The Village That Should Be

Morris dancers lead “Lord of the Dance” at the Puget Sound Christmas Revels (Photo: Puget Sound Revels)

“Everyone who ends up going to the Revels and loving it wants to say to the people who missed it, ‘You have got to see this!’ They don’t sit their friends down and try to explain this amazing thing. They just want them to experience it. And that’s why we all want to take people who haven’t been before. That’s why I started the Revels in Puget Sound. I wanted people to feel it, right to their core, because that’s where it ultimately touches us, and all the talking in the world about what is a Revels and what isn’t, or you’ll like this about it or this is how it’s woven together – it isn’t the same as experiencing it. What I do say to people is: it’s not a concert, it’s not a play, it’s a kaleidoscope of music and dance and drama that all create a sense of a celebrating community.”

–   Mary Lynn, Puget Sound Revels

 

Imagine yourself in a village square or a great hall in a culture where the community gathers every December to contradict the dark and the cold with high-spirited celebrations of life, warmth, and hope for renewal. Tuneful voices are raised to “joy, health, love and peace.” Dancers circle and leap their defiance of winter’s immobilizing spell. Playful mummers depict the dying of the old and the rising of the new. As you watch and listen, you find your own deepest impulses awakened and expressed, and before you know it, you too are singing and dancing along with everyone else.

Such elemental festivity is nearly impossible in the United States, where ritual traditions have been so fragmented, thinned and trivialized, and communal public life verges on extinction. But the Christmas Revels returns us to that celebrating village, that magically inclusive hall where the songs are sung and the dances are danced and the shadow of death is turned into morning.

When the late John Langstaff staged the first Christmas Revels in New York City in 1957, he was trying to recapture and share the communal joy of the caroling parties given by his music-loving family during his childhood. As he later wrote:

“My love of the carols and traditional music I grew up with eventually broadened into a fascination with folk material of every sort – rituals, music, dancing and drama. All have become essential elements in Revels. Revels’ focus on active audience involvement grew out of those same roots, and especially out of my awareness that few things bond people as powerfully as singing together.”

In 1971, Langstaff began to make the Revels an annual event in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and over the years it has spread to nine other American communities on the West and East coasts as well as Texas and Colorado. Here in the Northwest, the Christmas Revels has been celebrated in both Puget Sound and Portland since 1994.

Each local Revels group chooses its particular theme for the year. It might be medieval, Celtic, American (Appalachian, African-American, Shaker), Scandinavian, Victorian, or the Italian Renaissance.. At the local Revels I’ll be attending this week at Tacoma’s Rialto Theater near Seattle, the subject will be the storied pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

The Christmas Revels always imagines a world better than the one we know, where high and low, rich and poor, find the distinctions between them blurred or even subverted, as the commonness of a shared humanity blends strangers and adversaries into a harmonious whole. This vision of true community is implicit in the way that all classes, ages and types of people sing and dance together. But it is also revealed in the gentle mocking of anything that divides us. A king might learn wisdom from the lowly fool, or the rich might discover the poverty of their isolation from a world of sharing.

Such bridging of divides can be more than fictional. I remember a California Revels in 1990, at the end of the Cold War. Toward the close of the evening, an ensemble of Russian dancers joined hands with the American cast for a circle dance during the Shaker hymn, “I Will Bow and Be Simple.” I noted the rapt attention of the young children around me in the audience, and it struck me that the very first fact they were learning about Russians was that they were people who danced with us.

Traditional celebrations usually contain an element of chaos and “misrule,” unleashing the energies from which new possibilities are born. In sword dances, mummer’s plays, and traditional dances and games, the Revels are deeply playful. But even as you are entertained, you are reminded of your mortality––and your longing.

Solstice rituals have always included mock battles, where a symbolic figure dies and rises again, like the earth in its seasons or the sun in its celestial journey. No matter how comic, these contests speak powerfully to our own anxieties when the dark and the cold are upon us.

In one production, during the feasting and celebration of a medieval court, the king was confronted by an intruder. It was Death, in the form of a giant puppet made of dark translucent gauze. The antagonists crossed swords, and the king was defeated. Only the lowly royal Fool remained as the last line of defense between Life and Oblivion.

