Saturday, 10 September 2011

Not close enough

Although the bull still stands on the horizon few pilgrims pass. August has come and gone. There are no queues waiting on the office opening. The weather has turned and today the rain beats down on Santiago. Still the tranquility of a quieter city can change in an instant, like yesterday out of the blue 200 young people arrived in a long line from the Camino Portuguese. So too when the sun eventually appears and the sound of the buskers fills the streets competing with the chattering bustle of the tour groups. Amongst this I overheared a conversation between one of my colleagues and a pilgrim. This colleague is very special. A person who has no guile, as we would say in Scotland. In the most disarming and charming way she was challenging the pilgrim. She was challenging all of us. “Do you really mean your pilgrimage meant nothing spiritually to you?” she asked to confirm what they had written. “Walking through the beautiful countryside, thinking about your life and meeting and sharing with other people was only a sporting or cultural experience?” she teased with mischievious eyes. “What about thinking about how you might change your life now? no thoughts at all?”
Rather than rampant evangelism my colleague was simply trying to ensure that if the pilgrim wanted a Compostela they confirmed that their pilgrimage was at least for some spiritual motivation. But she got me thinking. Spiritually what did the 50 days walking the Camino Levante and all of the other pilgrimages mean to me? I find this so hard to talk about. But in thinking about it I was inspired by a letter I got from an antipodean friend in the middle of the August rush. It is about their experience of pilgrimage. I am still reading it from time to time. It is full of doubt and wonder. Like me. Like most pilgrims, I think.
I look sometimes with pity and at other times with jealousy when people stand up in Church and appear to say with utter conviction "I believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, Maker of heaven and Earth." Creeds never did anything for me. Certainly not as much as pilgrimage. I think I spent my whole life developing a method of being in the church with all of its beauty and musical power whilst being insulated from the institution. There are no arrows for the path I have followed to what may be to some the self-evident conclusion that I need to journey towards God rather than the church. My parents felt I had lost my way when I didn't take the career they thought I should, or marry the "right kind" of girl. I've used these words myself with my own children. Useless words. Wrong words. I hadn't lost my way. I was finding my way. I was looking for arrows in a church where there were none. I was looking for signs that God actually exists. I tried very hard. Nothing came.
Then slowly in the heat of the long meseta I saw the world was a lot bigger than me. In the mountains I saw the raw power of a waterfall, the stately form of a startled deer, an exquisite wild flower blossoming. Across my path I watched the ants and caterpillars march with some purpose of their own. Above the eagles circled high. Heat and distance and solitude. Sweat on my back and a dull ache in my toes. Mile after mile. Never a thought of stopping. Of just chucking it. "Taxi for Walker" never entered my head. Not once. For all of its pain this is too good.
Then for this essentially private person the beat skipping feeling of glimpsing a figure on the horizon. Another pilgrim? Walking faster to catch up with them. The excitement of meeting another human being. Someone else in the lifeboat. Or looking up a sun drenched hill on a long afternoon to see a shepherd lift his arm in greeting. Conversations with an adopted dog. Could I ever admit to this? Swapping recipies with an old lady in a bar. Meeting another pilgrim who got a taxi on their first day and who would obviously never reach Santiago. The old man with the bad knees who almost died laughing when invited to come along and hug the Saint himself. The spunky nun, all in black, who was the first and only to respond to my invitation to join in our pilgrimage with a "when do we leave?" The other ones in black shrieked with laughter.
Enjoying the profound silence of the morning. Often precious moments of deep reflection. Often not thinking about anything. Brainwashing in the best sense. Enjoying walking alone and then coming together with my compañero to chart the way forward. Talk about the world, politics, singing old songs and inventing new ones, discussing what those ants who are marching across the trail in double columns might be planning.

Could a cold beer taste more delicious than the first glass on arrival? Those special moments only pilgrims know about. When the pack is laid down. The throbbing of relief when you sit and the weight comes off weary feet. Boots off, toes curling in delight at the freedom and the heaven of a long hot shower becomes bliss on those evenings when a hot bath is available. Then reviewing the day over dinner and planning tomorrow over dessert.

