Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Silent smiles

There is a documentary programme on the BBC at the moment called the Big Silence. It is about a group of people who join a silent retreat and their search for the things they think are missing from their lives. One has “everything” but not contentment, another is searching for faith in God and another “just feels there is something missing”. The programme is led by Abbot Christopher, a Benedictine monk who wants to show them the value of silent meditation as a way of discerning the way forward in their lives. The series of programmes charts their journeys individually and together. We see the tears and laughter, people who were strangers forming close bonds and deep personal moments of realisation. As I have watched this programme I’ve found myself saying again, and again, but that’s what walking the Camino is like.
Abbot Christopher describes what happens when people are silent. He says that they eventually focus on themselves and their own lives. They begin to realise that often their motives are not as good as they would like to think, they may remember times when they were hurt and then feel the pain of remembering times they hurt other people. Through these memories relived in the silence, says the Abbot, people face the truth inside themselves. They encounter God.

I’ve paraphrased what he said but as I heard his words I was taken back to walking the Camino. The times when tears sprang easily to my eyes or I felt a flash of long forgotten anger and resentment I thought had gone away. Often I had memories of antics and escapades which made me chuckle and reminiscences of the past which made me smile.
One of these was remembering when I left home for the first time. “Left home” is too gentle a description. There was an almighty argument with my parents and I packed my bags and stormed out. Well, I packed a couple of plastic bags and stormed out. Those who also have had fiery tempers will remember that the anger can go as quickly as it erupted. So it was I found myself on a cold night determined not to go back home but with no idea of what I was going to do. I could think of only one solution. I’d go and stay with my Aunt Susan. My father was the eldest son of a large Irish Catholic family and his sister Susan was the youngest. My father could be very strict and conservative. Aunt Susan on the other hand was … errrr…colourful and adventurous. My mother (pictured) who was always attracted to fun thought she was daring and courageous. They were both stylish and beautiful and my father worried about their friendship. In truth I could be jealous of her children. At times I thought she’d make a better mum than my own. After two bus journeys to the other end of town I knocked on her door. She took me in and gave me a bed. She understood immediately what had happened between angry, early teenager and much older parents. I basked in her sympathy. I bridled a little when she said she would phone my parents to tell them I was safe. I bridled even more when she got me up 1.5 hours earlier than usual the following morning for breakfast before she insisted that I went to school as normal. Coming back in the evening she explained that this was study time and there would be no television or supper until homework was done. Within the hour I was starving. She explained that before dinner I could wash my clothes and hang them up to dry and that she’d get me up even earlier in the morning so I could iron them.

That night in bed I took stock. My parents may not understand me, I thought, but, well, most of the time we are ok together… after school the next day I was back home. My first bid for freedom was at an end.

Of course it was years later before I realised the plot my clever Aunt Susan had hatched to make me understand the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Later in life she and I were to become firm friends and the memory of her making me do my homework and washing always raised a smile.

Aunt Susan’s funeral was today. The last of the generation is gone. She lived her 88 years to the full. A life well lived.

I will continue to think about her often and I know that when on Camino that memory will still come to mind and raise a silent smile.
I was telling a friend about the Camino and how memories just pop into my mind when I am walking. He wisely said that all we can hope for is that amongst the array of thoughts of the past we always have ones which make us smile. He wrote about one of his own. Whenever I think about it I smile to myself. Maybe it will have the same effect on you.

"Dear John

Because the adults in our family spent so much time ‘in the shop’ we usually had someone ‘over from Italy’ staying with us - cooking, cleaning, learning English, sending home some money. When I was 13 Ermenia arrived - she was 17 and beautiful like Sophia Loren - and I fell in love with her. She was vivacious - loved to talk, and though she had no English this did not deter her. She would lean out of the window and hail passers-by - when they stopped she would declare happily “Sorri - no speaka Inglese.” She discovered the phone and took to calling total strangers. I would retrieve it to hear someone say, “It’s some crazy foreigner.” After a while it became clear she wasn’t settling - that she was homesick. “People here no talk,” she said. She took to collecting jam jars compulsively - filling her room with them. Then from time to time she’d weep quietly, which made me very sad. Eventually we agreed with her mother to send her back. On the day, it fell to me to take her by taxi to the Waverley. 17 year-old girls know when 13 year-old boys fancy them. She kissed me full on the lips - my first such kiss, it stayed with me for three years. It was 1953 and Tony Bennett was top of the ‘hit parade’ with - “Stranger in Paradise”.

In 1999 I am in Italy visiting our ‘tribal homelands’ - lunching in the hotel where Sunday families gather. On the way to the toilet I am stopped by a vision - a clone of the 17 year-old Ermenia. In shock I ask the owner, “Is that girl called Ermenia?” “No,” she says, “Ermenia is her Nonna - over there.” Another shock - the girl who gave me my first kiss - is an old woman. I don’t introduce myself. She was with us less than a year - probably doesn’t remember. But the owner must have said something - on the way out she pauses - she calls me Lorenzino and smiling asks, ‘do you remember the jam jars?’ We laugh. She has many grandchildren - grabs them as they pass - recites names proudly. Everyone’s talking at once - the noise is deafening. “Has life been good Ermenia?” With a big smile, she says, “I thank God every day.” Leaving, she kisses me. I smile - “You once kissed me 47 years ago.” Her eyes flash mischief –“I know,” she says."


  1. Both of them - wonderful stories. And they made me smile!

  2. That time for quiet- time to remember past hurts and anguish- whether just an inevitable part of life, or caused by myself or another- was a great part of my first three weeks of walking. It was one of the treasures of walking 'alone' on the Le Puy route, not so busy as further on in Spain. It helped me be more certain about what was important in my life.
    And your Aunt Susan- what a lovely wise woman she was!

  3. God Bless Aunt Susan! I remember leaving home like that too.

    The documentary about the silence..any idea how to go about getting it here in the US? I tried looking for it the other day via another link and it came up a no go! Bummer, cause I'd really love to see it.

    Thanks for wonderful entry.

  4. Lovely post John . . . thanks for sharing such special moments. Made me even happier about getting back to camino next year and your last beautiful story made me smile .... especially about the sweet ending. Life is beautiful.

    Months and years after walking a camino, I have little flashbacks to funny little things that happened on the way . . . they make me smile and bring back the feelings. It's amazing how the tiniest, insignificant things become ... significant . . . . a snail crossing the path, a ray of sunlight on trees, a chance meeting . . . it must be something to do with the slow, meditative journey on foot.

    Buen camino. Carole
    May I contact you for some advice about Santiago John, catedral rooftop walk, non touristy things to do,??

  5. Thanks everyone. Carole e mail me anytime - I tried to reply direct but for some reason I donñt have your adress.

  6. OK, tears in me eyes over Ermenia! Thanks for brightening my day!

  7. Yours and your friend's stories were soooo much fun to read. Wise aunt of yours, she is! Thanks for the story. LOVE