I recently did something that made me stop and take notice of life around me. My mother died last year, after a long and eventful life, full of many joys, sorrows and challenges. She was a survivor, surviving the death of 2 husbands, and raising 4 children with very little money. Her only brother lived almost all his adult life in the UK, or more accurately around the world as a journalist for Reuters News Agency. He sadly passed away earlier this year, so within 6 months of one another both had gone. However, in their later years they became quite close, with various trips either out here to Perth by Alan or to the UK for my mum. One love they shared, almost from the time they could earn a quid, was racing, horse racing. They would discuss the jockeys, the trainers, the horses, and follow the various ups and downs of the industry, of course always having a small wager here and there. It was a love they shared until the very end, with mum in particularly reading the racing page over her morning tea in the hospital! I remember vividly many an afternoon spent at either Ascot or Belmont raceway, roaming the course while mum was in the betting ring, checking the odds (a time when that was not regarded as bad parenting!).
We had decided, as a family, that we would spread mum’s ashes at one of the racetracks if we were allowed. Amazingly Ascot raceway officials were very helpful, and agreed we could put mum’s ashes just off the track in line with the winning post, a very apt position for her.
As Allan shared this passion, his wife Doreen requested that Allan’s ashes join mums here in Australia and also at the track! So his ashes were carefully packaged and sent by airplane to Australia, where I was to pick them up and bring them home.
And this is where I started, because picking up the ashes of your Uncle is not an everyday occurrence. Particularly when the storeman hands you a box, and says, “here you are love, be careful”. Be careful!!! Of course I am going to be careful, it took them a while to find him so I wasn’t going to lose him now.
When I took him to my sister’s place, we opened the box, to find a plastic container inside. And inside the container was Allan’s ashes. Wow. There he was, or what was left of him, all the way from the UK. I had only seen him last year and now … It seems the wall between life and death is paper thin, one minute you are a living breathing reality, and the next, some ashes in a box. Seems hard to fathom it really. It made me ponder a question I have pondered often, since I was young. What makes us human, what makes us alive in the world? And what makes life meaningful? Okay, more than one question!
I was pondering all of this as I finished a book recently called “Breathe into Air” about a brilliant neuro surgeon/scientist, Paul Kalanithi, with an incredible career ahead of him who gets a terrible cancer and dies very young. Yet before he dies he writes a book about life, and death, and everything in between. He also asks these questions, but he writes initially from a position where he operates on the brain, and deals with patients with neurological conditions, and then from the perspective of someone dying. A little bit closer to the problem than me.
It is really is an amazing book, and makes the reader contemplate their humanity deeply. Well it did for me!
What is it that makes us human? What is it that makes life meaningful? He recounts his first contact with cadavers, dead people who have donated their bodies to science. It was an account that brought back my own experience, which lead me on a spiritual quest that has culminated in me being a part time Pastor in a Uniting Church. A long way from cutting up dead people! But even now I remember distinctly the feeling that I knew there was more to us as humans than what was lying on the table. Yes, we are blood and tissue, and joints and muscles and organs and skin, but we are also thoughts, and feelings, and hopes and dreams, and joys and sorrows, a subjective life that seems to stem not just from the physical world but from some culmination of all that we are. It led me, as it led Paul, to explore the nature of life, and the age old question of God or at least the idea there was something else going on here that cannot be seen or measured.
A journey that has taken a life time, but sometimes we don’t have a life time. That was the dilemma for Paul Kalanithi.
He crammed the meditations of a life time into 30 short years. In that time he had seen and was so close to the question. From when he was young he searched for what it was that made us, well us.
It led him to literature, philosophy, then to neuroscience.
And finally to neurosurgery, because for him moral speculation was puny compared to moral action, so he acted.
Amongst his experiences as a neuro surgeon, amongst his patients, who suffered and died and were changed, he delved into the questions of life, and meaning. I think what he discovered, with his patients and within himself, was that meaning and understanding is found in the messiness of real human life.
