The second time, it began with a phone call.
It was Columbus Day 2011. With the day off, my wife and I were dawdling over coffee. She had just agreed to a surprise movie date in the afternoon.
The movie, though she didn’t know it yet, and had no reason to know it, was “The Way,” Emilio Estevez’s film about the Camino de Santiago, starring Estevez’s father, Martin Sheen (pictured).
This thousand-year-old pilgrimage route stretches from the Pyrenees west across the north of Spain, ending at Santiago de Compostela, the burial place of St. James the Apostle.
I had wanted to walk the Camino for some time now. Since I converted to the Catholic faith in 2008 and began trying out everything Catholic from singing in the choir to serving at funerals (I was like my pastor’s dog, famous for running around the rectory garden eating everything in sight, including the baby Jesus in a crèche), the Camino had moved to the top of my list.
I was already a long-distance exercise walker. I had walked since my mid-forties, when I realized that I wanted to have my own knees and hips when I turned sixty. So walking five hundred miles didn’t daunt me, and to do it in a Catholic way thrilled me.
I began hoping to walk the Camino in the summer of 2011, arriving in Santiago on the Feast Day of St. James, July 25, my sixtieth birthday. But as a freelance writer I was offered a major book project, agreed to deliver the manuscript on a tight deadline, and missed out on Spain.
That was the first beginning. This was the second:
“Hi Marian!” I recognized my younger daughter’s voice. “Day off?”
“Working at home today,” she answered. For over a year now my daughter had been working unhappily in a cubicle as an entry-level management consultant. I knew that Marian was thinking of taking some time off to reconsider her career choice. She was only twenty-three, plenty of time yet for new directions.
On the phone, Marian told me that her plans were firming up. She and an old friend had agreed to quit their jobs and spend the winter in Asia. Then Marian wanted to return alone through Europe.
“Sounds good to me,” I said.
“And then, Dad,” she said, “I was wondering—”
“Well, I’ve always loved the stories you tell about the trips you took with Granddad before he died, and—it’s not that I think you’re going to die or anything, but—I was wondering—if I came back through Europe next spring, would you consider—?”
“Yes,” I said, “I would.” I don’t know how I knew it, but I knew what she was going to ask.
“Dad, listen, would you consider walking the Camino de Santiago with me?”
“Yes, I said I would. Yes, I will. When do we begin?”
To believe in God is to know that there is no such thing as a coincidence.
Eventually we agreed to begin in early May 2012. We planned to cover the 500 miles (800 km) from St. Jean Pied de Port to Santiago de Compostella in five to six weeks, arriving on or about Father’s Day in mid-June.
The map here shows the traditional “Camino Francés,” that is, the path Marian and I proposed to walk, east to west.
At Thanksgiving Marian came home, led the way to REI, and helped me pick out thirty pounds of hiking gear. One is supposed to carry only 10 percent of one’s body weight on a long walk such as the Camino. My weight was about 210. I wanted it closer to 190. As a friend of mine put it, I began trying to move 20 pounds from my six-pack to my back pack.
With a regular walking regimen, I lost ten pounds by February 1, and by late March I was taking longer hikes, up the coast to Gloucester (14 miles one way, taking the train home), or inland to Ipswich (22 miles round-trip)—without weight on my back and then with it. I lost another five to seven pounds. I bought the best guide books and read about ten personal accounts of walking the Camino. I rationed my pack weight down to about 22 pounds, hard to cut it more. But I became convinced, and I think my conviction was correct, that the only final way to prepare for the Camino de Santiago is to walk it.
My final purchase was a walking stick, which I picked up in Lourdes, on the way to St. Jean Pied de Port with Marian. I had the stick engraved with the name of my patron saint, Joseph. The man at the shop gave me the option of having my own name engraved. When there was a momentary confusion about whether Joseph was my name or whether perhaps I thought that I myself was a saint, the merchant set me straight by saying, “That's a hat on your head, not a halo.”
With my walking stick in hand, I followed Marian to the train station in Lourdes. Thank God she had inherited her mother's sense of direction and not my own. On the train to Bayonne, in the Bayonne station, and particularly on the single car that forged upriver from Bayonne to St. Jean, we began to meet fellow pilgrims. The first surprise was that the average pilgrim was closer to my age (60) than Marian's (now 24).
I began asking my fellow passengers why they were walking the Camino—what their intentions were. The answers included no reference to Jesus, Christ, or the Church. Peter from Germany, whom I liked immediately, pointed to his heart and said that this was the right time in his life for him to be doing this. A man from Italy, who spoke no English but made a game effort to communicate with me, said that he was making the Camino for a sixth time because he has found that the long march refreshes his spirit.
Everyone I asked said they were beginning the Camino the following day, Sunday, May 13. Marian and I decided to wait until Monday. As a result we stayed Sunday night at Kaserna, which set the tone for our entire trip.
You may have heard of the Knights Hospitaliers. Like other orders of fighting priests and friars formed in the middle ages, their purpose was to protect pilgrims, most famously to Jerusalem but also on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. The term hospitalier is still in use in France today. It refers to those who run refuges.
The Mullons were, I would guess, in their sixties, and they had four grown children. Jacques had begun his career as a teacher, then moved into sales. Monique was the devout Catholic in the family, while Jacques was a long-time confirmed atheist. In the Mullon family, he was famous for not being able to carry a tune. When the family went driving together in their car, it was Monique who did all the singing.
On our arrival at Kaserna on Sunday afternoon, I was soon in conversation with Monique, using my leftovers of French. I asked her what percentage of pilgrims to Compostela are vraiment religieux, genuinely religious. She told me that she makes no distinction between religious pilgrims and just pilgrims. “Le chemin vous fait pélérin,” she told me. The Way makes you a pilgrim.
Monique illustrated this idea with a story about her husband, Jacques.
After their last child had left home, Jacques agreed to walk the Camino with Monique. It was the first trip they had taken together without children since their honeymoon many years before. The way made Jacques a pilgrim.
As he put it himself over dinner on Sunday evening, he was struck by so many gifts and graces that he could no longer live believing that we are the source of our own goodness. He was baptized soon after he returned from the Camino, and in time Jacques was received into the Catholic Church.
At dinner, Monique took great pleasure in explaining that, as soon as Jacques became a Catholic, his tone-deafness was cured. He began to sing! She said that he had been listening to all the songs she had sung through the years, memorizing them. Now, out they came!
She joked that her convert husband was rejuvenated once he was a Catholic, filled with energy that she found hard to keep up with. She made a hilarious French gesture with both arms, suggesting a very old woman trundling along behind her over-energetic husband.
In my Sunday afternoon chat with Monique, she said that she believes many so-called atheists have the seeds of conversion inside themselves. She told the story of Jacques’s father, another “confirmed” atheist. On his deathbed, her father-in-law refused to eat. Monique apparently had a way with him, however, and ordering some soup, she spoon-fed it to him. “Do you really believe that there is life on the other side?” her father-in-law suddenly asked Monique.
She replied, “The fact that you ask the question means you already know the answer.”
“The Camino makes you a pilgrim,” Monique had said to me. That was a lesson I began learning in earnest the following day, Monday, May 14, 2012, when Marian and I said good-bye to the Mullons at the front door of Kaserna and headed over the mountains into Spain.
(Continue reading Chapter 2 here.)