Following the King’s death, the Fool entered to find the royal throne occupied by a motionless skeleton. After some tentative stabs at interaction, the Fool took the skeleton in his arms and danced around the stage with it. The daring incongruity of this image was quite funny, but it was also breathtaking––life winning after all, not with weapons but with dancing. “I am the Dance and I still go on.”

Finally, the Fool danced into the wings with the skeleton, and when he returned, he carried the skull in his palm as a trophy, and Death’s disjointed bones were now harmless playthings held by the laughing children who followed after.

“Revels came out of human community in a way we all can feel,” says Mary Lynn, founder and producer of the Puget Sound Revels. “It came out of celebration, it came out of mourning, it came out of birth and death and hope, it came out of all the things that are part of our lives. No matter how different ‘the village’ is, we face all those things, in every time and place.”

Although the confrontation with darkness and death is a pivotal point in every Revels, allowing us ritually to release our anxieties about human fate in a time of darkness, the overall tone of a Revels is the very opposite of somber. Good cheer rules every performance. A fluid spectacle of characters, costumes and staging engages both mind and sense. The energy of dancers and mummers is irrepressible and often hilarious. And the music is the heart of Revels magic. Spanning a wide range of seasonal songs and instrumentals, it is always beautifully performed.

Sometimes there are stunning solo voices in a Revels performance, like Appalachian balladeer Jean Ritchie, or the Irish “sean-nos” singer Sean Williams. But the essence of Revels lies in the choruses of adults and children, whose harmonious diversity of voices images the very nature of community.

The audience is always invited to enter that community––not just as witnesses, but as participants. Singing is the principal bridge between spectators and cast. Everyone joins in on familiar carols and “Dona Nobis Pacem,” and the Revels finale is a stirring mass rendition of the “Sussex Mummers’ Carol,” whose lyrics pour seasonal blessing on everything in sight.

The miracle of Revels is that for a couple of hours an audience of strangers believe themselves to be part of something larger than their atomized private realities. They are ushered into a world of wonders, nourished by the food of human community, and sent back into the streets with smiling faces.

As Mary Lynn observes, Revels does something special to those who come: “Revels is about community, and feeling a part of that village on stage.” She is quick to point out that it’s not the village we live in now, nor is it a village from an idealized past. It’s a ritualized image of a human future, with the power to attract us toward a truer embodiment of community. “It’s the village that should be,” she says. “And at some point, you find yourself invited into that village, onto the stage.”

This point comes at the end of the first half of every Revels. A singer intones Sydney Carter’s song, “Lord of the Dance,” as white-clad Morris dancers, with their bells and red handkerchiefs, leap and dance around him. Meanwhile, other cast members move among the audience, inviting them to leave their seats for a line dance that goes up and down the aisles and spirals around the stage, as all repeat the chorus,

Dance, then, wherever you may be,
I am the Lord of the Dance, said he,
And I’ll lead you all, wherever you may be,
And I’ll lead you all in the dance, said he.

It’s a moment that many of us live for each year. For a few minutes, cast and audience are utterly one, dancing, dancing, wherever we may be. My sister Marilyn, who introduced me to the Revels many years ago, always races downstairs from her balcony seat at the California Revels in order to join the dancers moving toward the stage. There are so many people on their feet for the dance, you never know if you’ll reach the stage before the music ends. Marilyn always calls me later to report on the success of her quest. “I wondered whether I would make it to the stage this year, now that I’m 80,” she told me yesterday. “But I did it!”

Susan Cooper wrote a poem called “The Shortest Day,” recited at every Revels. She imagines all the generations who preceded us, burning their “beseeching fires all night long to keep the year alive.” She hears their joyful voices echoing down from their time into ours:

All the long echoes sing the same delight,
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
Welcome Yule!

Because the Revels are so unique, they are hard to describe. Most of the already initiated don’t even try. They merely tell their friends to trust them and come along. “You just have to experience it!” is the common cry. It’s like trying to tell someone what it’s like to be in love.

Debbie Birkey, a publicist for the Puget Sound event, moved and performed in local folk music circles for years without ever hearing of Revels. In the late nineties her husband took her to her first performance, and it was a revelation. “It’s incredible that I was here in Tacoma and this fabulous thing was going on and I didn’t know about it,” she says. “Then we came to the Revels and after about five minutes of being swept away, I turned to my husband and said, ‘These are my people!’ And it’s just swept me up ever since. So I’ve been in about eight or nine shows, and then I started helping with publicity. Here is this amazing thing going on in Tacoma and people don’t know about it, and I can’t imagine why that is. So I feel that it’s my mission to change that.”