And that is where the rubber hits the road. As he writes, he had been a scientist all his life, yet “science is not enough to explain the existential, visceral nature of human life”. What made life meaningful even in the face of death and decay? I think the answer to that is Love!
What Paul found was that love and care for others, family and small things was what it meant to live a meaningful life. Even when everything was taken away from him there was still living to be done….
“because I would have to learn a different way, seeing death as an imposing itinerant visitor, but knowing that even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living”.
He also found that we are more than can be measured, what can be seen and operated on, we are more than blood and bone. “The most central aspects of our human life cannot be measured, “hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honour, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue”, and I would add, joy and compassion and forgiveness. “Between these core passions and scientific theory there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience”.
Funnily enough, he found that Jesus reflected this compassion for others and what he searched for about meaning in life was also found in a tradition he had left behind but rediscovered. Yes, he did go back to church!
But he does not suddenly take on the religion of certainty. Rather he determined that while no one human sees the total picture, “the basic reality of human life stands compellingly against blind determinism.”
So in the end it came down and comes down again and again, to relationships, love and love of and for others. It comes down to seeing each day as a gift, living in whatever way we can, and finding joy and gratitude in the smallest of events.
Paul Kalanithi found that he could not have his old life back, but had to find a new way of living, a gift a surgeon friend gave him during his treatment. But he had already gifted that to his patients. As he discovered “the physician’s duty is not to stave off death or return patients to their old lives, but to take into our arms a patient and family whose lives have disintegrated and work until they can stand back and face, and make sense of their own existence.”
This is what he did. He worked until he could not, he had a child who he adored, he wrote this book, and he loved those around him for as long as he could.
Spirituality, or what gives us meaning and purpose in life, is a life lived for others, with others, in relationship and connection. Love is its central core.
For me, what it is to be human and what it is to be a Jesus follower, a believer in a divine presence that urges us to connect with one another in love, seems to be the same thing.
Living a life, however short, can show us that it’s as simple and as difficult as loving. Once we love, know love, give love, we will never find life meaning less.
You may not need to be a Jesus follower to get it, but sometimes it helps to have a guide.
I took the church service today, and the topic was forgiveness. Forgiveness, an easy word to say and a hard word to live out. I feel that so much of our Christian tradition has been tied up with not only forgiveness but with sin, how bad we are and how wonderful and forgiving God is. Yet, both statements leave an empty space that needs to be filled. We are not bad, we are wonderfully made, a glorious product of millions of years of evolution. But we are human, and are capable of such evil intent. God is wonderful but is also part of the created order, part of life itself, part of us as human beings. When we worship we worship something that is inherent in all of us, that drives us to love and grow and embrace others. When we falter, when we make mistakes, we look to each other for reconciliation and forgiveness, not to an external deity somewhere else. We look to the spirit within and amongst us to kindle the fire of love again, a spirit that never leaves, as though it might take a break, or worse still judge us as not worthy. God is not in the heavens forgiving or not forgiving, but in all of us, in all the created order, and being alive to it is one of the great gifts of the universe. For it can lead to wholeness in life for everyone.
Anyway, here is the sermon….
We live in a world that expects perfection. We are to have the perfect life, the perfect job, the perfect children, and we are to be the perfect parents. Ouch, I think I might have failed there. I wanted the boys to be neat and tidy, alcohol abstainers and be great cooks. Instead I got two beer drinking long hair lads who leave their bath towels everywhere except in the bathroom. And can bbq but not much else. So much for perfection, luckily they are also loving and kind hearted, phew!
Yet seriously our expectation of ourselves and others is often so very, very high, it is impossible to achieve. We have a picture in our mind of what life and people should be like, and if our picture doesn’t match reality we immediately get into the judging game. It must be my poor parenting, rather than my boys being themselves. Or its Matts fault!
In fact, this notion of perfection, I should say this impossible notion of perfection, is actually very dangerous, affecting our mental health and wellbeing. It can lead to a permanent state of anxiety and stress and an inability to really forgive and start over. Aren’t they or we supposed to be perfect! I think this idea of perfection makes it much harder to forgive because people are not allowed to be, well people. We lose the ability to see that we and others are human and make mistakes, all the time.
