Three years ago, I walked into the Praza de Obradoiro and turned to face the Cathedral of St. James. This last day of walking the route had started with driving rain, exactly as had the first day in the French Pyrenees. Beginnings. Endings. Curious things. The end of a very long walk - the beginning of everything else.
From Into the Thin, A pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain (Sept. 2020 from Homebound Publications):
...I walk into the open plaza, turn, and regard the iconic western façade of the Catedral de Santiago, the Cathedral of Saint James. It is partially covered in scaffolding, undergoing cleansing and restoration; like its tired pilgrims, a work in progress.
The Camino de Santiago is an experience of body, mind, and spirit, and these tend to correlate to sections of the route. Most pilgrims would agree that the vast Meseta, which comprises the middle 150 miles of the French Way, is the realm of the mind. Those who are young often dread its mostly flat sameness, while the older pilgrim will find it to be the perfect place to mine the experiences of a lifetime. I walked it essentially alone as was my intention. It proved to be fertile ground for remembrance and contemplation.
Here are some images along with a few sentences from Into the Thin, a Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain (coming September, 2020).
...Though known for the desolation of the landscape, its perfect secret is the endless sky, big as all Montana where storms are seen from hours away and the clouds can come in so low as to be almost within reach.
...The sky is full of countless shades of textured gray with impossibly deep blue breaks between the clouds, as the rising sun lights the earth in warm tones leaving long shadows. There is something new about the air after it rains, as new as springtime, as peaceful as the fall. The colors seem deeper, the contrasts sharper, any dull finish on the world made bright again, all scrubbed and perfect.
Last evening, I silently walked on a candle-lit labyrinth. There were more than 50 of us. The air was still and felt a bit close, an early note of the summer nights to come. A harpist played from the center of the labyrinth, accompanied by a chorus of peepers from the surrounding woods. Our footsteps on the fine gravel surface of the path were the only other sounds. Silence has a way of reminding, of allowing. So too does shared movement.
From Chapter 7 of the upcoming book Into the Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain:
...No longer do I see pilgrims, I see pilgrimage; a movement toward something, a movement away, a movement of Grace. I realize in this moment I am not apart from them, or they from me. I am in no way living in opposition to them. I am them. And in the larger context of life beyond the Camino, all the competing needs and desires, all the conflicting interests, all the wounds inflicted and received, all the differences of body and thought and language and most certainly of religion, are revealed as only mistaken notions of things. Elegies of separation become expressions of compassionate oneness along this thin, magical road to Santiago. Realization loves to dance here, to be glimpsed even if only in the briefest of flashes.
Here’s to thin, magical roads. And here’s to the one of us.
Street scene in Pamplona, mustard blooms at Guendulain-just west of Pamplona, and Puente la Reina (Bridge of the Queen).
Here are a few images from the high mountain pass in the French Pyrenees on the Napoleon Route which crosses the border into Spain.
Early morning, Saint Jean Pied de Port, France, April 20,2016.
From the Prologue of Into the Thin, A Pilgrimage Walk Across Northern Spain...
I wanted to leave in the pre-dawn light, the vague, gray light that speaks of beginnings and new things, a light that invites but promises nothing, a light seemingly intended for the relatively few - my kind of light.
After leaving my room key at the empty desk in the lobby, I stepped out into the street, swung on my pack, and made my way to Rue de Citadelle in the cool, dark, lonely morning. I walked down the hill and across the canal bridge, able to see almost the entire narrow street before me as it faded to a point. The tapping of my sticks on the street echoed on stone walls and shop windows as I moved through the silent sleeping town of Saint Jean Pied de Port toward le Porte d’Espagne (the Spanish Gate) on the western side of the Old City. Beyond were the first steps of the Camino de Santiago.
I’m not usually given to chiming-in on things, but something occurred to me in the aftermath of our collective loss on Monday, April 15, 2019; an April in Paris we won’t soon forget.
I was alone in the car driving through a wooded area of Litchfield in northwest Connecticut when it was announced on the radio that Notre Dame was burning - that the roof had collapsed. I promptly went to tears. This reaction surprised me, not because of its emotion, but for its depth. There have been several of these in my experience, but it was more about what followed that now has my attention.
As the magnitude of the fire became clearer, and sadness and despair overcame me, the first thing I needed was to share the burden with someone. I voice-texted my girlfriend who was working, thinking I’d be informing her. Turns out she already knew. These things get around quickly. We all need to share. More to the point, we all need to join.
Later on, I found myself at a gathering in a church basement. I’d have been there anyway, but today was one of those times when the word “need” came to mind. Two pals I’ve known a while were sitting to either side of me. Before things started we were chatting. It didn’t come up immediately, but one of them produced a photo of Notre Dame on his cell phone that he had taken during his travels. He just held it up to us without a word. In the short conversation that followed, we discovered we’d all had the same immediate reaction.
Before I’d headed to the church basement, I was noodling around on Facebook, quickly found a beautiful post about it, and ended up in a brief dialogue with its author (a fellow writer). Same reaction exactly. I looked at my first spontaneous response I’d written to his post. It said, “These are places where humanity can join.”
I find myself noticing variations on this theme frequently, especially when considering tragic, seemingly inexplicable things. This is a world where storms of all manner simmer and brew. They take many forms because it’s a world of forms, the final outcomes of individual and collective consciousness. These are the way things appear to be, but there is always more than meets our eyes. Always.
