“We were … like travelers pondering the road ahead who send their souls on while their bones delay.”
– Purgatorio ii:10-12
58 miles – nearly 100 kilometers – in three days, with a wearying amount of elevation gain and loss, have made this portion the most physically demanding portion of my Camino. But whenever my spirit slackened, or knees complained, I only had to look around me. What splendid countryside! What fortunate walking!
On the first long day, I began at sunrise in sight of snowy peaks, navigated (barely) a busy city, traversed a wide plain to the rolling wine country of El Bierzo, and finished in the picturesque river town of Villafranca. The next day took me up and down, then up again, steep-sided ridges of red and white flowering shrubs and the fresh spring green of chestnut groves. After the last hard climb, I lay down in a high meadow of buttercups and daisies to read Wordsworth’s lines about “the calm existence that is mine when I am worthy of myself.” A few more steps put me in the Celtic region of Galicia, land of stone houses, damp weather, and lingering traces of premodern spirituality and culture. I spent the night in the quaint mountaintop village of O’Cebreiro.
My third 20 mile day was a charming medley of rivers , woods and birdsong, until I reached the monastery of Samos, one of the oldest and largest in the western world. Situated in an isolated valley reminiscent of Shangri-La, the imposing collection of buildings, plain and austere on the outside, contains a magnificent Baroque church, an immense garden cloister in the classical style and, covering three long walls of an upper portico, a 1960 mural of obscure saintly miracles. Its wild, unsettling intensity seemed to contradict the ideal of monastic balance, as if the community’s shadow side had been somehow consigned to these painted walls, a la Dorian Gray. In any case, the monks, sans shadow, sang a lovely vespers to restore the body and soul of weary pilgrims.
And tonight, the third Tuesday of Easter, I am writing in a “casa rural,” a traditional stone farmhouse accommodation where I hung my laundry among grazing cows and am enjoying a spacious bedroom overlooking the chickens – a restful change from last night’s monastic dorm with 40 people. Over dinner with the other three guests in the house, all of them Americans who have worked for good in Third World countries, we immediately discovered a number of remarkable connections between us. With the rapport, even intimacy, of old friends, we spent the next three hours conversing about the meaning of our own Caminos. When I had trudged an extra two kilometers past the last town, up a steep hill in the middle of nowhere, hoping I could just find a bed at this place, I did not know I was being led to such a holy meeting, such a convergence of thoughtful and passionate souls. Grace happens.
Halfway to Santiago, a Camino friend was feeling some pain and discouragement on a particularly demanding stretch. But then he saw a handwritten sign: “Don’t give up before the miracle.” As far as I know, he is still on the Camino, along with his vision-impaired son, though they have fallen a few days behind me. May they find, as I have, that there may be more than one miracle along this Way. Tonight was one of them.
As I myself draw near the goal, now less than 100 kilometers from Santiago, my thoughts turn to those who were unable to complete their intended journey. I have seen many memorials on the Camino to pilgrims who died at a particular spot. These crosses, cairns and fading photographs have signified the precariousness of every journey, the preciousness of each day we are given to walk in beauty. I have also shared the path with pilgrims who had to drop out due to physical problems. In Dante’s expressive image, their hearts reached for Santiago, but their bones delayed.
One of these was Monty, a devout Catholic from Nebraska, who walked with severe foot pain every day for two weeks until he finally had to give up. He always started before dawn, while the rest of us slept, so he could match our progress at a slower pace. Monty is one of my Camino heroes, not only for his determination and grit, but for the way he valued the community he had fallen in with. He suffered in order to maintain the connection.
He was able to take a train to Santiago before flying home, where his doctor told him that continuing to walk would have been disastrous. Some might regard his journey as incomplete, but not Monty. Here’s what he wrote to what he called his “Camino family”:
“With sleep apnea, asthma, one artificial knee, and one arthritic knee, I knew from the beginning that my chances of walking the enire distance were slim. I could have started someplace else, but then I wouldn’t have met you. Each of you, in your own way, made my Camino special, and I am grateful. It was never about the paper, and if I finished by train I still walked about 200 miles.
“A friend of mine who is also one of my favorite priests said this: ‘A pilgrimage is not measured by the movement of the feet, but by the movement of hearts and souls.’ By that standard, I had an outstanding pilgrimage, and I walked long enough to find what I didn’t even know I was looking for.”