Saturday, 31 October 2009

Unknown territory

My first Camino I walked alone on the Via de la Plata. When I got nearer Santiago the presence of the other occasional pilgrim was a nice diversion from the solitary weeks before. My jaunts on the Camino Inglés were almost all alone and only once I encountered a group of Spanish pilgrims with no rucksacks who took tourist pictures of me and shamefacedly boarded their air conditioned coach a couple of hours later. When I stepped out one November morning a year or so ago from St Jean de Pied Port on the Camino Francés I walked into the dawn mist alone. Not for long. Soon I encountered a procession of other pilgrims. This was quite a culture shock for me but there was no way of avoiding contact and I fell in with a small group of much younger people who were astonished I kept up with them. We ate lunch together and shared chocolate huddled on the windswept Alto de Perdón. Gradually in this wee group people got to know each other. Sometimes we would walk alone going ahead or lagging behind the others. Sometimes we walked as three or four and sometimes in twos. I met Donald MacDonald, a man slightly younger than me who was Norwegian. His grandparents had been Scottish. I’d never have guessed.

On the Camino Francés I was even drawn to consider joining the others in the albergues. Never my first choice for a number of good reasons. But I found I didn’t want to leave the group whose companionship I was enjoying.

Many pilgrims make lifelong friends with those they meet. Some meet future partners. Most enjoy the fellowship, although like every other situation in life normal rules of caution apply. There are strange and odd people on the Camino too. But walking together, sharing the purpose, the difficulties and the joys encourages an intimacy more quickly engendered than elsewhere in life. Many people choose the Camino Francés because they will experience this fellowship.

Marion Marples describes one of her experiences: “Give a hug to the Apostle,” strangers cry as I pass. I eventually arrive at Santiago’s shrine and, taking a deep breath, climb up behind the seated silver St James. My hug of gratitude encompasses all the people, known and unknown, whose efforts have ensured that I arrived safely after my 500-mile walking pilgrimage.
Later, in the narrow streets of the old town, I am surprised to hear my name shouted out. A friend has calculated my arrival date, waited for me to appear and now races towards me to give me the most enormous warm hug. No explanation, just a hug.”
Sitting in the Pilgrims’ Office looking at the daily stream of pilgrims seeking the Compostela, the friends are obvious. When called forward one by one they are reluctant to part as if realising the last stamp is the end of the journey and the closeness they are enjoying.

This is particularly true of the couples, some just married, some celebrating a long time together, who make the pilgrimage together. Like Hans and Gretel (I’m not joking) who walked out of their home in the Netherlands and kept walking all the way to Santiago. They stood hand in hand beaming as they told me their story. They had planned to arrive on this day and the date on their Compostela was very special to them – their 40th wedding anniversary. They were brimming over with all that they felt the pilgrimage together had given them. The time they had together, meeting other people, just being. I asked them if it had all been good. “Like marriage a long Camino like ours has its difficulties but overall it has been wonderful,” they answered. I couldn’t resist telling them the story of the older married couple who were asked if during their life together they had ever thought of divorce. After thinking for a moment they replied, “Divorce not ever, but we did think about murder from time to time.” They laughed and like two teenagers they almost danced out of the office to celebrate their anniversary.

For me most poignant of all are the parents with children, mothers with daughters, fathers with sons and vice versa.

Father and Son, Steve 45 and Paul 17 took 3 weeks to walk the last 250kms of the Via de la Plata, the 1000 kms route from Seville in the South of Spain. I asked them how it had been for them. Steve said “Though I masked it as best as I could, I boarded that plane gripped with fear. “What have I gotten us into?” I wondered. “Will we be safe?” I slept poorly the first couple of nights precisely because of those fears, but the Camino led me to confront some fundamental spiritual issues in my life: the fact that I am not in control of circumstances, that I need to be more faithful in my daily life, that I need to be a better steward of the environment. I also grew closer to my son in lasting ways. It is my hope that, in 25 years, he will look back on our Camino as one of the building blocks of his spiritual life.
Paul said, “I remember vividly what I was thinking as I stepped onto that airline flight to Spain: “Why did I ever agree to leave home for three whole weeks just to walk on some stupid trail in a foreign country?” This is also what I was thinking for the first few days of actual walking. However, one day, when my dad and I were standing on a small bridge in a beautiful section of forest, it suddenly hit me. There was no place in the world I would have rather been than right there at that time, not even at home in my own bed. And even now there is still nothing I would rather have spent those three weeks doing. “
Last week I met Kate and her dad, Gene, who had completed all of the Via de la Plata from Seville and were travelling home through London. The two of them looked great and simply exuded serenity. 7 weeks of living life in the most simple way does that. How was their pilgrimage? How did it feel walking with your dad? How did it feel making a pilgrimage with your daughter? Both took on a faraway look that I have seen before. I could see that the experience had been so powerful it was difficult to describe. It would have sounded trite in any other circumstance but they said they had left as parent and child and returned as life-long friends.

So on Camino we can encounter new friends and deepen older relationships. It seems that parents and children can discover each other in quite new ways. There are no statistics to prove how many couples, families or parents and children travel to Santiago together. There is no evidence of the effect on relationships apart from the many stories. But when you walk you realise how could it not be so?

Which leads me finally to a quote from Ben Okri which has become a favourite:

Most of us are pretty astonished when we feel love, and discover to our amazement that it’s not like what we thought it was, nor how the films tell us it is. It is different; it is richer. It’s very troubling and very chaotic. It turns our world upside down. It challenges many of our belief systems and our prejudices. But love also inspires the confidence to take risks with one another. You just don’t know what trust in another person can lead to. And love is about courage. Do we have the courage to smile at somebody we meet for the first time, the courage to be friendly and warm, the courage to venture into unknown territory and encounter other people, with common sense and a clear, awakened mind?”

1 comment:

  1. A very inspiring post, Johnnie. I love the Ben Okri quote, which I have copied out. The connections he makes between love and astonishment, richness, confusion, chaos, challenge, risk, courage and awakening are very profound.