Santiago

On the day you awaken fifteen kilometers outside of a thousand-year-old holy site holding the remains of the apostle St. James, patron saint of Spain, you might have a headache. You have been imagining this day since months before you started your two-and-a-half-month pilgrimage, since before you became injured, since before you gave up the bragging rights of walking across two countries. You decided, about a month ago, in the border between France and Spain, to finally listen to an injured body, to give up your dream of a perfect pilgrimage and submit to the still-mysterious experience offered to you, taking busses some days, walking others, resting others. That’s the exact word–submission–to a storyline, it turns out, that you didn’t control. Every day, you had to wake up and make the decision again. And again, the next day. Some days, you whispered your intention in arching Gothic cathedrals. Some days, you silently cried about it over cups of espresso. Some days, you laughed about it with new injured, window-shopping, irreverent pilgrim friends. Some days, you mumbled sarcastically about it as you were rudely awakened by hasty hostel hosts turning the bunkroom lights on at six am and telling everybody to “get walking” when you couldn’t walk. Oh, the irony. Some days, others unknowingly reinforced its importance for you; a nun saying “you are not a hiker. You are a searcher for God;” a local woman in Leon blessing the statue of a fatigued pilgrim right in front of you on her way to work. So on the day when you will arrive at your destination, you not only have to make that decision for the day; you must make it for the whole pilgrimage, and for the way it colors the rest of your life. No coffee included.

——-

It was Halloween morning. I was dressed as a modern pilgrim, complete with compression socks for my aching shins, and Santiago was on the day’s itinerary. I stuffed my two-pound sleeping bag into my blue pack, so small I’ve seen others use it as a schoolbag, and walked into the darkness of the morning to meet Lisa and Jay from Connecticut and Margaret and James from Las Vegas.

The air hung low as we walked through the forest with eucalyptus trees outside of the town we had stayed in that night. I had taken a short, quiet shower at the albergue early that morning in an attempt to “cleanse” myself for Santiago, but now the dampness of my hair just seemed to make the dawn moisture cling more readily to me. My head ached. The tiny cookies I had eaten for breakfast had not broken the fast. I was still wrestling with a last bit of self-doubt. Small talk of the others buzzed around and through me. All night, I had tossed and turned, woken up, tried to sleep.

An hour and a half in, we stopped for coffee. I started to tell Lisa my worry, which was that when I got to Santiago I wouldn’t recognize what I had just accomplished and would be too caught up in what I did wrong. Everybody said, “Rebecca! You are going to be proud. You have to be.”

Finally, after coffee, I talked. We were talking about “the power of the camino,” a big buzzword with these friends. The whole point, they said, of the term is that the Camino has more power than most people expect. Many people flee. And many people stay. For days, in my anxiety over the end of the way and my grief over the injured shins, I had stayed silent, convinced that I in no way embodied the power of the Camino. But on this morning, I finally wanted to give myself credit. I said to them that there comes a moment when you have to make a choice. You can either submit to what the world gives you or keep attempting to control your life. Controlling hurts. It is violent. Submitting, asking, experiencing–there, you find fulfillment. There, you find peace. At least, that’s how I saw it on the Camino.

The whole city of Santiago, the whole pilgrimage, commemorates St. James the apostle. You have to make a choice about what to think about him, too. Throughout the centuries in Spain, he was hailed as a mythical military hero in their efforts to drive out the moors. This story appeals less and less to pilgrims, especially as many grow increasingly saddened by a decade and a half of war. The story of St. James that gives me hope is another one. They say that, after coming to gain converts in Galicia, James went back to Jerusalem where he was beheaded. His followers brought his body back to Galicia in a tiny boat. James was a man who, despite the ultimate weakness–his own mortality–had gotten to Galicia, with the help of friends. To me, this was the ultimate lesson of the Camino. In weakness, in brokenness, in times of the death of our old understandings of our identities, something–friends, the promise of incense lighted mostly to please tourists, cosmic dust, God, our own sheer determination–takes us to where we ask to go.

I gasped the first time I even caught sight of the Cathedral. We must have walked for forty minutes through the outskirts of town, and finally there we were, around a corner and in front of the Cathedral. A bagpipe played, and people all around said hello and took pictures in the front square. I did cry. I did feel proud, even with the front of the Cathedral bandaged with scaffolding.

I ran into an Australian lady I had met two days before. “Well done, Rebecca,” she said, the second she saw me, mid sentence in a conversation with a man. “You’ll have this for the rest of your life.” She hugged me and looked at me with eyes of awe. I did not battle a life-threatening illness. I did not save a country. I did not even walk a thousand miles, as I set out to do. But on the Camino, the fabric of the world, the pattern of strings that weaves us together, sits right around all our shoulders, even as we battle exhaustion and confusion and loneliness. Victories, tragedies, inner battles, become visible to us and deepen themselves in us. And as they deepen inside of us, we begin to recognize them in others. Every world seems bigger, every life raw and rich and full of struggle. This lady saw my Camino. And so did I, finally.

We went to the pilgrims’ office and stood around waiting in line for our Compostela, the certificates of the completion of the Camino. It seemed like an ironic place for such an emotional moment, so clerical and formal and sterile. It reminded me of a similar moment, and I searched around for another time when I had cried in a drab and formal place. Then it came to me–I had been crying and shaking when I stepped into the airport in Missoula. That really made me cry. When I got my Compostela, they marked me as having come one thousand miles, all the way from Le Puy. No questions asked, no scrutiny, no judgment–only recognition of a long, hard, beautiful journey. 

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