Santiago!

I arrived at the central square in front of the cathedral in Santiago at ten o’clock this morning. I walked the last 10.5 kilometers, as I did much of yesterday, with my friend Beth, Jack (from Ireland), Hans (from the Netherlands) and Jed (from Seattle). As we stood taking in the sight of the cathedral, there was not a dry eye among us.

After we simply stood there a while, someone took this picture for us:

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After a brief visit to the Cathedral to say a prayer of thanksgiving, we went to the pilgrim reception office to pick up our Compostela signifying our completion of the Camino. (As I went to the counter and handed my pilgrim credentials to the person behind the counter, I burst into tears.). After securing a place to stay, we went to the noon pilgrim mass.

Imagine my delight when the celebrants processed in and I recognized one of them. George Witt, SJ, one of my former spiritual directors and the person who guided me through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, had led a NY group that walked the last 100 kilometers of the route I walked and they arrived in Santiago yesterday afternoon.

It was incredibly special to (quite unexpectedly) be here in Santiago with someone who has played such a vital role in my spiritual journey. What a gift!

Here are George, Noelle (a long-time friend from St. Ignatian retreat house), and me at lunch after mass:

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Tomorrow I will wander around Santiago, go again to the pilgrim mass and spend some more time at the cathedral. Thursday I will put my hiking shoes and pack on again for another 4-5 days of walking to Finisterre and Muxia. Although some are content to end their walking here in Santiago, I feel the need (as do many others) to walk to the ocean. So that is what I will do. (Heck- what is another 115-120 kilometers after you’ve already walked 790?)

Please continue to keep me in your prayers, as I keep you in mine.

Almost There (Thank You, Friends and Family)

I have finished walking for the day and am resting in a Lavacolla, a town about 10.5 kilometers from the Cathedral in Santiago. Absent something unforeseen, I will be at the noon pilgrim’s Mass in that Cathedral tomorrow. Although I still have several more days of travel before returning to the US (I want to get to Finisterre (end of earth) and the ocean), this seems like a good moment to say thank you.

One person I met on the Camino told me his friends bet him he couldn’t make it to Santiago. Mind you, they weren’t trying to spur him on; he told me they really believed he could not do it and so were betting against him. Another told me he lost friends over changing his life in a way that allowed him to do the Camino. And I met others who expressed the lack of any support for their pilgrimage.

My own situation couldn’t be more different. A number is students and former students have e-mailed me at various times as I walked to tell me they were praying for me. My friend Maria sent me a picture of the candle that burns 24/7 in her and Michael’s bedroom for me. My friend Gene has walked the labyrinth once a week while I have been walking as a way of supporting me. My friend Jeanne e-mails periodically to tell me she loves me and is holding me close. My daughter tells me how proud she is of me whenever we Skype. Other friends and family have posted Facebook notes with their prayers and support.

To all of my friends and family: I offer my heartfelt thanks. This has not been easy. In fact, I think it has surpassed my long vipassana retreat as the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. Your love and support has meant the world to me, all along the way, and especially in those moments when the blisters were excruciatingly painful, when it was pouring rain, when I thought I could not walk another step, when I wondered whether I could really make it to Santiago.

One of my friends told me I was brave to do this. Well, it is not hard to be brave when you are held in such loving, supportive arms.

I will be praying for all of you during the pilgrim mass tomorrow, as I have been praying for you all along.

Gracias!

Susan Falls For The Third Time

Let’s face it: when you are fifty-six years old and overweight, there is no way to fall gracefully.

The first time I fell, it was early morning and I did not realize how close to a curb I was because it was so dark. I slipped off the curb and came down hard on my right shoulder. The second time, the large number of pilgrims coming in from the pouring rain made the floor of the dorm room in the albergue slippery and I ended up flat on my back. This morning, on a steep downhill, I had just passed a sign warning that the rocks were slippery when my feet went out from under me and I was half lying in mud.

All you can do when you fall – as graceless as you may be – is pick yourself up. No one was around for my third fall, so it wasn’t like anyone was going to do it for me. I could lie there in the mud or get up.

So I got up. The first time. The second time. The third time.

And kept walking.

One foot in front of the other.

And if I fall again, I will do the same.

Feet

Yes, i am aware that “Feet” is a pretty strange title for a blog post, but I am way too tired to be creative.

