this is a lesson I can hold onto. To stop more, to look around more, to greet more, to believe more that every person I meet has a story, and has something to teach me.
I shared in another post the bagpipe and drummer we met along the trail, offering some musical respite to weary travelers. That was a welcome thing.
We watched people literally dragging a leg, moving so slowly we wondered, would they ever make it to their next stop, and then we might be eating at our destination, and though a few hours behind, here they came. We would also watch them heal along the way. The man I am referring to here, buzzed by us on our way into Santiago, as if he had never been hurt. In fact, he beat us there! Several days before I honestly would have bet against him making it at all.
Another transforming moment was sitting on the avenue where pilgrims were coming in from the English Way and just watching them, as they were just about to turn the corner, and see the Cathedral. The looks on their faces were varied, and different, and you could read all kinds of things from them, determination, exhaustion, joy, love, accomplishment. Everyone of them with a story of why it was important to do it, and what it felt like now.
Probably the most pervasive feeling I had while walking was one of gratitude. Thankfulness for the ability to do it, the opportunity to do it, and most especially to do it alongside my partner and love of my life, Marti. Like so many of our adventures in life, this was not her idea, and quite frankly not high on the list of ways she might spend her summer vacation, yet she willingly came along, as she has so many times in our walk in life. Even though I think, almost every day, that I could not love her more, I do. To do this with her was a tremendous gift. To walk through life with her is too. I know that more now.
There is a lot of time to think and pray on the trail, lots of time! And I did do a lot of that. I, of course, thought about our future together, the things we have spent this last year trying to discern together. That is ongoing, but this time was very good for that. As in life, I had one worry I had not counted on when planning all of this, that my aunt, who suffered a stroke a few months ago, was in a great transition in her life, and as I am the one tasked with handling her affairs, I was worried about being so far away.
And, yet, even through this came another lesson, which played out right in front of me on the trail. I have been talking and writing about it this whole time, that the trail is a microcosm of life. Just like on the trail, so many people, some I know well, like my sister, and some I have hardly known or never known, believed the same thing, about my aunt, “she is with us” and so they picked up the mantle, and helped out and I was hardly missed.
This is an ancient prayer that comes at the end of the Pilgrim Mass said along the Camino de Santiago, and one I said each morning.
“O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in his wanderings, who guided the Hebrew people across the desert, we ask that you watch over us, your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.
Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our albergue on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.
So that with your guidance we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and enriched with grace and virtue we return safely to our homes filled with joy.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.