Saturday, 27 June 2009

One year ago - Gareth Thomas

Last year pilgrim Gareth Thomas walked from Worcester Cathedral to Santiago. He retraced his steps from earlier in his life. This is his reflection.

A year ago I was making my plans for the longest journey I have ever made: a pilgrimage from Worcester to Compostela on foot. When I finally set out in May, I remember feeling oddly afraid at the magnitude of the task ahead: to put one foot in front of the other continuously for three months. Now that the pilgrimage is successfully completed, I look back on a very satisfying once-in-a-lifetime event and see that the fears were realistic. It was very hard at times, and tempting to give up at some points; but I am so glad I kept going to the destination and I look back at the 1200-mile walk as a defining event in my life.
My long association with the Camino began in the 1960s at the age of fourteen, wearing the blue-shirt and red beret of a certain Spanish youth organisation. Our moustachioed and uniformed leader, a retired Civil War army officer and school history teacher, Capitan Nuñez, marched us down the Camino during our summer camp. He was the Spanish equivalent of Dad’s Army Captain Mainwaring. It was he who taught us how to load and fire the antique Martini rifles on Saturday morning drill sessions on a remote beach, for he was convinced we could repel the communist invasion he seemed to expect at any moment. We were pleased he put his trust in us, though we had no idea of the particular advantage of his strategy or indeed any interest whatsoever in politics.
Marching to Compostela for the glory of the Patria and its national patron saint was the curious way in which I first walked on what we now call the Camino Francés, but in those days they didn’t call it that. It was simply a dusty route-march for uniformed youth that the old Spanish officer class and clerical old guard saw as the guarantee of Spain’s future. There was no welcoming hospitalero or menu peregrino for us: we camped out on the hillside or slept on the bare floors of parish halls. A bottle of Coca Cola cost five pesetas. We bought bubble gum and collected the cronos: picture cards of the aircraft of the Spanish Civil War, but the Fiat CR32 biplane always eluded us and we concluded that the card didn’t exist. It was just a ploy to make us buy more bubble gum.
The main things I remember about the route are the overwhelming smell of primitive toilet arrangements and the unsightly piles of refuse that you found in every village in those days. And there was one other thing: the sadness and the poverty: the ever-present amputees, and the general brokenness of most people you met in that land.
Not long after, I returned to England with my family and it was twenty years later before I explored the Camino again. In the 1980s, as an Anglican Franciscan friar, I hitch-hiked in habit from England and walked part of the Camino over a two-week period. It had then begun to gain some popularity: there was a new awareness of the Camino and the priests I stayed with on my journey were convinced the pilgrimage would be reborn. They were right, but it was not quite the future they imagined, for the Camino took on its own life independently of them.
I remember standing in the rain looking down from Monte Gozo – which in those days was an empty hill – in my soaking wet Franciscan habit, and wondered what emotion a medieval pilgrim might have felt, arriving at that point after walking from England. I suppose it was then that the idea was born to walk all the way from England, but the practical expression lay dormant for another twenty years. I built up to it gradually. I arrived in Compostela by bike from Canterbury; then from St Jean-Pied-de-Port on foot; I walked in the winter snows from O Cebreiro. And then I finally did it: I walked from Worcester to Compostela, and I still have sore toes.
The Japanese writer Haruki Murakami, in a book about marathon running quotes this runners’ mantra: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” He explains, “The hurt part is an unavoidable reality, but whether or not he can stand any more is up to the runner himself.” (H. Murakami: What I think About When I think About Running.) There is truth in this. When you first begin a long physical journey, travelling under your own steam, just as with starting at a gym or going for a keep-fit run around the block, it will hurt; and that is unavoidable. The Jesuit priest Gerard Hughes wrote a book about his one thousand mile walk to Rome (G. Hughes: In Search of a Way), and he explains how he had worked out a 100-degree pain scale on an earlier walk. When he was only a short distance along the road on the day he set off, he felt a pain in the knee which “only merited 20 degrees, so I attributed the pain to psychosomatic anticipation and limped on.” In his account, the physical hardships of the road gradually diminish as he becomes accustomed to the walk, but he soon learns that undertaking a long-distance walk requires psychological strategies too.
Hughes explains how he disliked using the rosary as a child and “used to try to speed up the prayers to have them over and done with” He never overcame that boredom and eventually abandoned the rosary; but while walking to Rome he rediscovered it: “It is a rhythmic prayer and I could vary the rhythm, sometimes a few steps to one syllable. I could pray almost effortlessly for an hour in this way.”
In the anonymous Russian Orthodox classic, The Way of a Pilgrim (trs. R.M.French), the pilgrim – a seeker of true prayer - travels hundreds of miles on foot. His object is not to arrive anywhere in particular, but to learn how to “pray constantly”. I have found that the Jesus prayer is very well suited to praying the road. Breathing in, while stepping forward a few paces, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God…”; and then exhaling on the next steps, “…have mercy on me a sinner.” Hundreds of repeated prayers become thousands, and eventually the rhythm becomes the prayer.
It was certainly a hard journey, walking to Compostela, particularly in the day after day of unrelenting rain across France in May. Yet, the trials of the journey became the point of the journey. I was mentally engaged with the Jesus prayer and I was undertaking a significant journey of transition, from one life to another.
The individual effort was only part of the story: the reality was broader than that. All the way along I was part of a community – even when I felt most alone – and that sense of belonging to a wider community made the journey possible. The three-month pilgrimage involved contact with hundreds of people, all of them playing some part in getting me to the destination. And now, in my prayer times in the seminary, I often reflect on that journey. I pray the road, mentally revisit the people I met on the way and pray for them, and I pray for those on the road now.
When I arrived at Monte Gozo I finally knew the answer to the question I had wondered about twenty years earlier: what does a pilgrim feel after walking all the way from England? I felt numb. All who arrive in the Pilgrim Office in Santiago receive the same certificate – and rightly so – whether they have walked from Worcester or Sarria. The printed piece of paper is a charming souvenir, but what is imprinted on your heart and on your soul is the great gift that you carry home. It has taken me a long time to absorb the experience and it will take me longer yet. Perhaps one day, in my last conscious moment in this life, I shall recall the sound of the breeze in the tall spiky plants on that steep descent in the Meseta towards Hornillos del Camino, the ribbon of white Camino stretching out ahead. And I will give thanks for the experience. ___________________________________________

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