The Belonging that is our Birthright

So you tried love.  And it worked out okay… for a while.  But after a few episodes of feeling star-struck and then blind-sided, drawn in and then disillusioned, you decided to be a little more careful.  You discovered love wasn’t always reliable and you felt your tender heart preferred more guarantees.  You needed some rules.

 

And for a while you had religion… which was nice… sort of…because religion seemed to be about rules.  Even if they were a little confusing at times… but they also seemed comforting… and offered a sort of overarching reassurance that no matter what, God loved you… and Jesus loved you… and the church loved you… at least as long as you believed the right way and prayed the right way – according to the rules – everything would work out.  And it did… for awhile… until it didn’t.  And it was all good… for awhile…  Until it wasn’t.  Until you began to discover exceptions.  Until you realized that sometimes, despite believing and praying and living according to the rules, your heart could still be broken.  You could still feel betrayed… empty.

 

Many people experience those feelings with religion.  And it’s often at this point where they decide to make a change.  Although they can still feel a deep sense of spirituality alive inside them, they feel the need to separate themselves from all the inconsistencies and hypocrisy they discovered in the rules of religion.  They vow to begin making their own rules.   And with that vow, they go around and collect the various examples of lessons and practices they’d been handed about God and Jesus and prayer – and throw them all out the back door.  The whole kit and caboodle.  The baby and the bathwater.

 

They work hard to forge a new set of rules – their own set of rules… which they reason will be more reliable, leave them less vulnerable.  And this strategy  works… for awhile.

 

But, despite this, they notice still occasionally feelings of a familiar emptiness.  And when they dare to get quiet enough, or take a really long walk or have a really honest conversation with themselves, they recognize that what’s missing is some inherent sense of belonging.  Some connection that they know was meant to be theirs by birthright.  And though they are rarely able to say by whom such belonging was promised to them or in what form it should appear, they go off in search.  Until the day comes when they finally look out in the backyard of their own house and see, peering out from the tall weeds, an old man and a rusty old tub, out in the back yard where they’d been thrown away so many years ago.  And they notice that old man staring back at them… expectantly… wondering if it’s finally time to have a real conversation about love.

 

Prayer for Peace

This is a draft of the prayer I will offer at
The Second Annual Interreligious Prayer and Dialogue for Peace
this Sunday evening, September 29, 2013 at 7:00 pm
at St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Triangle, Virginia 18825 Fuller Heights Road, Triangle, VA 22172.

 

This service is based on the Assisi Decalogue for Peace.  I was asked to comment and pray upon decalogue #4:
“We commit ourselves to defend the right of all human beings to lead a dignified life, in accordance with their cultural identity, and to start their own family freely.”

 

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If there is to be peace in the world
There must be peace among the nations
If there is to be peace among the nations
There must be peace within the cities
If there is to be peace within the cities
There must be peace among neighbors
There must be peace in the home
If there is to be peace in the home
There must be peace in the heart.
-        Lao Tzu

 

I overheard a conversation this week about conflict among cultures.  The conversation touched on what is happening today in Syria.  In Iraq and Iran.  It touched on what took place in Rwanda and Bosnia, in the 90s.  And what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s.
-        Finally, came the question: ‘What is genocide?’
-        Someone responded: ‘Genocide is when two different groups, fight.  And the dominant group attempts to exterminate the other so as to maintain their dominance.’
-        ‘No’, came the response.  ‘Genocide is when two groups of people WHO BELIEVE THEY ARE different, fight.  And extermination and survival become the dominant strategies.’

 

It is the beliefs underneath actions that are powerful.  To paraphrase writer, Kurt Vonnagut, “We become who we believe we are so we must be very careful about who we believe we are.”

 

There is so much fighting of ideologies in the world.  And not just in the world.  Closer to home.  Fights about beliefs… ideologies… traditions… rituals…  And sometimes we lose.  And feel overpowered.  And helpless.  And, eventually, isolated and desperate.

 

In my tradition, there is a reading which appears in our hymnal from poet Marge Piercy which speaks to this.  She writes.

 

What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.
They can set you up,
they can bust you,
they can break your fingers,
they can burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk,
can’t remember,
they can take your child,
wall up your lover.
They can do anything you can’t stop them from doing.
How can you stop them?

 

Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse,
you can take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
… But two people fighting
back to back
can cut through a mob,
a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon,
an army can meet an army.

 

Two people can keep each other sane,
can give support,
conviction,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge.

 

With four you can play bridge and start an organization.

 

With six you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
seconds,
and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.

 

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,

it starts when you do it again
after they said ‘no,’
it starts when you say ‘We’
and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.

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Our greatest battle in this world is one which we all wage against the illusion of our separateness.  We form powerful distinctions based on our age, our gender, the color of our skin, our lineage, our sexual orientation, our habits and preferences, our religion and our politics… And we distort these distinctions – expressions of our uniqueness – into conclusions that we are different.  But we are not.  We are fundamentally one people.
And beyond that, we are one with all other life on this planet.  Indivisible and interdependent.
Let us pray.

 

God – who is to us the alpha and omega – everything and oneness – who is known to each by a different name…

 

Call us together.

 

Help us listen, beyond the barriers of pride and ego, beyond anger and fear and desperation.

 

Fashion from the tensile strength of our distinctions, the unified bones of one body and charge us with the work of bringing together neighbors… and cities… and nations until the Love you created within us is made manifest among all people around us.

 

Amen.

 

 

The Map of Mercy

Consider how you were made.  The well-loved blueprint that outlined your frame… the careful instructions that described how flesh connects to bone… the prayers which guided your soul to join to head and heart.

 

Consider the first time you expressed helpless need – fingers outstretched into a fuzzy world… that first thing you saw that taught you the word, ‘fair’, the great battles between fear and love which revealed the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; the first sight of something that might die which engendered mercy, the wish for relief and its application upon all things that helped you understand liberty.

