Sunday, June 17, 2012

Father's Day in Santiago

Eight months ago, my daughter invited me to walk the Camino de Santiago with her. Today, on Father's Day, she and I attended the pilgrim mass at high noon at the cathedral in Santiago, Spain, having finished our pilgrimage in 34 days. For me this Camino was always about fatherhood, something lodged so deep within me that it sometimes seems the closest thing I know to God. I took Joseph as my confirmation name when I converted, and along the Camino I carried a staff I bought in Lourdes and had engraved with the name of St. Joseph. What have I learned about fatherhood?

I find it hard to imagine someone having a close relationship with the Christian God if they did not have a positive relationship with their own father. My faith and my Camino both began with my father, whose name was David, a good old Biblical name, unlike Webster, who never was a saint. In the five years before he died, Dad and I took three memorable trips together. So I understood what Marian meant when she called me last October.

Dad, she said to me. I have always loved hearing about the trips you took with Granddad before he died, and—it's not that I think you're about to die—but I was wondering if you would walk the Camino de Santiago with me...

Though not a Catholic, my father was as much or more a person of faith as Marian and I, both Catholics. Raised Methodist, he became a dedicated Episcopalian, loyal to his church. At his funeral, his priest called him a saint. When I told my father that I was becoming a Catholic in 2008, he said that his Methodist mother would roll over in her grave. He did not say what his father, a 32nd degree Mason, would do. But six months later, Dad was present at my reception into the Church, and before he died he speculated on what it might have been like to have been not a businessman but a monk.

After I accepted her invitation, Marian had a number of friends ask her how she could possibly consider walking the Camino with her father. You what?! was a typical response. And on the Camino together we have heard many people reflect on whether or not they could do the same with their own parent or child. Wendy, a doctor from Virginia, told us just today that she would love to walk the Camino with her dad, "but he is a retired Marine, and he would want to get up every morning at 5, and—" Our friend Ana, from Portugal, who quickly developed a sort of filial affection for me, said something similar about her dad, though with different reasons.

We met several other parent-child combinations walking together during the past five weeks, including a mother and her 12-year-old son, the youngest pilgrim we met, and one of the most enthusiastic. But our presence and our compatibility was apparently so striking to people that we heard questions like, Are you the Bulls? Are you the father and daughter from Boston that I heard about? Are you Marian Bull's dad? Are you Webster's daughter?

One of the most moving moments at the pilgrim mass today at noon was being approached by Caro, a young pilgrim friend of Marian's, and having her peck me on my old gray-bearded cheek and wish me Happy Father's Day. Thanks, Caro, was all I could think to say. You're sweet. Several of Marian's good young friends seemed to adopt me as a surrogate parent for the duration of the Camino.

How did we manage? Why were Marian and I—with a couple of notable, private exceptions—able to stay so compatible? Well, we've always loved each other, and that's a pretty solid foundation. But beyond that obviousness, what?

I cannot speak for Marian, but I know this about my own experience. I walked this Camino with a constant question: What is the best way to be a father to a grown woman? When our children are babies we know what to do: feed them and change their diapers. When they are school-age, we know enough to be on time when picking them up at school and don't miss their soccer games. But what do you do with a smart, independent 24-year-old woman who has already traveled without you in Southeast Asia? Or spent a year studying abroad in Spain? How do you solve a problem like Marian?

I do not have a ready answer, or rather, my only answer is the question and the openness needed to keep the question alive.

We both went to confession before the pilgrim mass today. My confessor, a Spaniard whose English is a lot better than my Spanish, quoted St. Augustine, who said something like this: Do what you can and God will do the rest. I suppose that's a good lesson about fatherhood, except that St. Augustine might have done better. He might have said: God will get things started; then do what you can and He will do the rest. Because as the great mass unfolded, right up to the wild pendulum swing of the giant censer, I continued to think about fatherhood this Father's Day. And what I thought is this:

Fatherhood, like life, is a gift. We men think we start things off, you know, with the whole act of procreation and everything, but that's our first mistake. We take responsibility for fatherhood and all the rest is lost. Fatherhood is something that came from our own fathers, and from their fathers before them, and of course I must stop to apologize briefly to mothers here, who can write their own posts on their own feast days!

Fatherhood came as a gift to me 26 years ago when Marian's older sister was born, and two years later when Marian came laughing into the world. Fatherhood is a gift precisely in the sense of the talent of the parable, something I should neither bury in the ground nor take credit for myself. Instead, I need to turn it into everything possible and then return it to the master, the Father of all fathers.

One other thing about fatherhood, on which I imagine all fathers can agree: It's a trip, which incidentally is not a bad translation for Camino. Happy Father's Day, guys. And thank you, God, for this gift, and for the gift of your Son.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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