It is easy to be romantic about the Camino and I’m aware that many words have been written which positively gush with superlatives.
“Life changing,” “awesome,” “fabulous,” are right up there with “the best thing I have ever done” and “I will remember this forever”. In the Pilgrims’ Office the arrivals are fit, lean, tanned and glowing with good health. Often a Camino marks a celebration such as retirement or a significant birthday or simply getting a month off work to do it.
Occasionally, just occasionally, a pilgrim will sit, exhausted and drawn. For some there are different reasons.
It started with a routine blood test just before Easter 2009. I was due to leave on the Camino Inglés when I got the results. “The doctor would like to see you” they said. So he did. That very day. I understood the implications of the abnormal result and the doctor said I would see a consultant within two weeks. The journey to Spain and the departure from Ferrol took my mind off what the future might hold. I was sitting in a restaurant in Neda only one day into the journey when my phone rang and it was the hospital to arrange an appointment. Walking that Camino gave me time to think, to quell any rising panic. I thought of pilgrim friends I had met, like Lillian, who had conquered life threatening cancer. The satisfying exhaustion at the end of the day fuelled sleep which otherwise may have escaped. My arrival in Santiago was as joyful as it had been on other occasions.
The appointment at the hospital was horrid. I am a huge believer in the National Health Service in the United Kingdom having been involved in it in some capacity almost all my life. But that day the 2 hour wait to see the consultant did not help my anxiety levels. His conclusion was that I had a 50/50 chance of having prostate cancer. An immediate biopsy was ordered. Now I was worried. But just like waiting for the albergue to open, or trudging those last long miles to the destination at the end of the day, I had to wait. The result was inconclusive. “It may be this…it may be that” the doc speculated. "We may do another larger biopsy but for the moment let’s get treatment started." This lasted three months. It brought spiking temperatures and for a brief time an extensive rash. I was in the throws of this at exactly this time last year. By the time the walk on the Madrid Route came round in August I was feeling better although I could have done without walking in the 40 degree temperatures some days.
The doc however wasn’t the cheeriest of characters when I saw him next as he reviewed the latest blood tests. His view was that if matters did not improve significantly then they should operate to determine whether the abnormality was caused by cancer or not. More waiting.
January brought good news and bad. The blood tests were returning to normal but they had decided to have a look for themselves anyway. Thankfully due to robots, probes, computers and a considerable loss of dignity no knife was to be involved.
And so it was in March after a final examination the doctor proclaimed me fit and well. “Discharged” was the glorious word. Never have I put on my clothes so fast in all my life.
It was a Friday and the boys were meeting in the bar as usual. I was in the mood to celebrate. It was all going so well until the Big Man said “if you don’t mind me asking why do you have your jumper on inside out?” In a confessonial burst the story of the last year tumbled out. The best kept secret was revealed. The boys were agog. Having established I was fine…discharged…no more hospital, Sean said with characteristic charm, “it’s your round then.”
I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last nine days as I played at as many of the 4 services a day as I could. This annual festival of prayer is my equivalent of Joaquin playing every day of the year for the pilgrims’ mass in Santiago Cathedral. A full church every day with wonderful singing, no organist could ask for more.
The story goes that Pope Pius XI gave this priceless icon to the Redemptorist Order asking them to make the image known throughout the world. And so they have. Wherever there are Redemptorist churches you will find the Icon and often a festival or novena with the image as its focus. In Ireland some 10,000 people attend each day, in the Philppines 250,000 and in London a more modest 500 participate.
In truth I feel very ambivalent about the whole thing. It isn’t my style and I suspect if I wasn’t there to play I wouldn’t go. But this year the introduction seized my attention. Brendan who was leading the Novena said, “If you don’t feel like doing this, if you are angry, if you have problems, if your faith is weak…you are especially welcome…come on the journey with us and let us support you through these nine days together.”
In that moment I realised that last year that’s what my Caminos including the nine day journey in Clapham had done for me. I’ve learned that pilgrimage is not just for the good times in life, it can also be about sustaining us through the times of great difficulty.
So for the love, friendship and companionship of my fellow pilgrims, thank you. I said I wouldn’t get gushy so I’ll say it in music. Recorded last night with 500 people coughing and moving around… apologies for the quality but the message is the same.