 

Consider, what made you as if, arranging its shape can turn it from fear and trembling into the cure for cancer, or a heliotron producing fully formed suns – complete with planets that orbit your world.  But don’t ignore all the naivety that came pre-installed in your operating system, or the crooked teeth that came, and the gait that stays even after the injury is healed, or the arthritic joints ushered in by age, or the baldness, or the trembling that won’t stop.

 

Consider, as well, the brilliant number of endings that came with your birth and the equal number of beginnings – plus one.

 

Now imagine the response when your fear is revealed… your desperation… your reluctant conclusions that something else must surrender for you to be safe.  Imagine the discipline with which one of you applies force, creating a cascade of sorrows.  Imagine what your maker might say.

 

Do the impossible.  Restore life to those you have been dead to you, wholeness to those you compartmentalized, resilience to what you have hardened, trust to the forsaken.

 

Bless each other with heart and soul, hands and feet, soft gaze and a tender tongue.  Make brain and brawn, blood and sweat and muscle and bone the carrier of burdens on one and another’s road to bountiful.  Do this for the clothed and naked, the too poor and too rich, the infirmed and the invincible.

 

All this has been given to you – without your asking – like grace.  Like a bridge built by others that stretches to the island you made out of your loneliness when you gave up looking for a way home.   It comes without guilt or shame, shoulds or oughts or any pains of the past.  It is offered with promise and purpose and a blessing written onto a life-sized map of mercy.

The Flight of Wonder

The Flight of Wonder

(inspired by Heather McHugh)

The toddler

Besides being an energetic ball of boundless wonder

was quite ordinary.

A little pale, lanky

and not yet completely familiar with the owner’s manual

that came with his body

-        evidenced by his drunken gate,

-        and the wide eyes and wide open heart,

he displayed as he stumbled up and down the aisle.

He was one of us

    – only more so –

one of the heard of passengers

headed to some place

too far to imagine

trying to get there

in the fastest way we could think.

When he passed my seat the second

and third time at full tilt

I turned my attention from Lethal Weapon 4

to see what was so urgent.

Then I noticed…

He’s running back and forth
across a small sun-blazed circle shining on the carpet

The mesmerizing brilliant beam

magically connected

-        by floating dust particles

to a small crack in a window

some 10 rows back

at just the right magic moment

at the end of the day

right before the sun sinks over the horizon.

‘It’s light!,’ I thought.  ‘Only light,’

But then, I caught myself

diminishing his wonder

and I summoned myself toward accountability

trying to recall

Why had I stopped noticing such things?
Why I had stopped appreciating such things?

Stopped looking for such things?

Indeed, it’s worth asking why I

– and the hundreds of others on board –

propped in rows and sitting obediently in a line

not, also in that moment, fallen captive to wonder?

Why were we not also running back and forth

darting across the beam

watching it trace a line across our body

marveling in astonishment

that it did not cut us – or the whole plane – in two.

Then, after the umpteenth time
he ran past my chair,

I began to notice

that besides having lost wonder and whimsy

I was also becoming alarmingly low on patience.

Which is exactly when,

suddenly, he noticed me noticing him

and stopped –

leaving one daring hand on my armrest

to inspect the wonders of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some cannot walk.
But everyone was sun-struck once,

and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how astonishing this world is?

So perfectly turning our attention

to the practicalities of life,

have we also become deaf and unmoved

by radiance?

Looking back on that moment

now a generation of years ago,

I wonder if that toddler lost what he once radiated.

If his wonder and imagination faded in importance

like Mel Gibson faded from prominence.

I wonder if the stewardess

who came and took that little boy

to his seat

was just ushering us all toward our inevitable destination.

Telling us to buckle up

so that we can prepare for take off

toward all that cannot stay young forever.

The Masks We Wear

Dear Friends,

Recently an article appeared in Psychology Today about a four year old girl who wanted desperately to be a pirate for Halloween.  Her mom took her to a costume shop where she was very clear she didn’t want to be a nice pirate.  She wanted to be a mean, scary pirate who isn’t afraid of anything.  So she got a pirate mask and a swashbuckler hat and an eye patch.  And, as soon as she got home she donned her garb and ran to the mirror to check herself out.  But after taking a gander at herself, she screamed in horror and tore off the costume.  When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m too scary.”  That’s when she decided to be a fairy instead.

It’s fall which brings two things to mind: change and masks.

Change often has to do with seasons… with the texture and color and location of leaves as well as the temperature we’re in and the clothing we don.

Masks come to mind because of Halloween.  But also what we do while addressing changes around us we may not feel prepared for.  When we’re young, Halloween gives us a chance to ‘try on’ a new persona that may stretch our understanding of our own personal ordinary-ness.  But sometimes, either because we’re lazy or have an inkling that ‘we’re not quite done with it,’ we wear the same mask we did last year.  Sometimes for years on end.  For a myriad of reasons, this can become an approach to life.

It stands to reason that as we move through life our story and our narrative change.  It evolves as we evolve.  It reflects and integrates the complexities we’ve encountered.  If we’re honest and true to that changing story, our face – the face we present to the world – changes as well.  But sometimes we’re not completely ready to change our story.  Or the way we face the world.

In his book, ‘Mother Night,’ writer Kurt Vonnegut introduces the main character as expatriate American playwright Howard Campbell, who lands in Germany, marries a German woman and passes coded messages on to US generals.  As his cover, he pretends to be a Nazi propagandist, but things become horribly confused and he not only ends up botching his assignment and ruining his marriage but becoming an unwitting inspirational icon to bigots.  In his 1966 introduction to the paperback edition, Vonnegut says this: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

Of course, this moral is as applicable to entire communities, societies and cultures of people as it is for an individual.  When our efforts to hold on to the stories or masks which have outlived their usefulness, we can bring about great internal as well as external conflict.   Holding on to a narrative of personal innocence can keep us apathetic instead of motivated to learn about the things around us that need our help.  Continuing to believe that we’re a frontier society surrounded by danger can be one of the reasons we own so many guns and why we seem unable to keep violence from spilling into the public square. Clutching onto old stories that society is an equal playing field where anyone can succeed blinds us to the increasing numbers of people falling through the cracks.

