From El Camino de Santiago: A Word from Symeon the New Theologian on Being Aware of False Teachers

Those who set themselves up as givers of retreats and as writers on “spiritual matters” should never fail to make, as St. Ignatius of Loyola directs, daily “examinations of conscience”. There’s too much bullshit being circulated [and I include my own part in its manufacture] by those who have only read books.

It’s one thing for a medical scientest to prescribe the safest method of performing triple-by-pass. heart surgery. It’s a whole different reality when teachers prescribe ways for their students to become spiritually enlightened and “realized” human beings. Symeon the New Theologian offers hard warnings to those who dare to teach. He also offers a student a way for discerning if the “spiritual teacher” is for real: has he overcome his “passions”? If not, walk away and never look back.

Thomas Merton was an honest broker of the spiritual life. He did not consider himself a spiritual master nor a guru. He was the first to admit that any treasure he could offer was dispensed in a fractured jar. Everyone who teaches should humble themselves before their students, and confide that the only wisdom they truly possess is the truth that, on the road to a “realized life”–a courageous and joyful life in serving their neighbors–they have not traveled very far at all.

If I were sending a gift to all the successful “spiritual writers” of our day, it would be a ribbon of admonition, offered by Chuang Tzu, to be taped to the bottom of their computer screen: “Achievement is the beginning of failure. Fame is the beginning of disgrace.”

Sitting at the feet of his Spiritual Master, Montaldo has just asked Dietzie for direction, “Do you know the way to San Jose”? and the Master has just replied that he hasn’t a clue.

Here’s a “word” from Symeon the New Theologian on the matter of “false teachers”:

1.4 “Those who simply teach do not gain the Lord’s blessing. It is for those who have practiced the commandments and so have deserved to see and contemplate the shining and brilliant radiance of the Spirit within themselves. For with this vision, this knowledge and power, the Spirit instructs them fully in all that they must speak and teach to others. So, as I have said, all those who try to teach must first of all become students lest they wander off and lose themselves by speaking of things outside their experience. This is the fate of [those] who [only] trust in themselves.”

1.41 “When a man can see with his eyes, he knows when it is night and when it is day. But a blind man is unaware of both. And when a man looks upward through the Spirit and sees through the eyes of the mind, he contemplates the true and inaccessible light. So if he then falls back into his former blindness through carelessness and is deprived of the light, he will really suffer the loss and know the reason for it all too well. But the man who is blind from birth knows nothing of these things, either from experience or his efforts, unless perhaps he catches something from hearsay and so learns about things he has never seen. Such a man may tell others what he has heard, but neither he nor his audience will know what he is talking about.”

1.48 “If you want to renounce the world and be instructed in the evangelical way of life, then do not surrender yourself to a master without experience, or to one still subject to the passions, because he might initiate you into the diabolical life instead of the evangelical. Good masters give good doctrine, but the evil teach evil. Bad seeds always produce rotten fruit.”

1.49 “Call on God with prayers and tears to send you a holy guide who has overcome the passions. For yourself you should search the divine writings, especially the ascetical works of the holy fathers [and mothers]. If you compare these with the teachings of your own tutor and master, you will be able to see and learn all these things as if in a mirror. Whatever is in agreement with the sacred writings hold to your heart and keep in your thoughts, but discern whatever elements are different or adulterated and cast them away so that you will not be led astray. You must understand that there are all too many deceivers and false teachers these days.”

1.50 “A deceiver is one who is blind…but who still tries to guide other people. He leads all who follow him to their ruination in a ditch, just as the Lord said: “If the blind leads the blind, both will fall into the pit.”

1.60 “God and Lord of all things, who have power over all life and each soul, you alone can heal me. Listen to the prayer of [one who is wretched]. By the power of your all-holy Spirit bring death to the serpent coiled in my heart and make it disappear. I am poor and naked, devoid of any virtue, but make me worthy to fall in tears at the feet of my holy father, and make his holy soul bend to compassion and pity for me. Lord, give me that lowliness in my heart and my thoughts that is right for a sinner who has resolved to repent. Never finally abandon a soul that has once surrendered to you, confessed its faith in you, and chosen and prized you before the whole world. For you know, Lord, that I wish to be saved in spite of all the evil habits that still fetter me. For you, Master, all things are possible which are impossible to [us human beings]. ”

“Thank you, Blessed Symeon. Your words have pierced me to the quick.”

