Sunday, October 5, 2014

A New Year Peregrination: Walking The Camino

A year ago, I embarked on a life-changing journey by walking the ancient Spanish pilgrimage route, The Way of St. James, popularly known as the Camino to Santiago de Compostela. 

The experience of walking in preparation for the 100 km stretch to earn the certificate of a pilgrim (credencial) deepened my awareness of life as an inner journey. Letting go, shedding the baggage of daily tasks to free myself in pursuit of the sacred was a spiritual exercise that opened a window into this inner world. 

Arriving in Madrid to start the Camino this year, a tourism poster welcomed us with the slogan: "Espana, el destino que llevas dentro." My imagination translated this into, "Spain, the destiny/destination within you" - an appropriate greeting for pilgrims seeking the path within. 

Gerald Manley Hopkins describes this interior landscape as our inscape, a state of being that opens us up to the essence and divinity of everything we encounter. This state of seeing and being was a gift that stayed with me long after my Camino. 

The Pilgrim in Leon Cathedral by Felix Moreno

The pilgrim in me has found walking to be a path to prayer. We pray with our body to connect with the earth's rhythm. As babies in the womb, our hearts anchored on our mother's heartbeat, we were tied to the inner pulse that nurtures life. In the busyness of our lives, we often lose this connection. For pilgrims seeking this lost heartbeat, walking the Camino offers a chance to disconnect, turn our attention inside, and regain our inner rhythm. 

Perhaps this explains the resurgence in popularity of the Camino. Open to all, "sick and healthy, not only Catholics, but even pagans, to Jews, heretics, the idle and vain, the good and even the profane," the Camino offers an opportunity for redemption in the form of a physical workout.

Our group of six pilgrim women began our Camino at the Basilica de San Isidoro in Leon. Its 128 magnificent stained glass windows, gloriously illuminated with God's own light, were the illustrated picture books of medieval times. Named after Saint Isidore of Seville, one of the most learned men in the 7th century, the Basilica is Spain's Sistine Chapel of Romanesque painting. Isidoro was the first Christian to compile an encyclopedia. In that era, it was believed that the entire knowledge of the classical world was vested in this man. 

Basilica de San Isidoro, Leon
Hostal de San Marcos, Parador de Leon
Stained glass windows of Basilica in Leon

From Leon, we took a van to Ambasmestas, beginning our journey on foot to O'Cebreiro. The 900 foot ascent along a mountain ridge that is the second highest point of the Camino (after the Pyrenees), is the last great climb before reaching Santiago. Its steep terrain made us stop often to catch our breath and look back at one of the most beautiful scenery along The Way. 

Vega de Valcarce, Castile and Leon (on the ascent to O'Cebreiro)

Perched on a high ridge, O'Cebreiro's damp and windy greenery evokes the mystery of its Irish roots. Hobbit-style dwellings called pallozas date from Celtic times, 1500 years ago. Until the '60's, villagers lived in these low round stone igloos with peaked thatched roofs, with their animals to keep them warm, protected from the harshest weather in Spain. Its haunting mists and rugged landscape give it the air of a town that time seems to have forgotten. O'Cebreiro is the pilgrim's entry point into Galicia, marking the final stretch of the 450-mile pilgrimage. 

Pallozas of O'Cebreiro

Its village church, Santa Maria la Real, is the oldest along the French Road of the Camino, the repository of a precious 12th century golden chalice likened to the miraculous Grail Cup, for having transformed the host and wine into the actual flesh and blood of Christ.

In this quaint hamlet, we spent the night in spartan quarters, with towels only slightly larger than hand towels and tiny soaps good for one use, which we had to share with our roommates - reminders that humility and simplicity are expected on the pilgrim path. 

PART TWO: The Road to Sarria - watch for it in the next installment.