The greatest religious and moral breakthroughs – for individuals and communities – comes when we begin to see clearly.  Like the little girl standing in front of the mirror, seeing herself as she really is instead of how she has imagined herself to be, she becomes willing to be honest about where she is.  Which helps her get where she wants to go.  Sometimes these experiences can be painful.  But think of it as breaking through the painful constrictions that reveal our wise and expansive selves.

Songwriter Jim Morrison once described it this way:  “Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio.  It’s sending us a signal of our own reality. If you feel ashamed of that signal, and try to hide it, you’re letting society destroy your reality… The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are.   When you trade in your reality for a role, you trade in your life for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”

To be religious these days has nothing to do with reciting old stories, believing by doctrine or acting holy.  To be religious these days means to be fiercely transparent and courageously vulnerable.  It is being willing to let what is old die, so what is new can be born.  It is seeing the impotence of what’s dead so as to understand the Glory of Life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finisterre – End of the Earth

A dozen times since I first saw Finisterre on the horizon, I felt tears overcome me.  I brushed them aside while climbing down the hillside plateau above Cee when the cape – Cabo Fisterre – appeared, more than 20 km in the distance.  Then, as I lay in bed, thinking of the next morning´s trek into destination city.  Then still, another handful of moments while walking along the coast, seeing the colorful houses of the town and the lighthouse off in the distance.

Tears make everything harder.  Along the steep and rocky descent into Cee, where each footstep needed to be carefully placed, it slowed my pace.  During the evening, trepidation mixed with the excitement of the journey ending.  The next morning, as the waters edge appeared closer and closer and I walked beside it for the last 6 km, I began to think of why the prospect of making the last 7 km rountrip – from the town of Finisterre to the cape (the land´s edge) – was so hard.

I am glad to be finishing.  There is no doubt about that.  Hours upon hours of walkng, carrying everything on your back… constantly scanning the horizon for markers of the way to go, always fearing the missed-sign which leads miles in the wrong direction and adds hours to the journey.  Arriving at each day´s destination, only to have to go from hostel to hostel to see if they have room… showering in a closet-sized room and stepping on your dirty clothes to keep from getting your clean ones wet as you put them on.  Washing your clothes by hand and hanging them on the line.  Getting up hours before the sun, walking by lamp-light so as to have a better chance at an open hostel and enough sunlight left in the day for your clothes to dry before dark.

It´s not without an array of blessings: beauty being one.  And adventure.  And some of the most fascinating and amazing people.  There are enough moments of wisdom and inspiration and useful lessons doled out in one day to last a year in the ´real world.´ I won´t forget the places I´ve seen, the people I´ve met or the lessons I learned and wouldn´t trade them for any amount of comfort I could have crammed into this past six weeks.

I´m not at a loss for what the tears are about.  Or the challenge they place before me.

I did a pretty good job of packing for this trip.  Where as many perrigrinos (Spanish for ´pilgrims´) fell to the temptation of trying to avert disaster or discomfort and carry along their hairdryer or the eight books they planned to read along the way, I took only what I knew I needed. Where many were mailing packages of supplies home or simply leaving them in the albergues (hostels) along the way, I packed and repacked the same back (although my medical portion of the bag did significantly increase in volume and weight with the addition of blister cremes, bandages, ibuprofin gel (which is awesome and should be allowed in the US) as well as bedbug spray.  But I did bring one thing not on too many other´s check-lists: my mother´s ashes.

It wasn´t much weight.  Only a few ounces, really.  So I was surprised by the weight of pulling them for the first time from my pack in Peunte de le Reina and scattering them in the courtyard next to the hostel where we stayed – a particularly warm climate with friendly people with songs and stories that created a nice spirit-filled evening.  When I poured them out onto the ground it suddenly felt like everything about the journey suddenly became heavier… and harder.  I wasn´t expecting such an unbidden response.

Celia WardAnyone who´s ever heard me talk about my mother knows that the path we walked over the course of our life was not the smoothest or easiest.  There were certainly times when she was front and center with care and understanding and acceptance in my moments of greatest need.  And even times where I could tell she loved being there for me.  But there were many moments where she wasn´t and what needs I had were left unmet.  Indeed, there were enough moments where I stopped letting those needs be known, unable to bear the disappointment.

I fell into a habit I´ve seen a number of people try: replacing the disappointment with hurt and anger.  And finally filling that space meant for openness, humility or vulnerability with a protective self-reliance.  All the while, I harbored a fantasy that one day my mother would figure out how to be the caring person I had needed and set aside her own self protection.  I coupled that with the twin fantasy that a mate would come along with that same selfless love I´d always wanted and rescue me – heal the hurts and recognize the love and care I had to offer.

But this year, when I turned fifty, and my mother died, I came to realize that I needed to put these fantasies to rest.  Which was part of the whole Santiago adventure: find a way so far removed to carry the grief and set it down.  Maybe to the end of the earth.

So the pain at pouring out the ashes at Peunte de le Reina… and then again in Villambistio… and Burgos… and in Carrion…   It didn´t make sense why it would feel so heavy to set down grief.  Why the tears?  Like there were other obstacles in the way.

