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"Pilgrims are poets who create by taking journeys." Traveling With Pomegranates, Sue Monk Kidd, 2010, p. 143
"So, why are you walking the Camino?" Such is the question that enters most any pilgrim conversation. Why, in our modern era, do well over one hundred thousand of us on an annual basis walk hundreds of miles/kilometers, in all seasons, under all possible conditions, with all manner of challenges: physical, emotional, or spiritual, to reach this relatively obscure northern Spanish city of Santiago, there to hug the statue of this saint called James? Why do we cry the tears and laugh the gut-splitting laughter the path seems to squeeze out of us? Why did I walk over 500 miles/800 kilometers (mostly) from St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France, through all of northern Spain, across three mountain ranges, to reach Santiago, finishing in Finisterre, the so-called "end of the earth," all in thirty five days?
I believe I share with most pilgrims a combination of pain and hope that leaves us with an inner yearning. For what? Perhaps some healing, a resolution of some dilemma, possibly renewal of some sort, or perhaps finding our way again in the midst of the storms and confusion that life churns up for us. For me, there were very specific burdens I was carrying on my pilgrimage, the most intense of which was the collapse of my 35 year marriage, and my yearning to find healing and perhaps some closure of the wound that this loss generated. But an even deeper struggle I was less aware of, even as it touched more of me, was a disconnect from my own true center, and with that a disconnect from God.
These revelations come with some embarrassment because I of all people should not be in such a predicament. After all, I have been a counselor and psychotherapist for the same number of years as my marriage. I have worked with well over 100 couples in that time span, and supposedly helped a good number of them. So what gives? Others he can help, himself he cannot? It feels even worse when it comes to the God question. I was an ordained minister for a quarter of a century. I teach counseling and spirituality at a Jesuit University, and directed two Master's degree programs in Counseling and Spirituality for over a decade. I should know how to find my way to God and be able to stay there. How can my head and heart be so disconnected?
A glimmer of why the Camino might be a partial remedy for my problems is seen in its supreme symbol, the scallop shell. The scallop has represented a deep truth about the Camino going back even into pre-Christian eras when the town of Finisterre on the Atlantic shore was the final goal, the furthest point of land known to persons in the Western Hemisphere. There, at this final shore, the scallop shells on the beach were used by pilgrims as a ritual object to symbolize the completion of their journey. But perhaps the shell also reveals something about the path itself. A close look at a scallop shell reveals its truth. Its many grooves all point to the center and every groove reaches the center, but the spiritual mystery of the scallop is that the grooves at the center of the shell are longer and thus further from its end, therefore covering more distance than those grooves at the perimeter. But how does this relate to the Camino or any spiritual truths?
Just because I think I am living close to my spiritual center does not mean I will get to my destination faster. If anything, it may take longer because I might actually be further away. According to the symbolism of the scallop, the one who seeks the center from the outside, from the hard margins of one's life, has a shorter distance to travel. Maybe that is why I need all of 500 mi/800 km to work on myself. When we begin the search for God from the perimeter, from a more painful place of searching, we may have less ground to cover because we are then perhaps hungrier for the Sacred, and may have less accumulated spiritual clutter to cut through. I, who am a spiritual fat cat, will have further to travel because I have to lose some spiritual weight first to get any real momentum. After all, Jesus noted how the first often arrive last, while the last seem to arrive first. For me, this may mean getting out of my head, out of my knowledge, out of my scripts, out of my habits, and into my need for God, into my need for healing.
Saturday, July 11, 2009 begins for me well before dawn when I awake at 5:30 a.m., nervous and excited, a combination of eagerness and trepidation. I have been preparing for almost a year, have read over two dozen Camino memoirs, walked for months in my neighborhood with my poles and backpack, surely a strange sight in suburban Morton Grove, Illinois. I have purchased a state-of-the-art backpack, high-end boots, kept the weight of my pack under 10% of my body weight (185 pounds), packed with precision, and have decided on several spiritual practices and disciplines I will use on the Camino to whip myself into spiritual shape (prayer, walking meditation, journaling, singing, use of prayer stones, Scripture, etc.). In short, I am ready.
I am so ready, that I see no problem with having still scheduled four counseling sessions in the morning, beginning at 8 AM. For someone like myself who constantly flirts with overextension, I don't question my packed schedule or the price I might be paying for my hyper-responsibility. My flight does not leave until 5 PM, and I have time to call and say goodbye to my oldest son Michael in Western Canada, my middle son Thomas in upstate New York, and to my youngest son Matthew, who lives with me at home.
