In front of the cathedral
In front of the cathedral
The hike to Santiago, for me, turned out to be the longest of the entire Camino. On the last day I ended up walking 47 kilometers. I was able to spend some of that time in much needed prayer and meditation, at times being aware of nothing but the sun and my own thoughts. I didn’t want to stop, fearing I’d then be forced to confront my exhaustion. After 750 kilometers Santiago finally seemed so desperately close, yet not quite close enough. The afternoon sun made the final 20 kilometers doubly painful.
While the morning had seen droves of pilgrims on the road, during the entire afternoon I came across only three! One of them was a Hungarian guy in his 20s. His English was functional, and he understood quite a bit of what I was saying. But he had a stammer, which made him self-conscious. So a lot of the time we simply walked side by side in silence, sharing the same desire, knowing without having to speak, and simply being there for each each other in our mind-numbing tiredness. In many ways a quintessential Camino experience: a personal attachment shared by strangers, an attachment of the sort one rarely encounters in “real” life.
The Camino, I have come to believe, is not about detachment and leaving things behind. If there is detachment in our lives, it characterizes our all-too-hectic lives in the world. Thus, for example, on the Camino one doesn’t throw things away (what one has is only that which one really needs, all that one can carry in one’s backpack). One therefore comes to appreciate even something so simple as a tube of vaseline. Further, on the Camino, one isn’t detached from one’s body, always trying to make it more beautiful, more slick, covering it under all that which makes us into Freud’s “prosthetic gods.” Rather, one experiences one’s body, unadorned, blistered, painful, as very much one’s own. On the Camino, one doesn’t really say to people, “I have no time for you. I’ve got to go”; we are all headed in the same direction, and we all have the same goal in mind, we are “in it” together. Also, on the Camino one communes with the landscape, one contemplates the landscape, constantly watching out for the yellow arrows, signposts, kilometer markers, and the next town somewhere in the distance. Even when it’s boring, landscape matters, for one is a part of it. And if one can allow oneself to be absorbed by its beauty and its variety, it matters in a special way: one relishes the vastness of the wheat and barley fields, the glory of the mountains, and the anticipation that each sighting of a church steeple brings.
Finally, on the Camino — if it is one’s intention and desire — all of these new attachments, so rarely present, intentionally present, in our daily lives, acquire an entirely new dimension. The Camino is a time for God: God present in his creation. God present in the face of the neighbor, walking by one’s side. God present in one’s desire to rest in God, even while one remains in constant motion. God present in the recognition and encouragement — the shalom — we constantly offer to one another. More importantly, all these divine presences are underscored and hightened by the presence of God as the One who hasn’t orphaned us, who reaches out to us through his Son. This dimension of God’s presence finds its constant visual reminder in the ubiquitous crucifixes dotting the path and displayed in the churches along the way. It has also found its reminder in the moments, few though they were, when we were able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, longing to be gathered together not just with fellow brothers and sisters on the way, but with the whole company of heaven.
After several days of being scattered, attuned to our own needs and to other travelers’, our group was finally able to reunite in Santiago. We received our “Compostellas,” we attended the Pilgrims’ Mass, and we headed off to Finisterre… by bus. With that we began our transformation from pilgrims into tourists, a transformation from those who cultivate deliberate attachment into those who are so often just too busy. Time alone will show what kind of difference, if any, our pilgrimage has made in the lives of all of us: individually and as a group. What we do hope is that, by God’s grace, we have been able to make a lasting impact on all those with whom we were able to share the Gospel and to whom we were able to give an account of the hope that is in us.
What reassures us in this uncertainty is that which remains certain. And what remains certain is that God is forever Emanuel, God-in-our-flesh, God with us and for us. What remains certain is that now, by God’s grace, is the time of salvation. What remains certain is Jesus Christ: the same yesterday, today and forever. To Him we give thanks for our Camino.
Castle in Ponferrada!
At last! One day’s walk from Santiago. The end has come. Lots of thoughts and emotions. And we still have some big plans for Santiago, Finisterre (the beach town), and Madrid, so I’ll let others blog about those. I just want to give a basic reflection on the Camino overall.
