Monday, October 7, 2013

Life as a Camino

Posted by auberrie on September 20, 2013 at 8:40 PM

" No hay camino
(There is no Way)
Se hace camino al andar
(By walking, you make the Way) "
~ Antonio Machado

The Spanish word "camino" can mean a trail, a path, a road, or even a journey. It is also used to describe a "way" as in Scriptures, when Jesus says: "I am the Way, the truth and the life."

The Way of Saint James invites walkers not just to undertake a physical path but a way of life. Perhaps this was what Machado meant when he wrote: "there is no way." While the purpose of undertaking a pilgrimage may be unclear, the road we travel does not really matter. What matters is the journey, how we walk the transformational path in our own lives, making each step count.

Pilgrimage is more than just a geographic trek. It was designed to act out an inner journey.

Walking the Camino was a metaphoric journey from sin to salvation, mirroring an interior crossing of the landscape of the soul. Whatever the reasons, the act of pilgrimage was respected as a sacred journey, an earthly adventure, a spiritual quest, an opportunity for transformation.

For over a thousand years, people from all over Europe made the pilgrimage to pray at the tomb of St. James "the Greater" - Santiago, the patron saint of Spain - to fulfill a vow, to seek forgiveness, to pray for healing.

The Camino is a road well traveled. Pilgrims from all over the world came on foot or on horseback. Kings and criminals were equals before God as they traveled along the road to redemption. Well-born folk would pay "professional pilgrims" to walk in their stead, avoiding inconvenience while earning the merit. Walking the Camino was also meted out as penance for criminals, who were made to walk with chains forged from their murder weapon.

On our "credencial" (passport) is a poem from the 13th Century that describes the Camino as a path open to all: "The door is open to all, sick and healthy, not only Catholics, but even pagans, to Jews, heretics, the idle and vain, and more briefly, the good and the profane."

Symbolic items identified pilgrim wayfarers: a short travel cape, a wide-brimmed hat adorned with a shell, a flat open leather satchel without a clasp called an "escarcela" (to remind pilgrims to give and receive freely), and a "bordon" (a traditional wooden walking stick hooked on top, from which a gourd to hold water was hung).

Christian pilgrimage routes had three centers: Jerusalem, Rome, and Santiago de Compostela. The Holy Land in the Crusader era was a journey from which few returned. The voyage to Rome was fraught with perils of a sea voyage, whereas Santiago could be reached by walking from most places in Europe.

It was still a dangerous undertaking in those times and many died along the way. The Camino route was lined with cemeteries, shrines, monasteries and hospices, often just a day apart so pilgrims could travel safely, assured of company, food and shelter. A Spanish Military Order of Santiago was established to protect pilgrims along the road. Caring for pilgrims was a religious duty and locals did not withhold hospitality for fear of divine retribution.

At its peak in the 11-12th centuries, about a million pilgrims walked to Santiago, with over a thousand a day visiting the Cathedral. After the 16th century, the Camino remained in obscurity for 300 years until a priestly scholar dedicated his life to revive the historical trail. The entire Camino Frances was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site and the number of pilgrims surged after Pope John Paul visited the Cathedral in 1989.

Modern day pilgrims walk across Spain on this arduous 500 mile pathway to fulfill a longing for direction, spiritual renewal and challenge. 53% of them cite religious/spiritual motivations and an additional 41% come for religious reasons alone. As of August this year, 158,809 pilgrims had registered: 51% of them were Spanish, 7% Italians, another 7% Germans and only 4% Americans. 89% came on foot, 12% on bikes, less than half a percent on horseback and 50 in wheelchairs.

Pilgrimage is about connection, walking in continuity with history as it stretches back an entire
millennium. It is a communal experience of walking with others who share the same motivation and the same destination. There is an awareness that we are always in the presence of others, that we are walking in the footsteps of pilgrims from centuries past who went before us.