Revels seems to inspire this kind of fervor. A typical audience will include some who were drawn by the publicity, but the majority are either loyal regulars who come year after year, or first-timers who have been dragged there by friends, because Revels is something you want to give to everyone you love.

Sharing Revels can be an obsession, and I myself confess to it. 2017 will mark my twenty-ninth Revels (10 in Oakland, 19 in Tacoma). I never go without bringing others along. And this year, as always, we will join hearts and hands and voices with all the other revelers, no longer strangers in “the village that should be.”

 

 

 

The Puget Sound Revels, focusing on the Camino de Santiago, has two remaining performances at the Rialto Theater in Tacoma, WA: December 19 & 20 at 7:30 p.m. While some of the nationwide Revels have completed their run, you can still get to performances in Portland (OR), Santa Barbara (CA) and Boulder (CO). For a list of all ten Revels sites: https://www.revels.org/revels-nationwide/

A version of this piece originally appeared in Victory Review, a Northwest folk music journal, in 2005.

Border crossing

An hour before the 1960’s ended, I left a noisy party in L.A. and headed for the ocean, craving some solitude where I could reflect on a memorable and formative decade before it passed. I drove into a large asphalt lot next to the beach, parking in a pool of light beneath a street lamp. There were no other cars around. The surf broke faintly in the blackness beyond the sand. Just before midnight I would walk out far enough to peer beyond the waves into the horizonless dark and wait for the future to roll on in. But for the moment, I propped my journal against the steering wheel and began to write.

I wasn’t alone for long. After about twenty minutes, a police car pulled up beside me. The patrolman got out and walked over to my window. He asked me whether I had heard of the Zodiac serial killer, who had been terrorizing northern California for the past year. Police were on statewide alert, and a single male, parked alone in a deserted spot around midnight, had aroused his suspicion. He wanted to know what I was doing there. I told him I was journaling. He asked, politely, if he could take a look. Instead of asserting my First Amendment rights, I was delighted to have found a reader! I handed over my notebook, and he began to murmur aloud from the first entry, written months earlier when the Clyde Beatty–Cole Brothers Circus came to Ann Arbor, Michigan.

The magic of that circus – a tent of wonders suddenly erected in an empty field, only to disappear and move on the next day – had been, for those of us doing campus ministry at an Episcopal coffeehouse, a vision of the Kingdom of God. It arrived with little advance warning, defied the dominant order of gravity, hierarchy and death, then moved on to somewhere else before we could possess it for ourselves.

And so it was that on a bare asphalt stage at the edge of the sea at the end of the Sixties, a policeman performed aloud my whimsical musings on a day at the circus:

And those still endowed with the gift of longing caught another glimpse of the darkness and the dance. But the kingdom is not yet … The circus priests of pain and laughter remain on the other side, though for a day and a night they seemed near enough to touch.

These were not, in his judgment, the ravings of a serial killer, so he wished me ‘Happy New Year’ and departed in peace.

That surreal night comes to mind because I now find myself at the end of another sixties – my own. Tomorrow I turn 70. That seems officially old in a way that 65 did not. Of course I don’t feel old in the way my younger self once imagined life’s third act to be. “Old age isn’t for sissies,” my mother and her friends would joke in their nineties, as they struggled bravely with failing bodies. But I’m not there yet. No one rises to give me their seat on a crowded bus. I can walk 500 miles in a month. My work isn’t done. I am not tired of life.

But “70” feels like a border crossing, though the change may not be immediately apparent. When you travel Highway 5 from California into Oregon, the rainy land of evergreens is still far up the road. The dark green oaks scattered across the arid grasslands of southern Oregon look just like the landscape in your rearview mirror. It’s easy to imagine that you haven’t really gone anywhere. But somewhere up the road it will finally hit you: you aren’t in California anymore.

It still seems premature to brood on mortality. The question posed by one’s seventies (at least while good health lasts) is not so much about death as it is about time. How much time do I have left? How shall I spend it?

“Have you lived here all your life?” asks the Arkansas traveler in the old folk song. “Not yet,” the farmer replies. Exactly. My story is not yet done. But the number of pages preceding “the bookmark of Now” are far greater than the ones remaining. As always happens when the unread portion of a novel shrinks to a fraction of an inch, I wonder how much incident can possibly be crammed into the remaining pages. How will the author tie up all the loose ends in so brief a space?

