Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Road to Sarria

The Spanish word camino can mean a trail, a path, a road, or a journey. The Way of Saint James invites us to a way of life, an inner journey. Walking the Camino is a pilgrimage through the landscape of our soul.

In medieval times, this pilgrimage was a sacred journey, an opportunity for transformation. Today, walking on the original pilgrim path connects us to the centuries old spiritual tradition. Walking with other pilgrims bound for the same destination makes the Camino a communal journey, uniting us in a pursuit of the sacred.

The rhythm of walking, walking, walking everyday, empties our minds out on the road, allows us to let go of the distractions in our everyday lives, shedding the skin of our old selves to cultivate humility. Encountering our self each day as we walk expands our sense of time.

Without appointments or things to do next, our thoughts unwind, memories and insights that would normally lie dormant in the busyness of our lives surface. Bertrand Saint Macary, President of Friends of St. Jacques de Compostelle explains, "Our main enemy is time and, on the pilgrimage, the pilgrim can live outside time... we walk to Santiago to encounter our true nature."

Finding our true self meant walking an average of 16 to 17 miles a day, trudging 24 miles through pouring rain on our last day. Our life receded as we traveled through villages, passing churches, cemeteries, abandoned stone barns and Galician horreos (elevated granaries).

Our urban selves lost track of time as we stopped to open hairy chestnuts that had fallen on the road, marvel at lush hydrangeas, examine quince trees to see the fruit that is the source of the jelly-like membrillo, tasted wild blackberries and raspberries straight from the bush. Our senses woke up slowly as we walked through fields of sunflowers, corn and vegetables, sniffing the earthy aroma of manure mixed with hay that are part of everyday village life.

We entered a bread factory to watch women kneading Gallego bread and filling empanadas, we walked tearing off bits of the steaming bread. We stopped to watch a woman pruning greenery covering her charming stone cottage, farmers loading hay, tending vegetable patches and herding cows.

Crossing a stream one rainy day, we came upon a man with a prosthetic leg who stamped our credencial with a sello (seal) of melted wax. As a boy of eight, he lost his leg in a train accident and prayed for the chance to live again. His prayers were answered. He now competes, weightlifting at the Paralympics and earns a living stamping pilgrims' passports and selling t-shirts that generate revenue for a charity to help disabled people like himself. Meeting this hero along the Camino was inspiring and revived our flagging spirits as we trudged through the rain.

At the monastery of San Xulian in Samos, magnificent altars, illuminated manuscripts, modern day murals and papier mâché religious carvings were a hidden wonder within these cloistered walls. The monastery gift shop had the best merchandise on the way, including artisanal chocolates made in this area, which is known for its chocolate-making prowess.

As we left, the Benedictine monk in charge of the gift shop offered thanks with a hand on his heart, saying, "From my heart to yours." Experiencing the sincerity and humility of this monk left a deep impression on us.

Seeing a country on foot is an opportunity to know its people, understand the local culture and taste its cuisine. The most satisfying experience at the end of each day's walk was returning to our lodgings by taxi and seeing the distance we covered on foot.

Along the road and over dinner, we listened to pilgrims express what they were seeking as they walked the Camino. A group of Australians explained that they wanted to do it while they still could and did not want to wait till they were too old to try. A group of boisterous 11 year old boys from a Catholic school in Madrid were on a field trip that was a part of their formation. We met German, Irish and American pilgrims, with a majority of Spaniards to whom the Camino is a long-held tradition.

Everyone had a story and a reason. Having walked the Camino last year, mine was to know what Marcel Proust meant when he wrote, "The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.

Walking brings the gift of seeing and being. Walking opens our inner eye to discover simple things one might ordinarily miss - the inside of a chestnut, the gesture of love from a humble monk, the joy of living that a man with a prosthetic leg shares with pilgrims along the way. Walking the Camino offers the gift of seeing with new eyes, and with it, the gift of being alive in this moment.

Next: Journey to Santiago de Compostelawatch for it in the next installment.