I was very lucky that we were joined on our journey by Rebekah. A friend. She brought new things to talk about. Another person to be silent with in the mornings and chat with at dinner. She just brought herself and we all got to hang out together for a while. Friendships are funny things I’ve realised. Some people you think are going to become friends don’t and others become life-long friends. It is a strange alchemy. Mostly it seems to me friendships work when friends don’t ask or expect each other to change. Just to be. I have but a few. All deeply valued.
Rebekah is also responsible for the funniest line in the whole pilgrimage. We arrived overheated and very tired at an anonymous town with the grand name of Siete Iglesias. If it has ever had seven churches they, and the people who went to them, were long gone. We had booked cheap rooms in what turned out to be the lowest quality accommodation of the 50 days on the road. This place was a dive. The people who ran the place were nice enough country folk with toothless smiles and wild unkempt hair. We passed a few cars disintegrating in the long grass on the way in and our rooms felt the same. These rooms brought a new meaning to the word “basic”. Especially the bathrooms which instead of windows had holes in the wall which opened onto the common corridor. Every, and I mean every, sound was transmitted. The showers would have been adequate had there been a curtain or screen. If you blew too hard you could have blown holes in the towels. Let’s not even go into the creepy crawlies we suspect we heard scurrying in the night.

It was here Rebekah gave the best one liner of the trip when she said with huge understatement, “this place could actually be the Bates Motel if they had shower curtains.”

That very morning we walked into the dawn. It made up for everything.

Later we got slightly lost. Road works had disrupted the arrows. We found our way back to the route. We looked up and an arrow pointed to our destination.
If anyone asks, which I hope they don’t, “did you meet God or come closer to God on your pilgrimage?” I now have a kind of an answer I am satisfied with.

If God is in the face of friends and the intimate companionship of walking the Way together, I’m closer to God. If God is in the breathtaking vistas, the flowers and animals, the path that never seems to end but always does, I’m closer to God. If God is in the kindness of strangers who have appeared on every Camino, then I am closer to God.

How close I ask myself? Not close enough...I’ll need to walk again.


  1. Dear Johnnie Walker, this post has taken me from tears of joy at recognizing those moments on the Camino,again, as well as praying for what in texting parlance is ROTFLMAO! From now on watching Hitchcock, I will probably, unfortunately...start laughing! Gracias to you and Rebekah!

  2. Johnnie, this is one of your very finest posts. I loved it, and identified with it. Forget the institution, seek the absolution. Close, sometimes, perhaps a little, but never close enough. No, not in this life. So a good excuse to keep on walking 'the old, straight track'... Buen Camino, as always. SW

  3. Johnnie, a remarkable post, and you put into words so many thoughts I share- I no longer feel so 'odd'. The profound silence of those mornings- walking in the dawn- my favourite time to walk also, as the day awakens. It wasn't the ants I talked to- it tended to be the snails. Remarkable snails, with whom I became intimately acquainted. Another special thing pilgrims can understand- those moments of outrageous laughter that only make sense when you have walked for days on end. As your Antipodean friend in this instance, you have inspired me to 'go public'- but only on a very quiet blog! Margaret

  4. This is perfect. Thanks for your strength and honesty. May you keep on walking. Ultreia!

  5. A very moving post, Johnnie. A perfect narrative on some unique and treasured elements of walking the camino that only peregrinos know and understand.
    Thanks for this - it's a treasure.

  6. A very real and truthful post. Thank you for sharing it John. I've taken the liberty of mentioning it on my blog,


  7. Thank you Johnnie. I was struggling (just a little) to justify the allocation of resources to another segment of my jakobsweg and then your post provided the perfect advocate......

  8. Thank you all for your kind comments and to those others who e mailed me privately. Speaking publicly about these things has never been easy for me. But it gets easier the more I walk!

    Best wishes


  9. And as you can see, Johnnie, you write publicly and we all seem you have spoken for us. We identify closely to your experiences, be they physical, mental, spiritual.

  10. I came to this blog for the first time today. This, the first post I have read. I have struggled for words to explain the experrience. Now, all I need do is direct someone to your blog. Your photos are also beautiful. Do you mind if I lift these words for a slide presentation I plan?
    I am a person of great faith.(not church faith) I was surprised about how many avowed, and proud atheists I met on the pilgrimage, my first (August 11, St. Jean Pied de Port-Santiago Sept 11 Finisterre by car)...I walked with one athesit for many days, and he probed me daily about my faith, until I felt like part of an intellectual exercise or scientific experiment. I hope he will read this post, and if I can connect with him, I will direct him here. Sweet, dulce, dulce. Sat nam, Jill

  11. Yes J, in reading what you say about God, your omissions and inclusions,'s much much harder without belief, but in the end it's the most honest and honourable way to go. If there is a god, it will understand totally, and we will be OK.

  12. If God is in the face of friends and the intimate companionship of walking the Way together, I’m closer to God. If God is in the breathtaking vistas, the flowers and animals, the path that never seems to end but always does, I’m closer to God. If God is in the kindness of strangers who have appeared on every Camino, then I am closer to God.

    I'm a muslim. I'll be starting my Camino at the end of next month, hoping to finish at the end of June. Do you know the Koran has a sura (verse) that says "And everywhere you look, there is the face of God."
    I hope to become much better acquainted with God's face on MY Camino.