Monday, 28 June 2010

Pilgrimage is not just for the good times

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.
During the week I have been thinking about the last year and how my journeys on the Camino Inglés in the Spring, the Madrid route in the summer, and the Camino Hogmanay at New Year punctuated a difficult time in my life. Despite my natural reserve about all things personal I’ve decided to tell the story. Life like the Camino can be a rocky way sometimes.

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.
I have heard many pilgrims talking about how the Camino can bring its own kind of optimism. Perhaps it is the constant serendipity of seeing new scenery round every corner, the reflective walking on the long meseta, the encouragement of the local Spanish people, the homemade food wolfed down at the end of the day, the time spent with friends. By the time I got back to London I had a rising sense that no matter how this turned out everything would be ok. Whatever that meant.

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.

The New Year adventure on the Camino Francés was a huge boost to the spirits. If I could conquer O Cebreiro in the snow and be the first into Galicia to start the Holy Year I could do anything. The companionship of that pilgrimage, the wondrous vistas of snow clad Galicia and bowls of steaming hot caldo will remain life long memories.

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.

Bear with me whilst I fill in the background a little. I’ve never been attracted to holy images except as works of art. I suspect it may be the Presbyterian genes I inherited from my mother. I often look at statues and pictures in Catholic churches and wonder if they are more about superstition than inspiration. I shudder when I see statues in Spanish churches dressed up in real clothes. Spooky. But there are some images, particularly icons, which radiate their own beauty and which I can readily see would appeal to people who believe. One such is the 13th Century icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro.
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.


  1. Thanks for sharing your story, Johnnie. You remind us indeed of the healing, calming and contemplative gifts of the camino as well as the joyful ones. Congratulations on your regained health!

  2. How blessed we are that you have chosen to share your story..... you are an extraordinary man and I wish you so well in all your future caminos.... the journey of the pilgrim and the soul is a strange, painful and often beautiful one, with so much to learn and so much to be revealed. I send you love with tears plopping into my wine - your shout then! A xx

  3. heck of a journey. Thank you for sharing. I know how often I need to be reminded that when we look at someone, the externals, how little I know of what is going on in their life, what road they've been traveling, what burdens they've been carrying. Very happy to hear you are discharged...and to quote an American commercial..."Your now free to roam around the country" Peace, Karin

  4. Ian Holdsworth28 June 2010 at 23:13

    Thank for this post. I find it difficult to put into word my feeling towards you as a result of these brave words. It is great to know you and a privledge.

  5. always have a gift for appreciating pilgrimage in all its facets- and by sharing your very personal struggles you have laid bare your heart in a way that will certainly help some others.
    I have known of those, like Lillian, who walked after a serious illness. And I walked with someone who was praying throughout for someone who was terminally ill. I know that others walk after the death of someone close as they try to come to terms with their grief.
    But I never knowingly walked with someone who was in the middle of the uncertainties you were facing. I am glad that the rhythm of your feet on the Madrid Camino brought you some lasting calm. And when you wrote of your winter climb over O'Cebreiro, your deep joy at the glory of it all was so apparent.
    I hope some others find inner strength as you did, if they walk the Camino in such a time of great personal need.
    Finally, I can understand why your friends were so agog. So, if we ever meet, it will indeed be 'your round'!

  6. Thankyou for sharing that John. You are an inspiration.

    Lost for words . . . . go forward in peace and . . . . . . . start saving for all those "rounds"!

  7. Thanks for a very moving post, John. See you in August 10. During the Camino I will be praying for 2 Redemptorist confreres with cancer: Bishop Manny Cabajar (of Pagadian, Philippines - prostate) and Dennis Billy (former professor here in Rome - leukemia).

  8. I'm embarrassed, deeply moved and very grateful for you comments. I've changed my mind about whether that post should have been written a dozen times. But we all benefit from solidarity with others. It is one of the graces of the Camino. Thank you.

    Now to more regular stories...

  9. John, thanks for posting this. It is important,

    pax et bonum,


  10. peace and ....well, as Reb says, you rock!

    thank you for this, and the beautiful Caccini,
    Kathy Gower