Day Twenty One. Buck naked.
The returns of Sunday's national election in Spain resulted in a repeat of the last election, in which no party seems to have a winning majority. It looks like Spain is in for more political instability, not unlike Europe, which is facing a very uncertain future as a result of the Brexit vote. Each night when I'm done my walk, I've been reading all kinds of online articles about the future of Europe and the US. There are lots of fears and worries about what may come.
All of this while I am walking the Camino, a path that has been followed for hundreds of years by pilgrims amidst political problems even more dramatic than our own--kingdoms falling, holocausts and genocides, world wars. Through it all, the Camino beckons to thousands, and the dirt along the paths continues to accept the footprints of those seeking something not available in ordinary life.
Today I am just about 15 miles from my destination of Santiago de Compostela. I will walk those final miles tomorrow, and I'm feeling a strange sense of anticipation. The Northern Camino Route which I have been following in relative isolation joined the more popular Camino Frances Route today. It was weird to see so many pilgrims on the road, and all the places catering to them for food, souvenirs, etc.. It is taking an adjustment to this sudden influx of people, and I suspect tomorrow will be even more challenging in that regard. There was also something else new on the Camino: a series of memorials to people who died in recent years during or after the walk. I'm not exactly sure what that means!
I was reading that some notable people have done at least a piece of the Camino:
in 1214 St Francis of Assisi followed the way, and over 200 years later St Ignatius of Loyola and St Francis Xavier followed. In recent times, actors Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Quinn, Martin Sheen and his son Emilio Estevez all followed one of the routes. Even Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist, followed the Camino in a symbolic section in his wheelchair.
The popularity of this walk has waxed and waned over the centuries. In the time of St Francis of Assisi it was a very popular spiritual practice, but in the 19th and 20th centuries, the numbers were very small. In 1986 only 2,491 pilgrims walked the route. In 2015, 262,459 pilgrims walked along The Way, about 100 times the number in the last 30 years!
Most people who have never heard of the Camino de Santiago would probably ask why people walk hundreds of miles to arrive at a church in Santiago. It's the same question that could be asked of Muslims who travel to Mecca, or Hindus who do a pilgrimage to holy sites in India, or Christians who travel to Jerusalem, or Lourdes, or other sites associated with saints. The Camino route to the relics of St James, one of Jesus' apostles (brother of John), goes back to the 11th century, when it was purported that the bones of the Saint were brought to Galicia in Spain to save them from being destroyed by Muslim invaders. Pilgrims believed then that traveling to his relics, and praying there, would bring them spiritual rewards for their act of self sacrifice on the journey.
I'm not sure why this has become such a phenomenon today. I have certainly met a number of people these last few weeks who are searching for answers in their lives. Often their journey doesn't appear to be spiritual in nature---or at least they wouldn't identify it as such. But I suspect that if you really explore their reasons, they would have to admit that they are at a point in their lives where the logical explanations of what's going on in their hearts are insufficient.
Why did I go? It began with an invitation from a young friend, an alumnus of the university where I have been teaching for the past 20 years. He told me last summer that he really wanted to go, and he thought I would be a good companion. I'm very fond of him. He is a smart, kind, faith-seeking person, and I was immediately grateful that he wanted me to accompany him. I wasn't quite sure what I wanted out of such a trip, but I had a bunch of months to think about it. And when he told me this Spring that his financial situation wouldn't allow him to go this summer (he's in graduate school and needs to make money), I had to ask myself---really, what DO you want to get out of this, especially if you do it alone?
Well, for one, I am facing a major change in my ministry. At the end of this coming sabbatical year from my academic work, I will most likely embark on some new kind of work. I've begun to think through some of the options, and I'll have many conversations about it in the months to come. But on a deeper level, I have long believed that as Christians we are meant to try as best we can to let go--I mean the parts of us that we hold onto because we are afraid and insecure--that keep us from transcending ourselves. The image of Jesus with his arms open (on the cross), is for me the ultimate path for every one of us--Christian or not--to realize our purpose. To be the best Amanda, Joe, Tony, Beth, Nancy, Stan possible, we have to be willing to risk letting go of our egos so that we can be entirely open to love. That means letting go of our pain, our anger, the hurts we have long-nurtured, and even our past sins. Maybe the best way to explain it is to say that we need to fall buck-naked into love, trusting that when we land, we will find the truth of who we have been all along.
I think in some ways that is why I have been on the Camino, walking 400 miles with a bunch of prayers and petitions in my backpack and on my lips. With every step I have come a little closer to letting go. I know that there are many more steps ahead of me before I land in the final truth. But these steps have helped me to see the route I need to take towards that end.
So...on to Santiago. I look forward to sharing my experience of that arrival tomorrow.