I could panic over the ceaseless erosion of future; I could rue my wasted past. Or I could just keep on walking (as in this video from my Camino), thankful for a refulgent sun and fruitful earth, mindful of the privilege, for a time, of casting one’s own shadow upon this sweet old world.

The end of the world

[Note to my readers: many thanks for joining me in this journey. I am so appreciative of all the good and supportive comments you have contributed along the way. I wish I could have made individual replies, but the nature of the Camino made necessary some limitation to my online time. And if you have enjoyed these posts, know that while my Camino has ended, the Religious Imagineer will continue, with reflections and provocations concerning theology and religion, the arts, liturgy, imagination, and the beauty of the world: wherever “the fire and the rose are one.” Stay tuned.]

How do I write an ending to the Camino? Certainly with no summary remarks, for such reductions would do disservice to the complex flavors of the journey. I feel like the pianist who was asked to explain the composition he had just played. Without a word, he sat down and played it again.

On Monday afternoon, I continued on from Santiago to Finisterre (“the end of the world”), an extension of the Camino that predates the Christian shrine at Santiago. For the ancient Celts, and many pilgrims since, the natural place to make an ending is where the land is swallowed by the sea and the sun disappears over the edge of the known. Some make this journey on foot (54 miles west from Santiago), but I, alas, took a bus, needing some rest for weary legs.

Finisterre is a high headland with a charming harbor town, wild hills and dramatic shoreline. I made the obligatory walk to the lighthouse at the southern tip, where the last Camino marker reads 0.00 K, and pilgrims can leave or even burn a symbolic offering (shirts, boots, and walking poles were among the abandoned items). But the souvenir stand and tourist buses were not contemplative aids, so I took the spectacular trail along the western side, high above the sea, bright with yellow flowers, descending finally to an isolated beach. In my own act of letting go, I wrote PEREGRINO (pilgrim) in the sand, and watched the tide erase it. Then I climbed to the rocks on the cape’s highest point to watch the edge of the world erase the sun.

I still had one more walk to do, from Finisterre north to Muxia: 18 miles of pine and eucalyptus woods, pastures and crop land, remote stone villages, flowered meadows, an estuary brimming with fish, and white sand beaches. I wanted to make this final trek not only to make intimate acquaintance with a remote corner of Galicia, but also to end my Camino just as I had begun it – on foot.

It was a hot and demanding day, but when I reached the fishing village of Muxia, I didn’t stop to shower or rest, but continued the final 800 meters to the furthest point, where massive stone slabs slide into the surf, and the Santuario da Virxe da Barca (Virgin of the Boat) faces the setting sun.

Here my Camino came to an end.

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Arrival

Always keep Ithaca fixed in your mind.
To arrive there is your ultimate goal.
But do not hurry the voyage at all.
It is better to let it last for many years;
And even to anchor at the island
when you are old,
rich with all you have gained
on the way,
not expecting
that Ithaca will offer you riches.

Ithaca has given you
the beautiful voyage.
Without her you would have never
set out on the road.
But she has nothing more to give you.

– Constantine Cavafy

It was still dark Sunday morning when I first stepped into the Prazo Obradoiro – the wide plaza in front of Santiago cathedral. It was deserted but not silent. A taxi sat motionless in the far corner, idling its engine, waiting for what? After ten minutes it finally departed. The new day began to light the spectacular west facade, but one of its towers was hidden by scaffolding – had I walked 500 miles only to see its glory veiled?

I had told myself along the way to have no script for this moment, no expectations for my journey’s end. But this first glimpse of the cathedral, if not exactly disappointing, was at least bewildering. Where were the tears of joy, the flood of emotions? The cathedral’s great bell struck seven, deep and resonant like the voice of a god, but in a language dark and alien, not addressed to me.

Before the crowds arrived, I drifted around the quiet interior. I placed my hand in the Tree of Jesse, the carved central pillar of the Portico de Gloria, my fingers sinking into the deep handprint left in the stone by the caress of countless pilgrims. I descended to the crypt to kneel before the silver casket containing James’ bones. But I was granted little sense of arrival or completion.

