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A Pilgrim on the Way: My Journey on the Camino de Santiago
June 3, 2020
The Camino de Santiago changed my life entirely and the experience continues to bear fruit. There are a myriad of events speak to me, but three faces rise up from the depths of my heart, from shadow to light. These seem to hold the essence of my sojourn: the Child, the Old Man, and the Son. I would call them dispositions in my flesh and soul. There was a transformation of fear that took place, from instinctual, to existential, and finally to reverential.
I wish to describe for you a picture. I had just finished taking the GRE in Madrid, Spain and immediately entered a bus to Oviedo for a breathtaking five hour drive through Central Spain into the North. I arrived in Oviedo feeling tired and afraid. I remember pleading with God to help me claim my identity as His son. The day was enough and I fell asleep. Upon waking, I felt a new joy that carried me to the steps of the Cathedral in Oviedo. A towering statue of King Alfonso II stood guard outside. I sat down before him and prayed my lectio divina and examination for the Sacrament of Confession. There is much that occurred this particular morning, all of which was nothing short of the hand of God, but I will maintain discretion.
After having my confession heard, I was flooded with joy. I made certain to offer my intentions before the Blessed Sacrament and took a naïve and healthy first step outside. I felt fear, the kind that alerts the flesh. I was to embark on a solitary journey in the wintery mountains of Spain. My body wanted me to turn around and take the next bus out, but I felt determined and motivated to press on in spite of these instincts. As I left the city, a man gripped my arm tightly and leaned in to whisper the Our Father in Spanish. He placed his hands on my shoulders and said that I would become a saint, blessing me and asking for my intercession. I was humbled and pressed on with a light step. It was only the birds that flew between the valleys of the mountains that could hear a lone voice singing psalms and various folk songs. I whistled and laughed, acting like a child who delighted in walking with his Father. Everything was new.
The Old Man
It had been five days of walking and I was seeking Mass to celebrate the Immaculate Conception. I did not know that on this day, I would begin feeling the onset of tendonitis, a condition that would accompany me for the following two weeks. Hiking through the first few towns, I kept missing Mass by a hair. In desperation, I phoned my spiritual director half-asking for permission to put my obligation to rest. He said that the Blessed Mother would provide and withheld any sort of excuse for me. I walked through the mountains to the final destination of the day in La Espina. From the street, I called out to a man standing by an open window on the top floor of an albergue, inquiring about Mass times. He only shook his head and pointed toward Tineo.
At this point, I walked through canyon passes and over summits for six hours and wanted to eat and sleep. Tineo was three more hours over mountains with nothing in between. I limped over the landscape, anticipating and hoping. I spoke often with my guardian angel and wondered why my feet were in pain. They were making a clicking sound, echoing through my ankles and into my knees. I wanted to stop, but asked my guardian angel to move me instead. The angel moved me. The pain lifted and my step lightened again. I stumbled up to a chapel at the top of Tineo, a city built into the mountainside, and interrupted a praying woman, asking where the Church was and if I was late. She pointed to the valley and urged me to continue.
The Blessed Mother won the battle against my flesh and I experienced what I feel is a miracle. I was on time for Mass. I walked with a lonely heart and beaten limbs into the Cathedral of San Pedro. I rested in this town for two nights. The rest day caused nothing but grief from the loneliness that seemed to oppress me. The whistling child was gone and I felt my humanity deeply.
There was a touch of shame that I carried from this point to the end. I could not shake it and I became haunted by every sin and bad memory of my past. The fear of my own existence crawled over me like vines, and if it were not for either my prideful stubbornness or the grace of determination, I would never have left that town. All I could think of was this shame, and I tried every healthy remedy I could to alleviate it, until I gave up and just let myself experience it.
I remember feeling like I was trying to hide from God, alone in the wilderness, very much like Adam, and I knew this was futile. I was grasping for answers as I felt something missing in my heart, but realized that God would reveal it at His time—and He did. GK Chesterton discusses in Orthodoxy that our Father in Heaven is a child and we have grown old in our sin, older than our Eternal and Ancient God.
This loneliness was rare, but it would not be mended by the presence of a friend or person. The loneliness would only be distracted. The Desert Fathers say that we grow weary and faint-hearted because we have not yet seen our end. Though I would deny it in my heart if someone were to ask me then, I did not truly know the purpose of this life.
At the end of Mass, a small boy must have sensed my sadness. He tugged at my shirt as I hobbled out of the foyer of the Church. The boy looked up at me with starry eyes and a large smile, “Buen Camino, señor!” Prior to leaving Tineo, I received the Sacrament of Confession again. I will never forget the words of the shepherd of San Pedro: “The cry of the pilgrim is a cry for mercy”.
