Monday, March 16, 2015

Our Camino, Final Chapter, Father’s Day and the End of the World


(This is the eleventh and final installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The tenth chapter is here.)

On Sunday, June 17, Father's Day, my daughter Marian and I attended the pilgrim mass at high noon at the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. From the time Marian invited me to walk with her the previous autumn, the Camino had been about fatherhood, something lodged so deep within me that it sometimes seems the closest thing to God.

I find it hard to imagine someone having a close relationship with God if they haven’t had a positive relationship with their own father. An abusive or absent father must nearly be the world’s greatest curse. My faith and my Camino both began with my father, whose name was David, a good old Biblical name, unlike Webster, who never was a saint. Sorry, Peter, David was my rock. In the five years before he died, he and I took three memorable trips together. So I understood the value of Marian’s invitation—and that I might wish to be as good a father to her as Dad was to me.

We met several other parent-child combinations walking the Camino together, including a mother and her 12-year-old son, the youngest pilgrim we met and maybe the most enthusiastic. But our presence and our compatibility were apparently so striking to people that we often heard questions like, Are you the Bulls? Are you the father and daughter from Boston that I’ve heard about? Are you Marian Bull’s dad? Are you Webster’s daughter?

I walked the Camino with a father’s question: What is the best way to be a father to a grown woman? When our children are babies we know what to do: feed them and change their diapers. When they are school-age, we usually know enough to be on time when picking them up at school and don't miss their soccer games. But what do you do with a smart, independent 24-year-old person who has already traveled without you in Southeast Asia? Or who has spent a year studying abroad in Spain? How do you solve a problem like Marian? My only ready answer was the question itself and the openness needed to keep the question alive.

Before the mass Caro, a young pilgrim friend of Marian's, gave me a peck on my old gray-bearded cheek and wished me Happy Father's Day. Right up to the wild pendulum swing of the giant censer (botafumeiro, pictured above), I continued to think about fatherhood. What I thought is this: 

Fatherhood, like life, like a kiss unasked for, is a gift. We men think we start things off—you know, with the whole act of procreation—and that's our first mistake. Fatherhood is a gift precisely like the talent of the parable, something I should neither bury in the ground nor take credit for myself. Instead, I need to turn it into all I can make of it and then return the earnings to the master, the Father of fathers.

One other thing about fatherhood, on which I imagine all fathers can agree: Like the Camino de Santiago, it's a trip, which is not a bad translation for camino.


Lessons of the Camino
"The Camino will change you," André had told me in Navarrete. (In photo, André is at left, with his friend Hubert.) 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 would Katie notice when I returned home in a week? What, if anything, would I? I had lost some weight, and maybe I wouldn’t gain all of it back. But 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 in Santiago de Compostela. Near the train station, I got the best haircut and shave 20 euros could 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 was sure that André, a Catholic devoted to Mary, who began all three of his pilgrimages in May, “the month of Mary,” had been 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 was not sure what that meant. Maybe it didn’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 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, were not likely to be on the surface. I made many friends on the Camino and even made a list—in order—of the twenty-six I saw again in Santiago de Compostela. Each of these  encounters had an unusual intensity: confidences shared, tears shed, man-hugs exchanged. But I knew  that I was unlikely to see any of these people again in my life!

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. “I am tired of the law firm. Should I become a circus clown?” Things like that. Maybe some of my fellow pilgrims had revelations about vocation, but I did not, or none so dramatic. I was a writer who used to be an actor before he became a publisher. Whatever I did when I got home, as in do for dollars, I knew it would be some combination of these abilities.

The Camino taught me a practical lesson about direction: 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 would be like that, I thought. I had a few things I needed and wanted to do the first day and the first week. But beyond that turn in the road I couldn’t yet say. I saw a few likely mountain passes on the horizon, but as my old nemesis Gulliver was the first to tell me, Man proposes and God disposes. I certainly did not yet foresee the book I would write about Gulliver during the following eighteen months.

