Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 3: Uterga to Navarrete

(This is the third installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The second chapter is here.)

From Uterga on our fifth day on the Camino, Marian and I agreed to accompany our young friend Alex as far as a certain bridge, where he planned to rendezvous with friends. To cover the 15 kilometers to the bridge by 10:30 am, we had to leave at 6 am. It was beautiful to walk in silence, the three of us, through the dawning farmlands of Navarra, where the hilly landscape is like Tuscany, complete with vineyards, but more spread out.

As we passed through Puente la Reina (pictured), 6 kilometers along, we had our daily run-in with Simon and Sam, the happy couple from the north of England. Talkative as ever, Sam looked worn out, through some combination of pubbing and sleeping in “one more damn pilgrim refuge.” She said she and Simon were going to stay in a hotel tonight, “to have some us time.” Then she pointed to the bags under her eyes and said that what her eyes needed was hemorrhoid cream.

Alex engaged me in a discussion of the Catholic Church. Catholic-schooled as a boy growing up in Edmonton, Canada, he said the only vestige now of his Catholic training then was the Lord’s Prayer. That he could remember, nothing more. We turned to an honest talk about the Church’s position on social issues, and I was struck by his openness to my point of view.

By the time we reached his friends at the bridge, I had rounded into a point that was becoming clear to me in my first week on the Camino. Whatever any of my fellow pilgrims thought of the Catholic Church, whatever their non-Catholic motivations for walking the Way of St. James might have been, there was a fact none could escape. This thing we were doing, this “pilgrimage,” was a gift of Catholic culture.

Each pilgrim, Catholic or not, was following the Church and therefore following Christ. For the graces they received they might credit anything from endorphins to their own steely wills, but no matter how they cut it, they were walking to the resting place of one of the twelve men who most closely followed Jesus. Alex, an honest man, admitted that he understood this.

We took a break at the bridge and then headed off, just Marian and I, for the second half of the day’s trajectory. Alex and his friends bombed ahead, although we passed them 5 kilometers from Estella, as they lay in the grass, exhausted and nursing their wounds. It was another demonstration of tortoise and hare.

Nine kilometers short of our day’s goal, we pulled off the path so that Marian could tend to her blisters. Who should come along but the remarkable Dr. Ricardo Reis, the Brazilian oncologist?! He spent the next ten minutes rebandaging the little toe on Marian’s left foot, then prescribing some things to pick up at the next farmacia. It was a bit like watching Christ wash the feet of his Apostles.

First Mass on the Camino

Life stops when you walk the Camino; then the Camino stops when you enter a church. But what happens when life enters a church?

We found out on day seven, our first Sunday on the Camino, at the Church of Santa Maria in Viana. We had stopped at mid-morning not certain where we would attend mass on this feast of the Ascension. We saw that the next mass at Santa Maria started at noon. It was only 10:30 and we thought we might use our time better by having a substantial second breakfast and moving on to Logroño, a city where we were sure to find an evening mass.

As we sat in a café digging into cafés con leche and bocadillos, we noticed two pilgrims passing the door. It was Ricardo and Gerson, the Brazilian oncologist and his traveling partner! I waved to the Brazilians through the glass and they came in to catch up at a table beside us. I showed Ricardo the plush heart pinned to my pack now and assured him that it would reach Santiago de Compostella. Just exactly as Marian and I stepped out of the café fifteen minutes later, the church bells overhead began ringing. They seemed to be a sign that we were supposed to attend mass here and not in Logroño, and then I saw a man carrying a tuba into the church.

I have often ignored church bells, but I seldom pass up the chance to hear a tuba, especially in church. C’mon, I told Marian, this mass is for us. It was just past 11:30 and the pews were beginning to fill. As we set down our packs, we noticed that many rows were marked Familiares. We inquired and found that these were for family members of the children receiving first communion at noon. The family members who eventually filled the Church of Santa Maria to the point of making fire codes laughable were like Mardi Gras revelers set loose in St. Peter’s. The older generation of abuelos and abuelas were discretely turned out, but not so the younger generation, especially the teenage girls. Mini-outfits were noted obliquely by my chaste, wandering eye; we saw a young lady of no more than fourteen in black Spandex shorts with a formal top, a sort of Speedo tuxedo. And other buxom and/or leggy displays.

The priest and altar servers and two dozen first communicants processed up the center aisle to the high altar (pictured), the girls in long flouncy party dresses, their hair done up in ribbons and waterfalls of curl. All but one of the boys was dressed in a variant of a Spanish sailor's costume, each more elaborate such that they resembled a junta on parade. One boy who apparently had not received the memo was dressed in a pale gray jacket and white pants, but he beamed all the brighter for it.