I have sporadically overheard the Camino being descriptively broken down into three parts from the perspective of literal pilgrimage and intentionality in a religious sense.
The first third is strenuous, and overcoming the physicality and various minor injuries are key. Keeping perspective on why you are here can help, and building relationships gets the community aspect going early on. Community is key for the pilgrim, Christian or not. Walking this path in isolation (unless for an intense fast and need for solitude) is not wise. One needs help and support. I cannot tell you how much I needed my Beeson group and my new friends to get me through those first ten, difficult days. I never had blister problems, but Achilles strains in both legs was randomly excruciating.
The second third of the pilgrimage is where one really gets in the groove of life on the Camino both physically and in relationships. Once your body is used to the daily grind of walking 20-30 km, it’s all good and well. Other things can come into focus. The intentionality of sharing life and my story as a Christian with the people I met was easily the best part of the walk. I think the same can be said for the rest of the group. Through us, Christ planted seeds and removed stones in the people we met, and we, odd as it seems for a group of 6 guys and Christian and divinity students, were attractive for others to spend lots of time around. I’m sure the Spirit drew people to us. We have met people who will be with us one day, disappear for several days or a week or so, and reappear telling us of how they met others who are talking about “a group of theology students and their professor.” It’s a good sign that we seem to have a positive impact, based on the tone of these hearings. I think that says something about us and what we base our lives on: the Gospel. It’s attractive.
On the third leg of the journey, many of the people we have walked with kind of spread out or have left the Camino entirely. Yes, a random friend appears now and again, but most people we meet are day walkers and short-term pilgrim hikers who are here to walk the last little bit into Santiago. Thus the third part of the journey is the time to reflect on what we have learned while trying to keep perspective on why we came. It’s easy and necessary to have personal and communal reflection about what God has taught us and on our experiences. It is much harder to keep up the daily walk and intentionality, and initial perspective because Santiago is looming ever-closer at the end of each day. We also at times, especially towards the end, struggle to stay patient with the Camino, and even with each other. Over four weeks of walking and doing pretty much the same routine every day gnaws at us. We have various independent streaks and different intentions at times; nagging injuries flare up occasionally; and complacency does set in a bit. I think good life lessons are obviously learned here. I’ve written on several blog posts about how the Camino is, in several ways, life in miniature. Still true at the end!
This may be my last blog post, so I’ll give some final and personal thoughts and lessons learned.
First, many of my previous reflections have not changed, notably the fact that the Camino represents life in miniature, and a major thing we are seeking as Christians is reconciliation with God and also with people and nations. So while imperfect as not everyone here is a Christian, we are forced to come together and share life and serve and help and feast and walk and live together. Sounds like new creation, in a limited since, to me. Another reflection still holds true as well, we really are gutted and layers are pealed away. Away from distraction of home and without the ability to truly isolate, we have to be authentic people, and since we are flawed, our defects and sin show, but our good and God-given characteristics also become very apparent. We have really experienced each other’s flaws down the final stretch, but we are constantly seeking humility and Christ’s presence and guidance. We have also gotten to know each other with our God-given good qualities as well, and these relationships formed among our group are worthy and hopefully lasting. We all know each other really well.
And now here is a third and relatively newer reflection very personal to me. One of my goals on the Camino was to take time to reflect on several issues I have been wrestling with. I believe God has been with me as I have thought deeply, and a true sense of serenity has been with me as I really have come to some conclusions (no need to go into details; they are personal). However, towards the end I have realized that these issues really have not been resolved, but that I have been led to a sense of peace with them. Down this final stretch, I have gotten worked-up again, probably for several reasons: exhaustion, desire to stop walking, frustration with group members (it is difficult for 6 young men to consistently be with and do most everything together for 6 weeks), so I naturally occupied my mind and escaped to let myself get worked up again. But as we have one day to go, God has again given me a sense of peace and serenity, and I know that life and issues sometimes need to be held in tension and seen as truly paradoxical, and as humans, we cannot function without learning how to live in tension and paradox. We don’t have all the answers. There is true Mystery in life.
I hope all our readers have enjoyed the blog and my posts as well. It was challenging and exiting to blog and share bits of our and my journey with you all.
Above is a meal we cooked with the yellow curry the South Koreans gave us!