Not being given to omniscience, I can only speculate and hold forth a possibility. Perhaps this fire at Notre Dame in Paris is one of those places where we can join at a time when divisions are running so frightfully deep; where we can become aware that shared feelings are not coincidence, that maybe there is something divine trying to obtain our infinitely distracted attention, to reel us in from being so toxically mesmerized, to remind us of something. When we become numbed to so much of what we see, it must naturally follow that it will take something mighty big to un-numb us. Alchemy can be rather dramatic.
I remember well in the wake of all that happened on 9/11, there was a surge in our kindness, compassion, empathy, consideration, and a sense of a shared destiny. I would humbly submit that there are times and places where we can meet and be who we most truly are. Sometimes, perhaps tragedy delights in ushering us to something higher and more real.
I once read a beautiful little book at the tender age of 20. Though my motives for reading it seemed capricious at the time, I now know something happened within its first few pages that set me on a path to the interior life. Books have the power to do that, of course. Not every one. Perhaps relatively few. The book was the novel Siddhartha, by Herman Hesse, and it served as the first way marker of my post-Catholic spiritual life. It suggested to me that there was another way of looking at this world, my place in it, and my identity. It was a good book for me to read at 20 - actually, the perfect book. Siddhartha was my first look inward, and oddly, at an age where hedonistic considerations usually had my full attention. A look at my present day bookshelves will suggest the tendency toward quiet, contemplative reads has continued with only a few minor deviations.
I’ve just read another book at the not-so-tender age of 63. I had an intuition about this one, that it would be important to me, something special. I came to know of it by virtue of having just signed a contract with Homebound Publications to publish my own book. It is likely I would not have found it otherwise had I not been exposed to their catalogue. My attention was immediately drawn to a new release, the novel Painted Oxen, by Thomas Lloyd Qualls.
It captured me as surely and as deeply as Siddhartha once did, as a richly layered, gorgeously written story of time and the mystical wonders of pilgrimage, of alchemy, and the interior life projected outward to the world. Illusions and reality mingle and dance. Seductive dreams bridge inner and outer worlds. What is real? What is a dream? The age-old hero’s journey unfolds once again, and every human on the planet can join there. It is our collective story.
It was a good book for me to read at 63, another perfect book for an old pilgrim who’s walked a step or two and known the alchemy of movement. It has given me a few more things to chew on, some things to dream on, and as was promised in its introduction, some things to be remembered. It’s not done with me just yet. This one will be on the nightstand a while.
It’s a little funny how these things present in life, the things meant to be noticed. Two books, forty years removed. Or was it only a step, a breath, a moment? All in a dream.
Here in Connecticut, we’re at the very edge of springtime; the last of the brown, fallow resting. The wind blows often, and there is rain with a few warm days now and then to soften the ground. Mostly, a chill remains. To walk along a quiet road through places like this is to remember the perfection of it all. I don’t need to name things. That would only distract me from what is, or worse remove the wonder. It’s enough to know that seeds land best when their flight is left to the wind, and sow only as the rain wets the earth. It’s enough to see the young shoots of a crocus spear a dead leaf that once covered its place in the dirt. It’s enough to witness miracles.
In a couple of weeks there will be color. Greens will displace the browns and then deepen from lime to emerald. A whole great palette of buds will speckle the trees. Even the sky will seem bluer. The air will warm even as the afternoon breezes come through, gradually shifting from north to west and then south. There is a commotion brewing as sure as the autumn told of a coming rest. It is a thing to move into, to make a pilgrimage of, and to note well.
Sometimes I think my time spent walking is frivolous, but how else to know the real, the eternal, the changeless ways, but to move through the temporal? How better to open the thin places I carry closer than thoughts? I’ve learned well that there is no limit to what can happen in the space of a single step. I’ll walk on.
I just spent a wonderful long weekend in Black Mountain, NC (just east of Asheville) at the American Pilgrims on the Camino, 22nd Annual Gathering of Pilgrims, held at the YMCA Blue Ridge Assembly. It has been three years since I’ve walked the Camino de Santiago, so this experience came at a perfect time to be re-minded.
One of the things that always appealed to me while walking in Spain was the depth of conversation that would result from the simple question, “So what brings you here?” Often, I wouldn’t even know their name, but inward we’d go, and without a shred of shame or reservation. I’d walk away in wonder – not only about what was discussed, but the perfection of our meeting in that place, at that time, with the contents of our hearts opened.
So I’m home again in Connecticut after a long ride with a great friend. Once more, I’m held in wide wonder at what is possible when just for a moment, we can unapologetically be with each other just as we are, with the imperfection of our humanity and our love for each other laid bare.
One more thing…I ran across these beatitudes while at the Gathering. Their source is unknown, translated from the original Spanish. Even if you haven’t walked in Spain, you’ve walked. So pilgrim, take a moment and hold them to your heart. Buen Camino.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you find that the Camino opens your eyes to the unseen.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if what concerns you is not arriving, but arriving with the others.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, when you contemplate the sights of the Camino and find them full of names and new dawns.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if your backpack empties of things as your heart doesn’t know where to fit so many emotions.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you discover that a step backwards to help another is more valuable than one hundred forward without awareness of those at your sides.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, when you have no words to give thanks for all the wonders of the Camino.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you seek truth and make of your Camino a life and of your life a Camino, after that which is the Way, the Life, and the Truth.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if on the Camino you meet yourself and give yourself the gift of time without hurry, so that you not neglect your heart.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you find that the Camino is rich in silence, and the silence is rich with prayers, and the prayers are encounters with the Father that awaits you.
Blessed are you, pilgrim, if you discover that the true Camino begins at its end.