My first pangs of sharp pain are felt as I sit down to write my thirty fifth and final anniversary card to Margita. The anniversary is in nine days, and while she is currently in Europe, the card will be waiting for her when she returns. I am given the grace to write from a place of gratitude, even as I am full of grief and longing for another outcome. Because my journey covers 35 travel days, one day for each year of my marriage, I contemplate doing a cathartic tour of my 35 years of marriage, one Camino day per year of marriage. But if the waves of sadness I am feeling at this moment are any indicator of what is to come, I don't think I can do this for 34 more days. I ask God to guide me onto a healthy path of ownership and release, and not one of fixation or morbid attachment. In that spirit I climb into my taxi, and say goodbye to a home and a life that will not return. The journey into a great unknown has begun.
I pride myself on being well organized and an excellent packer. My backpack is a model of compactness, efficiency, and thorough German standards of organization. As I pass through the airport security checkpoint my bag is pulled out and the attendant says everything must be removed. I stand by helplessly as she takes each item out and examines it in full public view. Out come my toiletries, two pairs of underwear, two T-shirts, sandals, one long and one short pants, a book of poetry, a second book, a journal, special hiking towels, three pairs of socks, trail-mix nuts, sunscreen, a large stone (to be used later for a sacred Camino ritual), and finally, at the very bottom of the pack, a wine bottle opener which I had thrown into the pack and forgotten about. That was the culprit. "Do you want to mail it somewhere?" the security officer asks, "or have us confiscate it?" Since mailing will cost $14.95, and the opener only costs $2.95, I do not spend a long time thinking about it, and point to the garbage can.
At this point the line behind me has grown long and impatient, and she summarily dumps my whole jumbled pile onto a nearby table for my repacking job. I now get to show my skill before a hostile audience, and I start to sweat. "Oh hell", I think, and throw everything in as fast as I can so I can escape the gazes. Of course not everything fits, so my sandals will have to be attached on the outside where they will remain until they encounter a new adventure in approximately three weeks.
After the security screening scene I hurry to my gate, picking up a Starbucks coffee on my way to soothe my frayed spirit, and look forward to relaxing there before departure. What do I discover when I arrive? This is the very gate where Margita and I departed for our last trip together only four months ago, to Glastonbury and Oxford, England, where she declared her final intention to leave the marriage. Not only is it the same gate, but all seats seem taken except the two that we sat in before our departure. What kind of divine conspiracy is this? I feel her absence and my loss so deeply. All I know is, I am being driven deep down into myself toward my pain, my deepest truth, my personal path. I say a quiet prayer: "Be my strength and my guide, O God," as I board the plane. As my plane picks up speed and lifts its wheels, I see Chicago recede behind me. I know I am heading into the sacred fire of God's purifying furnace. I don't know how this will occur, but I harbor no doubt that occur it will. I am apprehensive, yet strangely at peace.
As one who loves books, I cherish times when uninterrupted reading is possible. Flying lends itself to this pastime beautifully, and within the hour I have plunged into "Physics of the Impossible," by Michio Kaku, a cofounder of String Theory. After an hour or so of reading I become restless and disturbed, even though I am enjoying the book. I come to realize that my reading is a distraction from the deeper invitation to go inward on this journey. I need to disengage from my head if I am to make headway on the spiritual path. Realizing this, it becomes an easy decision to set the book aside, and leave it on the plane, perhaps for someone else to enjoy. I am left with only one small book in addition to my Camino guidebook, a book of poems by Robert Hass.
Why a book of poetry? Poetry is a language of the soul and because it is not linear, it takes us into realms of knowing and of truth that can only be accessed indirectly. I feel myself breathing more deeply as I open this little volume and read a few lines from a poem called:
The poem calms and centers me; it tells me there is a way in through the combination of dust and water and the faded blossom that is my life. This dust and water will be the physical and existential context of my life for these next five weeks.
I doze off and on but am brought into full alertness by mild chest pain which I have been experiencing for several days now. A few weeks before departure I underwent a physical examination which determined I have high blood pressure and some mild heart irregularity. I conclude that this is the physical manifestation of emotional pain, and am actually reassured by this thought. My being is an integrated whole after all, and my body is just speaking in the language it knows.