Potentially a full group final post/reflection coming!
God bless and Buen Camino!
During Walt’s absence, and since his return, our group has experienced quite a range of albergues and people along the Camino. The night he slipped ahead of us, the rest of us got to go to a vespers service done in Gregorian chant by the Benedictine monks of Rabanal del Camino. I stayed up for compline as well and had the privilege of reading the scripture (in English!) for the night, Rev. 22:4-5. All of it was very Christ-centered, which was a welcome relief for our Protestant sensibilities from the focus on Mary so prevalent in Spain’s Catholic churches. The day after we stayed in a donativo with our most eccentric hospitalero yet. He gave about four toasts during the dinner and was very particular about how dinner should be cooked and cleaned up afterward. It was a comfortable night’s stay, but our host was a bit odd.
The next day we reunited with Walt and walked to the city of Ponferrada, the last, old, decent-sized city until Santiago. Since I had only walked through it the last two times, I was (for once) excited to do something touristy and see the impressive castle that dominates the medieval quarter of the city. Afterwards we prepared and shared a salad with a new friend we met the night before and got to discuss with her life – religious, political, and “hipster” – in Barcelona. A great day.
Two days ago we hiked to Villafranca del Bierzo, a nice town at the base of the mountains that divide the regions of Castilla y Leon and Galicia. We stayed in the albergue where I stayed the previous two times and enjoyed the rustic but charming facilities of the family-run Ave Fenix. Their communal-style supper was top-notch and extremely filling, and we got to meet some other Americans who started walking the Camino very recently in Ponferrada. (Lest any of you judge the “late starters,” Piotr would point you to Matthew 20:1-16.) I reflected the next morning as I struggled to pull myself together that it’s odd I keep returning to that albergue because I’ve actually never gotten a good night’s sleep there. The first time it was incredibly cold and I couldn’t find a blanket, the next time I slept in the exact same bunk as before and ended up right above a snorer whose decibel level rivaled a semi accelerating down the highway, and this time the loft Piotr and Wyatt and I shared was boiling hot and full of biting insects. Nevertheless, it was an enjoyable stay and chances are I’ll forget about this last experience too and stay there again. (Here’s the collected evidence so you can all help dissuade me on Camino #4: the first time, the second time.)
Yesterday we passed through the arms of the mountains and began the steep ascent to the Galician border but stopped in the small town of La Faba, where a German Christian group has a very nice hostel. After a nice supper made from Walt’s remaining lentils and some other things we picked up from the store in town, we celebrated the Lord’s Supper and attended what turned out to be one of our more interesting Camino services. It was led by a Franciscan and started well – we each passed an oil lamp and said a prayer in our own language, and then five volunteers took part in a foot-washing service. Wyatt and I both volunteered and were at the end of the line. The friar took a pitcher and basin and towel, washed the first person’s foot, and then kissed it. While I was still reeling at the idea that someone would have to kiss my foot, which has grown leathery, tan, and “permanently” dirty from its constant exposure in sandals every day, he proceeded to pass the pitcher and towel to the person whose foot he’d just washed and directed him to wash the next person’s foot. It took less than a second for me to realize that it would not be the friar, someone I will probably never see again on this earth, who washed and kissed my foot. It would be Wyatt, my companion on the Camino and classmate at seminary who I’ll see regularly for at least the next two years. I’ll let him tell about his own feelings in the situation and simply say that, to his credit, he did not hold back from performing the service. You may all laugh to read this after what I just described, but after the foot-washing ceremony things got weird. The friar asked several times (until we all felt too guilty not to raise our hands) who wanted to “make a change.” I still can’t say exactly what he meant, but eventually we all circled around the front of the chapel, held hands, and said the Lord’s Prayer together in our own languages. We also greeted each other with hugs and blessed each other with the sign of the cross on the forehead. All in all, the service started strong but ended on a note of watered-down spirituality. Still, it’s not every day you get to go to a Catholic-led service that has an altar-call. We also had the pleasure of meeting an older American couple who were very strong Christians and great to talk to. The husband, a part-time hospice chaplain, even asked us to pray for a case he’s been ministering to that is very difficult, and it was a privilege to get to serve him in that way.
