a memoir that I may never publish. The eighteen pieces listed here trace the arc of my religious life—from Episcopalian altar boy to spiritual cult member to happy Catholic.
This may strike you as an unusual arc, but I think it’s actually representative. Like many in my generation, I grew up in a church- (or temple-) going family. Also like many of my generation, I left formal religious observance for “esoteric” alternatives. My testimony is that of one who, after a long and winding road, has found religious fulfillment in the Catholic Church.
Much has been left out of the “memoir.” The first draft completed more than a year ago totaled 150,000 words. The eighteen excerpts at right total closer to 20,000.
All along I thought that my experience walking the Camino de Santiago with my adult daughter (above) was a good way to end the story. Now, three years after that walk, my road seems to stretch forward to an unknown horizon. So I recognize that the Camino is nothing like the end.
Still, many people seem interested in my experience on the Camino de Santiago. Just yesterday, my friend JC said he “envied” me my experience and wanted to know all about it. So I thought I should share this not-really-concluding piece on the Camino.
The title is “Lessons of the Camino.” Don’t worry, there are only six lessons:
The first lesson is obvious or should be and needs no explanation.
Lesson #1—If your adult child asks you to spend six weeks with her, say yes. Do not hesitate even a single moment. Then thank her from the bottom of your heart.
The second lesson was offered to me by a remarkable woman named Monique. Together with her husband, Monique was a volunteer hospitalier at Kaserna, a pilgrim refuge in St. Jean Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees at the head of our Camino. Together for three years there, the couple had cared and cooked for and cleaned up after pilgrims passing through.
My daughter and I spent our last night in Kaserna before heading over the mountains into Spain. There, I had a chance to talk at length with Monique while seated at her kitchen table. I asked her how many of the pilgrims she met were vraiment Catholiques, truly Catholic. She said that while she herself was a devout Catholic, she did not distinguish religious pilgrims from others. “Le chemin vous fait pélérin,” she said. The Camino makes you a pilgrim.
Lesson #2—You are a pilgrim and your life is a pilgrimage.
The Camino de Santiago is quite obviously a metaphor for life, but to say so cheapens it. It might be better to say that walking the Camino puts a person in front of his or her life in a way that daily existence—with its numbing habits and countless distractions, real and virtual—cannot. On the Camino, one walks in a gathering inner silence with thousands of other souls all headed in the same final direction. Walking together this way, in silence and community, is a formula for self-discovery.
It was heartening to me as a Catholic to know that the Camino would not exist if not for Jesus Christ, his Apostle James (Santiago), and millions of faithful Catholics who have been walking to Santiago de Compostela for a millennium. Each of my fellow pilgrims—Christian or not, believer or atheist—was walking with me toward a Catholic holy site. The Camino de Santiago is one of the many, many gifts of Catholic culture to the greater world, and its benefits cannot be denied by even the most cynical pilgrim.
Yet Monique was right not to stress the religious nature of the Camino. Few of my fellow way-walkers confessed to religious faith of any kind. When I asked—and I asked many—why they were walking, most said they were looking for something. Life had left them at an impasse. Life had posed unanswerable questions. They thought the Camino could help them get by the impasse, answer the questions.
As my fellow pilgrims and I drew closer to our destination, it seemed to me that I saw answers written on the faces of many. When we embraced in front of the cathedral in Santiago, it was clear that we all had found something together, without having to spell it out. We shared in this discovery. It was not mine alone. In fact, it was not mine at all.
Lesson #3—It’s not about you.
There was very little graffiti on the Camino, the infrastructure of which is well maintained by the cities, towns, and villages through which you pass. The Camino is safe for men and women of all ages, in groups or alone, and every day’s walk offers clean, convenient places to stop and eat and sleep. The Camino is so clean that in my journal I noted only three bits of graffiti in five weeks of walking. Two of them said the same thing.
The first of these was, It’s not about you.
The second was in Spanish: El egoismo hace que viajes solo-a. My daughter, fluent in Spanish, translated for me: Selfishness leaves a person traveling alone, whether male (solo) or female (sola).
The Camino shatters one’s solitude and selfishness. It is impossible to walk alone, especially in the warm months from March thru October. You can carapace yourself, eyes down, ears turned off. But raise your head for only a moment, look ahead and behind you, and you are likely to see several small groups in each direction. Inevitably, some will catch up with you or you with them. Inevitably, you will walk side by side, even in spite of yourself.
Coming alongside an English-speaking gentleman from Korea, you may find that he has started a conversation with you without your wanting it. Twenty minutes later, you may be surprised to find that the two of you are still talking. By now, you have learned details about his life that you would never have picked up on a New York subway or even a Midwest main street. Then one of you may walk on, never to meet again.
Soon enough, though, a husband and wife from Australia will come alongside you, and you’ll start in with them. Next may come a group of college students from Germany. Or a solitary pilgrim from Canada. These will pass too, and inevitably another pilgrim or group of pilgrims will join you, or you them. And so it will go all day, as long as you open yourself to the experience.
“The Camino will change you,” my Belgian friend André told me. “You just have to empty yourself.”
