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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Paris

Flew over American desert, Canadian ice, and the great night sea, and voila – Paris! Slept off jet lag in a room behind Shakespeare & Company before a blessed evening at the Louvre – a pilgrimage of its own to see old favorites. Strolled back along the Seine to find a small marching band playing raucous versions of Taize chants by Notre Dame.

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Eve of departure

Gil de Siloe (Burgos, 1489-93)

Gil de Siloe (Burgos, 1489-93)

Tomorrow morning I set out for Paris, en route to St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the Pyrenees mountains, where I will begin a 565 mile pilgrimage walk: to Santiago de Compostela, and beyond that, the “end of the world” on the shores of the Atlantic. This beautiful alabaster image of Saint James dressed as a pilgrim was carved by Gil de Siloe, one of the great Baroque Spanish artists, whose work I hope to see when I arrive in Burgos on Holy Saturday. I had planned to leave a year ago, but broke my leg a month before departure. So 2014 became the year of pilgrimage, and God willing I will persevere for nearly 40 days and 40 nights. While part of the walk’s intention is to slip out of the modern and be immersed in the journey, I will attempt dispatches and photos when I can. I hope you will join me, dear reader, along the Way.