The Camino 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 we 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 walk it. This meant that my Camino could continue at home in Massachusetts, through faith. It meant that the Camino or, in fact, Christ would continue to take care of me.

But would I see the people I met 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 from 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 out of the cave. People stopped making eye contact with you. They muttered and grunted instead of speaking.

One thing that would help when I got home was remembering a bit of graffiti we saw scrawled along the way. It read simply, “It's not about you.” This was spot-on for me and my Camino. The three most meaningful days of the thirty-five 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.

They were these: Day #4, when Ricardo gave me a heart to carry to Santiago for a friend who couldn't make the trip. Day #18, when 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, when I left rocks for my friends Donald and Randy at the Cruz de Ferro.

More readers of my blog would read the posts for these days than any others. I can show you the numbers. So remember: It's not about you. It's not about me either. It must be about Him.




Not Alone After All

While I stayed behind in Santiago to rest, Marian walked on with friends to Finisterre, a three day’s march to the edge of the Atlantic. Finisterre means end of the world, as it certainly was for Spaniards in pre-Columbian days.

A friendly reader of my blog, aptly named Angel, spent the better part of two days showing me around the city, and this was a great gift to me; but by Wednesday morning, I was feeling lonely. I felt the eerie unreality of hotel living—not going anywhere or doing anything, being fed more than I needed, sleeping maybe more than I should.

Part of the problem was that I had stopped running into friends from the Camino. Most by now had passed through and were headed home. I wrote myself a pep talk in my journal—about prayer, taking one step at a time, and remembering it's “not about me.” I decided to go to 11 am mass. That was the turning point.

Coming out of the chapel after a few moments of Adoration, I wondered which way to turn: left toward my hotel and more eating and resting by myself or right toward the main entrance and maybe a stroll. I turned right and walked smack into Constant and Lucile. My heart soared. This French couple was among the most joyous people Marian and I met on the Camino. They were outspoken about being non-religious but they exuded such joie de vivre that you couldn’t help but feel faith in their presence.

The three of us stood on the balcony overlooking the square in front of the cathedral and took each other's pictures and exchanged jokes and e-mail addresses. I was happy not to lose touch with them. I knew I probably would never see them again. But they mattered to me. The Camino made it so.

Buoyed by this encounter, I felt better about walking to the park fifteen minutes west, where there is a spectacular view back toward the cathedral. I sat to read for 45 minutes and even sketched the cathedral in my journal (above).

Then I headed back uphill to the square and ran straight into Brook. This young man from Canada is one of the most refreshing people Marian and I met on the Camino. He was enthusiastic about life, like Constant and Lucile, but unlike them he was overtly Catholic and unabashed about letting you know it.

We had a happy reunion, I took the photo here, and he told me he had spent several days with a young woman I had met two weeks before. He said that she had experienced some sort of religious reawakening on the Camino—something about enounters with two priests and what happened in some church. (Brook talked with such energy that I picked up more of his emotion than his gist.) He said that Carrie had spoken positively of her encounter with me, and I asked Brook to pass along my e-mail address to her, if he would.


The Longest Day at the End of the World

I drove to Finisterre Thursday morning in a rented car to pick up Marian. This seemed a good day to come to “the end of the world”—June 21, the summer solstice, the longest day of the year. As I drove from Noia up along the concave coast through a dozen towns with white walls and orange tile roofs, I had no regret. After the previous day’s clouds and rain, the weather was glorious, all sun and puffy cumuli. The green landscape looked so much like the west of Ireland that I stopped to take a picture to send to Katie, who loves the west of Ireland.

When I met Marian in front of a church in near the rocky shore, she said we had to drive to the lighthouse at land's end. There I was reunited with Caro and Fabian, her two young friends, as well as with Edward, a bright, engaging father from England traveling alone and facing a crisis in his life.

Then Marian showed me a stone cross beneath the lighthouse. A miscellany of personal mementoes was piled on and around it, including Ricardo’s heart lying at its base. This is what I saw.


We had taken our hearts to the end of the world. Now like every pilgrim in this world, we realized that it was time to head home.


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