When I arrived in Finisterre, I checked into the albergue.  I didn´t take a shower or do my laundry – the usual orders of business after reaching my destination.  There was still 7 km to go to the cape.  So, I kept my boots on and put my stuff away.  And from my pack I pulled the remainder of the ashes I had been carrying.  It felt funny to be walking somewhere without my poles or my pack.  And without all that, I was struck that it felt oddly heavier with just the ashes.  And as a new set of tears came, it suddenly dawned on me why.

It occured to me that I could never let go of my mother without first finding someone who would be willing to take on all the responsibility I had been draping over her all of my life.  The role of someone to offer solace and support, someone to understand the attention that was missing, offer the appreciation and affection, be someone to confide in, and build confidence from…  And the only one who could ever offer all that was me.  And I wasn´t sure I was up to it.  It´s sometimes easier to resent someone else for not loving us than to love ourselves.

Carrying those ashes up the long hill came with all the predictable bargaining.  I could hear my mom´s martyred reasoning: begging me to let her retain the responsibility for loving me and providing my sense of wellbeing… and I could hold on to my resentment and all the reasons why I couldn´t have the life I wanted, take the risks that were mine to take and open my heart to the love I hoped to know.  I walked on.

When the road arrived at the lighthouse, a smaller dirt path split off and headed down to the water.  It swtiched directions, back and forth, down the steep grade until it finally leveled off and became more and more narrow.  For a while it became two narrow tire tracks and then one single slender track through the brush until the path disappeared altogether.  That´s when it all became clear.

I hadn´t come half way around the world and walked to the end of the earth because I needed a place far enough away to leave my grief.  I came all that way to show myself I was strong enough to carry my life as far as I wanted to go.

I followed what appeared to be a little rabbit trail through the bramble and thistle until all that was left was the rocky cliff edge.  I traced the edge of the rocks to an outcropping where I could clammer out as far as I could.  I sat with the bottle in my hand, listening to Yo Yo Ma and opened a conversation with my mom from every decade of my life.  I recalled my changing needs and feelings and her changing response over the years.  Remembered the times we connected… the times we struck out.  All the tenderness.  All the complexity.

Finally, there was a pause.  The waves lapped against the rocks as if to offer a reassuring plea – ´we are big enough,´I could feel them say.  ´We can take her.´ I let her go into the wind and the waves.  And I let go of my expectations and resentment of her. And doubts of myself.  I wept for a few minutes, asking forgiveness for the weight of needs I placed on her – and others – that they could not meet for me… and the needs I failed or refused to meet for myself.   And then, lighter in spirit, I climbed up through the bramble and back to the town of Finisterre.

Tomorrow, I move on to the town of Muxia.  I haven´t read ahead in the guidebook, so I dont know what it means, but I know this:  In the ancient Roman days when this camino first began, Finisterre was believed to be edge of everything known.  Beyond its shore, lay uncertainty, harrowing and even dreadful predicaments.  It wasn´t until later that they discovered that Muxia was actually slightly further west than Finisterre.

This camino is ended. Tomorrow, when I walk on to Muxia, it will be to expand the bounds of all I´ve known.  An opened bottle is like an opened heart.  You can fit a lot of love and adventure in the space taken up by hurt and resentment.  It made me realize that you can use such containers for gratitude.  If they´re big enough.

´Buen Camino´

We say it, literally, dozens of times a day.  When passing by other pilgrims… when townspeople pass us on the street…  But, especially, we say it when we leave… when we rise and get up to continue our journey.  Whether we rise to begin our morning trek, or from one resting place to the next, we always turn to the pilgrims around us and say, ´buen camino.´

It means, ´good path,´ or ´good way,´ as in a blessing for the way ahead.  But it is much more than that.

I wrote in an earlier blog, that it has become a reality of the camino that each pilgrim lives with the constant understanding of uncertainty.  We never know.  Specifically, when we part that day, we never know if we will see our current company again down the path.  Sometimes we can make assumptions.  Sometimes even arrangements.  But on the camino, things happen.  Blisters.  Injuries.  Unexpected new opportunities.  Accidents.

I arrived into the Santiago de Compostella on Tuesday, July 23rd.  This was two days before the feast day of St. James – the day the entire town waits for every year to celebrate its raison d´etre – reason for being.  We joked as we we were walking into town that without St. James and this pilgrimage, the town wouldn´t even have a name.

When we arrived, it certianly seemed true.  The cathedral rises above everything and the entire town encircles it.  And at night, when the lights are cast upon the magnificent spires, it looks like an ancient Oz in all it´s emeraldness.  Every day, pilgrims arrive into the city, jubilant – the completion of often more than 800 km of prayerful (or mostly prayerful) walking toward this church.  Everyday, inside the cathedral, a mass is performed to honor those who have arrived.  The ritual goes back 1400 years and, somehow, the all the history is sewn into the importance each pilgrim feels as he walks into the magnificent St. James square.

The town was in the midst of all its preparations when we arrived.  The dozens of pilgrims we started with swelled to hundreds and then thousands as various pilgrim routes converged in Burgos, then again in Leon and especially at the 110 km mark in Sarria.  And so many of them increased the daily distance they travelled to arrive in time for the festival on the 25th.  The music, the celebration and – above all – the fireworks set to go off at midnight on the 24th – all set the tone to commemorate what to each person feels like an epic accomplishment in their life.

My last two and a half weeks on the camino became much quieter and more reflective after Liz left and I have used the time to have more contemplative and prayerful conversations with myself and others on the path.  I did walk in with about 15 others and we did celebrate… and upon seeing each of the several dozen people I walked with during the previous five weeks, hugs and smiles were exchanged, a few beers were consumed and stories were plentiful.

But the quantity and caliber of the celebration preparing to be deployed at the festival seemed to be registering far higher on the exuberance scale then the quiet and tender new ideas I had been collecting.  So after getting my certificate of completion from the credentialing office, and seeing many – but not all – of the people I´d met along the way, I retreated to the hostel where I was staying about .75 km from the cathedral.

