Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Where faith and doubt unite

Hola from Santiago. I came out to join a group of 35 members of the Confraternity of St James. Around 25 of them walked up the Coastal Route from Oporto to meet the rest of us who flew to Santiago. This is to be a week of fun and celebration, visits and reflection. I’ll tell you more about it soon.

I also have a confession to make. As I write this post I am not here in Santiago I am back in my study in London last Saturday morning. I am trusting that the technology will work and that this will appear as scheduled on Tuesday. Today!
Last week I told you about a visit to the Hindu Temple in Wimbledon and the animated conversation we had about pilgrimage. During that conversation, Gheeta, one of the leaders of the Temple mentioned the fulfilment of a promise was often a motivating factor for Hindus to go on pilgrimage or to give other kinds of thanks to the Deity they believed had assisted them. When she said this many people nodded in agreement.

Since then I’ve been thinking about the pilgrims who arrive in the Pilgrims’ Office. Some pilgrims ask for their Compostela to be dedicated to a loved one. This is usually someone who has died and the pilgrim has perhaps made the journey in their memory. No records are kept of how often this is requested but chatting to people in the Office they think perhaps once or twice a day. Much more frequently however I’ve heard people talk about making the Camino because of a “promesa”. They are invariably Spanish. To be honest it took me a while to understand what was happening. People who have been to the Office know that they will be asked to fill in a form. Amongst other data to be collected it has three boxes which ask about the pilgrim’s motivation for making the Camino. Religious. Religious and others. Non-religious, are the three categories. Before writing the Compostela staff in the Office wait until they can see which of these boxes is ticked. If either box one or two is ticked the traditional Compostela is issued as a symbol of the journey made for spiritual reasons. If it is the third box then the Certificate is issued. Many people receiving “only” the Certificate get very upset and ask to change the form to Religious reasons. This is rarely permitted. However what I have seen happening frequently is that if the pilgrim asks “what is this category?” pointing to the Religious or Spiritual box or indeed if their pen hovers above it but then moves slowly above the Non Religious box the Spanish members of staff intervene with an explanation. It goes something like this: “The Non Religious Category is if your motives are purely cultural, or for tourism or for sport, for example. The Religious and Others Category is when your motives are spiritual such as if it was a promise”. Frequently it is as if the veil has been lifted, heads nod vigorously, “a promesa” they say and tick the appropriate box to receive their Compostela.

At first I thought the explanation was provided by Spanish people to Spanish people because of the limitations of their English, German or the many other languages pilgrims speak. So, I decided to try it in both English and Spanish. With Spanish people it worked a treat. If I saw their pen hovering I simply said, “Cuidado (be careful) that box is only if your motives are cultural etc….this one is if it is for example a promesa” That worked. Less disappointed customers. However with the English speakers it was a different matter. “A promise?” drawled an American lady from Texas, “Whaddaya mean a promise?” she legitimately asked. “ Oh my God”, I thought, ”how do I explain this?” and I could see her eyes widen as I embarked on a convoluted explanation, “you know if you have been ill, or someone you love has been ill and you pray and say “if they recover, I’ll walk to Santiago” for example”". From her look I could tell she thought I might have been a witchdoctor. On a number of occasions I tried more sophisticated explanations but just got more incredulous looks. In English it was taking many sentences to explain what the Spanish and Hindus understood by one word, “a promise”.