Da nada, Jonnie Montaldo. Have a nice day!”

Quotations from Symeon the New Theologian. The Practical and Theological Chapters (Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications, 1982).

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From El Camino de Santiago: A New Form of Monasticism

I walked alone today, as did Jim, toward San Juan de Ortega, a route through a forest that featured steep climbs to equal those I had encountered in the Pyrenees. There were no cafes along the way, a three-and-a-half hour trek without respite in a comforting fog.

The monastery church of San Juan de Ortega, a traditional pilgrimage stop, is exceptionally beautiful. Coming out of the forest, to see it in the distance, reminded me of so many monasteries I had approached in just the same way, not walking but by car. Although I had been reading Merton since I was thirteen, I did not visit the Monastery of Gethsemani until 1974, when I was writing my thesis on Merton at Emory University in Atlanta, after my tour with the Navy. I traveled to Gethsemani by car with an old friend from Jesuit days, Ed Lauden (now a priest, after being married and becoming a widower).

Ed Lauden and I spent hours at Grand Coteau in the Jesuit seminary discussing Merton’s books. Merton was still alive and publishing when Lauden and I were at GC. We were becoming Jesuits, but both heard Merton’s music. We enjoyed an “outlaw” status in the Jesuits for our monk-leanings. [At one point, my novice master actually forbade me to read Merton: “You are becoming a Jesuit”. I was obedient to his “word” in all things save this admonishment.

Lauden was driving for our first Gethsemani trip in 1974. We had come from Atlanta, and approached Gethsemani via New Haven, the back way. When Gethsemani came into view over the corn fields, we both let out a chorus of “Oh, mans” and “Holy Shits”. We stayed in the old guest house. I had made an appointment to meet Brother Patrick Hart, Merton’s last secretary, to “talk about Merton”. He welcomed me as warmly as I know he has welcomed everyone who has sought him out (and they are still coming today) for a “word” since Merton’s death in 1968.

Patrick Hart & Thomas Merton, 1968

Before I left our appointment, I had brought Patrick a gift of an Easter egg that I had dyed and decorated in the Russian manner. He accepted it with a smile, turned away from me (no doubt rolling his eyes) and placed the egg in a niche in the monastery’s enclosure wall. I realized that he wasn’t going to take it to his cell, but was going to let it rot right there. I judged it “odd” then, but Patrick, ever since I’ve known him, is not a man who “clings”. He’s learned the art of letting pilgrims to him go. Some fifteen years later, Brother Patrick would become the father of the best, most productive years of my life, as he lifted me up and gave me the opportunity to “professionalize” my long interest and love for monasticism and Thomas Merton’s works.

It’s clear to me that I was infected at an early age with a romantic and idealized view of monastic life which has survived my head-on confrontation with reality many times. The monastic life can be and is beautiful. Monks, like Patrick Hart, are living witnesses to a monastic life well lived. They incarnate its beauty and it being a viable way to express one’s deepest humanity. But real monks are not romantics, or, they are romantics only for a two-hour walk on a Sunday afternoon.

The book that I now realize most slipped me the “golden view” of monasticism was a book for which Merton wrote an introduction. Silence in Heaven was a book of photographs of the lives of monks at Pierre Qui Vire in France taken during the Fifties. Seeing young monks my own age, teenagers, bathed in light from the monastery’s 12-century windows, dazzled me. I can still pick it up again and be dazzled. I wonder how many have experienced the same thing from this now long-out-of-print work?

Alexander Schmemann, the Orthodox priest who was a great teacher and theologian at Saint Valdimir’s Seminary, was well-acquainted with pious seminarians who had a rose-colored view of monasticism and whose attraction was based on “aesthetics” rather than reality. Schmemann reacted strongly to what he viewed an inauthentic view of the monastic dimension of living the Christian life. I read Schmemann’s words as an antidote, wheneverI become re-infested with the angels from my pious youth.