Roots and Boots, my hostel, was chosen because it has a magnificent view of the cathedral, and I managed to get in earlier enough to get the best room and the best bed among all 175 spaces.  My top bunk looked out on St. James square so that I would have a perfect view of the fireworks that would begin going off around 11:30 pm.

At about 10:00, I noticed that I had left my electrical adapter in my last hostel, and I went downstairs to the desk to ask if they had an extra one.  But the woman who had been so kind and helpful to me when I arrived was running out from the office area and closing up the room.  ´Escopa me,´ I tried to interupt.  But she stopped me.  In very broken English she said, ´sorry… not now… there is something terrible… I must go to the train station…´ and she hurried out the door.

I didn´t ask anyone else about it.  I just went back upstairs and got into bed and waited for the fireworks to begin.  At 11:00 the lights around the cathedral went out, for what I thought were the final preparations.  But 11:30 came and there were no fireworks.  Finally, at midnight, the lights came back on.  I was confused.  I wasn´t sure if I missed it.

Around 12:30, others came back into the room we were all sharing and there was a lot of whispering, but it was all in Spanish, so I could not understand what everyone was saying.  It wasn´t until 6:30 in the morning, after I went downstairs and was preparing to leave that I heard the news.

At around 9:00 pm, a train travelling from Madrid into Santiago – bringing a number of celebrants into the city for the festival – derailed only a few few kilometers from the station.  77 were originally reported dead.  I later found out that the woman who worked at the front desk had her son on the train.  He lived.  But another pilgrim, who had already finished his camino and was returning to be with other friends – who was to be staying in the room next to the one I was in – died.

A dozen of us sat around the hostel watching the news reports feeling helpless and sad and lost.  In various languages, we volleyed ideas about going down to help or donate blood.  But we had no medical records and no transportation.  So after much discussion, a group of us decided to do what we could: to continue our walk because they couldn´t.  To walk and carry their stillness with us.  Our destination: Finisterre: ´the end of the earth.´

The big pilgrim mass – the one so many of my fellow pilgrims were hurrying to arrive in time for – was cancelled.  In its place was a mass to honor the dead with the bishop in attendance.  Everyone had prepared for a great celebration.  What was held was something very different.

When I arrived at my first stop, 10 km outside of Santiago, I ordered a cafe and sat down to watch the mass which was being televised.  Inside the cathedral, the cameras panned over the faces of attendees.  There were dozens of people I knew – people I´d walked with over the course of the last 6 weeks – who were in attendance.  Everyone looked stunned.  Everyone had tears.

We say ´buen camino.´  It is a powerful gesture.  We say it, I think, in place of the feelings we hold but have no words: ´It has been lovely travelling the way with you…. it would be wonderful to see you again at the next place of rest… but one never knows.´

Today, with a heavy heart, I remember those who died… and those who were affected by this tragedy… and all those who carry with them the power of connection and the precious impermanance of life.  And I hope everyone is able to impress upon those they are with, how wonderful it has been to share this part of the way together.

Day 16 or so… from Burgos to Hornillos to CastroJeriz to Fromista to Carrion and beyond…

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A number of individual circumstances prevent me from posting regularly… not the least of which is whether or not internet is available at all in the hostels or towns we end up at.  And even when internet is available, posting – as compelling as it seems to me – falls below the priority line when it comes to finding a place to stay, food, footcare, laundry, and even being with the people who´ve travelled alongside us.

I am still stuck on the question, ´why are you walking?´ and I have asked almost everyone I´ve come across and gotten into some very interesting conversations.  I have come to understand that there must be a compelling reason in each pilgrim.  The journey itself is not easy enough to make the choice cavellier.

Walking the camino means enduring 20-30 km a day of foot pounding on a wide variety of paths – many of which require focus and concentration to protect weary and sore feet and where it often gets up to nearly 100 degrees F.  The camino means dedicating yourself to the moment to moment focus to not lose the path (or get waylaid onto a different path), the daily search for a place to stay, among people whose language you don´t speak, so that you can sleep with 8-20 people in a room, endure a symphony of snoring almost every night, take showers with five other people in the bathroom, eat food which is often good and nutritious but not always, sleep in rooms that are never air conditioned and almost always above 80 degrees… just to wake up between 4:00 and 5:30 to repair your feet with blister pads and creme, pop a couple of ibuprofin (and even apply some handy ibuprofin gel).  It means enduring stretches as long as 18 km without water, praying for the next cathedral to poke its head into view as you rise to the top of the hill and living with the disappointment when it doesn´t.  It means leaving behind all the assumptions of comfort and distraction so that you can fully experience ´the way,´ even when ´the way´ means hardship and pain and delayed gratification and is often a symbol for something you can´t fully remember or call to mind.

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One has to have good reasons.  There are too many ways the camino can defeat you, lose you, discourage you, humble you and return you to your uncompelling reasons.  You have to have good reasons.  Certainly better than those who were sent on the camino in the middle ages… those for whom the camino was a punishment… perhaps for a crime against the church or where the church would deem you unworthy of entry into heaven without the paying of an indulgence.   Church Magistrates would give the opportunity to pay the indulgence by walking the camino and reporting to Santiago.  Of course, this was also good for the church since it would give validation to the pilgrimage that the church was trying to promote.   It may have also rid certain areas of undesirables.  It is thought that  only 80% of those who began the camino during the middle ages lived to see the square of St. James at the other end.  And those that did survive, never returned.  It would be unheard of.  And unneccessary.  Because if, indeed, they did survive, they would have accomplished the goal of becoming a different person.

So, perhaps that is what the camino is really all about. People who are looking for that difference.  People who want something about themselves, or their lives to be different – or perhaps just to make a difference.  The kind of difference they had always wanted their life to make, but hadn´t quite figured out how to get there.  I´ve met plenty of such people on the camino.