Today we finished our ascent into Galicia, passed over the difficult mountain road through several small towns, and then made the steep descent into Triacastela. Here we finally put the curry powder given to us by some Korean friends to good use in a chicken-vegetable-pasta dish. Wyatt was the head chef and mastermind, but had a good amount of help from Walt and Piotr with the prep. It was definitely the best meal we’ve made yet.
With all of the varied people we’ve met in the last several days and our varying pace, one of the blessings God has given us has been a few familiar faces. We’ve gotten particularly close to an Australian and Canadian and have enjoyed their friendship. We’ve also been pacing a group of young Spanish teenagers led by a few grown men; at first we were pretty annoyed by them because they are pretty noisy, but we discovered they are from a house for orphans or abused children so since then we’ve all tried to breach the language barrier as much as we can to show them some much-needed love.
I’ll close with a couple of thoughts. Two experiences in the last two days have given me a great appreciation for the Apostle Peter. The first was the foot-washing ceremony. I (and I suspect many Christians are similar) greatly enjoy serving and humbling myself before God and men. Such behavior is commanded by Jesus in Matt. 18:1-6, Mark 9:33-36, and Luke 22:24-27. In a way, however, I think some Christians can put themselves forward by excelling all others in their service. Yet in a way we can put others down by insisting that we serve and not allowing them to bless us in the way they desire. It is a deceptive form of pride that insists on its own way. John’s record of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet includes Peter’s initial refusal: “He came to Simon Peter, who said, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter answered him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!'” Peter, usually slow to understand, actually says no to the Lord of the universe! How many of us, with the intent of keeping people in their “proper” place, refuse humble service and do great harm to the one offering it? Sometimes we have to accept that we are not so clean and great as we would like to think and we are the ones who need to be served by someone greater.
The other episode with Peter with which I can sympathize is the Transfiguration. Today I felt for the first time a great weariness with the Camino. It is hard for me to think about it ending and that soon we must return to “the real world.” This feeling, probably common to many pilgrims, mostly likely led to the popularity of the 90 km hike to the coast at Finisterra and then the other hike to Murxia beyond that. Like Peter, so often when we have great experiences of God’s presence like the Camino, we want to set up shop there and never come down from the mountain top. Sure, Jesus’ appearance changes for a time, but an important part of the passage is that he comes back down the mountain with the disciples. He is not some guru on a mountaintop who requires us to escape the world to reach him. Jesus will remain with us in Madrid and when we return home. We may mourn the passing of an amazing experience, but in the end he promises us in Matthew’s record of the Great Commission, “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” As we seek to fulfill his last command, he remains with us both at home and abroad, in high times and in low.
As always, thank you all for your faithful prayers and for keeping up with our blog. The Lord has been good to us and has healed every physical ailment we’ve had so far. God bless you all!
(Editor’s note: this entry was written about two days ago but due to limited internet access could not be posted until today.)
So if you were to ask my friends for one thing that is guaranteed to happen when I leave home, they would probably respond in unison “he will get lost.” And that is entirely accurate. After sleeping, eating, and breathing, getting lost comes next in the list of most common things in my life. This occurred for the first time three days ago. Surprisingly, I still have yet to lose the trail (with the exception of one minor 3 kilometer detour), but I did manage to stop at the wrong city…not once, but twice…on two consecutive days. I’ll spare you the details, but suffice it to say that I spent Sunday and Monday apart from the group.
Despite being separated, these two days weren’t all bad. I was forced to look outside our group for a sympathetic ear. I invited myself to dinner both nights and managed to connect with a variety of pilgrims. My dinner table on Sunday hosted a Brazilian, Canadian, Hungarian, Australian, Dane, and two students from the UK. We discussed everything from the enormous German guy performing his yoga routine in a neon blue speedo back at the hostel to stereotypes of each others’ countries and everything in between. One subject we discussed in detail was that of relationships (in a friendly sense) on the Camino. One of the British girls described it as simply “weird.” And I think she was right. People bond very fast, yet they disperse even faster. I think there are a few factors that contribute to this quick bonding. First, there is ample time. Needless to say, you can cover a lot of ground on a 30 kilometer walk. Second, there is relatively little chance that you will ever encounter these people on a daily basis again. This frees people to be more transparent and honest than they might be at home. Third, everyone is on a pilgrimage. Whether this means a religious discipline, a personal quest, a coping measure for a deep tragedy, or a means of celebrating a recent accomplishment, all these deep, personal motives are on display and are fair game for questioning. As a result, individuals find themselves discussing topics they might otherwise avoid, and discussing them with greater transparency than they normally would. Yet, because everyone travels at a different pace, it is very possible that the nights’ end will be the last time you see a particular individual. This lends itself to a weird, bittersweet routine of establishing deep friendships where direct contact often ends abruptly.