Returning to the plaza, now bright with sunlight, I saw a large group of Portuguese pilgrims, singing, clapping and dancing in a great circle. “Resucito!” they sang. “Alleluia!” Many other pilgrims had joined this joyous perechoresis , and I did the same. My heart began to lift, as I remembered – just in time – that the Camino experience is not a possession to be grasped, but a communion to be danced. Lord, I want to be in that number!

But as the day went on, my Camino still seemed unfinished. I felt rather disoriented, no longer walking toward certain goals, no longer sure how even to spend the afternoon. I went to the crowded pilgrim mass at noon, saw the celebrated “Botafumeiro” (gigantic thurible) swing back and forth between the transepts, exchanged “well done!” with a few pilgrims I recognized from the road. But most of my Camino family had either already arrived and departed, or were still a few days back. I felt a bit lonely.

Late afternoon, I wandered over to the little visited San Martino Pinario, and walking inside felt like falling in love. Set amid its plain walls was the most breathtaking altar, a Churrigueresque ensemble of golden sculpture and ornamentation that worked emotionally in a way that so many baroque altarpieces do not. The declining sun streaming through it from behind intensified the effect. This was not mere showy theatricality, but an overwhelming physical presence that didn’t just symbolize belief. It created it.

Back outside the church, I spent some time making camera studies of the fantastically dynamic staircase that leads down to the entrance from the street (an evocative reversal of the more typical ascent to holy places – here you descend to go deeper). And I suddenly realized I was happy. I would even call it a state of grace. I didn’t earn it, seize it, discover it. It discovered me.

After that, it was enough to wander the old streets and plazas around the cathedral, noticing the pilgrim joy in the faces of strangers, enjoying the sense of celebration that is perpetual in this city of arrivals. I dined with some companions of the road before ending the day as I had begun it, in the darkness of the Prazo Obradoiro. But now the moon shone down upon the ancient stones, and strains of Galician singers filled the air. What more could I ask?

This morning I performed the final Camino ritual: climbing the stairs behind the altar to hug the gleaming metal effigy of Santiago. Despite the cool hardness of the sculpture, it was strangely comforting. I whispered in the saint’s ear: “Thank you for the beautiful voyage.”

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Songs to sing and tales to tell

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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Surrender

Yesterday morning, having walked a couple of hours as the rising sun burned away the fog, I stopped for breakfast in a serene cafe setting of lawn and trees. Soon David, an Irishman I bunked with a couple of weeks ago, came by, followed by an American (from Seattle!) who slammed his pack down and whined loudly, “Why did they make us take that pissy little trail when we could have stayed on the road?” He was referring to a steep shortcut that took pilgrims safely off a blind curve. It wasn’t long, but the footing was tricky.

David replied softly, “The Camino wants you to go its way, not your own.” And I chimed in, “The Camino is all about surrender.” The poor man had no reply. He was a newbie, one of the many who had only recently joined the trail to rack up the minimum 100 final kilometers required to earn a “Compostela” – the treasured certificate of completion. He hadn’t yet put in enough mileage to have the willfulness walked out of him.

But can I, having now trod 478 miles in 31 days, really claim any kind of illumination or transformation as a result? I still get annoyed by the loud and incessant talkers who mar the tranquility, I still get angry when a speeding truck comes close to knocking me into a ditch. I have yet to perfect the pilgrim equanimity urged by my guidebook, which sees every irritation as the sand that produces the pearl. But at least I try to make these things part of my walking prayer. As the monks say of life in the monastery, “We fall down and get up, fall down and get up …”

Speaking of which, I took a fall today. After a month without a mishap, now but a day’s walk from Santiago, I tripped on a root and did a spectacular face plant: bloody nose, minor nicks and scratches, and broken sunglasses. A French woman and an American student stopped to help, and walked with me to the next town, where I found a room and cleaned up. I am fine, but it was odd that this occurred only minutes after I had paused at a touching trailside memorial for Guillermo Watt, a man exactly my age who had died there in 1993, just one day short of completing his pilgrimage.

These final stretches of walking have been especially lovely, reminiscent of the English countryside of the Romantics – low stone walls dividing leaf-shaded paths from sunny green pastures, as wandering clouds drift lazily overhead. While the degree of my spiritual surrender to the Camino may be difficult to measure, I have wholly surrendered to its beauty.

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The movement of hearts and souls

“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.”

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