Here is Schmemann’s proposal for what he calls a “new monsticism” without religious vows. I suspect that Schmemann might agree with me in viewing Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, as an icon of a “new monasticism”.

Here are Schmemann’s three rules for “a new form of monasticism…without celibacy and without the desert but with three specific vows [a rule of prayer; obedience; and acceptance]:

“The first vow is to keep a certain well-defined spiritual discipline of life, and this means a rule of prayer; an effort to maintain a level of personal contact with God, what the Fathers call the “inner memory of Him.” It is very fashionable today to discuss spirituality and to read books about it. But whatever the degree of our theoretical knowledge about spirituality, it must begin with a simple and humble decision, an effort and—what is the most difficult—regularity. Nothing indeed is more dangerous than pseudo-spirituality whose unmistakable signs are self-righteousness, pride, readiness to measure other’s people’s spirituality, and emotionalism. What the world needs now is a generation of men and women not only speaking about Christianity, but also living it. Early monasticism was, first of all, a rule of prayer. It is precisely a rule we need, one that could be practiced and followed by all and not only by some. For indeed what you say is less and less important today. [People] are moved only by what you are, and this means the total impact of your personality, of your personal experience, commitment, and dedication [emphasis added].

Dorothy Day

“Perhaps without noticing it, we live in a climate of radical individualism. Each one tailors for [oneself one’s] own kind of “Orthodoxy”, [one’s] own ideal of the Church, [one’s] own style of life. And yet, the whole literature of spirituality emphasizes obedience as the condition of all spiritual progress. What I mean [by this second vow], however, is something very practical…obedience to the movement [of life] itself…obedience in small things, humble chores, the unromantic routine of work…[those things which are] the antithesis not of disobedience, but of hysterical individualism: “I” feel, “I” don’t feel. Stop “feeling” and do.

“The third vow, acceptance, could be described, in terms of one spiritual author, as “digging one’s own hole.” [St. Bernard of Clairvaux: “We must dig our own wells.”] So many people want to do anything except precisely what God wants them to do, for to accept this and perhaps even to discern it is one of the greatest spiritual difficulties. It is very significant that ascetical literature is full of warnings against changing places, against leaving monasteries for other and “better” ones, against the spirit of unrest, that constant search for the best possible conditions. Again, what we need today is to relate to the Church and to Christ our lives, our professions, and the unique combination of factors which God gives us as our examination and which we alone pass or fail.

“We must think in terms of a remnant, of a movement, of service. We must begin with ourselves, if we are to be of service to the Church. When God gives something, a talent, He wants us to invest it. He wants us to serve. There is no other way of following Christ.”

From Alexander Schmemann, “The Mission of Orthodoxy,” Concern 3 (1968, reprinted by Conciliar Press, 1989, 1994). [Quoted in a superb article by Michael Plekon. “Monasticism in the Marketplace, the Monastery, the World, and Within: An Eastern Church Perspective.” Cistercian Studies Quarterly 34.3 (1999).

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From El Camino de Santiago; A Word from Jim Gravois

Jim Gravois and I entered the Society of Jesus together in 1963. I entered on the Feast of St. Ignatius on July 31st; Jim entered on August the 15th, Feast of the Assumption. We would each take our vows two years later on the same dates. We spent four years at St. Charles Borromeo College in Grand Coteau, Louisiana, a working farm.

Our formation during the first two years was monastic. Our next two years, as Juniors, were dedicated to Studies. I left the Society from Philosophy at Spring Hill College in Mobile, Alabama. Jim left after a semester of teaching at Strake Jesuit College Prep in Houston, Texas..

Jim and I saw one another after we left the Jesuits. After coming home from Europe, not knowing what he wanted to do, Bruce Johnson and I urged him to go back to Europe. We took him to the airport. Adios, amigo.

