Expecting Nothing Special on the Road to Santiago de Compostela: In My Beginning is My End

Thomas Merton began his journey to Asia in September, 1968 which would end accidentally on December 10, 1968. In his personal journals he reflected on how his trip might modify his future. The following excerpts from The Intimate Merton: His Life from His Journals are held in copyright by HarperSanFrancisco:

July 29, 1968.

This evening–cool and bright–I walked out on the brow of the hill after supper. Looked down at the bottom where pipe is strung out for the new sewage plant. Crisp green line of the hills across the valley. Dark green of the oak tops–there has been lots of rain this summer. In eight weeks I am to leave here. Who knows, I may not come back. Not that I expect anything to go wrong, though it might–but I might conceivably settle in California to start the hermit thing Father Flavian spoke of: it depends. Someone may give him a good piece of property, for instance. In any case I don’t expect to be back here for a few months.

Really I don’t care one way or another if I never come back. On an evening like this the place is certainly beautiful, but you can seldom count on it really being quiet (though it is at the moment). Traffic on the road. Kids at the lake. Guns. Machines. Boone’s dog yelling in the wood at night. People coming all the time. All this is to be expected and I don’t complain of it. But if I can find somewhere to disappear to, I will. If I am to be in a relatively wandering life with no fixed abode, that’s all right too.

I really expect little or nothing from the future. Certainly not great “experiences” or a lot of interesting new things. Maybe, but so what? What really intrigues me is the idea of starting out into something unknown, demanding and expecting nothing very special, hoping only to do what God asks of me, whatever it may be.

September 1, 1968. 13th Sunday after Pentecost.

What (very slowly) sinks into my mind is that soon I will really leave this place, to live for a long time out of a suitcase–everything I “have” will be within the 44 lbs. a plane will take for you. Leaving my books, cottage, security, time to write, time to be alone, and going on where I don’t know, with only a few plans ahead that can all be changed. This may not be easy at all–in fact it might be very difficult. Certainly difficult to do well. It leaves me confused and the only way to make sense of it is prayer.

September 9, 1968.

I go with a completely open mind. I hope without special illusions. My hope is simply to enjoy the long journey, profit by it, learn, change, perhaps find something or someone who will help me advance in my own spiritual quest.

I am not starting out with a firm plan never to return or with an absolute determination to return at all costs. I do feel there is not much for me here at the moment and that I need to be open to lots of new possibilities. I hope I shall be! But I remain a monk of Gethsemani. Whether or not I will end my days here, I don’t know. Perhaps it is not so important. The great thing is to respond.

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On Sunday, August 26th I am taking a plane from Lisbon to Madrid. The next morning I’ll travel by train to Pamplona and then hop a bus to Roncesvalles, Spain, at the foot of the Pyrenees, to begin walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela with Jim Gravois. Gravois and I entered the Jesuit seminary at Grand Coteau, Louisiana. We entered together in 1963, and now we will be entering another novitiate together nearly fifty years later. We’ll begin walking September lst, a journey of 500 miles. I’ll celebrate my 67th birthday on the Camino on October 4th. T.S. Eliot intoned that “Old men should be explorers”. Well, Gravois and I are both certifiably old and exploring we shall go.

Having been on the road in Europe since March 30th, traveling through Portugal, England, Switzerland and Italy, my intentions for walking the Camino have become firm: I want to make my walk with conscious gratitude for my whole life—the total catastrophe of my life without leaving any detail out—in thanksgiving for all who have loved me in spite of myself and who have loved me in spite of themselves. The list is long and I wish to raise it high in my consciousness and offer it to the Spanish sky.

When I was in Rome in July with the pilgrims from the Thomas Merton Society of Canada, I found myself speaking to Abbot Timothy Kelly, Gethsemani’s abbot for twenty-five years and now a major official in the Cistercian Order at their Rome headquarters. I told Timothy I was preparing to walk the Camino and he asked me why I wanted to do that. I replied spontaneously that I hoped to “die well”. “So you’re training to die,” he laughed. And I said, “Yes”.

If my death takes its time, and is not a quick moment of being punted over a cliff by a truck full of chickens on the Camino, dying well would be to die with courage and with gratitude for having been given the opportunity to have lived. Jim Forest, the writer and friend of Thomas Merton, after I had given my talk at Oakham, England in April, during the general discussion when my walking the Camino became an issue, said out loud, “You’re going to die on the Camino, you know”. I made a face and pretended to be sad, but I knew what he meant. Every leave-taking is a little death. A major leave-taking is a really big death. John of the Cross would have said, along with Jim Forest, that dying in the spirit is not some happy-horseshit, look-at-me-maw, I’m walking the Camino, experience. The onion of you peels off until a you who is no longer you manifests itself. A koan: Who will you be when you are not-you anymore?

So here I go. I’ve walked two years in training for the Camino without a blister, and yet I wouldn’t be at all surprised if my right foot falls off two weeks out of Roncevalles. I have never been in control of this infinitesimal project in the world’s existence that is my life that I have yet so enjoyed. So here I go, just as I have always gone, always unripe but ready for anything that pushes me further out of the tree. Ready or not, Jonathan Montaldo, here you go.

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