Spring Camino 2014: A Tale Of Two Caminos

IMAG1117-2I met Dan McCarthy when I was walking the Camino Francais from the Spanish border with Spain to Santiago De Compostela in October 2012.  Dan was back in 2013 and guested the Spring Camino blogs here in 2013.   He has just returned from his most recent walk this time on the Camino Portugese walking from Lisbon north through Portugal to eventually cross the border with Spain and walk into Galicia to Santiago.  Dan’s yearly commitment astounds and humbles me, not least because he will be 80 this year.  He has given me kind persmission to publish his reflections on the differences of these two caminos.  Dan offers “A Camino is in a way a life time in miniature.  It does not lend itself to facile analysis. But here is my effort.

IN MY BEGINNING IS MY END
“In my beginning is my end” says TS Eliot in East Coker, one of his Four Quartets. I happened to be reading East Coker for a discussion group in which I participate and have found several passages which seem to help me to articulate my thoughts about this Camino. I hope TS will forgive me if I totally distort the meaning of his great poetry in bending it to make some sense of my experience.

A first impression of a major difference in the two Caminos, the Camino Francais which I have walked eight times, and the Camino Portuguese is the difference in their beginnings. And I believe that difference colored the whole experience for me.

CAMINO FRANCAIS
The first day or two of the Camino Francais is a 15 mile climb up the northern slope of the Pyrenees to the Monastery of Roncesvalles which commemorates the setting of the eighth century battle of the rearguard of Charlemagne’s army which is enshrined in the Song of Roland, an epic poem of the French language. The monastery has been a refuge for pilgrims for close to a thousand years. One of the high points of the stop for me is the Pilgrim Mass at 6PM when the celebrant announces the places around the world from which the pilgrims who arrived that day have come. After Mass The celebrant blesses pilgrims in their native language and then in a darkened Chapel we all sing in Gregorian Chant the Salve Regina.

For the next couple of days pilgrims negotiate a rather steep incline, struggling in places and stopping at a couple of lovely small towns, to arrive at the magnificent walled city of Pamplona.  The pilgrim hostel in Pamplona is across the street from the Cathedral where on Sunday you can attend a Mass sung in Gregorian chant. Leaving Pamplona and arriving in Puente La Reina I stay at a monastery of the Padres Reparadores and attend Mass in the 12th Century church of Santiago.

Two characteristics summarize “my beginning” in the Camino Francais, the spectacular natural beauty of the climb up and down the mountains and the availability of a nourishing liturgical life. In fact I had not reflected on this latter blessing until I thought of the contrast with the Portuguese Camino. Another characteristic of the Camino Francais I should mention is the presence of other pilgrims along the way.  In the early years of my walking usually just a scattered few up ahead or behind, now many more some times too many.  For me all of this creates the aura of THE CAMINO that is palpable.  I have said in the past I experience the Camino as a country 10 yards wide and 500 miles long winding country  across northern Spain. It becomes my land, a place where I feel at home. Much of the Camino Francais is not actually so rich in Liturgical experiences. Churches are often not open and the surroundings are not always so uplifting. But that beginning sense of being at home endures. And the company of other pilgrims who seem to share that same sense of belonging is constant.

CAMINO PORTUGUESE
I am now entering risky territory, a comparison about which I have some strong feelings.  Comparisons are odious. If you are thinking of doing the Camino Portuguese please consult other impressions to form a more objective opinion.

I began walking the Camino Portuguese not from the Cathedral in Lisbon the traditional starting place, but at Moscavide, a suburb of Lisbon about 6 miles into the first stage beyond the beginning at the Cathedral. I took this short cut because I was already getting close to my limit of days to walk. I had taken three days off to visit the Azores and going into Lisbon from the Airport would have cost me another day while Moscavide was five minutes from the airport and had a Youth Hostel on the Camino, although it had no official relationship to the Camino. Also starting 6 miles into the Camino reduced the first day’s walk from 19 miles to 13 miles of city streets through some industrial areas, some picturesque walks along the river Tagus. I stayed that night in a pensao, a B&B with no particular connection to the Camino. I had not seen any pilgrims that day and was the only guest in the B&B. Most of the walk during the first week or so was on city streets or highways

I continued this routine for the next four or five days. No other pilgrims, no signs of any religious institutions, not churches, not monasteries, not albergues and not another pilgrim. The route was flat but long; 18,19 mile days long, staying in pensaos usually the only guest. While there were way marks they only marked where the route turned. I am used to marks frequently along the way and when they disappear I am aware I missed one. The more sparse marking requires much greater vigilance and consequently I got lost several times, once adding about  5 miles to a 19 mile day. Feeling lost began to be the predominant emotion of the walk a vivid contrast with the sense of being at home on the Camino Francais. Once in a wooded area the way marks disappeared entirely because the trees that had been marked had been cut down for some construction. Some workers got me back on the way.

