Semana Santa

I have the daily lectionary on my phone, allowing me to reflect on passages from the rich scriptures of Holy Week as I walk. I was particularly struck yesterday by the scene in John 12 where Mary of Bethany anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. One sentence provides the kind of sensory detail that is rare in the gospels: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” I’m sure John had his symbolic reasons for this verse, but it made me wonder about the last sensations taken in by the incarnate One in the last week of his life. With all that was on his mind and heart, did he still hear the birds of dawn, or notice the warm hues of late afternoon light? Did he gaze with wonder at the Paschal moon? Of course he hadn’t read the Romantics, but as Rebecca Solnit wrote about her experience of being arrested on Good Friday at a Nevada desert nuclear test site, “even when you’re in handcuffs, the sunset is still beautiful.”

That reflection in turn heightened my own attentiveness to the privileges of embodied being, and I tried to be present to the many sensations of an 8 hour walking day (perhaps excluding my aching shoulders and complaining feet).

I arrived in Logrono in time for one of their several Semana Santa (Holy Week) street processions. The “float” of prisoner Jesus was preceded by dozens of hooded drummers, pounding a deafening tattoo, the terrible sound of inescapable fate.

Palm Sunday

The local masses in the impressive churches of Estella – a picturesque river town beneath a great cliff – weren’t until 12:30, and I had 13 miles to walk. So I found a few people to join me in a Eucharist along the way. Using wine provided from an outdoor spigot on the path (a winery’s gift to pilgrims), we kept Palm Sunday – Anglican, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox – in a park next to an old monastery. Then, with olive branches (the Spanish variant of palms) attached to our packs, we continued on. Most of Holy Week will be like this – prayers, hymns and rites along the way, by myself or with a few others – because this week’s itinerary may not coincide with whatever church liturgies there may be when the walking day ends. It will not be the first time I’ve been liturgically homeless during the most important week of the year, but I pray that the Camino will provide some new ways to go ever deeper into the Paschal Mystery. And if I can survive the next two 18 mile days to stay on schedule, I will make the Easter Vigil at Burgos cathedral.

Certainly the prayers about walking in the way of the cross were deepened today by the thousands of steps that became a kind of prayer that persisted whatever my thoughts might be doing. In the afternoon’s long traverse of wide empty space under a hot sun, monkey mind receded, replaced by a kind of pedestrian trance. It’s hard to put into words, but perhaps this photograph (applying my camera’s watercolor effect), can say it for me.

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“Cherish every step”

The way out of Pamplona was fairly pleasant – city parks (did Hemingway stroll here?), flocks of children bound for school, strolling matriarchs who kept this pilgrim from taking a wrong turn – and suddenly the city gave way to fields and small villages. The rest of the morning recalled Wordsworth:

“The earth is all before me. With a heart
Joyous, nor scared at its own liberty,
I look about; and should the chosen guide
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again!”

The land through which we pilgrims passed today was painted with a few strong colors: dark green wheat, yellow mustard, blue sky, white clouds. Those four colors filled the eye in every direction, with no lesser hues to dilute the effect. To wander through such a scene was a glorious thing. Whatever else the Camino brings, I will have had this day. As a German woman said as she passed me by, “Cherish every step! Cherish every step!”

The halfway point was a windy pass, Alto del Perdon, where medieval pilgrims who made it this far were assured of blanket pardon for all their sins. The heart did feel lighter to see behind how far we’d come already, and to contain in one glance ahead the entire distance to our next rest. The striking contemporary sculpture of pilgrims from many centuries in procession blessed us on our way.

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Pamplona

After 32.6 miles in two days, 9 miles to Pamplona today was a nice “break.” I know two people who started when I did who were told by a doctor to stop walking for at least 1-3 days due to injuries from the long grind. My own knees, perhaps not at full strength yet after last year’s broken leg and torn meniscus, got rather tentative halfway through yesterday. But then I happened to sing “Villulia,” a shape note song out of The Sacred Harp, about Jesus healing the blind Bartimaeus. After I sang the line, “but he asked, and Jesus granted, alms which none but he could give,” all the soreness went out of my knees and they felt strong the rest of the day. Hmm …

It was a morning to delight in spring – blackbirds singing, trees blossoming, meadows blooming – as I followed the Rio Arga west. But by noon I was tramping through the jarring urban outskirts of Pamplona, a medieval pilgrim suddenly adrift in a 20th century future. But the final approach to the old city’s fortress walls high on a bluff passed through a riverside park and pastures of horses. At last I crossed the old stone Magdalena bridge and, like centuries of pilgrims before me, ascended the slope to the city gate.

After finding my bed among the 57 cubicles of bunks filling two narrow hive-like corridors at the Jesus y Maria albergue, I set out for the late Gothic cathedral around the corner. It has one of the finest cloisters in Europe, several awesome retablos (the tall array of images, decorative motifs, and architectural elements behind an altar), and an exquisite 13th century Madonna and Child. I also found two large platforms, covered with rich fabric, flowers and candles, each featuring life-size figures: Jesus on the cross, and a distressed Virgin clothed in an embroidered black cope resembling an ancient vestment for Good Friday. These will be carried through the streets in Holy Week. Although the three protruding rods for carrying them had three shoulder cushions at either end, the eighteen men shouldering this load will surely earn Easter with their prodigious effort.

Up to now the externals of the Camino have been about hiking, nature, the Chaucer-like interactions of folk who “goon on pilgrimages,” and the daily logistics of itinerancy. But today’s encounter with holy images and sacred space (even if not uniformly congruent with contemporary spirituality), gave a sudden glimpse of the horizon toward which we move on this long journey.

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The first day

16 miles, 9 hour day, 4000′ gain and then a hard, steep 2.5 mile descent to finish. No gradual entry into the Camino, just begin with one of its hardest days. But my training paid off, and I never ran out of gas. Knees severely tested on the descent but everything held up. Everyone who made it to the marvelous monastic hostel at Roncesvalles feels very grateful tonight. The soaking drizzle that made the first two hours this morning a trial finally let up, and all the pilgrims who had crowded into a mountain cafe to dry out poured back out onto the trail. No great views today, but the summit where France turns to Spain was a brooding cloud of unknowing where we walked by faith not sight.

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St. Jean Pied-de-Port

I picked up a wooden staff, scallop shell, and “credencial” (pilgrim’s passport) in this pretty trailhead village, where I am staying in a charming Basque country house. I hung out today with two runners from Virginia I met on the ride from Bayonne. One of them has published a book on running and theology. We bought lunch food to share on the trail tomorrow. They have 15 years on me, but I will have to keep up or starve. Today was warm and sunny, but showers are expected when we start out tomorrow (drier later).

So here I go, ready or not. Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ under my feet, Christ within me, Christ over me, Christ in faces of all I meet.

Birds

This flaneur strolled 12 miles around Paris today – last training before the Camino. A highlight was the courtyard in the Marais where I have always heard birds singing on one vine-covered wall. The vines were still bare of leaves today, but the songbirds were as tuneful as ever. It was the second avian blessing of this journey (preceded by the first goldfinch of the season appearing in our yard an hour before I departed). Tonight I visited a sensational exhibition at Grand Palais of Bill Viola’s transcendent video art. Among the many works I hadn’t seen was the “Ascension of Tristan,” where a motionless man on a slab comes to life and begins to ascend in slow motion (it took 10 minutes on a 20 foot vertical screen) into the full force of a waterfall – stunningly persuasive iconography for returning to the divine. It turns out that not all the art in Paris is old!

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