Jesus was very big on forgiveness, it’s everywhere in the gospel accounts. Which is why I’ve always been suspicious of our traditional understanding of the resurrection as a forgiveness of sins. Jesus was busily doing it already, welcoming and including those regarded as outsiders, as sinners, and encouraging us to forgive one another. He brought forgiveness into the human realm, in a way that was inclusive and universal.
So his message is actually very freeing. Forgiveness is not part of some secret society, we don’t need a priest to do it, or a minister, we don’t even need God to forgive us, as though God will smite us if we don’t. From the reading it sounds like the writer of Matthew was suggesting that. But God is not in the sky watching over us, judging our behaviour, rather he is as close to us as our own breath, waiting for us to open our hearts to one another. It’s like we move toward the life giving light when we love and forgive, away from the light when we don’t. But the light remains. Jesus knew that forgiveness, both for the person in need of it and the person giving it, produces a wholeness that is not achieved otherwise. Without it we become a shell of what we should be as human beings. Life can become very dark and lonely.
I have seen this in my own family. I had an Aunty who did not speak to her oldest friend for 40 years, after some sort of disagreement. Towards the end of their lives I am sure they would not have known what the disagreement or slight was about. But families were torn apart because of it.
Situations like this can harden the heart of those involved, and lives are less than they should be.
So forgiveness is not a divine act, it’s a human act, but it gives a divine result. Forgiveness can lead to renewal and transformation and reconciliation and new life if we let it. What is more divine than that. When we forgive we head to the light, the light of love, rather than the darkness of despair. We are released from repeating the same mistake over and over again, trapped in a cycle of judgement that is never ending. For we can become disconnected to one another, and community can falter when forgiveness goes missing and judgement is found in its place.
As Frederick Buechner says..
“When someone you’ve wronged forgives you, you’re spared the dull and self-diminishing throb of a guilty conscience.
When you forgive somebody who has wronged you, you’re spared the dismal corrosion of bitterness and wounded pride.
For both parties, forgiveness means the freedom again to be at peace inside their own skins and to be glad in each other’s presence.”
So it is not that Jesus expected us to be perfect, but to be human and whole. To see that we all make mistakes, and that we all need forgiveness sometimes. In turn we have to learn to forgive others, even if the person we are forgiving couldn’t give a toss. The point is not the expectation of something in return, but the act. It is a gift we can freely give and freely receive, and which can transform both parties.
As the reading suggests today, how much should we forgive, as much as it takes. For to be human and free, and whole, we have to forgive. It’s as simple and as difficult as that.
And a little song from Carrie Newcomer, to keep us leaning in toward the light.
I am doing something new for this post, I am going to have a guest blogger!
Why, because I went to church today and one of our congregation gave a sermon about love and inclusion that everyone should read, whether you are in Australia, or anywhere else in the world. A message that touched us all, and why I love my community of fellow travellers so much.
So here it is, a sermon from Jodi.
The readings, if you are interested were these…
Isaiah 56: 1-8
Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32
Matthew 15: 21-28
In Isaiah, God we hear of a God who does not discriminate. All people are welcome in God’s house. Gods house is a place of welcome and prayer for all of God’s children, including those who have been specifically excluded – in Isaiah’s time that meant foreigners and eunuchs. Acceptability to God is not defined by ethnicity or sexuality, but by keeping the Sabbath and holding fast to the covenant.
When you were the chosen people, the ones delivered to the promised land, to be told that acceptability is not defined by ethnicity must have been a pretty big call. In Romans, Paul is trying to make it clear to the people that God has not abandoned the Jewish people, God’s compassion is available to all who believe, no matter their heritage. God wants to have compassion towards all people.