After a hiatus of going our own ways, we met again, when the Class of 1963 held its twenty-fifth anniversary of entering the Jesuits over a weekend at Grand Coteau. It would be sixteen years of no contact before I responded to Jim’s call to our class to walk El Camino de Santigo. Our being Jesuits together has insured that we are perfect traveling companions. We are also attached by our gratitude at our having the freedom to walk through Spain. Our constant prayer, which we say out loud to the sky, is “Merci, Saint Jacques”. Jim will raise his own voice on our journey. Here is his first solo podcast:

Jim and Fabienna

Jim and Fabienne


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From El Santiago de Compostela: Encounter with Marcelino Lebato on the Road to Navarrete

Four kilometers outside of Lograno, we encountered an open-air “office” where Marcelino Lebato was writing in a book at a picnic table desk. A box of pears and another of cookies flanked his right side, while a few items more obviously “for sale” flanked his left. There were three scallop shells (the official icon of the Camino of Saint James) and many smooth, small pebbles with yellow arrows painted on them for purchse. The yellow arrow is ubiquitous along El Camino and directs peregrinos to the official turns on the path toward Santigo de Compostela.

As I approached Marcelino, I noticed what appeared to be his journal, a legal-sized accounting book. Thomas Merton often used the same kind of ledger book for his personal journals. I saw that Marcelino made his own drawings in them in green or red ink. He reminded me, at first, of Alan Ginsburg, until his own wild looks and laugh took over to reveal an “original”.

[I am not the fortunate pilgrim in the above photo.]

Jim spoke to him in Spanish about our getting a sello for our credentials. A credential is an acordian-like card on which a pilgrim receives stamps from the places visited. You need these passports to get into the albergues for peregrinos and finally to show you really made the pilgrimage, when you arrive at Santiago de Compostella, and go the official office to get your “diploma”. Marcelino laughed constantly, stamping our passports, telling Jim that he himself was a crazy pilgrim, too. I bought three of the pebbles painted with yellow arrows to carry with me to Santiago. I placed a donation in a cup next to his journals, obviously placed there for coin. As we left, we noticed the sign on his office, announcing that this was the “Hermitage of the Virgin of the Crazy People”. As we walked away, Jim told me he called out to us with a big laugh, “We all do crazy things”.

We were another kilometer down the road when Marcelino drove up in his truck and with a big grin handed me my credential that I had left behind at his place. He  then drove passed us and turned around to drive back to his writing. We exchanged two big “thumb ups” as he passed, both of us flashing big smiles. I walked a little more down the road and thought, “Damn, I should have taken photos of his place and him.” Jim, who does not enjoy wasting efforts, said he would gladly wait for me. Then I reasoned (bad move), “No, I won’t go back. I’ll bet if I offer his name to Mother Google, she will grant me many images that other peregrinos must have taken of him.” [I should have walked back. Moral: have your own experience, not someone else’s. If you want a photo-memoir of an obvious “character”, and maybe have a chance to receive “a word for your salvation”, walk back and take your own shot.]

When I had the first chance, I typed in “Marcelino Lebato” for Mother Google’s consideration and, of course, she did not fail me. He’s famous: he has the largest credential in recent history. He is the pilgrim’s pilgrim. He has received awards. He is a star in El Camino’s firmament. I knew I should have gone back!

I considered my options and began getting my stuff together to leave the albergue, where we were bedding down for the night. Jim woke up from his nap, and I told him I was going back to re-encounter Marcelino Labato. He stopped me with, “So you’re going to walk 8 kilmeters for a photo, huh?” Then, soaking in this piece of intelligence, I told myself that, by the time I got back, Marcelino might be having  a siesta, or he might have finished his writing work for the day. Eight kilometers on top of what we had already walked today, only to be disappointed?  So I put my camera away and came down to the kitchen in the albergue to write this homage.

If I don’t pay more attention, this won’t be only time that I’ll be kicking myself in the ass for letting a potentially golden moment slip by through distraction. Examining my conscience, I admit that today I was , at least, true to usual form. I can’t say how many times I’ve given a “paradise moment” only a passing glance, as I distractedly walked by it. Cue Paul Simon: “Slow down, you move too fast, you’ve go to make the moment last…”

I need to be more careful. To paraphrase Saint Augustine, “I fear that Christ will pass  by me and not return”.