I´m thinking of Chris from Missouri – an only child, raised in a farming camino now surrounded by brothers and sisters and travelling from city to city.  He´s travelled the world now for two years and has  a disciplined search for the best way to make a difference in his life and with others.

I´m thinking of Thomas – in his sixties – from Northern England.  Now an artist… formerly a social worker for thirty years… always a songwriter (he´s the one who wrote, ´Come Walk Along the Way with Me´.)  He is going to finish the camino and return to England in time to spend 10 days with his daughter who is now finished with her education and is moving to Austrailia for post grad work.

I´m thinking of Carolina – in her thirties – from Brazil now living on the border between France and Switzerland.  Between jobs… between relationships… between visions of what she would like to spend the rest of her life doing….

I´m thinking of Maayan, nearly 30 from Israel.  Preparing to go to Madison in the fall for post grad fellowship in Political Science.   In two weeks of the camino she has found an unexpected romance.

I´m thinking of Johannes – also early 30s, from Sweden – tall and lanky – a school teacher who is kind but, like his culture, a little guarded and reserved.  Finding Maayan and walking the way with someone has changed him.  He smiles all the time whereas before it was hard to see a smile.

I´m thinking about the more than a  dozen mother – son or  father – daughter or mother – daughter teams that have come… hoping to discover a new facet of their relationship.  20130706_065949.jpg

 I´m thinking of Andreas and Ricardo from Sicily who are walking the camino to purify their intentions before entering into the seminary… 20130704_194010.jpg

and of Fr. Simon, Marcus and Talida – the Canadian Catholic misisonaries who are using the camino to help people during the moments of their spiritual  challenges…

I´m thinking of the people who have come to the camino from every country, at all ages, from every class  and culture looking for a part of themselves that has not been revealed in all the repeateable, day to day, routines that have intentionally been built into their lives.

I´m thinking of the nuns of Avila who run the albergue in Carrion, who sing  vespers at night and wash sheets and check in pilgrims during the day…  And who make dinner and pray and sing songs with the pilgrims at night.  IMG_20130707_181232_366.jpg

I´m thinking of the priests who do the pilgrims mass and who offer a pilgrims blessing to any pigrim that comes up after mass.   Who will take your head in both hands and look  into your eyes and say, ´God Loves You and is with you every step…´ and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

The Camino changes you.  There are many who say that it is a commercial enterprise… that it started with the church  finding ways to relieve sin with penatentive indulgences.   That it was a way for the church to self promote and for the cities and villages founded around churches to thrive…   There is no doubt that there is truth to this… But there is also truth beyond this… The camino is a force of beneficence. The very act where strangers meet and help one another make it over a trying stretch of road, where curiosity and cooperation, for once, reign in a world so filled with competition and spite… the way reminds us that all of us – every one of us – has something good to offer.  The Camino gives us the opportunity to see this and learn from it… even if it is sometimes dolling it out in difficult and painful ways.

Yesterday, in my conversation with Antonio (Italy), IMG_20130712_120914_762.jpg

we decided  this.  After talking about how the new pope practiced foot washing with prisoners we pondered the reason he would get on his own knees to be with people who have been told they are not worthy of living among normal citizens.  We surmised that seeing someone of obvious worth humble themsleves forces us to see from a different perspective.   We understood that humble comes from the Latin root, ´humus´ which is the same root as human and means, ´grounded,´or óf the earth.´  We talked about how this is why people get on their knees to pray.   Why we bow or kneel before something that is holy.  So that by being humble, we might begin to see what God sees in those most healing or holy moments.

We reduced it to a three premise set:

- Life is difficult.

-  When it is difficult, it becomes humbling.  -

-  When we feel humbled enough, we begin to see things the way God may see them and appreciate things from a more reverent perspective.

 

Day 11 and beyond – Grinon to Belorado to Borgos to…

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(Billboard of a pilgrim outside of the hostel in Belorado)The pain continues… and, indeed, as all pain does, it seeps into the deepest parts of our awareness.  For example, by email I was informed that my understanding of the number of bones in the human foot was way, way off.  Not 200 (since there are only 206 bones in the whole human body).  I suspect that my miserable accuracy is due to one of three things: either my foot bones are scrambled with my brain bones… or they are conspiring with the other hundred and some odd bones in my body to enhance my level of awareness and appreciation of the pain possible… or… the whole aspect of pain is really trying to get to something much deeper and essential to the reason for this pilgrimage: a sense of humility.Eckert Tolle and many Buddhist teachers talk about how our ability to achieve higher states of consciousness is actually diminished by our insatiable propensity toward thinking.  Most thinking, Tolle says, is about how to navigate or respond to some discomfort or problem and most of that is either ruminating about events of the past which produce concern or the foreboding aspect of the future.  When our mind is constantly ruminating about events which have already passed or events we are imagining about our future, we spend very little time in the ´now´ which is how Tolle and Buddhists essentially measure the breadth and depth of our consciousness: how present we are to our own immediate aliveness.I confess that I´ve been one of those people who´ve never seen the value in intentional suffering or self flagelation.  Watching those monks walk down the street with whips in their hand whipping themselves only seemed to feed a comical sterotype about religious discipline.  But one thing that I´ve found on this trip is that pain – because it is so immediate and undeniable – has a certain ability to pierce present thought -. or at least override it and drag all that thought in a singular direction.  I can testify to the significant downside to this strategy.  Pain is… well… painful… and it brings with it all kinds of adjacent fears like, ´what if it doesn´t stop… and what essential thing is this going to keep me from doing´… etc…    But… one upside is that it does have a remarkable ability to drastically reduce – if not eliminate mind chatter.  It is immediate.  It is an awareness of the present circumstance.  And it does have the ability to make senstize me to the pain of others around me as well.  And in this awareness, there seems to be a significant empathic breakthrough about the pain that exists at any given moment in the world: my pain, that preoccupies me… others pain that keeps them from giving their full attention to the world… the pain – real or imagined – of groups or systems around conflicts or potential conflicts…  even systems which approach the edge of their growth (such as the infinite natural living systems around us) experience the pain of impermanence of their present condition – forcing them to either grow beyond their current state or die and recede…  It´s endless.Becoming aware of how this is going on everywhere – all at once – is a very fascinating new way of being witness to the aliveness within, around and beyond us at every moment.  It is also a great reminder of both how we are alike and in sync with everything around us and what a small, but essential, part we play in the chorus of living experience.