Throughout time there seems to have been a continual struggle over people’s historical and traditional view of who is acceptable to God. Times change, the world that 94 year old Ron grew up in was very different to the world that I grew up in and that world is not same as the world of today that 3 year old Josephat is growing up in. Whilst our traditions and cultural heritage are important and help to shape us, we also have to ensure that we are living a life that holds true to our Christian values but is also alive and relevant to todays world. Sometimes this requires us to reflect on what we believe and question our reasoning.
In todays reading from Matthew, the Gentile woman’s shouting disturbs Jesus’ disciples, but he ignores her – not the sort of response we’re used to from Jesus. When he finally speaks to her, his words are dismissive and insulting – again, not what we would expect. But with courage and humour the woman leads Jesus to change his mind – and to expand his mission beyond Israel. “Woman, how great is your faith!” Jesus exclaims, and clearly Matthew presents her as an example for his community and for us. It‘s in this spirited encounter with a woman who refuses to have her daughter’s value diminished that Jesus comes to a new understanding. It is in meetings like this, with people on the margins, that new wisdom and compassion are found.
The abandonment of prejudice, the crossing of the traditional boundary, is the good news of the story and why it was told. It is hard not to draw the conclusion that Jesus, himself, had to make a transition, had to learn. His response was more typical of the rather conservative Judaism of the time. Jesus was human, too. Here we see that that he was a product of his environment, just like we are influenced by our upbringing. But just like Jesus we can change our views when confronted. This can be a very confronting process. Sometimes it is total strangers who cause us to confront our beliefs but more often than not it is the people we know and love.
Slaves used to be quite acceptable and predominantly black people were exploited. Aboriginal children were taken from their parents to supposedly give the children a better life. It was not that long ago that divorce was frowned upon and was a bit of a scandal within the church. Within my lifetime, unmarried mothers had their children taken away from them. They were hidden away, marginalised and shamed. Refugees running from the horrors of their homeland come seeking a better life and here in Australia we lock them up. The bible can be used to justify and confirm all kinds of discrimination. However, we tend to use an interpretive lens to ensure that historical and cultural bias do not prevent us from loving and accepting everyone.
Today we debate marriage equality. I have read a couple of articles recently from conservative ministers who talk about why they have changed their minds. The key point seems to be that facts and rational argument don’t change people’s minds, it is listening to the experiences of others that really makes the difference.
Just as Jesus listened to the Gentile woman and her faith made him change his mind, so too we need to listen and get to know the refugees and aboriginal people, the gay community, those with mental health issues. When we know and love those marginalised as our friends then equality is not something that we can debate in the abstract. The debate becomes about real people.
The attached picture says it all, Science is real, black lives matter, no human is illegal, love is love, women’s rights are human rights and kindness is everything. This is the way we are called to live, in the 21st century!
This blog is a revisiting of one I wrote when I was away. One I wrote that I subsequently lost due to a random click on the computer by me. Yes, I did that awful thing of editing what I had written because I wanted to split the blog into two and then saving without renaming, and ended up losing the original, ouch!
Anyway I would still like to revisit the disappeared one, so here it is, reconstituted.
This blog is inspired in part by a guy called Rob Bell, a favourite of mine in so many ways. He started out as a leader in the evangelical movement in the US, in charge of a mega church with thousands of people, a darling of the religious right. Then he had an epiphany, and realised that what he was preaching about Christianity, about heaven and hell, and who was going where, just didn’t fit with the message of Jesus. So he left his mega church, renounced the trappings of his position, the power and the popularity and the money, wrote a book called “Love Wins” and started a journey to a more open exploring faith. In the process he went from the darling of the evangelical movement to its enemy, and you only have to look on facebook to see how much they now attack him for being a traitor to the cause.
While being an author, Rob Bell also does podcasts, where he interviews a wide selection of people, from varied faith traditions to explore what it means to be a person of faith in the 21st century. Recently one of those podcasts caught my attention in a big way! Just before I left I listened to Rob interview a guy called Peter Rollins, a philosopher and theologian from Belfast, with a wonderful accent, a dry sense of humour and an incredible and deep interest in the “God “question.