And, by the way, Marcelino Lebato does not appear in Emilio Estavez’s film The Way. You missed boarding a good bus, Emilio, but I understand completely.

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From El Camino Santiago de Compostela: Sleeping with Strangers

One of El Camino’s most palpable blessings is the presence, even if not the intimate company, of other pilgrims. I walk through an open field landscape and can see pilgrims on the road ahead of me. Others walk past me and greet me with, “Ola. Buon Camino”. They are making their way to Santiago Compostela in their own ways. No pilgrim’s road is the same. We are re-integrating and re-fashioning new perspectives of our own “inner geographies” with each click of our walking sticks. Some angel is talking with Jim Gravois every time he exhales, “La vita ê bella. Merci, Saint Jacques.”

I was in the Navy the last time I slept in a barracks, but a military dormitory doesn’t do justice to the night culture of a Refugio. The only image that comes close for me is the time I went with friends to a house boat in the middle of a Louisiana swamp for a weekend of netting and eating crabs. We slept in close quarters. We pissed off the side of the boat. We unconditionally surrendered to the flies.

In the Refugios women and men sleep side by side, up by down, to one another. A room in a small Refugio can have six bunk beds in small rooms. Twenty-eight people can be bedding down together for the night with only two showers and two toilets in a uni-sex bathroom to service all of them. Being packed in like the poor soon becomes more natural than a private room. Everyone seems unfazed as the way we spend our nights pivots toward “and now for something a little different”.

There is a courtesy among strangers in the Refugios that is exceptional. The smooth and unruffled intercourse among perigrinos is not easily explained. What minimalist accommodations that we couldn’t imagine submitting to a month before starting El Camino have become for us a school of new manners. I hear no complaints, no bitter exchanges. I don’t even hear jokes alluding to our ironic intimacies. Perhaps everyone doesn’t expect anything else at the cost of 7 euros a night.

If pilgrims are flirting and sharing kisses with one another, I’m unaware of it (of course at sixty-six I’m unaware of a great deal that might have caught my hungry eyes in the past). A few nights ago in Puente La Reina, Gravois and I stayed in a Refugio that was once a seminary. It still bears the name of Refugio Seminario. As Jim and I walked to a bar to use the internet, he offered up the observation that there was probably less sex going on in this pilgrims’ Refugio than when the place was a seminary. I laughed at his wit, but also realized that Jim’s senior years might likewise be blinding him to any erotic exchanges being staged in front of his nose.

El Camino does, however, exaggerate the pleasures of a good night’s sleep and a good morning’s bowel movement. And then,  the constant anxiety about getting a bed the next night does dampen erotic enthusiasm for anyone who might snag that empty bed before we do. When I stop for a rest and to drink some water, the wave after wave of pilgrims passing me by, greeting me with their cheery “Buon Camino’s”, provokes only fear. I delve into my El Camino guide book by Brierly to scare myself to know just how many Refugio beds the next rest stop will offer. I flirt with despair that there will be no room at the next inn for me.

Before my El Camino is over, I’ll be sleeping outside on the ground—some of my comrades have already had to lay down on concrete. I console myself with the knowledge that I’ve already taken a crap twice in the woods (exceptionally good moments for reasons I cannot explain), so perhaps I’m ready for the total Monty of roughing it. When I was at L.S.U., finishing up my bachelor’s degree, I remember walking to class with a girl I liked who suddenly turned to me and, as if reading my mind, said, “My mother once told me that there was nothing more over-rated than sex and nothing more under-rated than a good shit.” I remember being shocked at the time, but these days I judge her mother wise.

It could be an arctic myth, but the Eskimos are reputed to invite their old folks to ride out on an ice floe that’s about to break away and so spare the community its need of having to provide them more food. I notice how I am dedicating a large percentage of this reflection to sex and bowel movements. It could well be that I’m not as ready to go out on the next piece of black ice as I have imagined. “Merci, Saint Jacques.”