All along the Camino, and at each café, albergue, and refugio, you will be thrown in with others. These encounters may be fleeting, but they can be quite deep and fast-acting. These encounters are what made the Camino for me. I loved each of my fellow travelers, even the annoying ones. In five weeks, I got to know more than one hundred people—well enough to recognize them upon seeing them again and to pick up our conversation where we left off.
After our arrival in Santiago de Compostela, my daughter and I ran into dozens of these fast friends. For each, we knew a name, a nationality, an occupation, and something personal: a reason for traveling, a favorite song, a private joke we had shared. None of these Santiago reunions was planned. Just all of a sudden there we were together again—embracing in the archway leading to the square, kissing on both cheeks French-fashion in front of the cathedral, and usually exulting together, “We made it! We did this thing!”
The friends I encountered again in Santiago de Compostela were so precious to me that I entered their names in my journal in chronological order of our reunions. They were:
Ana from Portugal, Jean-Pierre from Lausanne, Antonio from south of Léon, Vivianne and her future mother-in-law from Québec 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 and his wife Meredith from Colorado, Pietro from Italy, Dr. Wendy from Texas, Lucille and Constant from Paris, and Brook from Halifax.
The French Catholic writer Charles Péguy said that when we get to heaven, God will ask us only one question: “Where are the others?” For five weeks of my life, I walked toward heaven realizing that I would never get there alone. When I got to Santiago, I found myself accompanied.
Lesson #4—On the Camino, as in life, you can only see as far as the next turn.
Most English-speaking pilgrims use the same handy guidebook to help find places to gawk and eat and rest for the night. This gives a shared sense of confidence, but it also contributes to herd behavior. Because so many follow the guidebook’s thirty-three stages—fifteen miles a day from St. Jean to Santiago—many find themselves aiming for the same town “at the top of the page,” at the end of that day’s stage. Each town has only so many beds. By the third week, those who worry about beds are calling ahead for reservations or, worse, leaving early from the previous top-of-the-page town in order to beat their fellow walkers to the next destination. This often leads to some jerk getting up before everyone else, using his headlamp like the searchlight at an auto dealership, inevitably knocking something over or tripping on something or both, and waking everyone else up amid much shushing and multilingual cursing. Sleep deprivation is one of the Camino’s two biggest challenges, the other being blisters.
Making reservations and turning the Camino into The Great Race are sadly opposed to the spirit of pilgrimage. It makes sense to walk toward a sacred destination only with an attitude of profound trust. The Camino will teach you, if you let it, that you are in God’s hands. But you have to trust the Camino. You have to understand that you can only see as far as the next turn.
There’s good reason for trusting the Camino. The path to Santiago is famously marked by tens of thousands of small waymarkers in the shape of yellow scallop shells. If you follow the shells, you get to Santiago, guaranteed. But whether you are following shells or the detailed instructions in your guidebook, you can never see beyond the next turn in the path. The Camino moves beautifully through variegated landscapes: the southern foothills of the Pyrenees, the wine country of Rioja, central flat farmlands known as the meseta, another microclimate famous for its vintages (Bierzo), and the rainy hill country of Galicia, which is like stepping through a door into Ireland. Even if you have this map firmly in mind, however, you’ll never be able to see what lies over the next hill or on the far side of those woods. This is in the very nature of pilgrimage, or life. You can’t see far ahead. You need to walk with faith and hope. The Camino teaches you to do this.
The Camino can become an experience in what the Catholic writer Jean-Pierre de Caussade called abandonment to divine providence.
Lesson #5—Your shadow walks ahead of you in the morning, behind you in the afternoon.
Like life, the Camino moves west. So in the morning you follow your shadow, and after lunch it follows you. In life, a young person begins chasing an image or ideal. As an old person—and all of us get to be old people, believe me, it’s not hard, you just have to survive—he is dogged by memories, regrets, and demons. All are shadows. Only the sun has moved.
Walking ever west, my daughter and I each made friends of our own—hers younger, mine usually older. While we even spent three days completely apart, agreeing to meet at the last mass in Léon on a Sunday evening, we spent plenty of time walking together. So we talked about everything and nothing, sometimes all day long. In our second week on the Camino, we began talking about The Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy trilogy about hobbits and Middle Earth and a terrible Ring of Power. We love The Lord of the Rings, which I once read aloud to my daughter and her sister individually, beginning when each girl was about eight years old. As a family, we know Tolkien better than we know the Bible.
Walking together and talking about everything and nothing, my daughter and I developed the conceit that we were the heroes of the Tolkien trilogy, protagonist Frodo Baggins and his devoted friend, Sam Gamgee. If My daughter told you the story, she would say that she was Frodo and I was Sam. For me it was the other way around. Each of us is the hero of his or her own tale. As Frodo and Sam, we began choosing our companions, fellow members of the Fellowship of the Ring. This was a private game we kept to ourselves. You didn’t know if we cast you for our adventure, but we knew it and had fun figuring it out.