On Monday night, our dinner table spent a couple hours discussing what would be on our bucket list. This may sound like a cheesy new section for someone’s Facebook profile but it made for a very interesting and revealing conversation. In essence, we were answering questions like “what is it that you are most determined to see/do/experience?” or “what is it that you are willing to sacrifice for?” Basically, “what passions or goals make your life worth living?” In classic Camino fashion, we spent 3-4 hours openly discussing these personal items and parted ways the following morning. Truly, it is weird. It is also rare and meaningful.
Matthew 6:34 encourages us “not to be anxious about tomorrow”. I have loved this verse for a long time. As a freshman in college, this was conveniently translated “don’t worry about grades, exercise, laundry, and budgeting….these things will take care of themselves.” Today, thanks to friends and family more mature than myself, this verse is no longer an excuse to avoid responsibilities, but an admonition to trust God in matters that are out of our control and to appreciate, savor, and capitalize on the time that is at hand.
My hope as we begin our final stretch of the Camino is that we would be less preoccupied by the bed, air conditioned car, and Porterhouse steak that await us back home, and more focused on the rare, valuable opportunities to learn and share with those around us.
Until next time,
Well, we’re down to 10 days left. We’ve past our last big city, Astorga, and now we’re relaxing in a small city named Rabana Del Camino. It’s amazing to think how far we’ve come. I’m especially amazed I, Kyle, have made it this far! I think I’ve had the toughest go at it with my body. Whether it was shin splints the first few weeks or blisters since, it seemed like my body just didn’t want to cooperate. But, like Hunter, I’ve discovered the goodness of Vaseline. I’m almost ready to change the first line of Doxology to “Praise God from whom all Vaseline flows.” I haven’t had any feet problems since using it. I wish I would’ve used it right from the start.
We were blessed today with a change in scenery. The last week or so was an endless straightaway with nothing in sight around us. But today we hadmore to see and enjoy. It’s a relief to get off the Mesetas. They were more of a mental challenge than anything else! So I think we’re all a bit relieved to see something other than miles of wheat fields and a long, long path that leads to what looks like nowhere.
I’ve been struck by some of the people who walk the Camino. We’ve atheists, deists, Christians, and vague spiritualists. I can see why Hunter has felt called to move to the Camino and minister. I’m not quite sure what to think about the eclectic bunch it attracts. But it is sad that this Christian pilgrimage has become something other than Christian. Granted, it is what you make it, and our team has had a great spiritual experience. But it’s so rarely used to give thanks to and draw closer to God.
There’s a pretty fun part of life on the Camino we’d all like to share with you. As we strive to save money and get some relief from the rich food served in restaurants, something that we’ve found that helps us to be more economical is buying raw ingredients in the local tienda or supermercado and cooking for ourselves. The kitchens in the albergues are of varying qualities and often have a hodgepodge of mismatched cookware and utensils. Nevertheless, we’ve been able to create some surprisingly delicious meals. Here are some pictures of our endeavors:
Here’s Piotr, usually the one who handles the ingredients we prepare, taking care of our rice a few days ago in Ledigos. We had to turn on the gas tank for this stove ourselves and light the range with a match
Tonight we had lentils with peppers, onions, and sausage. Walt showed incredible foresight by buying a kilo of lentils a couple of days ago, and we used half of them to create this culinary delight. The Korean folks who made the dish pictured in Wyatt’s last post gave us some curry, too, so we’ll be making something nice and spicy soon. Stay tuned! Thanks again for all your prayers, and God bless!