Here’s a podcast from “in the field” featuring my pilgrimage partner, Jim Gravois:



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Thomas Merton on Pilgrimage

[The following excerpts from copyrighted material are for purposes of retreat and instruction. Merton’s non-inclusive language, as grating as it is on the contemporary ear, has been transcribed as he used it. Only some of Merton’s copious footnotes have been included in this transcription.]

The ‘sacred journey’ has origins in prehistoric religious cultures and myths. Man instinctively regards himself as a wanderer and wayfarer, and it is second nature for him to go on pilgrimage in search of a privileged and holy place, a center and source of indefectible life. This hope is built into his psychology, and whether he acts it out or simply dreams it, his heart seeks to return to a mythical source, a place of ‘origin,’ the ‘home’ where the ancestors came from, the mountain where the ancient fathers were in direct communication with heaven, the place of the creation of the world, paradise itself, with its sacred tree of life. [cf. Mircea Eliade. Myths, Dreams and Mysteries, 1960.]

In the traditions of all the great religions, pilgrimage takes the faithful back to the source and center of the religion itself, the place of theophany, of cleansing, renewal, and salvation. For the Christian there is, of course, Jerusalem, the Holy Sepulchre, where the definitive victory of life over death, good over evil, was won. And there is Rome, the center of the Catholic Church, the See of Peter, the place of indulgence and forgiveness. There are also grottoes and springs blessed by visitations of the merciful Mother, sites of repentance and healing. There are countless tombs of saints, places of hierophany and of joy. Christian pilgrimages to Jerusalem, which simply followed the example and pattern of much older Jewish pilgrimages, began in the fourth century A.D. St. Helena’s [Augustine of Hippo’s mother] pilgrimage and the finding of the True Cross took place in 326. Less than ten years later, the splendid Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre was dedicated. It would attract thousands of pilgrims from the West. Already, in 333, a pilgrim from Bordeaux, in France, was writing about his visit to the Holy Places. One of the liveliest and most interesting of all written pilgrimages is that of the nun Aetheria, who probably came from Spain and visited not only the holy places in Jerusalem but the monks of the Egyptian desert and of Palestine, even going through the Arabian desert to Mount Sinai, where there was as yet no monastery [Saint Catherine’s], but where there were colonies of hermits living in huts and caves. Large numbers of anchorites escorted her enthusiastically to the summit of the mountain, where appropriate texts from the Bible were read. Mass was sung, eulogiae, or spiritual gifts (consisting of fruits from the monks’ orchard) were passed around, and the joys of the Christian life were generally celebrated in the very place where God had given the Law to Moses [Le Pèlerinage d’Ethérie. Latin text and French translation, 1948]. Note that at this same time St. Gregory of Nyssa was writing his life of Moses, which is in fact a description of the mystical itinerary and ascent of the monk to God in “dark contemplation.”

The geographical pilgrimage is the symbolic acting out of an inner journey. The inner journey is the interpolation of the meanings and signs of the outer pilgrimage. One can have one without the other. It is best to have both.

History would show the fatality and doom that would attend on the external pilgrimage with no interior spiritual integration, a divisive and disintegrated wandering, without understanding and without the fulfillment of any humble inner quest. In such a pilgrimage no blessing is found within, and so the outward journey is cursed with alienation. Historically, we find a progressive ‘interiorization’ of the pilgrimage theme, until in monastic literature the ‘perigrinatio’ of the monk is entirely spiritual and is in fact synonymous with monastic stability. Thomas Merton. “From Pilgrimage to Crusade.” Mystics & Zen Masters. NY: Dell Paperback, 1961. 90-112.

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From El Camino Santiago de Compostella: All My Stuff in One Bag

I write on our tenth day of walking the Camino. Jim and I made a decision yesterday, after having walked thirteen miles to Estella,  to rest in Estella another day. Had we kept walking, we would have missed the Iglesia de San Pedro da La Rua, one of the most beautiful churches I have experienced in my lifetime. The Iglesia de San Pedro’s renovation was completed only in June. It was easy to pray there. It blissed me out. “Bliss” sounds so Sixties, perhaps the English translation of some ecstatic state described by a medieval mystic. But the Iglesia de San Pedro and the entire Camino is forcing a new mind in me. I’ve been a complete stranger through my life to “bliss” but I’m having an introduction at last.

