yesterday was the best day—with the first-communion mass in Viana and our walk together in the afternoon—while my receiving the heart from Ricardo on the patio at Uterga was the week’s best moment. After assigning him the role of Gandalf in our Camino edition of "Lord of the Rings," we realized just how apt this is. On Gandalf's orders, Frodo carried the ring to Mordor. Ricardo has given me the task of carrying a symbolic heart all the way to Santiago.
Leaving our hotel in Logroño at the leisurely hour of 10 o'clock, we missed the wave of pilgrims departing the albergues, who are usually sent on their way by 8. So most of those with whom we left St. Jean Pied de Port, or whom we have met since, are out ahead of us now. Whether we catch some of them, or they fall back to rejoin us, is out of our control. The Camino takes care of its own.
From 10 to about 1:15, Marian and I walked alone, only overtaking a couple of solo stragglers who may have been struggling with nagging injuries or winds that gusted to 40 knots. We passed through a preserved landscape southwest of Logroño that resembles an Audubon wildlife sanctuary, with several species of duck and goose paddling through marshy terrain and exercise walkers taking advantage of pedestrian paths. Numerous Spaniards wished us Buen Camino as they passed. I wonder if this will increase as we approach Compostela?
We climbed over a manageable pitch topped by a giant bull billboard and descended into the small town of Navarrete (pop 3,000), where we found an albergue with a private room, and settled in. As I began writing this we were sitting in the humble common room on the ground floor, while a Spanish TV station droned on at low volume. Four or five pilgrims were preparing tea and snacks at the kitchenette, while the hospitalero watched TV and waited for more pilgrims to fill his 20 bunks. This is his father’s house, and Dad helps him now in the business, which only opened last year. I have a sense that Spanish families stay closer together than outwardly mobile American ones.
Reflections on a Day for Reflection
Why are you here, Webster? Why this Camino? For the first week, I have persisted in asking fellow pilgrims why they are walking to Santiago, and the almost universal answer is, I don't know. There are life circumstances that prompt many of us: retirement, the death of a spouse, unhappiness in a job. But there are deeper reasons that the Camino reveals in its own time. My motivation is not entirely religious: I want to understand my vocation as a writer. This is a practical question: figuring out how to make an income while doing what I want to do for the rest of my time on earth. No one is standing in line to pay for my memoir, or the great Catholic novel à la Michael O'Brien that's rumbling inside me. Where is the path to all this, Lord? Or do you have something better in mind, like an unexpected turning on the Camino, when I thought I could predict the direction of this day's walk?
Why else are you here, Webster? Because you are Catholic? Well, yes, of course. Since being received into the Church in 2008, I have felt drawn to expressions of Catholic culture. That Catholics have been making this pilgrimage for over a thousand years simply moves me.
Do I believe that St. James is buried at Santiago de Compostela? Not necessarily, but does that matter? What makes a pilgrimage a pilgrimage? What is it about this pilgrimage that has made it endure? What is it about the Catholic Church that makes it endure? Questions, questions, unanswered questions.
Another answer involves my daughter Marian, of course. From the time she invited me to accompany her on the Camino seven months ago, I have felt called to do this not only as a writer and a Catholic, but as a father. To follow her. My father was my best male friend before he died. My fatherhood is central to my sense of self. Can walking the Camino with my daughter make me a better father?
And Then We Met Gimli!
I was writing this set of reflections when a Belgian pilgrim sat beside me at the little dining table on the ground floor of the albergue in Navarette about 5:30 pm on Monday. Marian was occupied reading Hemingway and a crazy Spanish game show was making merry in the background when I struck up a conversation with Hubert. He soon introduced me to his fellow traveler and good friend, André. I might have read the auguries quicker: St. André Bessette is one of my favorites, a humble brother and porter in a congregation at Montreal. He was devoted to St. Joseph, father of all fathers, and his efforts led to the construction of St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal, which very well may be the endpoint of my next pilgrimage. When Br. (now St.) André Bessette died, a million people paid their respects.
André from Belgium has a lot in common with André from Montreal. And he has now been assigned the role of Gimli the gruff and faithful dwarf in our Camino edition of "LOTR." No question about it, Marian agreed. Auditions are closed.
Sixty-nine years old now, André ended his career as the handyman at what he call a couvent. When I pressed for an explanation, it turned out this meant a retirement home at which many of the clients were des bonnes soeurs, retired nuns. He has the blunt and wounded hands of a man who makes and fixes things. When I noted this to him, he brought his hands to together in an attitude of prayer and said, "Yes, and I also pray with them."
André and Hubert met because Hubert's wife worked many years as a cook in the same institution. André proudly showed me pictures, including a posed shot of the two men with their wives on their departure from the railway station two weeks ago. He also had taken pictures of the altarpiece in Los Arcos and the fields of red poppies you see everywhere in this season in Spain. "In Flanders fields, the poppies grow… " When I began reciting the poem, Hubert acknowledged that he knew it and named the author: John McCrae.
I don't think André does poetry. He certainly doesn't do computers. When Hubert and I exchanged e-mail addresses, André acknowledged that he didn't have one. But he does have a devotion to Mary. He was born in May, which he calls le mois de Marie. This is his third Camino, and each time he has begun in May, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. His devotion extends farther than that. In his home, he has built a miniature Lourdes grotto, complete with a statue of the Immaculate Conception. I did not ask him if it has running water.
"The Camino changes you," he said to me. When André first walked the Camino, he was a practicing, even devout Catholic who nonetheless had grave doubts about an afterlife. Heaven and hell are here on earth, he said. After death, le néant, nothingness. But that changed in 2000 when he first walked to Compostela. He returned home and his wife said he had changed, as well. He joked that she was the one who got the most benefit out of his first Camino.
Hubert listened almost reverentially as André spoke. After a time, I was so moved by this encounter that I thought of inviting the Belgian men to dinner. Earlier, Marian and I had bought the ingredients for a vegetarian meal she wanted to cook in the albergue'a kitchen. Now I asked her if we could share with André and Hubert. She agreed, and together we went off to the mercado to buy more ingredients.
The meal was hearty, plentiful—big bowls of pasta and beans mixed with fresh vegetables and plenty of pepper. With a baguette of fresh bread shared four ways, it was the perfect conclusion to a day of reflection and more new friends.
Photo, L-R: Webster, André, Hubert, Marian
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]