Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What Was Left When I Stopped Walking

Two days after setting out on the Camino de Santiago, I dropped my 23-pound pack on my right big toe. Two days later I did it again. The result was painful and not pretty.

The toenail turned black because apparently some stuff was happening under the toenail that I didn’t want to think about. Or talk with a doctor about, who might have x-rayed it and put me on the bench.

Two months after returning home, the digit (left) still has some damage, but new growth has replaced the lower half of the discolored nail. Now all I want for Christmas is a brand-new toe.

This is the only visible evidence that I ever walked the Camino de Santiago in the first place.

Yet the Camino’s initial impact seemed as forcible as a dropped, weighty backpack. We (my daughter Marian and I) were pushed to our physical limits, from the very first day, when we climbed 25 kilometers to the top of the ridge in the Pyrenees, then descended 8 brutalizing kilometers over rocks and scree to Roncesvalles. The following morning, we were literally evicted from our refuge by 8 am, and off we were again.

There were immediate impacts on my emotional life and my thinking about daily life at home. As my series of posts documented, we met dozens and dozens of people with whom we formed fast, intimate friendships. We were doing this crazy thing together, we all had the same goal, we were fighting to win the same war. These were my foxhole buddies.

I began to imagine whole new paths for myself back in the States—a new business, a new approach to writing, a one-man show about the Camino. I talked people’s ears off about the one-man show. It’s still not a bad idea, but like many of the leave-the-law-firm-join-the-circus ideas that came to me on the Camino de Santiago, this one strangely has wafted away, ever so slowly, like a pleasant scent on a light breeze which leaves a memory that you still confuse for the scent itself.

And I have had precious few contacts with those dozens and dozens of intimate friends.

I shaved my beard, I gained back some weight, I came home and paid some bills. I spent most of July catching up and working on and then delivering a talk on the Camino, then in August I headed to Maine, where I’ve been with Katie for the past three weeks, just like the previous six summers.

In the end little seemed to have changed. Every night I took off my shoes and socks, and there was that toe again, reminding me that in fact I had walked 500 miles across Spain to the final resting place of St. James the Great, Apostle of Jesus Christ. But sometimes it seems so long ago.

In the morning, though, came more evidence. As the summer passed, I found myself keeping up a habit that began at the very end of the Camino. This began by calling up the daily Mass readings on my iPad and meditating on them for a short time. This was and remains a self-taught sort of lectio divina, an old art about which I’ve read but in which I have earned no degree or even gold star. I just do it as it seems it should be done. Dwell a bit with a word or phrase.

After this short meditation, as the summer rolled on, I found myself reading each morning from the Navarre Bible edition of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles, a book I first chanced upon on a reading stand in the church at O Cebreiro, the oldest pilgrim church on the Camino, at the gateway to Galicia. This was another small, invisible gift of my pilgrimage. That the Navarre Bible is a project originally endorsed and supported by St. José Maria Escrivá, founder of Opus Dei, was of no account to me. What I liked about the edition was its extensive annotations; the notes take up two or three times the lineage of the Scriptures themselves. It was only after reading bits of Matthew daily through the first weeks of July that I noticed how often Escrivá is cited in these notes.

Intrigued, I bought a Kindle copy of a book often cited, Christ is Passing By, a series of his homilies. I began reading a few lines from this collection each morning as well. A daily habit of early morning reading—which began without fanfare at the tail end of the Camino—has continued to roll on, like a snowball gathering mass. The latest clump of snow is my encounter with The Lord by Romano Guardini, about which I have begun a daily series of blog posts, which now require some time in the evenings as well as the mornings.

The toe is still there, it’s still the same old toe. But as I watch it made new from the inside I wonder how we are changed really, and from where, and how the Camino changed me if that’s what it was. Today, I return home from Maine to the same work I left on my desk in April. No visible change there at all. Only at the very margins of the day has my life been altered, but at last that seems enough. 


  1. The black toe is the impetus for my comment. Had two of those when in the army - from very hard marching in basic in Ky. 43 yrs ago. Did the Camino from Leon to Santiago - in a car 9 years ago. Toes were fine after that. However,
    walked from a (fairly distant) parking lot to the Cathedral. After reading about your pilgrimage on foot, I am deeply ashamed. At age 64, I will just have to remain that way. I'm a Catholic priest. Just found your blog two nights ago and making my way through it. A real tonic for me in very many ways. Thanks. God bless.

  2. Thank you Fr. Etienne! Thank you for reading. How good to know that my experiences can be a tonic for someone!


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