After the benefits of the rest day, we vowed to walk more slowly, to rest more often, and give ourselves over to the Camino more contemplatively, rather than aggresively, which is what we were in danger of doing, when we made the 13 mile sprint. So we only walked four hours today, Saturday, 9/8, and stopped at the only Refugio in a small village, Villamajor, half-way to Los Arcos. Had we followed the instructions of John Brierly in his book on the Camino, we would have plowed on to Los Arcos rather than taking our beds here in Villamajor at noon. It turned out that we had chosen wisely. We claimed our beds but every place in this Refugio was taken within a hour. We watched employees of the Refugio offer mattresses for sleeping outside. We learned that two hours later, every bed from Estrella to Los Arcos was filled. I asked a peregrino from Germany what he thought was the reason. His guess was that the movie, “The Way” with Martin Sheen had sent more Americans to the Camino. Americans, he said, were not that much in evidence until the movie came out. Jim and I had planned our pilgrimage before the movie. When it came out, I told Jim, “It’s going to be Mardi Gras on the Camino now.” The crowd of peregrinos is thick, but it’s a beautiful parade.

Every day I am happier that I am on this pilgrimage. When I walk in the open fields of olive trees and grape vineyards, I hark back to Grand Coteau, where I was a Jesuit novice in southwest Louisiana (1963-1967). The fields remind me, too, of long walks at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky and at Saint Joseph’s Abbey at Spencer, MA. An open field is a personal symbol of the monastic life for me. When I look into a cow’s eyes or gaze upon a sheep, I think, “monasticism”. I am twenty-five again these days, as long as I don’t look in the mirror. (I emailed this to a friend who wrote back, “Stop looking in mirrors.”)

When I sit in a church like San Pedro’s in Estella, I’m flush with desires to be in a monastery singing psalms and blissing out on “the words of God? Of course, I can sing psalms everywhere, and the last thing a real monk does on a daily basis is “bliss out”. Try “blissing out” in a Cistercian monastery and they send you home to find your vocation. Jim and I have taken to singing in empty Romanesque churches whose acoustics make us sound good: the echo effects are primo. We are becoming more pious by the kilometer and I am happy that my friends aren’t witnessing our return to a novice’s sentiments. We are singing our favorite hymns from our Jesuit days, like the “Salve Regina” that we sang at Vespers every Sunday, and a version of “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” that Bob Fecas and I used to sing together.

There are no tears yet. (I don’t know what Jim is doing upon his bunk at night, but my powder remains dry so far). This is good. Tears have to be earned; they’ll come after the cheap sentiment has burned off. But I sense tears aren’t far away. I remember a time early in my first year of novitiate in the Jesuits at Grand Coteau, when I was jogging one afternoon, during the Thirty Days Retreat, and had burst our crying for reasons I can’t remember now. After I showered, I made an emergency appointment with my novice master. When he invited me into his office and I sat down, I told him with great solemnity,“Father, this afternoon, while jogging, I received the “gift of tears”. He kept a straight face but his dilating pupils gave him away. I imagine he and the other senior Jesuits had a good laugh at cocktail hour as he recounted air-head Frater Montaldo’s latest “spiritual emergency”.

When I was in Vietnam with the Marines, at Freedom Hill in Danang in 1971, the highest compliment a marine would pay another was “That guy has all his shit in one bag”. This compliment literally meant that the marine had his gear intact and was ready to move out, but it connoted a guy who was  in every sense”together”.  I don’t know what it connotes for me yet, now that I momentarily have all my stuff in one bag. In Pamplona I emptied out two kilos of stuff in my backpack that I had brought over to begin walking El Camino. I sent that two kilos of too much stuff to Lisboa, where my friends are guarding the luggage full of my stufft I left with them.

