Reflections for walking the Camino de Santiago

When I stayed with the nuns in Zabaldika, I received a slip of paper containing The Beatitudes of the Pilgrim – ten reflections for pilgrims walking the way.  I shared them here recently and on the back of that slip of paper, there was another reflection. I’m copying this straight from the page so language or grammar oddities are not my own 🙂

“The Way: Parable and reality

The journey makes you a pilgrim. Because the way to Santiago is not only a track to be walked in order to get somewhere, nor it is a test to reach any reward. El Camino de Santiago is a parable and a reality at once because it is done both within and outside of the specific time that takes to walk each stage, and along the entire life if only you allow the Camino to get into you, to transform you and to make to a pilgrim.

The Camino makes you simpler, because the lighter the backpack the less strain to your back and the more you will experience how little you need to be alive.

The Camino makes you brother/sister. Whatever you have you must be ready to share because even if you started on our own, you will meet companions. The Camino breeds about community: community that greets the other, that takes in interest in how the walk is going for the other, that talks and shares with the other.

The Camino makes demands on you. You must get up even before the sun in spite of tiredness or blisters; you must walk in the darkness of night while dawn is growing, you must just get the rest that will keep you going.

The Camino calls you to contemplate, to be amazed, to welcome, to interiorize, to stop, to be quiet, to listen, to admire, to bless…Nature, our companions on the journey, our own selves, God.”

 

 

Why did I Walk? (Part 2: A Divine Decision)

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Walking 500 miles of Camino transformed me – and that transformation started before I ever stepped onto the trail in the south of France.

Deciding to walk camino was only partially *my* decision. There were other factors and forces at work.

Part 1 of the decision was the back story. It was all the ways I was generally unhappy with my life direction but without any real plan for how to change things.

Part 2 was more sudden, more profound, and dare I say it – divine. I don’t necessarily mean that in any religious sense but I do mean that it had everything to do with spirit, and that some sort of behind-the-scenes magic that took over.

Without that divine decision, I wouldn’t have been able to keep going on those days when I was sore and exhausted.

Without it, I probably wouldn’t have walked at all.

Let me explain…

At different points in my life, I’ve had experiences that very clearly led me towards or away from certain things. I don’t know what language to use here because the word choice might make some of us twitchy, but I’m talking about a fundamental, core-level, knowing that said:

Ger, we’re done here. It’s time to go.

Was it a booming voice from above? Sometimes, it felt like it.

Was it a quiet, inner understanding? Sometimes it felt like that, too.

Whether we call this God or The Universe or whatever, I don’t really mind. I’m just going to call it “knowing” or “gut instinct” in the name of being all-inclusive.

This knowing has prompted me to resign from jobs, leave relationships, and de-tangle my heart from defunct friendships. It’s helped me distinguish, very clearly, when it was the right time for me to change direction. In these situations, it was not my mind making the decisions – it was some other force at work.

In the years leading up to camino, I had a dozen reasons to leave my job and a dozen more to stay. The lists cancelled each other out so *my* plan was to make the best of my situation until the economy turned  around and I found a better fitting role. It was the most sensible and responsible plan that my mind could come up with. I didn’t know when I would leave my job or what I would do instead but I had faith that      whatever knowing spoke to me in the past would speak to me again:

I will get the nudge – that deep knowing from within or that booming voice from above – when the time is right to change direction. Until then, I won’t make any sudden moves.

Did I believe in fate? Maybe.

Was it a prayer of some sort? Yes, it actually was.

And in the meantime, I just got on with my daily life. I didn’t consciously know that I would walk the Camino in 2013 but there were breadcrumbs that led me in that direction all the same. I didn’t see them at the time but I could see them clearly afterwards.

Like what?

Part A.

In October 2012 my friend told me she planned to walk the French Way the following spring – in 2013. She and I very rarely get to hang out so I offered to join her for a week or two. I thought it might be a nice way to spend some time together and tend to a “Bucket List” dream that we both held. My mind thought it a great idea but as I spoke my words of offering, this one word came up as a thought and a feeling at the same time:

September

That was all.

I didn’t know what it meant – after all, that was a whole 11 months away and I didn’t plan that far ahead. But still, the word surfaced from within me and left that lingering message:

        September

That was the beginning of the magic though I didn’t know it.

Part B.

In the summer of 2013, my friend returned from her camino experience – warmly radiant. After dinner one evening she presented me with a scallop shell – I believe, the same one that she had strapped onto her own backpack as a pilgrim. I knew the shell was symbolic but in all honesty, it didn’t have any special resonance for me (yet).

She offered her shell to me and said,

I know you’ll walk the camino some day, Ger.

I was touched and accepted her lovely gesture. I agreed with her – I too knew that I would walk it some day. And yet, it was summertime and I was distracted by sunny weather. Accepting the shell was like buying an evening gown for a black tie event but years in advance. It felt premature and it felt somewhat irrelevant. And even though I hung the shell on a prominent wall in my home, I didn’t give it another thought.

