Hard to explain all this but it started with my friend Phil, at an important point in his life, deciding to walk the Camino de Santiago from St Jean in France, a journey of over 800km, taking over 5 weeks, in October and November, which is not the summer in Northern Spain. He set off and started posting pictures and daily comments on facebook. The impact on me was one of mild jealousy and a strange pull to go over and meet him for a few days at the end of his journey.
(In some ways I would have like to join him earlier, but my schedule here included other commitments and as I prayed it felt the most important thing was to be there at the end, meet those he had met, share in the experience in situ, allow myself to understand by feeling it rather than just hearing the stories when he got back.)
The other element was … what to take? On the Camino you carry your world on your back. I haven’t done that for a while, so needed to get organised, even if I was to walk 2 or 3 days. The biggest question was, “Do I take the Red Rope?” The answer was, “Of Course! … but is it madness?” So I did! And am I glad I did?!
So off I went on a Monday – the same day Phil was arriving in Santiago de Compostela. He had got up at 5am in order to walk into the city in time for the pilgrim mass at the Cathedral. I flew in that evening and placed myself in a cheap hotel and then texted to ask where he was. The answer was that he was meeting multiple groups of friends he had walked with on the Camino. Some had gone faster than him and had then gone on to Finesterre (4 more days walk to “the end of the world” – which was where we were going the next few days) and then returned by bus. Not really a group, more a group of individuals who had become a group, sometimes walking together, sometimes not, but had become traveling companions on the way. They were now gathering in Santiago and decided to eat together, laugh, reminisce, tease, moan, drink, say goodbye in style, or avoid saying goodbye as long as possible. Then there was another group, based around a vibrant Spanish family, and after dinner with one group there was a text to arrange to meet for a drink with the next. Maybe too much drink? (not me… my health doesn’t like it) Then the constant cry of “Photo! Photo!” and an endless stream of selfies.
The next day was the same. 2 Breakfasts, 3 lunches, tea twice, dinner in endless places, laughter, stories, a wonderful multi-nationality group of friends (slightly calmer!) from Korea, Italy and more.
On the Tuesday morning I decided the best way to carry the Red Rope was draped around my neck. Visible and inviting others to question or comment. 50ms from my hotel street performers came over and asked what it was. Hugs! Not my usual immediate greeting from strangers. Conversation about prayer. Praying while walking. Prayer needs in their lives. Someone spoke passionately to me in Spanish and explained his name was Jesus! Then he wrote a prayer for the world…. with multiple drawings and explanations while waving his hands. Other tried yo translate and add their bit of the story.
Then Phil arrived with Jerry (not his real name) who he had just met and made friends of, and invited to breakfast. “The Camino saved my life.” was Jerry opening remark. He had an incredible story from being adopted as a preteen into a Catholic family (which he hated) in the North of England . through to becoming a chef in the sky resorts of Switzerland to driving in a car with his girlfriend at the wheel who then crashed and the girl friend was killed. Jerry then crashed out of life towards substance abuse and self destruction, but before he succeeded he was walking on a bit of the Camino in Northern France and “met people and started following the route markers” and found himself walking the whole way to Santiago. That was four years ago. Now, every year he does the same, using a different route each time, and in it has found a solace and a way to stay living. Atheist and determined to stay that way. But so much more to him than that once you started to listen and hear the pain running through his blood stream. Pray for Jerry… please! We met him again and again over the next week or so. He is now walking on from Santiago, backwards down the Camino that goes through Portugal.
Then there was pilgrim mass. Phil and the groups of friends sat in the pews but I wandered to the back of the Cathedral. Immediately tourists from all over the world started approaching me to ask about the red rope. We discussed the blood of Jesus, the power of prayer, the stories of Rahab and the amazing promise within it that no matter how far from God we might feel or be that he has a plan to throw us a life line and draw us out and back into the centre of his purposes. Americans, Australians and others gathered around and joined in, wrote prayer tags, and enjoyed telling their stories to each other and me. It was life giving, fun, interesting, stimulating … and exactly what should be happening at the back of a Cathedral while a communion service was going on at the front.
And that was all before we actually started walking (which was Wednesday to Saturday…. on the route to Finisterre)…. and that was another story. I may write that up later as another blog.
In the meantime: once I was in on the way home I tried to write thoughts down. This is how they came out:
Implications of small decisions.
Meeting people along the way. Travelling with a friend’s new friends. Then those friends’ friends – and getting those apostrophes in the right place.
Visiting cathedrals and having tourists approach me to ask about my prayer rope even as the priest consecrates the host.
Realising I have brought too much I don’t need and now I must carry it longer than I should.
Too hot. Too cold. Too wet. Just damp. Never too dry.
Eating. Eating and knowing I need the food.
Laughing. Crying. Almost crying. Crying out.
Beauty. Not the beauty of the highest mountains. But beauty nonetheless.
Simplicity. Simplicity healing my friends. They have walked in it for weeks. They are detoxing from the complexity of most of their modern lives. They have a strange joy in spending little, experiencing discomfort, even though they could spend so much more. Then the other joy of spending “over €20” on a meal, because they can.
Then there is the “Red Rope”.
I wasn’t sure of the plan. I thought I should take it. I was a bit worried it was too big. Too heavy. That I would carry it around in a bag and wish I had left it behind. But no. God knows better. It brought joy. A series of small moments of joy. Of connection. Connection with people who would otherwise have just walking by, or just served us breakfast, or failed to notice us at all, as we would have failed to notice them.
Stories. Lives are made up of stories.
Beliefs. Prejudices. Incidents. Meetings. Happenings. Experiences. They are all founded in stories. A bit of life that has stuck in our memory with enough of a framework or sketch lines so that we can remember and tell it, first to ourselves and then to others. Or, sometimes, the other way around. Telling a story is often the way to realise it really is a story. Before that, it had no meaning. No power. But once it is a story. It infects us. Changes us. Becomes part of us. Guides us.
Santiago de Compstela Cathedral at night. It was quite foggy!