In this private fantasy of ours, a lively couple from the north of England, Sam (female) and Simon (male), quickly won the parts of Merry and Pippin, comic hobbit companions of Frodo and Sam. Two remarkable Catholic gentlemen from Belgium, Hubert and André, were our hardy dwarves (especially André, a powerfully built man in his seventies). Christian from Lausanne was cast as Strider the moment we glimpsed him surveying a café from a barstool like Strider in the Prancing Pony at Bree. Gandalf, a wizard and Frodo’s mentor, was played by an oncologist from Brazil named Ricardo, whom I met by chance on the fourth day and talked with several times over the next week. In the trilogy, Gandalf entrusts the Ring of Power to Frodo, telling the little hobbit he must destroy it by throwing it into a volcanic crack in the evil land of Mordor. Most of the trilogy concerns Frodo’s journey to Mordor with the Ring, accompanied by members of the Fellowship.
Ricardo from Brazil gave me a similar mission, thereby earning the role of Gandalf. A female friend of Ricardo had bowed out of the Camino at the last minute when her husband got sick. So she gave Ricardo a plush heart with a smiley face, waving hands, and dancing feet, and she asked him to carry it for her to Santiago de Compostela. When Ricardo learned that he himself would have to drop out of the Camino after two weeks, he entrusted his friend’s heart to me. I pinned it to the back of my pack, and three weeks later it arrived with me at the cathedral. Eventually, My daughter carried the heart all the way to Finisterre at the ocean’s edge, the pre-Columbian “end of the world.” My daughter left the heart at the base of a cross there.
For a week or more, my daughter and I amused ourselves with casting the Fellowship and telling stories of our own journey to Mordor. But try as we might we never cast the role of Gollum. In the Ring trilogy, Gollum is both villain and victim. It is Gollum, a human not a hobbit, who finds the Ring in the first place and clutches it to himself so possessively that it turns him into a frightening wraith, a shadow of his former self. In The Hobbit, the prequel to the Ring trilogy, Gollum loses the Ring to Frodo’s uncle Bilbo. Throughout the ensuing trilogy, Gollum tries to get the Ring back, dogging our heroes’ steps all the way to Mordor. Gollum is the shadow in Tolkien’s story. Gollum is the dark side of our humanity, a paradigm of selfishness, of misdirected, obsessive desire. Gollum is in love with his Ring, calling it his “Precious.” Desperate to possess such a love for himself alone, Gollum is destroyed when he makes a final desperate lunge for his Precious and falls with it into the fires of Mt. Doom. Gollum dies the antithesis of fellowship, community, and humanity.
Gollum is to be reviled and to be pitied both. He is sneaky, malevolent, desperate, but also pathetically lonely. None of the people My daughter and I met on the Camino seemed to share all of these character traits, so we never cast the role. Perhaps the Camino is too positive a place for such a character. Perhaps the Camino turns Gollums back into humans.
Lesson #6—Half of the Camino is the journey home.
In the days before the internal combustion engine and mass transit, a pilgrim’s travels were only half done when he or she arrived at Santiago de Compostela. You still had to get home, a trek that could be every bit as perilous as the journey out. Tolkien reflects this reality in The Lord of the Rings. He devotes fully one hundred pages to what happens after Gollum dies and the Ring is destroyed and the hobbits head home to their beloved Shire. What the hobbits find at home is disturbing. The evil wizard Saruman (Gandalf’s shadow) has “scoured” the Shire while they were away. Gardens have been torn up, burrows decimated. Sam Gamgee has a memorable pronouncement here:
“I shan’t call it the end, till we’ve cleared up the mess. And that’ll take a lot of time and work.”
It took me reaching Santiago and heading home again to realize that of course Gollum had been with me all along. Gollum was Gulliver, my own shadow in life’s journey. [See memoir if you don’t know who Gulliver is.] Calling him Gollum may seem vicious, but I recognize that Gulliver, like Gollum, was both a villain and a victim. I do not know just what his Precious was, or why he chased it so mercilessly. But he did, and it destroyed him, and it could have destroyed me too.
As a hopeful youth, I had followed Gulliver across the ocean, and anywhere he led. As a disillusioned man, I came to realize that his shadow was tailing me, haunting my years.
And but now he was dead.
I am homeward bound from Mordor now, and when I look ahead I no longer see the volcanic Mt. Doom. It is receding behind me as I approach the Shire and the many beloved hobbits who await me there. I am headed, like Frodo and Sam, not only home but beyond home to the Grey Havens. There a ferry awaits, and elves may give me company.
“A great shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed, and the sound was like music.
The time has come for me to turn away from dark things and face the sun, living the rest of my days contentedly and caring as well as I can for my loved ones and friends on the way. My confessions here are meant to mark a good beginning for all that. I hope they do not mark the end. I still want to mount my own one-man show, maybe about the Camino, and I want to walk to St. Joseph’s Oratory and maybe elsewhere, and there is my granddaughter to play with, maybe other grandchildren too.
For whatever time is left me, I will put one foot in front of the other without knowing just what awaits me around the next corner. I will walk forward, understanding that the path in front of me is nothing less than a long walk home.