When I lived in Thailand, I was taught never to sit with the bottom of your feet pointed toward another person; doing so was considered disrespectful, because the feet are the lowest part of the body.

They may be the lowest, but on the Camino feet may be more important than any other body part. It is my feet that each day bear the weight of me and my pack (neither of which is all that light). My feet that must function hour after hour, kilometer after kilometer, whether my shoes are dry or wet, whether I have a blister or not, whether they are feeling fresh or tired. They do amazing work!

In 1 Corinthians we read, “If a foot should say, “Because I am not a hand I do not belong to the body,” it does not for this reason belong any less to the body. …God placed the parts, each one of them, in the body as he intended. If they were all one part, where would the body be? But as it is, there are many parts, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I do not need you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I do not need you.”

Paul is speaking about more than physical body parts, but the Camino is a good reminder that what seems the least is often not so, and that a body needs all of its diverse parts to function effectively.

When We Make A Mistake

Coming out of the first town I passed after the one I stayed in last night, I took a wrong turn. It was a costly mistake; by the time I realized it (the path dead-ending into a field was my clue), I had added at least 2 kilometers to an already long walk. (A long walk in the wind and pouring rain, I should add.)

One possibility would have been to berate myself for the rest of the day for making such a mistake. The other was to shrug it off, not letting the mistake and its consequences spoil the rest of the day. Happily, I was able to do the latter.

We will make mistakes. That is a fact. Sometimes we do it because we don’t see the signs for the correct path (as I missed the yellow arrow which would have put me on the correct path this morning). Other times we see the signs for the correct path, but ignore them.

Either way, it does us no good to waste energy beating ourselves up for the wrong turns we make. Rather, seeing the error of our way, we need to simply acknoqledge ouristake, put ourselves back on the right path and be on our way.

Speaking Of Judging

On a related theme to my post of yesterday, one of the lessons of the Camino is to not judge the experience of others.

Even before I left the US, I saw posts on a Camino forum where people who had walked the Camino complained about those they viewed as somehow inauthentic pilgrims. I saw complaints, for example, about people clacking along with their hiking poles. (For the record, I am walking with poles; my orthopedist strongly recommended them given a problem I have been having with my right Achilles’ tendon.) I also saw a post by an acquaintance who had done part of the Camino discussing the fact that others had criticized her for walking too fast, suggesting she wasn’t getting a “real” Camino experience.

I have seen a lot of different things in my days thus far. Some people bus into the center of large cities like Burgos, not wanting to deal with long slogs through industrial sections. Some pay a service to transport their packs ahead rather than carrying them themselves. Others claim the motto EFS (Every F—— Step), meaning they will walk every step from St. Jean to Santiago carrying their own pack, no matter what. (That is certainly my hope.)

It is easy to judge, to decide others’ experience is not as authentic as our own. That they are not “real” pilgrims like us.

But everyone’s Camino is his or her own and everyone’s Camino is different. And people quickly learn that they are in no position to judge the experience of others; that their concern is simply their own Camino.

It is a useful lesson to bring home from the Camino.

Refraining From Evaluating

There is a tale that I only remember vaguely. A man’s son breaks his leg and the villagers all shake their heads about what bad news that is. The man shrugs and says, “we’ll see.” Turns out the broken leg saves the son from going off to war. There are a number of other twists to the story, all designed to express the idea that we are often not able to say whether something that happens is good or bad.

I have thought of that story several times in recent days.

The other day we missed the turn for the scenic route, meaning that we had many kilometers of walking alongside the road. Bad news – except that the shorter route allowed us to get to Astorga the next day without having to walk 30+ kilometers to do so.

Yesterday, we had planned to walk to Foncebadon, anticipating several long and difficult days ahead of us. But threatening storm clouds caused us to stop in Rabanal instead. Bad news – except that the monks at the monastery at Rabanal do Gregorian chant every evening at Vespers; it was lovely.

I could give several other examples, but you get the idea. We are quick to label things good or bad, often lacking sufficient knowledge to make those judgments. On the Camino we keep reminding ourselves that it is all part of the experience, however it might seem in the moment. And that “we’ll see” is not a bad attitude to have.