George Carlin, the comedian, had an entire “rift” on how we keep piling up our personnal stuff, filling every nook of our places with stuff, moving our stuff from one house to another. We have to spread out our stuff everywhere to mark our territories. We’re drowning in our stuff. This gives an ironic over-tone to that other phrase I have heard more than once or twice in my life: “You need to seriously get your shit together, man.”

I sense in these past days that I could be on pilgrimage, like on this El Camino, for the rest of my natural life. I find a real pilgrimage like this one the symbolic equivalent of how I’ve actually lived my life. I’m always letting go of what I have to depart for finding what I don’t. I have found paradise isles but I’ve always sailed out for an island I don’t yet know.  It’s more than just a “the grass is always greener” syndrome. Perhaps it’s pathological–I’ll admit to that–but it’s how I get my groove on.  My cousin, a monk of Spencer, once told me to buy an icon of Saint Maximus the Hut Burner. Saint Maximus was a hermit who would build himself a hut out of leaves and sticks. Once he got a hut fully built, he would burn it down and go off to another place to start building another hut. You hit the bulls-eye, cousin: Jonathan the Hut Burner!

Wounds are being healed as I walk. I want to ask everyone I have ever hurt to forgive me. I know this is an important step in AA, however, I have no intention of not drinking the great red wines of Spain. Jim and I are amazed at the quality of wine we can buy for 1.40 euros. So, while I want everyone to forgive me, I want to celebrate their compassion and absolution with a toast.

I’m so full of shit, but, thankfully, if only for the moment, it’s all in one bag. That’s progress, isn’t it?

Jim reminded me this morning of one of the rules for members of the Society of Jesus proposed by Saint Ignatius of Loyola: the Jesuit is to carry only what can fit in one bag, so that, if called to another service or place, he may proceed with haste. Maybe that’s where I learned to keep “letting go”.

Here is my first Podcast from El Camino:


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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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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.


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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Monksworks Podcast: In Rome & Discovering A Secretly Archived Version of An Old Self


A diptych of two fools: one certified by his family, the other canonized by his church.

Saint Benedict Joseph Labre was a fool-for-Christ, a “holy” bum: he tried desperately and more than once, but couldn’t make it as a Trappist or Carthusian, so he went “on the road”. Last week  I made a pilgrimage twice to the Roman Church in which he’s buried, Santa Maria ai Monti. I just sat at his tomb, reflecting on his craziness. I might have said a prayer that he should think about guiding my “pilgrimage” or at least putting the wind behind my back, but I’m not much on piety these days and Labre is dead, after all. However, it’s true that my long walks are taking me into churches. I’m “haunting” the churches of Rome and getting “that old feeling”. This is probably not good.

I wouldn’t want, as an old man, to revert to a wrinkled version of the boy I was, the boy who would play that ultra-romantic piece “In A Monastery Garden” by Albert Ketlebey*** on the phonograph over and over, while he read The Imitation of Christ, and cried his heart out because he wanted to be in that “garden” with the monks. Won’t be going back to that in my right mind.

The thought, however, has risen to consciousness, after a second glass of wine, that it might be interesting to stay in Rome and haunt churches, like dear Benedict Joseph. It seems an adventurous “old person” thing to do. I could even stop shaving and sit on church steps with my hand out and see what happens. Hmmmmmmmm. Prendo un altro vino rosso, per piacere. [“I’ll have another vino rosso, please.”]

Thomas Merton, when he was a young monk, loved hermits and bums whose lives never seemed to get anywhere. He especially admired Benedict Jospeh Labre and mused that he would rather be “on the road” like him most mornings than in his “comfortable” monastery. Merton did have problems, however, imagining himself as flea-infested as poor Benedict Joseph was most of the time.

Below is my last podcast until I begin walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostelo in Roncevalles, Spain on September lst.

Here’s a link to a well-written, brief summary of Benedict Joseph Labre’s life:

***For those among you who also read the Imitatio Christi in tears while playing Ketelbey’s “In A Monastery Garden”, check out any number of versions of Ketelbey’s “masterpiece” on You-Tube and ascertain how it’s working for you today. If you start swooning again, email me at <>: I own the patent on the antidote.


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