My passion about the Camino is relatively recent in my life. My passion about playing the church organ is much older – 44 years older to be precise! Yes, I started young.
In these last few weeks I’ve been in Church more than many priests and ministers. It is the season of the great feasts, Pentecost, Trinity, Corpus Christi plus 2 Sundays of First Communions and a Friday complete with Bishop for Confirmations. It is also about to get considerably busier when on 19th June I embark on playing for an annual festival which comprises 36 services in 9 days. Future postings will be the evidence I have survived.
Some people assume that organists are holy people, firm believers, devout. I suppose because of the amount of time we spend in Church. To be honest I’ve always been secretly jealous of those who are able to say “I definitely believe in God.” Or “I’m a confirmed atheist”. I’ve always been much more uncertain and for me a prayer I learned many years ago is appropriate: “ Oh God, if there is a God, save my soul if I’ve got one.”
As a young philosophy graduate I would challenge and bate priests. Then I realised that I was the only one getting angry. I visited Rome and was awestruck by the Vatican and horrified and ashamed at the blatant display of class distinction, authority and power of a church of which I am a baptised member. I love the music and the liturgy. I try to pray. But not only do I disagree in whole or in part with many of the Church’s teachings I also hate the misogyny and obsession with sex. Maybe it is because my mum was staunchly Presbyterian and my dad fiercely Catholic that I was brought up to believe in “live and let live”.
For along time I didn’t know that there is a world of pilgrimage where I’ve discovered many people like me struggling with belief, at odds with established churches but compelled to search, sometimes even without realising it.
Before I discovered the pilgrimage routes in Spain to Santiago de Compostela, I thought “pilgrimage” was something which the older ladies in parishes did when they went on a bus to Lourdes with their rosary beads. Then as I prepared for my own first pilgrimage I discovered what seemed like a parallel universe of thousands of people walking to holy places in many countries. Lourdes in France, Fatima in Portugal, Santiago de Compostela in Spain, Knock in Ireland, Iona in Scotland, St David’s in Wales, Canterbury in England, Rome and of course Jerusalem to mention but a few.
As I read I discovered that the history of pilgrimage has deep roots in many world religions as well as Christianity. The Muslim famous Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Jewish people are drawn to Jerusalem and the Wailing Wall. In India many millions of Hindus make their way to the River Ganges to bathe to wash their sins. For Sikhs the journey is to Amritsar to visit the Golden Temple.
Whilst the Camino to Santiago is essentially a Catholic pilgrimage to the shrine said to contain the bones of one of the apostles another thing I discovered is that there is no right or wrong way to travel the Camino to Santiago. It isn’t just for holy people, or those who go to Church or people of faith. It is for everyone. But is it a spiritual experience? “What about the God bit?”
Over the last few days as I’ve thought about that question and how to answer people who ask it, I’ve been drawn to notes on my real experiences of pilgrimage. They describe for me real encounters with kindness, love, tolerance, respect, understanding. Maybe they are the ”God bit”?
Alto de Perdón
On the way up to Alto de Perdón I encountered a red faced pilgrim with a gigantic rucksack lying flat on his back by the side of the path. I stopped to ask if he was ok. He said yes and urged me to keep going. When I got to the top I met two girls one from Sweden and the other from France. It was windy and I sat down beside them sheltered a little. As we each took out our packed lunch it was the most natural thing in the world to turn it into a picnic each sharing what we had. When the pilgrim I’d met earlier appeared, even more red faced, we called him over and asked him to join us. He explained he was having a few problems. His pack was far too heavy and he already had blisters although he had brought two pairs of boots to try out! He set off slowly and stiffly down the rock path on the other side. When I caught up with him he asked me if I’d left my friends behind. I could see the surprise when I explained I’d only met my picnic partners 15 mins before he arrived! We met again the next day. His name was Hans. He explained that he’d left some things behind that morning: One pair of boots, three quarters of a first aid kit, his spare torch and box of batteries, two t shirts leaving three… He shared that he was a successful restaurateur but he’d become divorced had been boozing too much and had developed an over reliance to cocaine. As the words came tumbling out he said he’d kept it all a secret. No one knew. He knew he needed to leave all that behind too…
Via de la Plata
On this route from Seville there are many isolated long stretches. I walked alone and on some stages rarely met anyone else. Occasionally I would see a shepherd and his flock high on the hill. Birds of a feather perhaps, alone, carrying what we needed, often my wave would be returned by an encouraging hand held high.
But not every day is a good day. One day I woke feeling dejected. New to the pilgrimage walking had brought me painful blisters, painful memories and a morning of driving rain. I remember that day well because I wrote in my note book: “This is the day when even the shepherds didn’t wave back”.
A few hours later I was starving and stopped in a little bar in Villanueva de Campeán. I asked the elderly woman behind the bar if she had any food. “We don’t do food” she replied. I sat at a table with a coffee feeling very sorry for myself. The woman approached, “Señor,” she said, “ If you wish you may have some of the soup I have made for my family. I’m afraid it is only fish soup.”
The Rio Esla
“Can something this beautiful just be an accident?” was a question I decided not to try and answer whilst sitting on the banks of the river in total stillness. Some things just have to be enjoyed.
I recently visited Wittem in Holland where the Redemptorist Order run a pilgrimage shrine in honour of St Gerard. Almost 200,000 people travel there every year. The Redemptorists have staffed the Church where I play the organ for 150 years. They are now looking at how to reshape their ministry for the future. One of the things they are looking at is building up the work they do with homeless and friendless people. On our way to Wittem we stopped in Dusseldorf to visit a project for just such people. Our German is poor so we took a translator.
We were shown into a room at the Centre and the man in charge was introduced through the translator. “What can I do for you?” he asked. “Could you tell us, please, what this Centre is all about? What do you do here? “ was the translated reply.
He sat perfectly still for a moment, deep in thought. Then he crossed the room and from a drawer brought a candle held by the wick. We could see it was completely broken. He suspended it in front of us. “Would you like to buy this candle to help us with our funds?” He asked. “How much?” one of us enquired. “as much as you care to give. Don’t you think it is worth it? Be honest now.” He stood patiently holding the broken candle in front of us. By the time it took to translate all of this into English I could see that like me my companions wondered whether he was mad. This was confirmed when he dangled the candle in front of me. “Don’t you agree this is a perfectly good candle and worth a lot?” he said directly to me. “Errrrr, I’m afraid I don’t actually” I said.
He gave a satisfied smile. We hadn’t got the point.
From a cabinet he produced a plant pot filled with sand and he pushed the candle in. He lit it.
“With some support”, he said, “This candle can become whole again. Look at the flame alive in it. Strong. Warm. It lights the room. It is beautiful again. That’s what we do here.”
And maybe that’s what the pilgrimage to Santiago does for many of us.