Ask And You Shall Receive

Last night in San Martin del Camino, I stayed in the Camino equivalent of the Bates Motel. There was only one other pilgrim (an elderly Korean man) staying there and the hospitalera did not remain on-site, giving the place (which was old and moldy) a decidedly eerie air. Consequently, when the other pilgrim left at 6:30 this morning, I high-tailed it out of there along with him.

After about 18 kilometers, at least ten of which were without a break (the last town I had passed seemed like a ghost town and there was no open bar in sight), I was really tired and felt the need to rest my feet. And my stomach was looking for something to eat, even though I had had a banana and shared some apple and tomato with my housemate that morning.

I started to pray, plead is perhaps more like it. “Please, God. I don’t even need a town. Just even a rock I can sit on would be enough. Anything so I can get off my feet for a few minutes.”

Very soon after I finished my prayer, I turned past a bend in the roads and heard a friendly voice call out, “Welcome to paradise.”

This was “paradise”:

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The truck contained coffee, tea, fruit, bread, nuts and all sorts of other things. “Self-serve, have what you want. Sit, relax.” There was space to sit on make-shift couches, and several pilgrims were doing just that when I arrived. There was a little box with a heart drawn on it, for whatever donation one wanted to make in exchange for the food and drink.

The man to whom the voice belonged was a Brazilian man. Someone suggested he was out of work and this was how he earned a living. I don’t know if that was the story or not. What I do know is that “paradise” was the answer to my prayer. I left there refreshed and ready for the rest of my walk into Astorga.

Bread, Broken and Shared

The other night in Hermanillos, I suggested to Beth that I pick up some things to make pasta for supper rather than going out. When we got back to the albergue, we discovered Damien, whom we had seen on and off over the laser several days, sitting with a sore leg, so I suggested he join us for our simple meal. Annette, a Danish woman, had planned to make an omelette for her own dinner, but suggested she join us for pasta and then hard boil the eggs for all of our breakfast or snack yesterday. We all enjoyed a delicious and fun meal together ( and went off the next morning with an egg in our packs).

Having enjoyed the experience, when I arrived in Mancilla and saw that it was market day, I decided to get some things to make a big salad for dinner. Shortly thereafter, we met a mother/ daughter pair from California we had seen the previously day. They suggested they make pasta to go with our salad and Beth went off to get some wine. Mark from Ontario added some meet and cheese for an appetizer.

The albergue in which we were staying had a lovely outdoor terrace and we sat at a table there with our meal. A large group sat nearby; they had made a potato/chorizo stew for their meal. Soon there was a big plate if their stew on our table and some of our pasta and salad on theirs. Chocolate from another table made its way onto ours and someone made pancakes for dessert and gave it to anyone and everyone. And wine freely flowed all evening.

At one point, Mark pulled out the largest round loaf of bread I have ever seen. He looked at his small knife, shook his head and began breaking off pieces with his hands and handing them around.

“He took bread, broke it..”

As the evening went on, I leaned back in my chair, looked around, and smiled at this beautiful experience of the Body of Christ.

Are We There Yet?

When my siblings and I were children, almost as soon as we got into the car with our parents to go someplace, one or another of us would ask, “are we there yet?” The question would be repeated with some frequency. Although they were doubtless annoyed with our repeated queries, me parents were able to tell us with reasonable accuracy when we would reach our destination.

Today I took the Calzada Romana from Calzadilla de Los Hermanos to Mansilla de las Mulas. The Calzada Romana is described as the most perfect extant stretch of Roman road left in Spain today. There is absolutely nothing on this stretch of roman road between my starting point and ending point. No town. No park areas. No real landmarks.

When a day’s walk is broken up by towns or sites, it is possible to mark progress by my guide book. So, reaching town X, I know I’ve walked 5.6 kilometers; at the next I know I am halfway through my day’s walk, and so forth.

When the whole day is one unbroken road, however, there is no way to judge progress. I knew I had to walk 24.5 kilometers to get to the town where I planned to stop for the day, but had no idea where I was at any point along the way. I couldn’t even estimate based on my rate of walking on other days, as I knew the rain and muddy road slowed my normal pace.

I think we have a natural tendency to seek ways to measure our progress, no matter what the arena. And we are uncomfortable when we lack reliable means to do so.

But it can also be very freeing to simply move forward without worrying about where we are in relation to the goal (however that is defined). And I found it so today (despite the rain and the mud).