Friday, 14 June 2013

For whom does the bell toll?

The bells of the cathedral have sounded in Santiago for many centuries. They chime the hours. They call the faithful to worship. With joyful peals they announce the great feasts of Easter and Christmas. And they toll mournfully to announce the funeral mass of one who has died. The bells have witnessed many things. They hang high above the cathedral where they have watched students cavorting, pilgrims arriving in unending streams, priests and canons often plotting and sometimes praying. They have rung for weddings and marked requiems. They have seen many changes...of archbishops, and centuries and even a millennium. 
Everyday they look down on hundreds of other kinds of changes. The changes which we pilgrims resolve to make in our lives by the end of our pilgrimage. I will be surprised if there is one pilgrim who has arrived in the Plaza Obradoiro who has not in the depth of their hearts promised themselves, and perhaps others, to change in some way. I think this is in the very nature of why we walk to Santiago. Contemplating change in our lives is the very stuff of pilgrimage. For me this has nothing to do with the church and everything to do with the spirit which motivates every pilgrim to put one foot in front of the other on the pilgrimage journey.
We know that journey often starts many months, or even years, before the first actual step. People hear about the Camino from others, a seed is planted and germinates into searching the internet, scouring articles and endless day dreaming.  Mentally rucksacks are packed and unpacked, routes are planned and time off work is negotiated.  Internet search engines are now accustomed to future pilgrims’ keywords: lightest rucksack, warmest sleeping bag, first aid for hikers. But after that first phase of searching for answers to practical questions like “is there poison ivy in Spain?” minds often turn to other aspects of the pilgrimage. “Will the Camino change me or help me to change?” is a question I believe a lot of potential pilgrims ask in the secret of their hearts. 
On one level there are the obvious, and often inevitable, changes in our lives. These are the easiest to talk about.  One of the reasons I started walking was as a bridge from one way of life to another. I wanted to give up the Big Jobs I had been doing in my professional career and lead a simpler way of life. I've met many pilgrims who walk for the same reason.
But there are many other deeper motivations: recovering from a divorce or contemplating one; recovering from serious illness or working through a crisis of faith.
Personally I found it relatively easy to talk to others about this life-style change. What was more difficult to describe was a deep feeling of unease I had about myself. I didn't like many aspects of who I had become. People who knew me would use words like, “driven”, “relentless”, “over-achieving” – and those are the people who like me! Others would describe "arrogance", "impatience", "ruthlessness". If I'm being honest, despite all of the success and material possessions, I still felt as if I didn't have enough, wasn't appreciated enough. The audience didn't applaud enough and if they did it wasn't loud enough. I knew in my heart that my people-pleasing lay deep in my background of proud expectant parents investing all of their hopes in their wonder-child.  But that knowledge on its own didn't lead to change. I think what happened was that my growing dislike of these things in myself became the strongest, if unspoken, motivation for making the pilgrimage to Santiago.
Put simply, I wanted to become a better person. I was slowly becoming aware that at the end of my life there might a list of achievements but these would never satisfy what I really craved. What I came to realise I actually wanted and needed is described beautifully by Raymond Carver in this little fragment:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

To feel myself beloved on the earth...not easy to talk about but in my experience a very common desire shared by many pilgrims.  
These are the things we pilgrims think about as we walk the long miles. They are sometimes the things we share with others. For those who pray they are the subject of petitions. For those who don't they are there to be meditated on and mulled over as the path stretches out before us.

To answer the Googled question directly:  Does the Camino help us to make changes in our lives? My experience is yes it does as surely as the bells ring every day to call pilgrims to the pilgrims' mass. You see I think that through the Camino change is inevitable. Stepping out on Camino is like opening the door to the possibility of change and with only one step we begin the journey. We walk into a world set apart. We walk away from the regular things in life: bills, TV schedules, the office and we travel through a foreign land in the company of other pilgrims. On Camino I can be as alone as I want to be and at first I thought I'd very much prefer my own company. I was surprised at how drawn I was to the fellowship of other pilgrims. Meeting and sharing with others often tests my tolerance. This is very good for me and perhaps is at the root of some of the changes I’ve started to make. But I realise this is now a life-long task and so the pilgrimage has to continue.
For me the biggest lesson of the Camino was that I didn’t have to organise it all, and draw the map, and prepare for all disasters. It wasn’t all my responsibility. All I had to do was start walking.
I wonder if John Donne had been a pilgrim when he wrote:

No man is an island, 
Entire of itself. 
Each is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manner of thine own 
Or of thine friend's were. 
Each man's death diminishes me, 
For I am involved in mankind. 
Therefore, send not to know 
For whom the bell tolls, 
It tolls for thee.

Have I changed? Yes I have. Am I happy with the changes? Not entirely, not yet...but I am definitely going to keep trying. You see I now know with absolute certainty that the bell is tolling for me.       


  1. Dear Johnnie Walker,
    Your post moved me to tears; even when what it says is something familiar to me as I felt exactly the same when I walked the Camino and before, when I decided to set up... and this is the story I heard from my fellow pilgrims too...
    Most of all, if not all, walked with the desire and intention to reflect in a change in our lives, no matter what it was. The Camino is a moment to deeply reflect on this: it offers us the time to think and meditate on this, amazing therapists, compassionate ears and supportive shoulders. The Camino starts long before arriving to the starting village, but in itself, the Camino, as the real experience, is a catalyzer... though, the pilgrimage is a life-long task, if correctly understood... and the experience itself of walking teachs it: We walk thinking on arriving to Santiago... however, we all reach a point when we don´t want the experience to finish, and when we think it is indeed finished, in the Cathedral´s door, we realized there is long way to walk if we want to accomplish the reasons that made us set up on our walking.

    Thank you for such a moving post, but especially for inviting me to renew the commitment I did with myself when I took the plane to Spain in Buenos Aires, and once more, when the bells rang calling to the Pilgrim´s mass, the day I arrived to Santiago.

    Warmest hug,
    Cris M

  2. Lovely post John. I always remember getting a text from a friend as I neared the end of the Levante saying "The benefits of the pilgrimage will emerge over the next few decades". Wise words!


  3. You mean that B.C. (Before Camino) you weren't always this kind, generous, thoughtful, helpful, sharing, accommodating, friendly, warm guy? I'm so glad that I met you after the Camino!