Rob Bell and Peter Rollins did 4 podcasts together, where they talked about God and of course about Christianity and about spirituality in our world and time. They were great, but the third one in particular made me sit up and take notice. It was on the absurdity of faith and in particular the absurdity of the Christian faith. It really struck a chord.
Of course faith seems totally absurd in our modern, scientific world where everything is measured and what can’t be measured can’t be true. But somehow Jesus is the ultimate absurdity, even after 2,000. Traditionally the people of the first century were expecting a Messiah, a messenger from God, to come and rescue them, to put things right, to punish the wicked and reward the righteous, and turn around the world. To renew creation by power and might.
And what did they get?
What they got was a humble, peasant carpenter, quite possibly illiterate, but who could teach and tell stories and parables, who revealed the creative presence of God in the world and showed those who listened how to bring light rather than darkness and despair, who called for community, equity and justice, and who died a horrible death on a cross.
What, that can’t be right! Where is the power and might?
Jesus, in his life, in his words and deeds, represented the powerless, not powerful, and called for forgiveness over retribution, peace over violence and most essentially love over hate. The reason Jesus was killed is quite simple really, but we complicate it with rules and beliefs that exclude and divide, and he would be probably horrified. He challenged those with power and those in power responded by getting rid of this radical, scandalous messenger.
Or so they thought!
Before Jesus died he called his listeners to join in and follow him.
And that’s the amazing thing! They did and still do.
Regardless of what you think about the resurrection, literal, spiritual, or something else, Jesus’s life and teachings still resonate with people today, as they have done for centuries. The call is still there! Changing people’s lives, and the lives of those around them, inspiring them to give up things to make the world or their little bit of the world better. His message still has the power to speak to people today and completely transform them. Jesus revealed and continues to reveal life’s hidden mystery. Of God’s renewing power and presence within each one of us that can make a difference, and when we enter the stream of that mystery we can live lives of freedom and joy. We become better more complete people.
This may sound absurd today when what we hear mostly is that money and possession or jobs define us. But that’s not really true. What defines us best is how we love one another, and that includes ourselves, and what we contribute. And we have an urge within each one of us to do this if we listen to this persistant inner voice. Which is why Jesus’s message, while absurd to many modern ears, strikes a chord to others. But it’s not about getting to heaven, it’s about living the best way we can here and now.
Rob Bell realised that the type of Christianity he was presenting, that you have to believe and act a certain way to be in the group, otherwise you were definitely out, and not just out but lost forever, seemed horrible and out of step with its founder. In fact it seemed more in step with modern society that says the things which divide us are greater than those that connect us. So he left. To become a Jesus follower, to preach the Jesus way. An absurd decision and one in which he had to give up a lot.
As for little old me, I could be following the standard route as a scientist but I have chosen to follow a slightly crazy path, serving a small Uniting church congregation in Wembley Downs while combining it with secular employment. Recently I have had the opportunity to break away, giving up the church work altogether to do a Phd in Anatomy and Human Biology and finally be a proper scientist! Mmm, tempting!
Yet somehow that is not what my heart is saying.
Like Rob Bell, it seems totally absurd but I am about to commit for another 3 years to this small, but very active congregation, as long as they will have me, and leave thoughts of Phds behind. Certainly scientific ones. As one friend said, I will have to be a Dr in a parallel universe! Thoughts of Dr Who!
But it opens up a new path, which feels exciting and really quite freeing.
After walking the Camino again, a great time for reflection, I realise I want to show those that will listen that all things in life are not clear and measureable. That the path or journey of faith is one worth following. And that the way and teachings of Jesus gives us a glimpse of that path. Even in the 21st century. Perhaps this is what I have been waiting for all my life!
Absurd as it seems!
We are nearing the end of our adventure, and I thought I should do one last blog. Those of you on facebook have been inundated with photos from the Camino, then wonderful Portugal and finally southern Spain. Hope you have enjoyed them as much as we have enjoyed sharing them.
