First Telegram from the Camino Santiago de Compostela

I am writing from a small village, Zariquiegui, about 7 kms west of Pamplona, where I slept last night in a Refugio offering a hundred beds. Tonight I’ll sleep in a private Refugio with eighteen beds. My fellow peregrinos are Russian, Italian, French, Finnish, and these are only the ones I’ve met. Christina is from California. Today is her first day on the Camino. She began her pilgrimage this morning, starting out last night in Pamplona. I have been surprised at everyone’s hospitable behavior, being packed together as we are, men and women using the same, often few, facilities, and sleeping side by side in bunk beds. Privacy is minimal. It’s as if we are fleeing a hurricane and are meekly satisfied to have a bed and a shower.

My pilgrimage began on August 30 in St. Jean de Port, on the French side of the Pyrenees. Back in July, my courage failed me and I decided to meet my walking companion, Jim Gravois, in Roncesvalles, on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees. But two days before I started out for Spain from Lisbon, I woke from sleep knowing that I had to make the attempt to cross the Pyrenees, that my pilgrimage would be unacceptably different for me, if I didn’t at least try. I told myself I could always catch a taxi, and I actually could have, if the going got too rough.

We began at 0730 on August 30; the vigil of what would have been my mother’s 98th birthday. We heard the church bell of Notre Dame, where we had just paid a visit before departing, ring the half hour, as we crossed a medieval bridge and started our climb. We walked through rain, through clouds, and the going was steep amid beautiful countryside full of sheep and horses. The descent into Roncesvalles was even harder than the ascent from St. Jean. We had by mistake taken the most difficult path into Spain. We walked slowly down amid small paths of stone. Without walking poles I doubt I could have made it, but we arrived at Roncesvalles sound of body and high in spirits, and congratulated ourselves over a bottle of red wine that we had conquered the Pyrenees. I was secretly proud of myself at having over-come my fears and surviving the challenge of the mountain that is the most difficult part of the Camino that one must face right at the beginning, if one begins  at St. Jean de Pont.

At the end of our next days walk from Roncesvalles, finding a small pensione with internet, we were shocked to learn that our classmate in the Jesuit seminary, and my best friend and classmate during high school in New Orleans had died of cancer at 66. Don Richard Riso has beyond doubt had the most famous and international career of any of us. He was a founding expert on the Enneagram. Google his name and you will discover the extent of his good work. Even more shocking to us was to realize that, as we had commenced our walk up the Pyrenees at 0730, Don would be dead within forty minutes after we had started, dying at 0215 in New York. He walks with us now and we speak of him frequently as we go forward toward Santiago. We are carrying him with us.

Don’s death has made the triumphal start of our pilgrimage bittersweet. But I can still say that I am deeply happy to have begun this journey, which I have already realized is an interior journey through the geography of my own life. I am swept away from myself at how new and over-turning old habits of mind this experience is for me. Beautiful unexpected graces are already happening. Jim Gravois has already taught me how often we should be saying “Merci, Saint Jacques”. The rain stops: “Merci, Saint Jacques.” The mattress on the bunk bed is not too bad: “Merci, Saint Jacques”. It’s all poetry, of course. “Saint Jacques” could care less about the rain or our mattresses, but reasons to be grateful to someone other than ourselves are abundant. Why shouldn’t we thank Saint Jacques?

There is a church in Roncesvalles, at the Spanish start of the Camino. Before we walked further into Spain, we paid a visit and said our “prayers”. Our piety is questionable: we were, after all, Jesuits for a time, and any rose-colored glasses we ever wore have long since been broken or discarded. I speak only for myself, of course, and not for Jim. I know a lot about him but not his heart. In any event, before I left the church in Roncesvalles, thankful for crossing the Pyrenees and now heading west through Spain, I knelt before an altar that had a beautifully executed statue of Saint James. I knelt but did not speak. I only bowed my head, opened both my hands and extended, perhaps like many a pilgrim before me, my empty palms.

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