The physical aspect of the camino doesn´t go away.  Old pains subside (blisters pop and heal and new blisters form… then bone pain from endless foot pounding on hard ground… then knees, and back from carrying weight, or stomach growling, etc…) and new pains take their place.  But, I think, with this kind of understanding we begin to transcend into a different understanding of ´the way´ (´camino´ translates as, ´the way.´)

The second facet is the mental aspect of the camino.  As we were passing a huge area of farmland, there was a concrete irrigation ditch on the side of the path with spray painted letters asking, ´why are you walking?´

´Why are you walking?´  It is a very good question when by the end of the day… by the end of your 22-25km all you can think about is how much your feet and body ache… Arriving at your destination is good… seeing all your fellow pilgrims – all of whom begin to, themselves, appear as relief, in their familiarity and with the mutual sympathy you´ve developed around the shared experience – including the pain… the wonder of the beauty of the Spanish landscape… seeing the ancient and the modern mix… meeting people from all over the world… sitting at dinner (which have been mostly amazing food and lots of it) are all very stimulating and exciting.   But when mixed with all the basic steps necessary to make it through the day (finding a hostel, getting a shower, washing your clothes by hand and hanging them on a line, massaging your feet and tending your wounds…).  The question is a good one.

Only about an hour after walking past this spray-painted question we ran across a man on a horse.  Liz and I both immediately thought of Man of LaMancha.  Except as he approached us on the camino, we discovered that he was English, not Spanish… and that he owned a stable of horses just south of where we´d met and he needed to transport them – by foot, not trailer – to Pamplona (nearly 150 km back in the direction we´d come).

After initial greetings and asking where we from, etc, he asked the same question: ´Why are you walking?´

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There is something about our ordinary routines of work and home and our general hobbies and entertainment when we become aware that we forge boundaries around the perimeter of our existence which begins to define us.  Even our thoughts – and our mind chatter – becomes rather repetitiously predictable.  And after bumping up against the edge of the same conversations – with others and ourselves – a curiosity… a longing… begins to emerge which asks us, ´how far can we push the forming edge of our life….?  How far will it stretch before it begins to tear and break away until we are able to transcend into something else… or, at least, realize something new about where we´ve been.

The pushing of limits and boundaries – previously unmoveable or unquestionable can be a careless or sacred act – sometimes both.  But I believe, and I think this pilgrimage reveals – that my life can be far bigger in the present moment than I often allow it to be even with all my mental and emotional gymnastics.  And what I really encounter when I throw myself past my imagination – even with all the pain and struggle and challenge of being beyond my comfort zone – is far more exciting and far more alive for me then what I normally allow myself.  And I believe that I have learned how to be more present in the immediate situaiton by facing some of the challenge and discomfort.  It would be a difficult life to adopt on a permanent basis.  Everything needs rest and acclimation.  Even on the camino, that time of sleep and tending the impact of extending ourselves, talking to others and processing our experiences, is essential.  I am glad that I have a life that I can go back to.  But without this stretching, I´m afraid my life would be too small.  A quote that has been coming into my mind as I have thinking of the humility this trip brings is, ´a man that is constantly all wrapped up in himself has only a very small package to present.´

Liz and I celebrated our 8th wedding anniversary the other day… while we were in Belorado.  We stayed in a hostel with a small pool and rose gardens and a nice grass field with bunnies who came up very close to us.  20130701_143736.jpg

(Greg resting his feet in the cool pool water)

 

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(Roses all around the hostel where we stayed in Belorado)

We got to dip our feet in the pool and spend a very intimate evening together in our room with only 4 other people.  And I wrote her a new verse to the walking song that Thomas (one of our travelling companions wrote and taught us along the camino)

The Walking Song

Come walk along the road with me
Come walk along the way
And we will share good company
Through the ending of the day

Share a smile with those you meet
Bring care to what you say
For everyone must walk this road
Each in his own way

I’ll take the ups i’ll take the downs
I’ll take them with a smile
Ill take the twists I’ll take the turns
Ill take them in my stride

New verse:

My love, it´s been eight long years

since first we had our start

and I´ll walk with you to Finnesterre

on the camino of my heart

(Finnesterre, is the journey of three days past the end of the camino at the Cathedral of Santiago Compestella.  Many pilgrims continue the journey even after they get their certificate for making the journey.  Finnesterre means, ´the end of the earth,´and it was believed to be the edge of the world to the early pilgrims – the furthest western point on the continent (it turns out it is actually in Portugal, but the early pilgrims who named this ocean town didn´t know this.  At Finnesterre, pilgrims often go to leave something they have been carrying behind to symbolize a new awareness of a lighter, more present perspective with the world.  I am still trying to figure out what I will leave there.  Maybe it will be my hesitation or my need for relief or the feeling that mastering a little more control or summoning a little more perfection in my life will bring about the sense of ´rescue´ I´ve been imagining if I somehow figured a way to work hard enough.)

Day 8 and on – From Los Arcos to Viana to Navarrette and…

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 (smooth path on the way to Longorno)

Forgive me pilgrim witnesses for I have sinned… it has been nearly seven days since my last post…

The reason is very clear and also a little cryptic.  I will tell you about the clear part…. it is pain.  Face wincing, teeth gnashing, bone crushing pain.