So what to write in my last blog? Well I have decided to write about churches, yep, that’s right, just a few of the churches and cathedrals we have visited, or more aptly that I have dragged Matt into. After all, both Spain and Portugal are Catholic countries and revere their traditions and religious history greatly.
But this is not going to be just a travelogue. Because the one thing I do want to say, is that more and more I became rather disillusioned by what we were seeing. Not so much on the Camino where the churches were simple and humble, in keeping with the inspiration behind the Christian faith, a humble, peasant carpenter. Often these small churches were kept open by congregational members, and tended lovingly as a centre of village life. But as we moved centuries the churches became more grandiose and spectacular, until I feel Jesus and his message was left behind.
So let’s start with the cathedral at the end of the Camino. While this time we did a section between Astorga and Sarria, and so did not walk into Santiago, we still went to the cathedral when we got into town. And it is still a wonderful experience. As pilgrims having walked some of the Camino, and it doesn’t matter to anyone how much and just how, whether walking, bike riding or even riding a horse, the pilgrims service is very meaningful, as the names of the countries from where we have all come are read out. Of course as Australia starts with an A we were read first, but there were so many people there from all over the world. The service is spoken in many of the main languages and it is surprisingly moving considering that they still allow tourists to roams around during it. We were hoping to see the large botafumeiro or incense burner swing, but these days they only do it on festival days, or if someone pays!
But the cathedral is very grand, and a great deal of gold and glitter can be found not only in the main alter but also in the side chapels. It seems to contrast sharply with the dusty, dirty pilgrims, many who go straight to the cathedral to see St James and touch the statue
Gold and glitter seemed to be the order of the day in churches, monasteries and cathedrals, particularly from the 15-16th century onwards. Churches became more ornate, more elaborate as we went along, until we saw the ultimate. The Church of St Francis in Porto! A church with so much gold and glitter it was breathtaking and sickening all at once. It was seen as so precious we couldn’t take photos, but every conceivable surface was covered. I am not sure about St Frances but I think Jesus would be horrified. Maybe that’s why it does not operate any services any more.
Then an example of this contrast between a church building and the message of Jesus came to us by surprise as we drove down the coast of Portugal to Lisbon. We stopped in Tomar, a lovely town, which also had an incredible Knights Templar Convento de Cristo or monastery. Within the monastery we found an amazing 16 sided church, an imitation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Really an amazing church which we admired greatly, until we looked a bit closer. It had in the middle a circular structure made with high columns, with various images within it. Jesus was there, on the cross, which was wooden, simple and profound, but surrounding him were representatives of the church fathers, dressed in gold and fine clothes.
What! They were surrounded by glitter, Jesus by dust. A striking contrast. Even taking into account the Knights Templar were not the most favoured by the King or Pope and disappeared after the 13 century. But even they seemed to miss the point.
Somehow one just had to almost laugh at the absurdity of it all.
Somehow the idea that Jesus’s message turns things upside down, that the poor will inherit the earth, that we should love our enemies, that we should forgive those that wrong us, that we should be inclusive and hospitable and generous, and that we should not seek the worlds power, but the power that comes through love, seems to have gone a bit haywire.
As the ages went by, it seems that many churches and cathedrals became the home of all the power, both monetary and intellectual and social. Not to say they aren’t beautiful, they are, and the books they lovingly recreated are amazing, but again somehow the message seems to have become muddied. It’s as though Jesus is being worshipped with the very material he despised in life!
So we head to Lisbon, and although I still love going into churches and cathedrals, my heart is not quite in it anymore. Particularly when at every door to every cathedral there is a beggar or two or three. Somehow it seemed even more absurd.
But then it was Matt’s turn to take me to something I had not thought about going to see. A religious thing, rather than a pub (just kidding!). And we were both blown away by it. I am talking about the Christo Rei, a statue of Christ, which is found on a hill over the river in a place called Cacilhas. A bit like the statue in Rio.
