Months ago I bought myself a guidebook to the Camino Del Norte. Before setting out, and in order to save weight, I cut out the pages I needed describing the route from Santander. I then stapled these into seven smallish sections so that I could have the relevant one in my pocket each day to guide me. This morning I took out the final section.
Santiago is only about 60 km away
It was lovely to sleep in the dormitory in the pilgrim cloister of the monastery last night, and think that pilgrims to Santiago have been receiving hospitality there for hundreds of years.
Last night at dinner with my two Dutch companions and my new Colombian friend (it is very useful having someone who speaks Spanish fluently to hand) the conversation turned to the meaning of pilgrimage.
One is walking because he wants to find some answers, but doesn’t really know the questions, and although he has enjoyed the physical exertion of what for him will be over 1200 km, feels disillusioned, and describes himself as a ‘stamp collector’, that is someone just collecting the stamps on the pilgrim passport each day so that he can receive the Compostela – whatever that means – when he gets to Santiago.
Though he is a very generous person, always drawing others on. I told him today he was a stamp maker – someone who leaves a mark. Another walks because he likes walking and because he hopes that along the way a hiker will be turned into a pilgrim. And one is a veteran of the Camino who has walk this way many times and simply finds stillness in the moving. They asked me what I thought pilgrimage means. I said that it was a way of reminding myself that the whole of life is a pilgrimage. We all know that life is a journey, that is not a particularly Christian or religious insight. The journey that begins when we are born, ends when we die. As we get older, we are aware that there is more road behind us than ahead of us.
But from a Christian perspective, and particularly in the knowledge that Christ has gone this way before us and prepared a place that awaits us, then the journey that ends in death becomes a pilgrimage that leads to life. By going on pilgrimage in this life we are not only reminded of this reality, but everything else in our lives is put into its proper perspective.
For most of the time we live our lives as if they are our own and place ourselves at the centre.
I cannot speak for anyone else, but for me coming on pilgrimage is a way of reminding myself that life is a gift, that I do not have anything by right, and the more I am able to travel light enjoy each passing moment, and be trusting and thankful that each day will offer me what I need, the more these few weeks of actual pilgrimage will enable me to live as a pilgrim in the rest of my life.
This is why I walk, I told them, and I believe the walking is doing me good. But it is about the traveling not be the arriving and as I anticipate joining the more crowded Camino Francais later today I wonder whether as I reach the sign that says Santiago one kilometre, I should bow deeply, pause and give thanks, and then turn round. They were slightly amused by this particular observation of the meaning of pilgrimage, but got the point. However, it was a good conversation, and I can’t help but reflect that perhaps it was our presence with the monks at Vespers, sharing in their prayer and stillness, that prompted the more serious conversation that followed.
Today’s walk was relatively easy and compared with other days a little full. Mostly on roads and little spectacular scenery. I kept overtaking a lovely little old Italian man called Antonio. He must be at least 70. He walks quite slowly, and I don’t think he could have stopped all day. Because I would overtake him, then stop for a coffee, or to say Morning Prayer, to write something or make myself some lunch, and after a little while he would come by, and then when I started walking again I would overtake him. He doesn’t speak any English and I don’t speak any Italian, but we exchanged greetings, and I passed him for the last time on the final kilometres into as Azura where I am staying tonight. Walking into the town itself I passed a woman with a meat cleaver killing a chicken on a bit of waste ground by the small block of flats where she lived. In Spain, even in the town the countryside is not very far away.
I booked into one if the many and quite crowded Albergues, met up with some fellow pilgrims from the Caminio Norte for a beer. Lying on my bunk an hour later I heard the clanking if the church bell from round the corner and went to Mass. Several of my fellow pilgrims were there, including Antonio, who’ve I now learned is from Sardinia. As he shuffled back from communion, his feet obviously hurting, he was weeping. I don’t know why he walks or what sadness he carries.
At the end of Mass the priest invited all the pilgrims present to come forward. About twenty of us shuffled out. He sprinkled us with holy water and gave us a special blessing. And then I found I was weeping too, I don’t really know why; I think just because life is so precious and so beautiful and you don’t need to go to Santiago to find this.
Here it was around the altar in this little church: an affirmation of all that is good and true.
Dinner tonight was with my usual international dining club. We had soup, pork and almond tart, a cortada, and Manuel also persuaded us to try a Chupito, a local liqueur. Wasn’t hard. A very tasty end to the day.