8 April 2012. Easter Sunday. I came out for an early breakfast in a little bar which opens to serve people going to work and students coming home from parties. On a whim I turned to walk into the Plaza Obradoiro. The huge square was deserted making the cathedral look all the more dominant. There were no pilgrims celebrating their arrival, ready subjects for the camera totting tourists. The place was calm and silent. Light rain started and the one or two solitary locals put up their umbrellas. All this will change later when hundreds of walking pilgrims start to arrive and the bells of the cathedral warn the city that the Mass of Easter Day is about to begin.
It is early and one or two pilgrims enter the square making their way to the centre to stand and gaze up at the cathedral. Their journey is at an end. The first looks very familiar. Rucksack laden and weary, yet joyful. In a flash my mind is drawn back to the many pilgrims I’ve met over the thousands of kilometres I’ve walked. Some became firm friends. With others I enjoyed hours of spontaneous conversation or drinks at the end of a long, hot day. But there were others. Just a few, who I didn’t like at all. They were the pilgrims I didn’t expect to meet, I didn’t know I would dislike and I didn’t want to walk beside. As the square starts to get busier I recognise the pilgrim in the middle and I remember exactly where I first met him.
It was a scorching hot June day and as I reached the top of the hill I saw the long meseta stretching out before me with its endless miles dotted with a few pilgrims. Today was one of the days when I would rather walk alone. I wanted to enjoy the solitude of the path which never seemed to end. One foot followed the other and step by step the rhythm built until I stopped thinking about anything in particular and just walked on and on. I was roused from this meditative state by the sound of boots approaching from behind. I kept my head down hoping that as they passed me a brief nod would be enough to observe good manners. I slowed making overtaking easier. But the chap didn’t overtake. He fell into step beside me and seemed insistent on starting a conversation. I didn’t like him on sight. Young, smartly dressed in the best of gear I took in his top of the range rucksack and Ray-Ban sun glasses as well as the mobile phone in a front pocket ready for action. After commenting on the weather, where we had both set out from that morning and where we were respectively heading for that day I lapsed into hopeful silence. He continued talking. “It must be my face” I thought to myself as he launched into his life story. All I could do was listen and as I did my dislike for him intensified. He told me about his job or rather how successful he was. He told me how smart he was and how he had risen to the top at a very young age. Unprompted he told me how much he earned. Oblivious to my reaction he plundered on about his family or rather “his perfect family”...wife, two children, two cars, a spaniel called Spot. All of them lived in a perfect, large house. Of course.
As the miles wore on I listened to his ambitious plans to achieve even more success. Yet as he talked I sensed something else. As if all he was achieving didn’t satisfy. But I had listened long enough and I couldn’t resist asking..."so why are you here? On this camino?" He spent a few minutes rehearsing some reasons like seeing rural Spain, learning a new language, having a well earned break. Then, almost talking to himself, he explained that he couldn’t seem to stop striving for more, his children were growing up and he wasn’t there, he was always in the office, his relationships seemed shallow, he was no longer sure what was permanent. He wanted to make changes but didn’t know how. There was an awkward silence where he clearly wished he hadn’t said so much and so did I! I didn’t like this enforced intimacy and frankly I didn’t like him and his need to share with me. At the first bar we passed I made my excuses and left him to walk on. These years later he is here in the Plaza Obradoiro.
As he takes some photographs of the cathedral my eye is drawn to the second pilgrim who has set down his rucksack and is stretching in celebration of being free of the load. In an instant I remember exactly where I have seen him before. I also remember the story he told me.
In 2006 I left Seville to walk the Via de la Plata to Santiago. A journey of 1000 kilometres it took me 36 days. It was my first camino. I had recently left the career I had enjoyed for 30 years and this pilgrimage was to be a bridge to the next stage in my life. I was content as I set out and I soon realised this magnificent route has a lot to offer. There were few other pilgrims, in fact, I didn’t meet anyone for the first three weeks. But I enjoyed the hours of walking on my own. It was restful compared to the busy life I had been leading. I thought of many things, as pilgrims do. I discovered that sometimes thoughts, memories, feelings can just pop into our heads as if from nowhere. So too it seems can other pilgrims. Often when you least expect it.
The part of the route from Granja de Moruela to Puebla de Sanabria has some challenges. It also has some of the scenes of greatest beauty along this route. At “five ways bridge” across the Rio Esla the original route, which I took, goes right down to the river’s edge and follows along it for some way until the camino rises so high above the water you can see the sunken ruins of the old bridge. I think the gorge is stunningly beautiful. Having found some arrows I made the ascent to the top of the mountain. The view looking back was worth every bit of effort. I was sitting there taking all of this in and getting my breath back when a head appeared on the path below quickly followed by the rest of the pilgrim. A man of about my own age, he sat and we both appreciated the scenery before walking together the next few kilometres.
Perhaps it was the beauty of what we had witnessed which inspired him. I don’t know. But out of the blue he asked, “do you believe in God?” I grunted a non-committal reply. Undeterred he forged ahead with more questions in a similar vein, “I mean, who made all of this?” as he pointed to the gorge behind us. Then of course came the most difficult of all, “what do you think happens when you die?” “do you go anywhere...like eternal life?” I didn’t like this at all. Not one bit. “Who does he think he is asking me these personal questions?” I thought. As if to fend off the assault all I could do was turn the questions back on him. “Do you believe in God?” He hesitated then clearly taking a decision to share replied, “I used to. I used to think it was all certain. All clear cut. Until my father died. I loved him dearly. He took me to Mass every Sunday and made me say my prayers at bed time. For him there was no doubt. He had a simple and unshakable faith. Then one night he died. I got a phone call to say he had been taken to hospital and I managed to get there in time. My mother was there and he smiled when he heard my voice. Then he just died. The priest who my father knew opened his book and started reading prayers. A doctor came in and examined my Dad. He was gone. My mother was helped from the room. It was me and Dad and the priest and the words Dad believed in so much. Yet he just looked dead. No angels leading him to paradise, no music, no smile of anticipation on his lips. He was just dead. I was angry. This could not be true. I would not allow it. I called for the doctor and insisted she check. She did, patiently, but shook her head sadly. This was it then. This was all it had come to. "Where are you now God?" I asked, “where are you now?”
We walked on in silence. There was nothing to be said. After a while as we approached the town in the distance my unexpected companion turned and said, “that all happened years ago. I have no more certainty now than I did then. All I know is that I still think about him and I still love him.”
With that we parted only to find ourselves standing here together in Santiago on this Easter Day 2012.
The three of us stood and talked. The brash young pilgrim I had met on the Camino Frances and who I disliked intensely was a different person now. Life had rubbed off his certainty that success would make him happy. He had given up striving and taken up walking. He had lost a lot in the process but has gained much more. He looked and sounded the better for it. As the cathedral bells rang out the other pilgrim suggested we go to Mass. He saw my surprise. “I’ve learned that on pilgrimage you don’t know exactly what the destination is going to be like. You just believe there will be one. My old Dad probably wasn’t as certain as I thought he was, but he kept going. That’s good enough for me too.”
They say that you will meet many other people on camino. You might even meet yourself. So it was as we entered the cathedral. It was packed for the Easter Mass. That didn’t matter. We only needed one place.