Until this happened:

Part C.

A month later, a particular conversation highlighted clearly, and unequivocally, that I had outgrown my job. Not only that, but it was *definitely* not going anywhere and it was *definitely* stopping me from progressing – personally as well as professionally.

I’d felt all this for years but didn’t have the factual confirmation to back it up. The first 5 minutes of this hour-long conversation revealed the facts and my heart sank. Those were the moments where I actually lost heart in my work and all that it entailed. After years of frustration, tears, and trying to make it work, that deep knowing had blossomed from within and I just knew I was done.

I had received the nudge – no doubt about it.

That evening I said to Handsome Husband: I think I’m done with my job.

We were married only a few short months and I felt a massive conflict between taking care of my own needs and our needs as a couple. If I left my job, how would we pay the rent? Was I terribly selfish? And what about our future plans?

My happiness or misery affected us both. There was more to this decision than finances and grown-up plans.

But I knew I was truly, finally, and completely done with that job. I just didn’t know what to do next.

So, I threw it upwards as a prayer and put someone/something else on the job of figuring that out. As a child, I learned the concept of Guardian Angels and I liked the notion that I had a personal bodyguard in life. I even imagined I had a few of them. I imagined them as a gang, bored, and sitting around playing card games to pass the time. I wasn’t giving them enough to do and they were growing idle in the meantime.

So I threw it upwards with the thought:

Ok you guys, I know I’m done with the job. I get it. What I don’t know is what happens next so I need your help with that. Reveal the path to me. Tell me what I’m supposed to do here. I can’t see the big picture and I need a bit of help figuring this out.

The answer I got was simple (but not easy):

Go walk the camino.

Uh…what?

Go walk the camino.

For the next 3 weeks of July, I wrestled with this reply over and over. It woke me in the middle of the night. It sat on my shoulder at work. It prompted a dozen conversations with Husband.

I hadn’t planned to walk. I wasn’t prepared – in any way. I wasn’t ready.

I said:

That’s a great idea and I see how it would work, but I’m too scared.

And every day the response was the same:

I know you’re scared – but go walk.

In fact, there were very clear instructions to go with the response, specifically:

  • Go in early September – on the 1st if you can get a flight (a nice tie-in to my moment with the September prompt months earlier, don’t you think?)
  • Go for 6 weeks – no more, no less. Go from early September to mid-October only. No earlier, no later.
  • Don’t wait.

These specifics were *so* absolute that they led me to say I was called to walk the camino.

I really was – and not just sometime or any old time – but at a very specific time, for a very specific length of time. My *mind* didn’t decide those dates at all – it really was some other force that took over.

Every day, my fear ran riot and I’d ask:

What if I wait until the following spring? The weather will be good then too.

The response was always the same: DON’T wait.

I said: What if I go for 2-3 weeks only instead of the full thing? (and keep my job in the meantime?)

The response was always the same: Go for 6 weeks between early September and mid-October. No earlier and no later. Only this time. No other time.

I said: But I haven’t planned for any of this financially!

The response was always the same: The money will be fine.

Now, I don’t really know the bible stories or mythological traditions from around the world but I will say this much:

Something big had taken over. It felt like a “Hand-of-God-comes-down-from-above-and-directly-rearranges-my-life” kind of moment. Religious references aside, something huge was at work.

Whatever the language, I *had* asked for guidance and I definitely received it loud and clear. I couldn’t ignore it. But I struggled to follow it. I was paralysed with fear and my mind was a flurry of ideas and counter-proposals. One weekend, I lay on the floor with sheets of flipchart paper and I drew out a mind map.

On one side I wrote the word:

“Stay”

On the other side I wrote the word:

“Leave”

And I spent the next few hours scribbling out every thought, feeling, and counter-plan I could think of to figure out whether I would resign from my job and go walking in Spain. I needed to see everything laid out on paper in one place, in the hope it would help me some sort of perspective.

For hours, I poured out every anxiety, every consideration, every reason why I should follow the nudge – and not.

At one point, I asked: If I leave my (permanent) job and go walking, what happens when I return? What about all these grown-up plans – how will I finance any of them?

The reply was always the same: Ger, if you trust me on this and go with it, everything will be taken care of.

It gave me goosebumps.

I went back and forth, wrestling my head and my heart. In the end, it all boiled down to this:

Did I trust the voice I’d heard? Did I trust that knowing?

Did I trust that it was the right time for me to walk camino, even though I felt unprepared in every possible way?

Was I willing to trust that my future work, finances, and grown-up plans would, indeed, be taken care of – even though my *mind* had no idea how to make them happen?

*I* didn’t decide to walk Camino. Something else made that decision for me but I *did* decide to follow the calling. My challenge was to trust – everything.

Have you experienced anything like this? I’d love to hear!