This beginning as you can see turned into an uncomfortable anxious experience. A friend with a Buddhist background reminded me that desire causes suffering. So I began to reflect on what was the desire that was causing this anxiety. At the most superficial level I realized it was my concern about finding a place for the night. When you’ve been walking for six or seven hours with no end in sight incipient panic rises. But in my effort to get these desires under control it dawned on me what a powerful form of ascetism it is to give up your place of rest. It was what Jesus didBut Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens to live in, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place even to lay his head.” Matthew 8:20.  The holy men of India are said to sleep by the side of the road. I struggled with the sense of being lost, of not being at home on this. Camino for the rest of my walk. “In my beginning…”.  I never felt at home as I do on the Camino Francais. I do wonder if this anxiety had something to do with my physical problems at the end.

What to do with this feeling of not being at home?  It occurs to me that in a couple of weeks I will complete 80 yrs of age. It’s harder and harder to ignore that I am in the land of seniorhood. And some of this land feels a bit strange. My body is of course weakening and memory is a bit vague at times. My eyesight is not as sharp as it used to be. And hearing is slightly impaired. Was the Portuguese Camino a vivid  introduction to THIS new land? Here are some of T.S. Eliot’s thoughts about the land of seniorhood from East Coker:

Old men ought to be explorers
Here and there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion
Through the dark cold and empty desolation,
The wave cry, the wind cry, the vast waters
Of the petrel and the porpoise. In my end is my beginning

And
In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not.

And
Do not let me hear
Of the wisdom of old men, but rather of their folly,
Their fear of fear and frenzy, their fear of possession,
Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God.
The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless
IMAG0968ULTREYA and BUEN CAMINO TO ALL

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Camino: A Heroes Journey

I had the privilege of meeting Liam Cullinane from Galway (Ireland) in Spring 2012 while on a retreat in the Aran Islands run by Greg Muller, human conditioning and performance coach.

Liam has a remarkable story to tell from the wild freedom of the French Foreign Legion to the inconceivable strictures of meningitis.  Liam choses daily to take action to be a fully functioning human being.  Despite or perhaps in spite of a bleak prognosis Liam has engaged his will over 20 years to inch his way back to being physically able and engaged in the world.

Last Autumn  it was a serendipitious surprise to bump into Liam again in the midst of a milling crowd on Oxford Street;  a million miles away from the lonely outcrops of rocky land off the western most reaches of the land of Saints and Scholars where we first met.   I was about to head off to walk the Camino Francais.  Obviously that meeting planted a seed for Liam as he has been inspired to walk the Camino for himself and is locked in on being able to do that in April 2014.

Liams story will be documented by David Souto, a basque filmmaker based in Galway for the last decade. David is choosing to tell Liam’s story because of his admiration for him as well as being compelled to document a life changing event and an adventure that ends in Galicia where his roots are.  They are working together to raise funds to create a documentary to inspire and serve.  Liam is now focused on enhancing his physical fitness even further and the first round of funding to faciliated Liam to travel to Atlanta USA for specialist treatment and for the filming of his trip has exceeded the funding target so he is on his way.

I am learning that the Camino is less about a walk and more about life.  Our lives are Camino stories;  starting with conception and winding on to the day we leave this mortal coil.  The journey from the lead of our human-ness to the gold of our spirits.  Be inspired by Liam’s story to see your story.  I look forward to sharing more about Liams journey here over the next few months.