Anthony Bloom the Russian Orthodox Archbishop who died in 2003 wrote about this in his book Living Prayer. He talks about the “asking prayers” which believers and non- believers alike make. His argument is that this is something deep within us human beings…”dear God, help me to pass my exams”, “help my mum get better”, “stop my daughter taking drugs” are all things most of us have said at some point in our lives, whether we care to admit it now or not. It seems to me to be a natural step then to turn this into a reciprocal request. “ God, if you do this for me, I’ll do this for you” – inevitably that involves changing in some fundamental way. It is hard to talk about these matters in a public forum and I feel slightly shamefaced to say I’ve not only done that but at times of crisis in my adult life I’ve continued to do it. Anthony Bloom says this is ok. It isn’t offensive but is in fact an admission deep inside us that there might actually be a God who has some interest in us. It is when faith and doubt unite for a common purpose.
That’s what I’ve discovered about the Camino in Spain. All Spanish people know about it. Santiago is their national Saint. The story of Compostela is taught to them as children. Pilgrims have been walking through Spain for many hundreds of years. A Galician friend and academic reckons that “every single Spaniard has made a promise to walk to Santiago or will make that promise at some time in their lives. They may not admit it but it is there.” I found “every single Spaniard” a bit hard to swallow so I started asking the Spaniards I know. The reply was often laden with the implication “of course I’ve made a promise, everyone does, are you crazy, you know little about us.” My friend Lourdes says very honestly, “I’m very lucky that thank God nothing so bad has happened to me that I’ve had to promise to walk to Santiago”.

The pilgrimage is in the popular lexicon. A number of football players promised to walk to Santiago if the national team won. They did! In 2004 Javier Irureta the then coach of Deportiva Coruna made the pledge if his team qualified. They did. Irureta kept his word and in two days covered the 100 kms promised. But it seems that the road was tough: "We have to thank St. James for his divine power, through the efforts of the players, helped us eliminate Milan. But next time, I bet a dinner," said the coach.
Maybe, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many Spaniards walk the Camino, more than half the total and many of them walk the last 100 kms from Sarria using annual holidays for the purpose of the “promesa”. I’ve been talking to many of them. The nature of the promise is rarely revealed. Too personal. For many the moment when the Compostela is presented has a special poignancy. It is a symbol of their promise fulfilled. Tears in the office are not out of place. No one is embarrassed, yet no one would ask. We all know the private agonies inside that some people have to bear.

Many of them though talk about how difficult it was. The blisters and tendonitis. The problems of carrying a huge rucksack. They also talk about the sense of achievement and satisfaction. How beautiful the countryside can be and the friendships which were deepened. “Para repetir” is a phrase frequently heard. What started as a promise, an obligation, because of problem is to be repeated for the sheer joy of what the Camino brings.

I am reminded of John Bell’s beautiful song, the words of which I leave for you here:

We cannot measure how you heal
or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds
where faith and doubt unite to care.
Your hands, though bloodied on the cross,
survive to hold and heal and warn,
to carry all through death to life
and cradle children yet unborn.

The pain that will not go away,
the guilt that clings from things long past,
the fear of what the future holds,
are present as if meant to last.
But present too is love which tends
the hurt we never hoped to find,
the private agonies inside,
the memories that haunt the mind.

So some have come who need your help
and some have come to make amends,
as hands which shaped and saved the world
are present in the touch of friends.
Lord, let your Spirit meet us here
to mend the body, mind and soul,
to disentangle peace from pain,
and make your broken people whole.


  1. I walked quite a bit with a woman from Quebec who was carrying medals for a friend back home who was dying. She prayed for her friend often, sang sometimes in churches for her, and finally placed the medals at the tomb of the Saint. She knew her friend was not going to get better, but there was faith that her last days could be strengthened with the help of a mystical communion. I guess that was a Quebeçois sort of promesa.

  2. So interesting, John, you take us to places we barely dare go.
    I do that calling to 'god' in a crises, even if my beliefs have changed and the word 'god' now equates more with 'life force'.. . . . I sometimes wonder if it's old habits, or maybe, as you say, something more basic inside each of us. Another thought . . . we are really calling on the 'god' (or force) within ourselves, rallying the power in our hidden depths.

    I'm no intellectual, but I do know there's a link here with the camino and pilgrimage. When we go on these long pilgrimages we take ourselves out of our comfort zones, call on inner and physical strengths, achieve the (previously thought) impossible and grow spiritually. Maybe pilgrimage is so rewarding and necessary, because it reacquaints us with ourselves, with meaningfulness, purpose, perspective . . . . and many more big words!