The Pilgrim Mind
In the hands of Providence:
humility, gratitude, prayer
found on road to Santiago de Compostela
National Catholic Reporter
April 15, 2005
The poet William Stafford once asked, "Is there a way to walk that living has obscured?" There are as many answers as there are spiritual paths, but one that appealed to me as I began retirement was the idea of going on a pilgrimage. And so in mid-April of 2004 my wife, Linda, and I traveled to Le Puy, France, and began to walk the road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, 900 miles away.
Pilgrimages have always been seen as symbolic of the human journey, but they differ from ordinary life, taking us out of our usual comforts, expectations and responsibilities. They involve risk, physical effort and the unexpected. Literally and figuratively they present us with a new landscape each day, which is part of their power to transform.
When I look back, I see I was naive about the long road ahead. Actually my idealization got a shock even before I took the first step. In late March I was reading Thomas Keating's Lenten meditations: "Life, once one is in union with God, is what God wants it to be. You can be sure that whatever you expect to happen will not happen. That is the only thing of which you can be certain in the spiritual journey." This put a new light on my fantasies of the journey, and I understood that the first step was (and is) a shift in consciousness.
I reflected that we would begin our walk in Eastertide. I noticed the resurrection stories that fill the daffy readings after Easter, how people again and again see Jesus as the stranger, fail to recognize him on the road or in the garden or by the sea. I wondered whom would I meet, how would I fail to see, who would touch my heart? I noticed too, in the midst of our warm welcome by friends in Paris, my fear about leaving home for what suddenly seemed like a long time. For a middle-class person like myself, the lifestyle of voluntary simplicity that one enters in varying degrees on pilgrimage is first experienced as anxiety. It takes a while for it to become a poverty of spirit that engenders trust. I thought of Henri Nouwen's question: Does my sense of homelessness bring me closer to Christ than my sense of belonging?
My anxiety disappeared as soon as we began walking. The first three weeks in France were the most intense and physically demanding of the whole trip. We were inexperienced hikers at that point, our packs too heavy for our body weight. The terrain in each stage was rugged: steep climbs followed by rough descents, then up again, on rocky paths. It rained daily, with occasional snow and sleet; the lanes flowed like stream beds. Linda suffered immediately from blistered feet and walked in pain for more than two weeks, experiencing what so many pilgrims feel, the despair of ever finishing what they started. In these early days I arrived at the shelters exhausted and worried about Linda and wondered, how will we last two months?
Wildness of the mountains
But I was also exhilarated. The landscape around us was beautiful: the delicate greens and early flowers of spring, the hedgerows lining the paths, stone walls glistening in the rain, birdsongs from the hedges an arm's length away, pastures etched into the hillsides. Even the bad weather excited me. It had the wildness of the mountains: dramatic clouds, flashes of rain, cloudbursts, sleet, and most of all a wild wind stirring everything alive. A French pilgrimage prayer goes, "May I walk toward you with all my life, with all my brothers and sisters, with all creation, with audacity and adoration," and that odd juxtaposition of audacity and adoration felt right. Three weeks later, however, I suffered a bad ankle sprain; it was my turn to experience the despair of the pilgrim whose dream is crashing.
The spiritual lessons of these early weeks were the most memorable. Humility, not a virtue in our culture, was the first lesson. Experiencing the joy of creation dovetailed with seeing how small I am in the universe. Also the physical hardship of the walk and the loss of middle-class privileges were humbling in the sense that we knew we were vulnerable, dependent, in the hands of Providence. Pilgrims talked of being aware of brokenness. There was a kind of emptying of self, a pulling away from identities tied to having and doing and achieving.
This humbleness opens the heart to prayer and gratitude. The rhythm of walking, the absence of distractions (no newspapers, radios or TV), the silence, the beauty of nature, the sense of vulnerability combined to make prayer steady and spontaneous, akin to breathing. And gratitude is part of pilgrim mind. A sign at one of the shelters in Spain said: "The tourist demands, the pilgrim gives thanks" …a different mindset. Once we walked for four hours in the rain. Hungry and thirsty and with no village in sight, hoping for a dry spot to eat and drink what we had brought with us, we came upon an old walled cemetery with a covered gate with benches on each side; the perfect two-seat cafe. This was a frequent experience: A need arose that seemed unlikely to be met, and yet it often was and was met as a gift rather than an entitlement or something bought.
People were most often how we experienced the hand of Providence. There was Leonard and his family in Estaing, who washed our clothes and bandaged Linda's feet. Annie Granier and her husband who hosted pilgrims and farmed. She walked part of the Camino each year while he felt his pilgrimage was to help out at the gite. Therese Fardo in the small village of Miradoux: She gave up nursing to provide hospitality. Her house was right on the path with a handwritten welcome sign, geese in the backyard, three dogs and a cat, a pasture for horses and exuberant hospitality that had us all singing at the end of dinner. These encounters were always moving. Leonard pointed out that in French the word for host and guest is the same: hote. I resisted this blurring of who gives and who receives. But they insisted it made sense. And I thought of Emmaus: The two disciples invite the stranger in for dinner and in the breaking of bread they recognize God is their guest.