Spring Camino 14 June 2013: Wading Into The Ocean

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Harvest apocalyse on the Camino

I met Dan McCarthy last Autumn – or Fall as Dan from Rhode Island would call it, when I was walking the Camino Francais. On May 6 2013 Dan left home to walk El Camino de Santiago for the tenth time. Having tried but failed to set up a blog for this landmark Camino he decided to share his journey by email. I have loved Dan’s insights and am honoured that he agreed to allow me to guest edit his entries and share them here on my Crossing Frontiers blog. Dan started on the Camino El Norte but after 7 arduous days switched back to the Camino Francais.

On 14 June 2013 just 3 days before he completes his tenth Camino Dan writes about the subtler but deeper realities of the Camino.  I too experienced the magical connections of dining with other pilgrims that Dan shares but walking the fallow land of the Meseta in Autumn after the apocalypse of harvest was quite a contrast to Dan’s rich experience of Spring growth.

Several weeks ago I was walking the marvelous, the magnificent meseta, the high plane that inserts days of quiet, flat, meditative walking into the struggles of the Pyrenees of the beginning of the Camino and those of the mountains of Leon that make up the greater part of the last third of the Camino. The Way was passing through fields of grain  that I could not identify, having for some time lost contact with Tracy the jolly Welshman and grain expert.

The grain was very fine, just a slender stalk, no leaves like the very green sprouts that support wheat, but tall and thin reeds, light green color at base but a rich blue green in their head with well formed kernels. I waded into the grain field to get a sense of the height of the grain. It was up to my chest. But standing in this  field with its dense growth, light green below, almost blue on the surface stretching for acres brought a sudden memory of wading into the ocean at Scarborough* on a bright calm day.

And I had an impulse to lower myself into this immensity as I do in the ocean. I resisted the impulse but was overcome with the sense that I have at the ocean of giving myself to something greater than I, the ocean, somehow the force of life, immense, beautiful, awesome. I felt the Camino as large, as forceful, as full of life as the ocean, as full of life as the mountains I had walked over, as the rivers who had gurgled and raced along side me as I walked the valleys, as the bird song and wild flowers that had gladdened my days. And I found that life in the pilgrims I walked with and, truth be told, in myself. I have felt alive on this Camino, strong, well, my body like a walking machine, my mind empty (nothing new there some will say) and at peace, alive!

Night before last I had the usual pilgrim cena (dinner) with people I had gotten to know along the way, Marcelo from Brazil, Deidre from New Zealand and Neil from Ireland. Neil apparently has made enough money on the Irish Tiger and kept it so that he can live 6 month a year in Ireland “to keep in touch with my roots” and live in India for 6 months ” a place where spirituality is alive, where you can always find people who take spirituality seriously”. and then he added that that Camino was like India in Europe.

One of the advantages of so many people walking is that every evening you will have several choices of which table of pilgrim to join for dinner. And so the wine will be poured and the intense conversation will begin, the day’s experience, what the Camino means to me, personal reflections on the meaning of the Camino etc, etc. And so the Camino gives life, experiences life, comes alive around the common meal, generous with wine each evening. The meal nourishes life, brings life. Pilgrims transmit life to each other.

Each of us will label this life source out of our own tradition. For Christians it will be the Spirit sent by the Lord Christ. Jesus knew what he was doing when he made wine the sign, the Sacrament of his sharing of life. That life is in all everywhere but more vividly available in sacred places as on the Camino de Santiago.

*Scarborough State Beach is in Narrangansett, Rhode Island, USA

You can contact Dan directly on daniel_m_02921@yahoo.com

Spring Camino 6 June 2013: Wild Flowers & Murder

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Bucolic British wildflowers

I met Dan McCarthy last Autumn – or Fall as Dan from Rhode Island would call it, when I was walking the Camino Francais. On May 6 2013 Dan left home to walk El Camino de Santiago for the tenth time. Having tried but failed to set up a blog for this landmark Camino he decided to share his journey by email. I have loved Dan’s insights and am honoured that he agreed to allow me to guest edit his entries and share them here on my Crossing Frontiers blog. Dan started on the Camino El Norte but after 7 arduous days switched back to the Camino Francais.

One month in to the walk around 7 June Dan writes:

I walked 15 miles to arrive in the small city of Villa Franca de Bezeiro, about 110 miles from Santiago. These last 2  weeks have been as good as any I have walked over the previous 9 walks, great weather, stunning scenery – now in the mountains brilliant with wild flowers, days alive with the most interesting walking companions.