To walk the Camino is to leave all things behind. Pilgrims are expected to carry little and rely on God's provision. The pilgrim's quest meant shedding the ego to cultivate a true sense of humility. We are supposed to prepare for this journey of the soul before we even set foot on the Camino. The inner work of clearing our life of distractions, letting go of the busy-ness we mistake for substance, shedding the skin of our old self to create inner space for reflection .... is the first and most difficult obstacle in our pursuit of the sacred.

The President of Friends of St. Jacques de Compostelle, Bertrand Saint Macary, explained the resurgence of the Camino: "People today have an overdose of modernity. Our main enemy is time and, on the pilgrimage, the pilgrim can live outside time. To walk to Santiago is to find your true nature."

Pilgrims are supposed to "start from home," so I started from my home in New Jersey the day before my flight, walking across the George Washington bridge to the Cloisters, to visit the statue of Santiago with his wide-brimmed hat, scallop shell adorning his cape and a gourd hanging from the crook of his pilgrim staff.

From Madrid, we set off on a 6-hour train ride to Sarria, the town closest to the 100 km. marker leading to Santiago. Sarria is one of the first pre-Roman settlements documented in the 6th century, an important pilgrim stop where King Alphonse IX died in 1230 on his pilgrimage to Santiago. Of the 110K pilgrims who walked the Camino Frances this year, 24% start in Sarria, a 70% increase due to the popularity of its location as a starting point on the last stretch from which the minimum required distance of 100 km. to Santiago earns a "Compostela" (a certificate of completion).

Spending the night in Sarria, we encountered people from all over the world, loaded with heavy backpacks and armed with walking sticks. We had the "Mochila Express," a daily transport service that took the luggage you didn't want to your next lodging for € 3/bag --- a godsend!

Early morning, we braved the cold in the dark, to walk through Galician forests and tiny hamlets.Going past corn fields, vegetable gardens, old wooden barns with rusty farm equipment and bales of hay triggered sniffles and allergies. The brisk country air bore odors of manure and fertilizer. Crumbling stone houses blended with restored homes, each with a typical narrow storage granary on stilts called "horreos" (rhymes with Oreos). The same countryside that was once a medieval pathway now has highways next to trails, asphalt roads beside the forests and industrial plants along the last stretch leading to Santiago.

Galicia is dairy country, known for its soft creamy Arzua cheese. It is also a mystical region associated with Celtic origins like bagpipers ("gaiteros") and "meigas" (witches). We experienced the last of summer fiestas and were puzzled by people wearing pointy hats with stars, only to find out that locals were celebrating the "day of the witches."Along the pilgrim route, touristy bars have sprung up to supply food and drinks, as well as rubber stamps for certifying the pilgrim "credencial." We needed 1-2 stamps a day to prove we really walked through these parts to earn our "Compostela."

This is the place to observe characters traveling on the Camino. Among them, a pilgrim with his dog dressed in full pilgrim garb, a double backpack slung over its back complete with its own pilgrim shell! Bikers traveling in packs, families hiking with their children, students singing, dancing and carousing, schoolteachers from Birmingham and the Canary Islands, a bare chested Bulgarian man carrying a plastic bag of groceries, a group of Arab women in headscarves, Germans and Australians, Asians and Canadians, --- a mixed bag! People walked in boots, sandals, slippers, ballerina flats, and one was barefoot!

We followed a trail of yellow arrows ("flechas") painted on trees, walls, posts, road surfaces and electric poles. One arrow of painted yellow shells was embedded in cement over a garage door. In between, stone markers with the pilgrim shell embossed paved the way, with specific distances in kilometers to Santiago. We had to pay attention as missing one could lead us the wrong way.

Pilgrims decorated stone markers, shrines and makeshift crosses with piles of stones, photos, clippings, printouts of their train tickets, "stampitas" (pocket prayer cards with prayers to Santiago), t-shirts, sneakers and graffiti. Pilgrims bring stones and photos, prayers and. . . .