The statue is named Christ the King, or Christo Rei, overlooks Lisbon and was erected as a gift to the city and to all of Portugal after WW2 which Portugal survived, even though they did not enter the war. While normally the title, Christ the King, raises the idea of a king who will defeat his enemies with power and might, this has a different message. It is an image of peace, and the statue itself while absolutely amazing is not the whole picture. Artists have created images of Jesus’s life around the base of the statue and in a chapel below. The chapel itself celebrates and calls for love and peace among all nations, and is a place for quiet reflection and meditation, as well as a place of faith. No gold and glitter here! The images on the walls were beautiful as was the simple design.
Somehow both the statue and the chapel and the images captured something for both of us, that none of the cathedrals had. And it was very profound. For me it captured the call from Jesus to join the revolution. The revolution of love. For no matter the time in history somehow Jesus’s message still seems to speak to people and transform them in ways that are mysterious and amazing. As the sign said, in many different languages, God is love, and without love we are nothing.
Or the words of Pope John Paul, which are outside,
“How wonderful is this king who renounces all signs of power over the instruments of domination and wishes only to reign with the power of truth and love.”
While we can admire our traditions and history, it seems to me that this is what we need to remember when we are working out how to live our lives.
Well we are almost at an end of our second instalment of the Camino. We are currently in Samos and due to walk to Sarria tomorrow, to end 8 days of walking. We have loved the scenery and the people and the time out, but have not really loved the heat, or a persistent blister that I have had.
So the question was, what to write about as the last blog from the Camino. I have many more to write for this trip, but I wanted one more reflection about the walking.
It came to me the other day. As we were leaving La Herrerias, a lovely small village and heading for our big climb for the day, 8 kms almost straight up, we came across a little tree and sign. The sign asked us to write down on paper “what are your dreams” and to pin them to the tree. Of course there were heaps of messages, folded and pegged or tied to the tree, as the Camino lends itself to these sorts of thoughts.
So I wrote something, meaningful to me and placed it on the tree with the others. I felt good writing it down, not a huge dream, but one that was achievable (well I think so) and which would make my life better and more meaningful.
It got me thinking. Dreams, we all have dreams, no matter what age.
The Camino this time has been a little different. We have meet many people travelling the Camino alone, and who are much older than us. It has been amazing really to see the number of older women and men, well into their 60s and 70s, someone was even 79, trudging along with their backpacks and their walking sticks, relishing the comradery and the reflection of the walk. It was amazing to watch how they approached each day, particularly when we had the 8 km climb up to O Cebreiro, which was very difficult even for us 50 somethings. There they were, slowly ascending the path, one foot in front of the other until they reached the top. Determined, and methodical in their desire to get there.
These were women and men, walking sometimes their second or third time, embracing the hardship and also the beauty of the way.
When we talk of dreams we often think they are only for the young. That the young must have dreams and visions for the future, but older people, well, what would they have dreams about? Aren’t they well, old!
Yet the Camino tells a different story. There have been our German friends, Herbert and Marie, a retired couple who have walked the Camino twice and plan to come back, an older lady from Switzerland, again a third timer who now plans to bring her granddaughter with her next time, a couple of women over 70 from Holland who had walked from Amsterdam, and planned to go all the way to Santiago, carrying an amazingly small amount of clothes on their back. The older Korean man who we passed and then passed again as we, like little jack rabbits, had a rest and then fired up to continue while he just kept on going up the slope. Or the American, covered in sweat, and carrying the most enormous rucksack, who astounded us with his persistence.
All represent something pretty special. They reinforce the idea that we can have dreams and visions for the future at any age and at any stage in our lives.
The Camino says, just start walking, and the journey will begin, and in that journey we may begin to know ourselves better, and find ourselves reaching for new and challenging ways of being in the world, ways we never thought of. We are never too old to live out our dreams if we have the courage, and by living them out we might even change and grow.
You may not walk the Camino, and that’s okay. But dreams are not confined to people under 50! Dreams and the Camino are for any age, young or old.
A lesson I am going to try to remember as I approach 60!
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.