The liturgy was a riot. The short happy priest spoke with a microphone in hand like an emcee at a school talent show. He led a couple of remarkable singalongs, including a Gloria set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Gloria, gloria, hallelujah! He set down the mic for the communion liturgy but that did not stop a low hum of incessant conversation from the congregation, which sounded like the floor at a US national nominating convention.

When it was time for each of the 24 children to receive for the first time, the priest stood before the altar in profile and each child approached, hands extended. A photographer positioned directly in front of the pair popped her flash, to catch the very moment when Body of Christ entered body of child. Only about 20 percent of those at the mass received communion after the children.

I wanted to be offended by this superficial display of faith. But as I headed out of town I thought that in fact this crazy first communion was just like the Camino. Most of the people were not here for Jesus, but they were here and, whether they liked it or not, the ultimate reason was Jesus. Marian said later that the Camino is, like Jesus, “an equal-opportunity grace-giver.”

You may not come to the Camino for Jesus, but he will give you something here anyway. You just have to walk.

Two Remarkable Catholic Gentlemen

We had a long afternoon's walk from Viana to Logroño, and we gave ourselves the treat of staying in a decent hotel on Sunday night. Checking out at the leisurely hour of 10 o'clock, we missed the wave of pilgrims departing the albergues, where folks are usually sent on their way by 8. So most of those with whom we had left St. Jean Pied de Port, or whom we had met since, were out ahead of us now—some like Dominik and Erika far ahead. Whether we caught some of them, or they fell back to rejoin us, was out of our control. The Camino takes care of its own.

From 10 a.m. to about 1:15 p.m., Marian and I walked alone, only overtaking a couple of solo stragglers who may have been struggling with nagging injuries or winds that gusted to 40 knots. We passed through a preserved landscape resembling an Audubon wildlife sanctuary, with several species of duck and goose paddling through marshy terrain and exercise walkers taking advantage of pedestrian paths. Numerous Spaniards wished us Buen Camino as they passed. We climbed over a manageable pitch topped by a giant bull billboard and descended into the small town of Navarrete (pop 3,000), where we found an albergue with a private room and settled in.

Later in the afternoon we sat in the humble common room on the ground floor. Marian was occupied reading Hemingway and a crazy Spanish game show was making merry in the background when I struck up a conversation with Hubert, a Belgian pilgrim about seventy years old. He soon introduced me to his fellow traveler and good friend, André. (In the picture, André is at left, Hubert right.)

André had recently retired as handyman at what he called a couvent. I gathered that this was a sort of retirement home at which many of the clients were des bonnes soeurs, nuns. André had the blunt, wounded hands of a man who made and fixed things. When I noted this to him, he brought his hands to together in an attitude of prayer and said, “Yes, and I also pray with them.”

André and Hubert met because Hubert's wife worked many years as a cook in the same institution. André proudly showed me pictures of the two men with their wives. He also had pictures of the altarpiece in Los Arcos and the fields of red poppies you see everywhere in this season in Spain. “In Flanders fields, the poppies grow…,” I recited, and Hubert recognized the poem and named the author: John McCrae. I gathered that André did not know poetry, or computers for that matter. When Hubert and I exchanged e-mail addresses, André said he didn't have one.

But he did have a devotion to Mary. André was born in May, which he called le mois de Marie, her month. This was his third Camino, and each time he had begun in May, in honor of the Blessed Virgin. His devotion was deep. In his home, he had built a miniature Lourdes grotto, complete with a statue of the Immaculate Conception.

“The Camino changes you,” André said to me. He related that when he first walked the Camino, he was a practicing, even devout Catholic who had grave doubts about an afterlife. Heaven and hell were here on earth, he had said; after death, le néant, nothingness. But that changed in 2000 when André first walked to Santiago. When he returned home his wife said he had changed. He joked that she was the one who had received the most benefit from his first Camino.

Hubert listened almost reverentially as André spoke. After a time, I was so moved by my encounter with these good Catholic men that I thought of inviting them to dinner with us. Earlier, Marian and I had bought the ingredients for a vegetarian meal she wanted to cook in the albergue kitchen. Now I asked her if we could share with André and Hubert. She agreed, and together we went off to the mercado to buy more ingredients. The meal was hearty, plentiful—big bowls of pasta and beans mixed with fresh vegetables and plenty of pepper. With a baguette of fresh bread shared four ways, it was the perfect conclusion to a day of pilgrimage and friendship.

(Continue reading Chapter 4 here.)

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