As I try to listen to myself more deeply, I feel the full force of my aloneness and the pain that seems to accompany it. I am experiencing both a sense of existential aloneness in the universe, but I am also struggling with the isolation and abandonment that loss brings with it. Perhaps these have become tangled up for me. I am of course always alone in the universe in the sense that no one can live my life for me, and I must face life as myself. On the other hand, this relationship rupture has thrown me into a solitude that overrides everything else. Perhaps I have been given this solitude as a vessel, as God's cauldron, to burn off what is impure and untrue in my life. In that sense it might be a gift, but I am far from ready to call it that.
The sounds of people rustling paper and plastic and shifting in their seats awakens me, and we are told that we are beginning our descent into Paris. Within the hour we have landed, on a gray and cloudy Sunday morning. I disembark, eager for my bonus ten hours to explore Paris before my evening flight to Biarritz in southern France. Yet at the same time I am feeling nervous and apprehensive without really knowing why.
Then it hits me. It is virtually ten years to the day since my only other trip to Paris, this time with Margita, in what was one of the happiest days of our life together. The summer of 1999 had me teaching at the Katholique Universiteit in Leuven, Belgium, with my responsibilities ending soon before our anniversary on July 20. Margita had been traveling in Europe on her own, and we had prearranged to rendezvous in Leuven around the 11th. This we did on the train platform with flowers, hugs and kisses, all in grand romantic fashion. At dinner that evening a surprise was waiting under Margita's dinner plate: tickets for two on the bullet train to Paris the next morning.
Romance filled the air, and Paris did not disappoint. No one can walk down the Seine and not be swept up by the combination of soft light, music, gentle breezes, architecture, the sexiest bridges around, and overall atmosphere. There are probably more kissing couples per square foot along the Seine than in any other comparable piece of real estate on Earth. It was a day of wonder and joy. And now I am back, only this time alone. No wonder I am anxious, and soon start berating myself. Why did I fly into Paris? I could have just as easily flown into Madrid to make my Camino connections. Was my unconscious working overtime again, conspiring with some scheming deity to push me ever deeper into sadness?
My fractured emotional state must have short-circuited my brain because I spend well over an hour wandering around Charles de Gaulle airport looking for a locker to store my backpack. I walk round and round in circles and eventually find the lockers virtually steps from where I first started. This does not bode well for the long trek which begins the next morning. Nonetheless, I resolutely stride off into the Paris subway system aiming for no particular central location. Surely I can find central Paris?
Find it I do in glorious fashion, coming up from the tunnels at Notre Dame station. Next to the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame in its grace and grandeur, represents the best of Paris. And here it is immediately in front of me with long lines snaking around the plaza in front of the church. Since it is Sunday morning in time for Mass, I join the line entering the "International Mass," which is about to begin.
The scene which awaits me is surreal. Those of us entering to "worship," are directed to the center of the cathedral where there are seats for well over 2000 worshipers, where I take my place. This area is surrounded by a waist high picket fence. On the other side of this fence marches an army of tourists, at least six to eight people across, a constantly flowing river of humanity, circling around us as Mass proceeds. The flow never stops, with talking, pointing, looking, picture taking, and general commotion. I have landed in a religious zoo or theme park, and I am one of the exhibits. We on the inside, are as distracted by those on the outside, as they are intrigued and puzzled by us. This detached and passive mutual curiosity matches our engagement with the Liturgy. Few worshipers seem to be paying much attention, and do not seem moved by it. We are distant observers of a ritual that seems to carry little if any relevance or emotional connection for us.
I become very sad in the middle of this spectacle. Have we as Christians succeeded in taking the drama of salvation, of God becoming flesh and dwelling among us, and have turned it into a dusty, ancient, and remote fable, and trapped it in an other-worldly realm of non-relevance? I stumble out of Mass in a spiritual fog. Has the personal encounter with God become lost even in its sacramental moments? I am yearning for spiritual food, but wonder where I will find it in any formal or communal way on the Camino? Will I be left only with my private musings? Will I find the necessary spiritual guidance for what awaits me?
Excerpted from Walking with Stones: A SPIRITUAL ODYSSEY ON THE PILGRIMAGE TO SANTIAGO by William S. Schmidt Copyright © 2012 by William S. Schmidt. Excerpted by permission of Trafford Publishing. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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