The Camino is not just another walk, certainly not for me, it is an experience like no other, even in 40 degree heat! it is a walk that constantly surprises me, and when I least expect it.
Let me share some of these surprises with you, they may strike a chord, reminding you as it does me that life is full of mystery and joy, if we are open to it.
So here we are after a few days on the Camino. And it has been hot, really, really hot. As most Spanish would tell you, it is very unseasonal, in fact so surprising that they continually want to talk about the weather. Which in itself is very unusual. We have been baking in the mid-day sun, but in response the locals have been particularly friendly, looking concerned about our welfare, and even offering water. Perhaps they are thinking they might lose a peregrino (walker) or two doing the heatwave!
The walk has taken us over the highest point of the Camino and through some gorgeous scenery. At 1500 feet, it beats the path through the Pyrenees which starts the Camino, again a surprising fact. It reminds me so much of some parts of the Cape to Cape walk in Western Australia, with its rock climbing and bush.
While the walking has been quite difficult and doesn’t allow for too much reflection, in case one falls, we surprisingly came across a labyrinth made out of stone, near one of the descents. Incredible! A small labyrinth, only 3 circles, but enough to take a break and a breather and gather our thoughts for the day. Out in the middle of nowhere, as this was one of the most isolated parts of the Camino, we had a little gift left for us! Makes me realise, if someone can make a labyrinth here, we can make one at Wembley Downs Uniting Church!
The section we are doing however does have one of the most important landmarks for people to reflect at, the Cruz de Hierro or Iron Cross, which seems to date from the 11th century. When people get to the cross they place pebbles at its base to remember loved ones, or to signify a change in their life, or to leave something behind. Either way there is a mound of pebbles now around the cross. It is a hugely significant for people on the walk. I knew about the cross, and was looking forward to seeing it and perhaps have a quiet and sacred moment there. But my imagination did not live up to reality.
It in fact was more like a carnival. The cross itself is very near the road, and nothing like I imaged, perhaps I have been too influenced by a movie! Anyway when we reached it there were a lot of people milling about, taking photos, and generally having a party. While we also took some photos and placed some stones, to remember our mums, and for our friends Rose, Rod and Ingrid who are fighting ill health, a work colleague, Preetha, who recently had a serious accident, and a beautiful family from church who has just lost their son and brother, it seemed to be just a bit crazy. It certainly wasn’t what I expected. I have to say I was a bit disappointed with my quiet reflective moment.
As we trudged off, a surprising thought came to me. All moments are sacred, life is sacred and just because I couldn’t do it “the right way” at the iron cross wasn’t really an issue! I still love and care for my friends and family and I still miss my mum.
A bit further down the track we came across a smaller cross, with a mound of pebbles at its base. And suddenly the sacred moment I was looking for at the iron cross revealed itself. There was no one else around, and in this quiet spot, I placed some pebbles, and said a prayer. It wasn’t a great big cross, or a tall pole, or a significant landmark on the way, it was a just a place to reflect and think and send some love.
Bit like the labyrinth, it was an unexpected beautiful gift that someone had left. But these gifts are everywhere, if we have eyes to see.
But the time so far on the Camino has not just been about the scenery or the crosses.
While we have been spoilt with the mountains and forests, we have also been through some beautiful tiny villages, and have meet some wonderful people. People and places who have been surprises in themselves. More unexpected surprises!
After reaching the highest point, we headed for a town call El Acebo. It is quite small, but has 2 Albergues (small hostel) with the same name. What! Anyway as we were getting hotter and more exhausted, we kept seeing advertisements for this new Albergue, with fantastic facilities, including a swimming pool! Ah bliss we thought when it was so hot and there was no shade and the path down was quite treacherous!
Unfortunately, when we entered the town we realised that our Albergue was not the new one, but the older one, and with no swimming pool!! Our disappointment was palpable. Particularly when our bags weren’t there, as they had gone to the other one!!!
We gritted our teeth and made the most of it, but what is quite surprising, is that the Albergue turned out to be comfortable, airy, with very friendly staff, and we met there some lovely people. Peggy from Holland, walking on her own, as many people seem to be doing on this part of the Camino, and Marie and Herbert, an older couple from Germany. So it was the right place to be, even without the pool!
We all had dinner together, well more than together, because as Marie and Herbert waited too long to order that the kitchen closed, they shared ours, a surprise, since I had half eaten mine. As they say sharing is caring. Herbert and Marie did not look like people who would walk the Camino, let alone having been here before, so I quickly have learnt that on the Camino anything is possible. In fact, that is what I also love about our fellow walkers, people can be walking the whole thing, a section, can be carrying all their possessions, or just a day pack, and can speak Spanish or some terrible version of it, like us. It doesn’t matter, we are all people on the way!