Exhausted, I slumped in the dining room of an albergue in Campiello, Spain. The trek on the following day would be the most difficult and isolated one through “la Ruta Hospitales.” It was a breathtakingly beautiful arrangement of mountains and ruins, 13 kilometers of an uninhabited Spanish countryside. A plump and cheery owner of the inn served me a three course meal, which I devoured. It was all a part of the service for pilgrims, she said.
The woman tended to me like a doting and loving mother and made sure there was plenty of hot water and blankets for me. Every albergue was empty, save for me. They called me “El Vikingo del Camino” because of the length of my red beard at the time. In secret, I called myself an orphan seeking out his home. It was not until the morning that I found a new strength in my bones. I gripped my tau-cross shaped staff, which had been a gift to me, and plowed the ground from underneath me. Each step was heavy with shame and my eyes were perpetually damp. I could not return to the light-hearted boy I was in the first few days. My counselor has since told me that this experience was a perfect micro-representation of my life as a whole. The Desert Fathers say that when the devil strikes you in those many invisible battles that we fought willingly or not, if you have the awareness, strike back in tears and the singing of psalms, for the soul is a forge and each side wields a hammer. It was Isaiah, the prophet, in the liturgy on this day.
I climbed up the first mountain and stood upon its spine, soaking up the vastness of it all. I felt a certain mania, not a pathological kind, but the kind that would inspire me to do something that was not in my normal character. I belted out, in song, the first reading as a plea to our Father for something that I did not know. It was Isaiah, when he wrote that we should cry out on the mountain tops. Then I began preaching to the cattle and the wild horses as I raved across the ridge. It was Advent and the liturgy moved my heart day in and day out.
I was a pilgrim on his way to meet the Son. I had been alone for eight or nine days at this point and had never been quite so alone before. I previously thought I was good at being alone, but found quickly that I was only good at setting alone time for myself. I no longer feared in the way I had in the first days, this day I carried with me a fear that could only be described as reverence. The Earth became a place of worship, all things bowed beneath the splendor of our God who was to make Himself lower than us in His humble birth amidst the swine.
Among these in this place of worship, I was certainly the least. A mule, I thought. I trembled on this day and the rest for my own salvation. A brother asked an elder in the desert why he was always so afraid in that desert. The elder only said that he was alive. Something happened to me that I will struggle to articulate, but I saw the purpose of this life in a flash. I saw the end that seemed to justify the means. This life is exile and I craved a home. By grace, I discovered in the depths of my being that this home would be in the embrace of the Father. Nothing else mattered, nothing else matters but coming home to that embrace. It consumed me, I dreamt of it in the light of the sun and in the black of the night. I ate of it and drank of it in the solitude of my existence.
“The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” (Genesis 1:2, NASB)
I chose this particular verse because every time I read it I think of the shapelessness that this life presents and how as we grow in relationship with our Creator, He creates us and recreates us consistently with gifts of experience. This event was mightily significant and I consider it a gift. The pilgrimage allowed for the hardening of my face and softening of my heart. I encountered a novel expression of my masculinity, a sort of stubborn persistence that is in no way unusual to man, and a smallness before God, a smallness that illustrated the poverty of my spirit. I could retell this story a thousand times and find something new and exhausting to write about. My cares for this world are weaker and my desire to share this embrace is stronger now. I suppose this is the simplest way to put it.
The Way of Obedience
Obedience follows afterward in the light of pilgrimage. We must be obedient to the trail, an authority that has been well-established by saints and sinners alike for centuries. To stray from this path would certainly lead to being lost, and I know this because it happened to me on a particularly rainy and dark day. This obedience calls for another death to self, which allows for further freedom to grow.
Finally, God in Christ shows us how we must die to ourselves. This dying to self, mentioned often in the New Testament, is a theme that follows us or leads us along this path of life. A pilgrimage is simply a small symbol of a larger path, the path of life. As we continue, we shed of ourselves that which must be shed and take on what must be taken on in light of sanctification. Halfway through my journey I unburdened myself of some valuable items that I could no longer carry and gave them to the Church. It surprised me how difficult it was, but it needed to be done so I might continue moving forward.
I could not finish the Camino Primitivo in the manner I set out to do because of my tendonitis, but I walked about 280 kilometers in around two weeks time. I want to conclude with the simple idea that significant events such as these can break us down or build us up. I am blessed that my journey did both for me, and I recognize this grace. I have come to learn more of who the Father is by what He says and what He does, and in learning His Fatherhood, I have learned more of who I am. I acknowledge that I can only truly know who I am if I come to know who He is. The longing in me will be for His final embrace.
Chesterton, G. K. (1959). Orthodoxy. Garden City, N.Y: Image Books.
Wortley, J. (Ed.). (2013). The anonymous sayings of the desert fathers: A select edition and complete english translation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781139031776
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