Restless and off balance
My ankle injury threw me off balance physically and emotionally. I became restless, disoriented, impatient. We had to cross the Pyrenees into Spain by car (again through the kindness of our hosts, Huberta and Arno, in St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France) and take the bus while I healed. I felt I was losing "pilgrim mind" and falling into "tourist mind," which describes for me the physical passivity of our mode of travel and a shallow curiosity that is closer to distraction than love. We leaped ahead to the major cities of Burgos, Leon, Astorga, and were immersed in the sacred art of their cathedrals and museums. When we resumed walking in Astorga all this multitude of images, which at first seemed too repetitive, took on a different life in my mind, lingering in my head as a cloud of witnesses who believed and walked and worshiped before.
We began to climb the last of three mountain ranges, the landscape like the barren beauty of the Southwest, then changing into the greens and mists of Galicia, the forests of oaks and chestnuts and closer to Santiago, eucalyptus groves. On one of the trees someone had taped a message: "Hello Fellow Pilgrims, it is hard to follow your dreams but with faith and kindness we can make them real." The stream of pilgrims thickened; over the last 100 kilometers the distance is marked every kilometer and anticipation builds. We finally reached the city limits and headed for the cathedral.
Not for everyone
Entering this church and doing the pilgrim rituals is not for everyone. Some avoid the crowds and continue the quiet journey to the coast, Finisterra. Most pilgrims however make the cathedral their endpoint. The world they enter here is a sharp contrast to the looseness and egalitarianism of the road. It is Catholic, organized, hierarchical, filled with art and ritual and the sense of the sacramental. We entered by the Door of Pardons made of bronze panels that depict the life of the apostle James. To open the door, I pushed on the scene where James is about to be beheaded in Jerusalem, and I noticed the green patina of the bronze worn off from his head by thousands of pilgrims who entered before. We stepped into the dark interior and came upon a line of people waiting to ascend a narrow staircase built behind the main altar.
When you face this altar from the front, you see a medieval statue of James the Pilgrim seated on a high Baroque throne, covered by a huge canopy of wood with ornate carvings and gold leaf. His face is simple. Everything else from his halo to his cape blazes back with the glory of gold. As pilgrims reach the top of the stairway behind the saint they embrace him from behind. At any hour of the day you can sit in the pews facing the altar and see human hands appear and disappear as pilgrims do their holy greeting. Only the hands show, coming and going all day, incongruous and touching because they are alive on the statue and ordinary in the midst of the regal.
Like embracing a friend
My memory of my turn is that it passed too quickly, like embracing a friend on the run. But the moment was moving nevertheless, a greeting after a long journey. And I have reflected on the mystery and richness of this gesture. What did it express? When in life do we come up from behind and embrace someone? It reminded me of the playfulness of children and parents, the comforting of a father or mother, the affection of lovers, the play of men. It held surprise, spontaneity and familiarity in addition to reverence. This was definitely a fellow pilgrim we embraced, not the Moorslayer sitting on his horse 20 feet above us on the canopy.
We descended into the crypt to the reliquary that holds the remains of St. James, exited the church and reentered through the Portico of Glory, three arches of stunning Romanesque sculpture that depict scenes from the Apocalypse. The central pillar, which holds up a statue of the wounded Christ seated in glory, is carved in the form of the Tree of Jesse, the human genealogy of Jesus. For 11 centuries pilgrims have walked up to this column and placed their hands on the granite as they pray. I took my turn and felt my fingers sink inches into the stone worn away by centuries of desire to connect to the Body of Christ.
The next day we went to the pilgrim Mass, extraordinary in the breadth of humanity present. The archbishop greeted pilgrims in five languages, mentioning their departure points and countries of origin. The worldwide community came alive in faces and languages. The singing and liturgy were passionate and ended in spectacular fashion. A huge incense burner, the botafumeiro, was lowered from high above the altar and filled with incense coals. Eight men began to swing it with a pulley system until it rose six stories high at the apex of its are on each side of the transverse aisle of the cathedral, spewing fire and smoke on the people below. This fumigation of the pilgrims, begun in the Middle Ages, symbolizes purification. As I stood looking up in amazement my body was gripped by the music of the cathedral organ playing at full blast. The gold of the altar and canopy blazed back at me, the music vibrated through my whole body and the incense filled my lungs. Tears rose in me uncontrollably as I was caught in the glorious drama of this moment.
It's been almost a year since we ended our walk. What feels larger about our lives? It is still hard to say. I notice I approach humble tasks more willingly and in a different spirit. The sense of gratitude for ordinary life and life itself remains strong. Prayer still bubbles up in unpredictable rhythms. I pray for pilgrims now and have come to feel that means everyone. A friend sent me this quote by Ann O'Shaughnessy, which I read on my return:
When we are denied the experiences of wandering without clear direction we miss gathering the richness of our being. We miss the compassion gained from falling face down in the mud that is necessary to love others who have fallen. We miss the gifts of humility and surrender. We miss the discovery of something real, mistaking the well-thought out life for our true life. We end up at midlife with a sadness we cannot name. … We are left surrounded by things and by people that support the life we thought we wanted. Luckily soul is persistent, inviting us repeatedly to discover the life that is waiting for us.
I feel no need to resolve with finality the question Nouwen poses, whether homelessness and exile bring us closer to God than belonging. I know I have been blessed with a sense of belonging that comes from being loved by others and loving. This gift is my stillpoint and from it I hope that soul will persist too, swinging me now and then into the mysterious are of the new and unexpected.
[Dan Finlay is a social worker and writer who lives in Ithaca, N.Y.]