We subsequently meet up with Maria and Herbert by chance in Ponferrada, at the town’s Knights Templar castle, then at a beautiful outdoor bar after seeing the castle, and then again the next morning at breakfast which was a complete surprise. We did not know they were also staying at our accommodation. Ah the mystery of the Camino!
There have been other surprises, the fact that I came to the walk having had achilles problems with my left leg for months, but since being here, while I have had blisters and sore feet, my achilles is perfect!
Or the fact that I carried a rain jacket, jumper and poncho for the potential change in the weather for 3 days, until I realised there isn’t going to be a change! That wasn’t a surprise, just stupidity!
So the Camino, even the second time seems to have captured my heart and continues to teach me some valuable lessons. Which I hope to remember when I get back. Perhaps I need to come every few years!!!
From our new friends, who were surpising in their ability to walk such long distances, and to eat my left over food, to our wonderful little Albergue to the weather, to the cross, to the labyrinth, sometimes things are not what they seem. Sometimes life can be much more than our expectations imagine it to be. We need to be open to people and to places, for all can teach us. There is no perfect cross, no one sacred place, no perfect peregrine or perfect way to walk the Camino, no perfect Albergue, and no ideal way to live life. We are all working it out as we go along.
So as we move further on the Camino, we realise how open it makes us. Open to those walking with us and open to be surprised.
For sometimes things are not what they seem.
I have a confession to make! I am taking a break from reviewing books, to write some blogs while I am away, 4 weeks in Spain and Portugal with my lovely husband, Matt.
So let’s get started.
After a few days in Madrid, we have now embarked on another section of the Camino de Santiago, a famous walk in Spain that dates back to the 10th century. The pilgrims, mainly monks in those days, walked from all over Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago De Compostela where the bones of St James are believed to lie. The walk is called the Way of St James because of this. It is now a very popular walk that many people do, not just monks or Catholics, to take time out, to reflect on their lives and its direction, reflect on their faith, or just to take on the challenge of doing a walk that is about 800 kms long. The most traditional way is from a town in France, St Jean Pied-de-Port across northern Spain to Santiago although there are paths through Portugal and southern Spain.
Two years ago we did the final section of the French way, common for those only doing a little bit. We went from Sarria to Santiago over 6 days, and covered 114 kms. It was a wonderful but challenging experience, during which we met some incredible people, not to mention donkeys and dogs. We also found it was a very spiritual and reflective time for both of us. It revealed how community can be formed so quickly, how the most ordinary things reveals some deep truths about life, and how taking time out to challenge oneself is amazingly life giving.
So how do we top that this time!
Well we don’t. This time we are going from Astorga instead, and we are to end 8 days and 140 kms later in Sarria, where we started last time.
Today was the first day. Was it the same, no, the people were different, quite a lot were older than us, and there were fewer of them. In their place were a lot of cyclists, and even some horse riders. The scenery was different, we could see some hills in the distance, and as we headed towards them we entered a forested area. There were less towns, only a few very small villages that were beautiful and very old. In most of the bell towers we saw stork nests, which were enormous. It was quieter, hotter, and more challenging, as we are older and probably not as fit as last time.
And we are different! In the two years since we were here last time, we have lost my mum, who died last year, my uncle who died this year, we have friends with serious illnesses, but we also have had the joy of weddings and birthdays, holidays and time spent together with those we love.
I reflect back two years and my life as a pastor has become more layered and my faith deeper and more multi-dimensional. Part of that change has come from the walk that we did back then. While I have always believed the spirit of God is found in all places and all people, in small and not so small acts of love and kindness it was a revelation how the mediative aspects of walking revealed that spirit to me more profoundly.
I started an ongoing dialogue with quiet time, with Celtic spirituality and with the Taize style of service (an ecumenical service using repetitive music and lots of candles). I even want to build a labyrinth at the church. Not bad for an anatomist!
So I came home a changed person, although I occasionally lose that person when the busyness of life takes hold and doing dominates everything.
But I know that I have grown, and have changed. I understand now there are two sides to the faith coin, and life coin, a doing side and a being side, and both need to be fed.
So the path this time cannot be the same. How can it be?
Because I am not the same!
So as I walked today, and took in my surroundings, and the new people we were greeting, with Hola, and Buen Camino. I relished this fact.
The path is never the same.
It is different, it is new, it is exciting and we are so fortunate to be able to walk another small part of it again.