Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Santiago Notes: Lessons of the Camino

"The Camino will change you," André told me in Navarrete. This was his third walk to Santiago, at age 69, and he assured me that the first two had changed him. Even his wife noticed when he arrived home in Belgium the first time, in 2000.

What will Katie notice a week from today? What, if anything, will I?

I've lost some weight, and maybe I won't gain all of it back. Try walking 15 miles a day for 35 days, then stopping cold turkey. The eating doesn't stop when the walking does.

I grew a beard, but lost it yesterday. Down near the Santiago train station, I got the best haircut and shave 20 euros can buy: clippers, scissors, hot towel wrap, scary straight razor that had me nervously humming songs from "Sweeney Todd," shave lotion, vibrating face massage thingy, wash, hair gel, the works.

But I'm sure André, a Catholic devoted to Mary, who began all three pilgrimages in May, "the month of Mary," was talking about changes more substantial than diet and facial hair.

André said the Camino would change me if I "emptied" myself. God knows I tried, But I'm not sure what that meant. Maybe it doesn't matter whether I knew or not. In St. Jean Pied de Port Monique had said, "The Camino will make you a pilgrim," and I have had a mounting sense that the Camino works on people like a sacrament. It makes you other than you are, it can even empty you, you just have to be willing, and maybe stop some of the surface silliness. I think I was, and did.

The changes, though, are not likely to be on the surface. Let me illustrate what I mean by talking about friendships.

Between Saturday afternoon, when Marian and I walked into the square facing the cathedral thru Sunday evening, we had many joyful Santiago reunions with fellow pilgrims we had met on the Way. These included Ana from Portugal, Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, Antonio from south of Léon, Vivianne and her future mother-in-law from Quebec City, Caro from Rhode Island, Fabian and blonde Sara from Germany (there was a dark-haired Sarah, too), Sukhee from Korea and Tom from Florida, Gary from San Francisco and Greg from Portland, Christian from Lausanne, Joan Bosco and Alfonso from Brazil, André and Hubert from Belgium, Mike and Bernadette from Perth, Simon and Sam from the north of England, the Anglican priest Father Lucas from Colorado and his wife Meredith, Pietro from Italy, and Doctor Wendy from Texas by way of Virginia. I'm not inventing the names or the order. I kept a list.

Each of these names represents an encounter of unusual intensity: confidences shared, tears shed, man-hugs exchanged. But I may never see any of these people again in my life! In fact, after Sunday night, I had no new names to add, as our wave of walkers had evidently finished by then. So what were these sudden intimacies about anyway?

For me on my Camino, they revealed the potential openness and the depth of my own heart, of my human capacity for affection and sometimes charity. These friendships showed me something new about myself, although new is not the right word. As Ana from Portugal said, "The Camino is not showing me a new me. It's showing me me."

More than for friendship, though, I think many walk the Camino de Santiago for direction. "God wants me to quit the law firm and become a circus clown," and so on. Maybe some of my fellow pilgrims had revelations like this, but I did not, or nothing so dramatic.

I am a writer who used to be an actor before he became a publisher. Whatever I do when I get home, as in do for dollars, it will be some combination of these abilities. Katie has enough clown in her for both of us, and those who know and love her as I do know how I mean this and that I'm right.

One of the practical lessons I learned from the Camino comes in here: You can only see down the path in front of you as far as the next turn. As we walked in the early days out of Navarra and into La Rioja, I was struck by how often I was wrong about where the Camino was heading. We could see the road in front of us and beyond that two or three likely gaps in the hills ahead. But when we walked to the end of the visible path, I usually realized that all three gaps were wrong.

My "new" life at home will be like that, I think. I have a few things I want to do the first day and the first week, as well as things I need to do, too. But beyond that turn in the road I can't say yet. I see a few likely mountain passes on the horizon, but as my old friend Cesareo was the first to tell me, Man proposes and God disposes.

This is another lesson of the Camino that I hope to bring home with me—if I can remember. The Camino disposes, it takes care of its own, and now I am talking about faith. Marian and I thought we would never see certain friends again, but then there they were, without our having to look for them. We thought we would not find a room for the night, and instead got the last room in the best place in town.

The Camino de Santiago, which would not exist but for Jesus Christ and his Apostle James, is a path of faith for those who want to make it so. This means that my Camino can continue at home in Massachusetts, through faith. It means that it, or in fact Christ, will continue to take care of me. But will I see the people I meet on Cabot Street with the same openness as I saw those on the Camino?

The Camino brings people together, but life has a way of pushing us apart. We saw this everytime we arrived at an albergue in the evening. In off the road, waiting in line for limited shower stalls, hungering for dinners that seemed to come too late, failing to sleep because your neighbor was snoring—all of one's animal survival instincts came roaring from the cave. People stopped making eye contact with you. They muttered and grunted instead of speaking.

One thing that will help when I get home is remembering one of the thousand bits of graffiti we saw scrawled along the way. You saw some crazy stuff, like "The real war is spiritual. Fight with your brain, not your penis." But the bit of graffiti I am recalling now read simply, "It's not about you." This was spot-on for me and my Camino. The three most meaningful days of the 35 Marian and I spent on the road, without question, were days that were not about me, days where the critical issue was someone else's welfare. You can read about them, if you want. They were these:

Day #4: The day Ricardo gave me a heart to carry to Santiago for a friend who couldn't make the trip.

Day #18: The day I watched Marian walk on alone without me, knowing though it hurt in a silly, possessive, fatherly way that this was best for her.

Day #25: The day I left rocks for Randy and Donald at the Cruz de Ferro.

These three days were not meaningful to me alone. More readers read them than any other daily posts. I can show you the numbers.

So remember: It's not about you. It's not about me either. So it must be about Thee.

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

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