The roads where we once traveled

Near the end of my Camino: weary but happy.

Near the end of my Camino: weary but happy.

If I forget my past, Facebook will remind me, popping up a past post for any given date. Today’s memory is a photo and blog link from May 10, 2014, the day before I completed my 500-mile pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago. I began writing this blog on that journey, and while I try not to repeat myself, I will mark this anniversary by re-posting my blog from that day.  If you are curious to read about my next day’s arrival in Santiago, you can find that here. And all my Camino posts may be found in the April and May archives for 2014. If any of you are inspired to walk the Camino yourselves, I say yes, do not hesitate. You will be blessed.

Songs to Sing and Tales to Tell (May 10, 2014)

And when my journey’s finally over,
when rest and peace upon me lie,
high o’er the roads
where we once traveled,
silently there my mind will fly.

– “Parting Friends”

This is one of the many shape note songs I sang along the Camino. I also sang hymns for Holy Week and Easter, made every tunnel and underpass echo with Kyries and Alleluias, and on a few evenings when a guitar got passed around in a hostel, taught choruses from Steve Earle’s “Pilgrim” (“we’ll meet again on some bright highway, songs to sing and tales to tell”) and Tom Russell’s “Guadalupe” (“I am the least of all your pilgrims here, but I am most in need of hope”). And several times a day I would break out with “Dum pater familias,” the medieval Latin song for St. James that rallied the spirits of the pilgrims who sang it as they walked. Prior to headphones, singing was an important part of the pilgrimage experience – shared voices imprinting the path with songlines.

On my penultimate day, the words of “Parting Friends” are especially apt. My mind indeed flies back over the roads I’ve traveled and the people I’ve met. Previous posts have mentioned some of these, but let me record three more who have embodied for me the spirit of the Camino.

The first is Janine, the hospitalera who welcomed me and six other pilgrims to a humble albergue in Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, a village lost in the vast Meseta like a small boat adrift at sea. In a place forgotten by time and history, this grandmotherly woman provided the most exquisite hospitality, as if we were her own family. The next morning, she saw me off with a blessing. Pointing to her “corazon” and mine, she indicated that we were connected. Then she made a walking motion with her fingers and said, “Buen Camino.” She repeated this touching ritual with each of us. Like saints of old doing good in lonely outposts for no earthly reward, she simply existed to love the stranger.

Then there is Tomas, who has occupied a tiny abandoned village in the mountains near the Camino’s highest point and created, in an eclectic assemblage of flags, signs, sculptures and makeshift structures akin to outsider art, a haven for pilgrims seeking a tranquil respite by day, one of his 35 mattresses by night, or shelter from the storm anytime it’s needed. Whenever he sees a pilgrim approaching, he rings a temple bell to greet and bless them. If a cloud covers the mountain with fog and darkness, he rings the bell to guide lost pilgrims to his safe haven. This is his life: to live as a hermit in order to serve the pilgrim.

Finally, on a shady trail through a eucalyptus grove yesterday, I saw a young man kneeling in the dust to pray before a wayside cross. I don’t know his name or his story, but the evident depth of his devotion reminded me how serious a matter the Camino can be.

And now I am at the outer edge of Santiago, in a quiet albergue with very few occupants. Most pilgrims who get this far simply continue on to the great cathedral less than an hour’s walk from here. But I didn’t want to drag myself to the finish late in the day, wearied and worn by ten miles of walking. I want to arrive fresh and renewed, to finish my Camino in the light of the rising sun on the day of Resurrection. So like Jacob of old, who camped just short of his destination in order to collect himself for the morrow’s big encounter, I shall rest and reflect and – who knows? – maybe wrestle with angels till daybreak.

 

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Footwashing

After nearly five hours exploring the immense cathedral in Sevilla, Karen and I emerged into its large cloister, known as the Court of the Orange Trees when a mosque occupied the site over six hundred years ago. A lovely citrus grove still provides pools of deep shade in the bright Andalusian sunlight, and at its very center stands the round fountain where medieval Muslims cleansed hands, face and feet before going inside to pray. Making impromptu homage to this ancient practice, we removed our shoes and sank our feet into the cool water. It wasn’t long before a cathedral guard hurried over to tell us this was forbidden. “Malo!” she said, pointing to the fountain. The water didn’t appear toxic, so we assumed it was not the water that was bad, but the fact of bathing our feet. Stepping out of the water, we picked up our shoes and started walking toward a bench where we could put them on more easily. No, no, no, she said, indicating that we were not allowed even to walk on the courtyard bricks in bare feet. We don’t speak Spanish, but we gathered that it was deemed disrespectful to go barefoot on church property, even outside the walls of the worship space. Though there is ample precedent for bare feet as the preferred option for standing on holy ground, that was clearly an untranslatable argument in this particular instance, so I stooped over to pull on my Keens. At that point another cathedral official, a man who spoke English, came to see what all the fuss was about. He explained that we were in a church, not a park. I replied that we meant no disrespect, and that in fact footwashing, even in such a casual situation, always had a ritual dimension to it. His brow furrowed, and he gave us a scrutinizing look. “Are you Muslim?” he asked.

I can’t say for sure, but his question seemed more than simple curiosity, as if we had, however innocently, transgressed a boundary that has haunted Spanish history ever since the first North African Muslims landed at Gibralter in 711. Over the next seven centuries, Christians and Moors fought fierce battles for control of the Iberian peninsula, but there were also many instances of peaceful coexistence, as well as intermarriage, mingled interests, and mutual influence. While the ideology of the “Reconquista” – the reassertion of Christian primacy – finally won out with the complete expulsion of Islam from Spain in 1492, significant traces of the Moorish soul remained, just as Islamic motifs persisted in Christian architecture and the plaintive prayers of the minaret reemerged as flamenco. You can’t expel what has become part of you. A long and complicated history of conflict and coexistence may have created a confusion of opposed identities, more than it ever achieved a clear separation. As Gees Nooteboom has written in his wonderful ‘Roads to Santiago’, “in that very long period there had been so much intermingling, so much exchange, that each party had in a sense become the other. Each had caused the other to suffer, but alliances had also been formed and links established. Conversions, tolerance, mixed marriages, syncretism, all those factors spread out over such a long period had made Spain different from all the other countries in Europe – as it remains to this day.”

So if I had been a Muslim when I dipped my feet into the water of a former mosque upon whose ruins a great church has been constructed, would I have been makings a symbolic challenge to the Reconquista, a small retaking of place lost so long ago? Or had I, even though a Christian, simply touched a wound still sensitive, still unhealed? I’ll never know for sure. The whole incident may have been nothing more than a matter of manners: they just don’t like bare feet on church grounds! But having seen countless paintings and sculptures of Santiago Matamoros (“St. James the Moor-slayer”) in churches along the Camino de Santiago, I do wonder about the lingering significance of images which define cultural or religious identity at the expense of the “other.” All those depictions of Santiago as warrior were put up long ago, of course. At the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, they have attempted to hide the trampled Muslims behind big flowers, hoping to soften the disturbing iconography. Nevertheless, though I claim no expertise on Spanish history and identity, I did get a sense of something deep and unresolved in that official’s question at the fountain.

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