Although I may not have actually have met THE most interesting. The local paper this morning had an account of the arrest of a man from Barcelona who was wanted for murder. The paper noted that he had spent last night in the same albergue (hostal) as I had. I did speak briefly with a man from Barcelona but there are many from there. 

All of the above legitimately in the category of the unexpected.

You can contact Dan directly on daniel_m_02921@yahoo.com

Spring Camino 1 June 2013: The Green Robes Of An Irish God

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Lounging in Leon

I met Dan McCarthy last Autumn – or Fall as Dan from Rhode Island would call it, when I was walking the Camino Francais. On May 6 2013 Dan left home to walk El Camino de Santiago for the tenth time. Having tried but failed to set up a blog for this landmark Camino he decided to share his journey by email. I have loved Dan’s insights and am honoured that he agreed to allow me to guest edit his entries and share them here on my Crossing Frontiers blog. Dan started on the Camino El Norte but after 7 arduous days switched back to the Camino Francais.

On the 1st June 2013 Dan writes from Leon:

I started on 9th May.  I have walked about 250 miles with about 200 to go. Weather for the last week has been glorious sunshine but cold. It was 32F (zero degrees C) in Leon yesterday.

I have spent the last 6 days walking across the Meseta, the high flat plane, planalto, that covers the middle of Spain. The meseta is high and flat as its name implies. It dips down here and there for a small town to nestle in the hollow and provide a place for a pilgrim hostal. I have stayed in several.

But up there on the plane I feel in a world apart, walking through huge patchwork quilt of greens and tans and browns, the greens being grain fields, tans where the grain has been cut and is drying, the year’s first crop, and the browns plowed for the planting of a second  crop.

My meseta walk was made much more interesting this year by the company (part of the way) of Tracy, a jolly Welshman who says he is just a farmer, but travels around the world advising on the planting of grains.

On a given day the way will be bordered by a rich dark green growth with a strong straight proud head of perfectly formed kernels. This is the elite wheat, tall and strong but hardly gives me a slight nod, even in a hefty breeze. Across the road another, light lively almost Kelly green. This is rye, but rye it isn’t. With the slightest breath of wind  rye gets silly, spinning and shimmying and waving at everybody. Rye is welcoming. As les zephyrs dance over this sea of happy green, the more sedate wheat sways with dignity. The whole scene proclaims life and its Source. If God is on the meseta–and most pilgrims will acknowledge a special presence there–if that is so then God must be Irish for She/He has chosen robes of exquisite green.

I must mention the boarders of these robes. The field’s edges, outside the reach of the giant harvesting blades but beneficiaries of some of the natural fertilizer spread on the fields, have given birth to a absolute riot of wild flowers. The Camino, at one point winds around a 6 or 7 ft high knoll whose side appeared as though a blanket of color had been thrown over it. The royal poppy, the more than royal poppy, “For not  even Solomon in all his glory was arrayed as one of these” (scholars tell us Jesus was looking at these Mediterranean poppies when he spoke these words) the poppies flood these wild patches, often springing up in dense clusters of small white daisies. Then there are several shades of purple, of yellow, of blue. It creates an almost complete cover of the ground, a veritable Giverny in the wild. I wonder did Monet make the Camino Francais?

I’m off to 6PM Mass now in the magnificent 1000 year old Cathedral of Leon which is famous for an early use of stained glass. I wonder if the inspiration for those  brilliant reds and rich blues came from the wildflowers of the Camino, which is a couple of hundred years older than the Cathedral.

Ultreya to us all!

You can contact Dan directly on daniel_m_02921@yahoo.com

Spring Camino 24 May 2013: An Ecumenical Encounter

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Love, Peace, Joy on the Camino

I met Dan McCarthy last Autumn – or Fall as Dan from Rhode Island would call it, when I was walking the Camino Francais. On May 6 2013 Dan left home to walk El Camino de Santiago for the tenth time. Having tried but failed to set up a blog for this landmark Camino he decided to share his journey by email. I have loved Dan’s insights and am honoured that he agreed to allow me to guest edit his entries and share them here on my Crossing Frontiers blog. Dan started on the Camino El Norte but after 7 arduous days switched back to the Camino Francais.