Now, let me explain the cryptic part.

The prophets and ghosts of the camino (that is, those voices that can be discerned in the soul from the places you encounter and explained by those who are on their 2nd, 3rd, 4th or greater number of caminos…) will explain to you that there are really four different facets to the camino: the physical, the mental, the emotional and the spiritual.  We, almost entering our third week, are still very clearly in the physical.

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 (another sacrifice to the foot gods)

The pain that eminates from the feet of a pilgrim is a resonant sound that echoes throughout the ages and makes even the angels wrinkle their foreheads.  It is one of the seven great forces orchestrating all movement in in the universe and responsible for the empathy at the heart of all interdependence.

Today, for example, was a typical day.  Every day I can walk between 20-28 km.  But every day, when I am about 3 km away from the hostel, there is a phenomenon which never fails.  My feet receive a telepathic signal from the unwavering gravitational pull of the earth, telling me that I am within an hour of the hostel and all the relief it comes with.  Upon uploading that information from my telepathic GPS, my feet begin thobbing in a particular pulse and volume that resembles the core reactivity of a star going super nova.  There are no jedi mind tricks to relieve this feeling.  There is only the diligent march to something that resembles home – but, of course, to a place you´ve never been – and in some cases, will be sure to avoid whenever the future makes it a point to guide you toward them.

During the first week of the trek – especially after day three – I thought that blister pain would be a formidable foe of reckoning.  But, in the second week – and, from what I´ve heard about the rest of the camino – blister pain is a mere shadow of the kind of pain that has pilgrims talking in their sleep.

The deeper pain is bone pain.  On the balls and the heel of your feet there are bones which begin to unmercifully remind you of the number of steps you have taken since the last time you unlaced your shoes and begins to recite the gravitational pull of the earth to twenty six decimal places.  A network begins to form between the pain receptors for all two hundred bones in your foot and they begin to unionize against any form of reason you once had about how the day´s 24 km seemed rather do-able and that the camino, in general, was a really good idea.

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 (Granon in the distance)

Once inside the hostel, Liz and I have a routine of foot massaging.  There is a myth that ancient travellers could only go so long without food or water.  I have been transported by the camino to a clearer understanding that reveals you could go for much longer without these aspects of unimportance than you could go without a foot massage on a long walk.  Our daily routine is to find the botas cubicle where you deposit your boots, walk gingerly to our beds, take off our socks, sprawl liberally across a very unliberal square footage of bedness and arrange our feet so that they can be mutually and reciprocally rubbed.  We usually do make a good effort to take a shower, or at least wash our feet before this ritual but on more than one occassion we have gone straight from the sock to the proximity of one another´s face with a whimpering desperation for relief that only your partner can reach.

When your feet are screaming in the amount of pain that registers on the logrithmic scale of the camino, there is a categorical feeling that comes about when someone begins to rub the soreness out that has been deeply pounded into them (especially if they are using lotion);  The feeling that overcomes you is something of a cross between an emotional orgasm and the physical urge to vomit.  It´s really quite unexplainable how many different parts of your physical / mental / emotional sensory switchboard the pain signals from your feet are hooked into.  But as that pain is squeezed out of your feet like toothpaste being nudged up to the nozzle, every single part of your awareness is stimulated.  All uncomfortable – as well as euphoric – feelings are pressed into reality and all of them are expressed at once.

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 (Church and the stained glass in the Cathedral of Grinon where we participated in the pilgrim´s mass)

It really is the kind of pain that brings out a combination of a whimpering baby and a satanic demon.  You feel so lost and bereft in your own agony that you are pleading with Gods you denounced long ago.  And if there is anyone in the world standing in the path of your relief such that they might sanction an extra second of this agony – even the love of your life or perhaps the cute cherubs that fly around the virgin Mary – you would have no hesitation biting their heads off.

Most people never really encounter or deal with this kind of pain on any kind of daily basis.  Most people are able to use a majority of their energy toward maintaining a certain composure or some dignity or even basic consideration of others and common etiquette.  We all hold ourselves together in a composite representation of what we carefully choose to let other people see.

But when we have pain of this magnitude, we let go of a lot of that carefully managed control.  Our thoughts are not caught in the web of filters which normally strain out the less delicate material.  Our emotional triggers are a littler more exposed and raw to the touch.  Our sense of decorum – normally higher on our list of priorities – falls somewhere out of our groping reach.  It´s not that we don´t care… it´s that we have surpassed the redline of urgency and desperation such that we can no longer deny forms of expression which have been lined up waiting to tell you what is really important.

In short, the camino has a way of pulling aside all of your carefully programmed auto-default forms of self expression and begin a litany of what´s really important.  Less beating around the bush.  More raw vulnerability.  You really get to know a lot about yourself in these moments.  And about your partner and fellow pilgrims.

And one of the things that comes out the most is understanding and compassion -.at least in moments where you´ve managed to escape the event horizon of your own pain.  You begin to see the suffering of people alongside  you.  You can imagine the pain and sacrifice of the people who´ve come before you.  And you even have a new vantage point to understand the pain you´ve experienced at other times in your life and what you needed… and what you got… or didn´t get in those crucial moments.

And in the midst of all of this, you travel through unspeakable wonder… and beauty… and history.

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 (Fellow pilgrims in a ritual of beer and sympathy)

Some of the pictures I include here are just a fraction of what we´ve come across.  I will try to describe them in more detail in the posts to come.  But for now, I wanted to explain some of the intercessory thoughts that have kept me from dutifully fulfilling what many people would consider a scenic travel blog.  There is a price paid for every place we´ve visited.  And that price makes each picture, and each memory, all the more precious.