It seems people cannot resist decorating along the way. Tree branches woven in a cat's cradle of strings were tied with stones, bottle caps and bits of glass like a dream catcher. By the forest, pine cones formed crosses and hearts along the ground. On a stretch of road with chicken wire, pilgrims had fashioned crosses of all sizes from twigs, scarves and whatever they found to insert into the fence. Less appealing were the worn shoes that hung from it.

Our last stop before entering the city was a town called Lavacolla (the Latin "lavamentula" literally means "wash private parts") because it was where pilgrims cleansed themselves to prepare to enter the holy city. In medieval times, Christians seldom bathed and Jews and Muslim were often ridiculed for their scruples in personal hygiene.

We trudged into Santiago after a 23 km. walk. The capital of Galicia where kings of Galicia and Leon were crowned, Santiago was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985. In the Praza de Obreiros, a large plaza in front of the cathedral, pilgrims often spend the night to stake out a position before the Cathedral opens. In 1207, fighting for the best spot got so violent that the Cathedral had to be deconsecrated.

The pilgrim mass is the high point of the Camino, as this is where you receive indulgences and make your offerings to Santiago, patron saint of Spain.

It is customary for pilgrims to file past a silver casket with his remains and ascend a staircase to "hug" the statue of the saint through a hole in the back of the altar. Lining up with everyone else, I did not realize what I had to do and when I reached the holes behind his statue, I peeked through one, then the other, to figure out what was going on, till a wizened priest reprimanded me and made me move on. So, I never got to hug Santiago! Phooey!

Pilgrim Mass [video link] - At Santiago de Compostela Cathedral. Incense burner (botafumeiro) wafts our prayers up to God.

We managed to secure front row seats to watch the botafumeiro, literally "the smoke belcher." The largest incense burner in the world, weighing 175 lbs. and 5 feet tall, it was believed to have been installed to dispel the stench of unwashed pilgrims. It requires 8 men to wield it, using a pulley system above the altar to get it to swing it at the speed of 80 kph upwards in a spectacular ritual that wafts our prayers up toward heaven to reach God. Listening to the chanting of prayers as incense spewed overhead, the sense of holiness in the air carried me back to my Catholic childhood.

Feeling somewhat guilty about being in church instead of sitting in shul on Rosh Hashanah, it all came together for me during the pilgrim mass. The sermon was the message I came all the way to Santiago to hear. The priest spoke of life as a Camino, our pilgrimage:

"We come here as pilgrims, all equal before God, asking ourselves: Why are we here? Why did we leave our homes to come on foot to do this? Where do we come from? Where are we going?

Who are we when we stand before God?

The Camino we are on is an inner Camino. We are here to encounter our Self. Sometime in our life we have sinned, made mistakes and want to rectify our past, to purify ourselves and illuminate our lives.We are a community of pilgrims and our life is a pilgrimage.

We are here as pilgrims in a testimony of faith, to create a better world, to be examples of these values in the world. In this way, the Camino is the Camino of our own life. We come in pilgrimage, not just on an excursion or a visit.

Our experience of God is what offers light and power to our Camino."

In the middle of the road of our lives, we all need to go on a "Camino." At Rosh Hashanah services last year, my rabbi observed that we are afraid to live in touch with our soul. We put off doing brave and important things from fear of altering the course of our lives. Deciding to grasp the tiger's tail and live the life we have always imagined is scary. In our hearts, we yearn to feel alive, to heed Joseph Campbell's "call to adventure," to do the thing we think we cannot do.

Preparing to walk the Camino gave me a wondrous sense of awareness as the world presents itself in small and otherwise insignificant moments along my path. Walking brought a sense of infinite possibilities, as I moved beyond physical geographic boundaries I had never crossed before --- from New Jersey over the bridge into New York, from Sarria to Santiago past the 100 km. barrier in my own mind, to the Cloisters from across the Hudson. . . .

Someone once gave me a card that said: Life begins where your comfort zone ends! The Camino of our life can only begin when we find the courage to go where we have never been before!

May the New Year be filled with infinite possibilities!