Pentacost Sunday, which celebrates the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles 40 days after the Resurrection was on 19 May this year in 2013. On 24 May Dan in his own words:

On Pentecost Sunday I stayed in an albergue which was made up of several large rooms in a huge several centuries old stone monastery, Abadia they call it, of Cistercian nuns, monjas in Spanish. It was a day of grace.

On signing in the hospiteleira asked me if I was a priest. A bit taken aback I asked her why she thought so. The tradition of the indelible mark sort of shook me in this ancient holy place. She said she did not know why she thought so. I did acknowledge my past. Whether for that reason or not I was assigned a choice room, a small room with 3 single beds,no bunks, while the rest crawled into uppers and lowers in the cavernous dormitories.

Sometime later the hospitaliera came to sort of ask my permission to assign the remaining 2 beds to a married couple Kirk and Sue from Oklahoma. They worked for a Methodist mission society recruiting volunteers for missions in South America.

I found Sue and Kirt to be very bright and witty. The bathroom in this place was co-ed with a couple of shower stalls on one side and toilet stalls on the other. As any pilgrim will tell you taking a shower in one of these places, while keeping your clothes dry and your dignity in tact requires a bit of acrobatics and some contortionism. In my phone booth size shower stall I undressed and carefully placed my clothes on the floor outside the stall door to keep them dry. For some reason wall hooks are quite unknown in many albergues. Shower done, but tyle floor wet with soapy water, conscious of modesty, quickly opened the stall door and tried to modestly retrieve my cloths only to lose my footing and go rocketing through the door out into the middle of the bath room. Sue in the next stall yelled “Dan are you all right?” to which I immediately answered, “Yes” and scrambled back into stall cloths in hand.

Later Sue said that she was so thankful I answered so quickly. “I was in no condition to rescue you” she said. “Well”, says I, “I was in no condition to be rescued.” So I guess there are limits to ecumenical brotherly (or sisterly) help, even on Pentecost in the Abadia.

Later Sue said wouldn’t it have been an awful way to end 10 Caminos…I broke my leg in the shower! At least there was ecumenical humor at the Abadia on Pentecost.

You can contact Dan on daniel_m_02921@yahoo.com

Spring Camino 19 May 2013: And Each Heard Them In Their Own Tongue

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Monasterio Santa Maria de la Real, Najera, La Rioja

I met Dan McCarthy last Autumn – or Fall as Dan from Rhode Island would call it, when I was walking the Camino Francais. On May 6 2013 Dan left home to walk El Camino de Santiago for the tenth time. Having tried but failed to set up a blog for this landmark Camino he decided to share his journey by email. I have loved Dan’s insights and am honoured that he agreed to allow me to guest edit his entries and share them here on my Crossing Frontiers blog. Dan started on the Camino El Norte but after 7 arduous days switched back to the Camino Francais.

Two days in to his walk on the Camino Francais he has walked 31 miles and on Pentacost Sunday 19 May at Mass in a 700yr old Cathedral he contemplates the Pentecost experience of the Camino. He talks about sharing meals with Linda, a German, Troy from Florida, Sung a Korean woman, Alfred and Juan are Spanairds, Kathleen is from Australia, Fatima a Brazilian and Michele from Quebec. 8 people, 6 languages.

In his own words: “Each understood in their language.” Ironically, the instrument of the Spirit in this case is English. I wanted to point out that one of sources of the extraordinary sense of community that develops on the Camino is the shared experience of the difficulty of the day’s walk. This realization came to me as I was approaching the town of Santo Domingo at the end of a 15 mile walk. I was approaching one of those “heartbreak hills”. A long, steep hill that you can see a long way ahead. I was watching pilgrims way ahead of me, appearing like little ants slowly moving up the climb. I was particularly wanting to determine whether they were walking in the center or along the sides. If along the side there was sure to be mud, the bain of walking pilgrims. To avoid the mud you walk in the vegetation along the side. As I was thus observing those I realized in about 20 minutes I would be one of those ants and others way back on the trail would be observing me to attempt to determine their own fate. And when I got on the hill I imagined others back there observing me and it struck what an intensely shared experience this is. When later that evening at Mass I heard that description of those who listened to Peter and the others I was back at that climb and felt indeed the spirit is at work here. And then at dinner, as at many Camino dinners, I sensed the special communion of the Camino again. “Each experienced what the others had”

You can contact Dan directly on daniel_m_02921@yahoo.com