Surrendering to the Unexpected

A word or two about beds:

Before walking the Camino, I read a few online forums and discovered people were concerned about the shortage of beds along the way. Many of the hostels (albergues) run on a first-come, first-serve basis and cannot be booked in advance. Traditionally, this is how things worked on Camino: millions of pilgrims made the journey across Spain relying on the kindness of the locals, availing of food and shelter where, and when, they could. I can imagine the warm beds and hot dinners were inconsistent, so going on pilgrimage was a leap of faith – not just spiritually, but physically too. Relying on the locals, and trusting that there would be food and shelter was a real practice in letting go, trusting humankind, and trusting God.

The state-run and church-run hostels continue to operate on a “first-come, first-serve” basis to this day. During the winter months, the supply outweighs the demand. During the summer months, the opposite is true. I planned to walk in autumn and didn’t know what to expect, but it seemed that lots of others felt the very same. The forums were full of anxiety and fear, and much discussion about the limited number of beds.

Many people were afraid of becoming stranded and needed reassurance.

Others took control of their fate by booking private accommodation in advance.

Personally, I didn’t want to walk the Camino in a state of constant fear. Equally, I didn’t want to control my experience or put myself under pressure to keep to a set distance each day. I figured that three things were true:

  1. After several hundred years of hosting millions of pilgrims, the locals would have far better knowledge about sleeping facilities than I ever would. Even if all the hostels in a town burned down, I knew the locals would know where to find a spare couch, a living room floor, or a barn that might be free. I decided to defer – completely – to their expertise. I wasn’t asking for luxury accomodation and I knew I wouldn’t be left to go hungry or without a safe place to sleep.
  2. Walking alone meant I only ever needed to find space for one person and I can fit on an armchair if I have to. I figured my chances of getting something were pretty good.
  3. All going well, I expected to walk for 6 weeks and realised that I could control only certain aspects of my journey. I could control how much sunblock to put on my face, or how closely I tended my feet: these things were within my remit, but the availability of beds was not. There was no way I could organise and pre-book a new bed every night for 6 weeks so I didn’t even want to try.

When it came to sleeping arrangements, I surrendered the whole thing to God/Divine/Guardian Angels/Universe and thought, “This one is waaay beyond me; this one is up to you”. I consciously decided, “I am not going to worry about beds.” I didn’t have the energy for it, I didn’t have enough Spanish for it, and I couldn’t control it anyway, so I purposefully decided that I wouldn’t give it any headspace. Ring fencing my mind in this way was a liberation. Somehow, it would all be fine.

Still, I felt absolutely gutted to learn that there were no free beds, couches, or floor spaces in Zubiri. I was so disheartened I could have wept. I was so physically exhausted I could have slept on the street.

Honestly, I was too disheartened to worry about my state. I needed to wash, to eat, and to find somewhere to sleep, but I really didn’t care where I slept that night. The woman running the albergue made some phone calls – to taxi companies, to other nearby albergues, and private accomodation, trying to find space for the growing number of stranded pilgrims. For nearly an hour, we sat on the dusty footpath, waiting for more people to arrive so we’d have a critical mass and hopefully, some influence. It was a wearisome experience. Suddenly, a taxi van appeared and three women jumped to their feet.

“Do you want to join us?” they asked.

“Where are you going?”

“To another hostel, they’ve organised somewhere for us to stay”.

If you can believe it, I actually hesitated in responding.

I’d just been offered transportation and a bed, without having to organise either of them myself, and I felt reluctant about accepting. Why? My aspiration (and intention) was to walk all 800km on my own feet, carrying my bag all the way. I didn’t want to “cheat” on the experience in any way, and taking a taxi to another albergue felt like a cheat. Never mind that I was physically spent, that there were no beds in Zubiri, and that I didn’t have the strength to walk another step: I still wanted a purist Camino experience. Yep, this is why Handsome Husband calls me “willful”!

I hesitated just long enough to realize this:

When I started, I knew there was a risk of being without a bed at some point and I’d already decided that if such a thing happened, I would defer to the locals for a solution. They were offering it, right there, right then, and I was genuinely in need of their help. If I didn’t allow myself to accept their help, I would surely have a terrible Camino. (Plus, Ego was happy that I was without a bed because of the local fiesta, and not because of my lack of training or my snail’s pace.)

So, quick as a flash, I came to my senses and jumped into the taxi.

Hurrah!

Silently, I felt relief to know that I’d get a shower, some food, and a bed, instead of sleeping on the riverbank that night. As the taxi bumped along the road, I chatted with my fellow pilgrims, relieved to have their company while we made our way to the next albergue. After a day of struggle, it was a sweet relief to be carried some of the distance, even though I wondered about getting a taxi back the next morning to pick up where I left off. I was surrendering and planning at the same time! Still, when the taxi pulled up outside a parochial albergue minutes later, I felt a flood of gratitude. The locals had provided the help that I needed and I had arrived at my bed for the night.

Where was I?

Somewhere called Zabaldika.