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

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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: http://www.ewtn.com/library/mary/stben.htm

***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 <montaldo@monksworks.com>: I own the patent on the antidote.

 

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Monksworks Podcast May 7: Assisi—My Rooms With A View

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I have been living in Assisi for three weeks, studying Italian four hours a day, walking a great deal, visiting major Franciscan watering holes, but more thoughtfully than when I visited Assisi in the past. My apartment was on the Piazza San Rufino, a major square and site of the Cathedral of San Rufino, where both Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare were baptized. I depart for Venice on Friday. I shall miss looking out my window at the rooftops of Assisi and the valley below, the portion of Assisi called Santa Maria degl’Angeli.

 

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Monksworks Podcast April 28, 2012: Encounters with Cornelius

I am writing from Assisi, Italy, after being in England from May 10 – May 16th to attend the bi-annual Conference and General Meeting of the Thomas Merton Society of Great Britain and Ireland to which I had been invited to address a plenary session. The Conference was held in Oakham, England, where Merton went to “secondary school” before he entered Cambridge.

The podcast describes my encounters with an urban “desert father” throughout the conference, Cornelius:

"God's Angel Cornelius Slaying Montaldo's Dragons" “God’s Angel Cornelius Slaying Montaldo’s Dragons”

In addition to the podcast I have included a link to the talk I gave in England, “To Uncage His Voice: Thomas Merton’s Inner Journey Toward Parrhesia [Free & Fearless Speech]”.

Montaldo Oakham Uncaging His Voice Final p

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Podcast from Lisbon: Monday, April 9, 2012

Monksworks Podcast from Lisbon April 9

Obedios’ Castle from Roman times:

Peniche on the Atlantic Coast of Portugal:

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Holy Saturday: Leaving Mount Baldy

Leaving Mt. Baldy
By Leonard Cohen (1999)

I came down from the mountain
after many years of study
and rigorous practice.
I left my robes hanging on a peg
in the old cabin
where I had sat so long
and slept so little.
I finally understood
I had no gift
for Spiritual Matters.
‘Thank You, Beloved’
I heard a heart cry out
as I entered the stream of cars
on the Santa Monica Freeway,
westbound for L.A.
A number of people
(some of them practitioners)
have begun to ask me angry questions
about The Ultimate Reality.
I suppose it’s because
they don’t like to see
old Jikan smiling.

On the CD, in which Philip Glass composes music to poems in Cohen’s “Book of Longing”, the last line in “Leaving Mt. Baldy”, where Cohen was a practitioner and ordained Rinzi priest, is changed to “they don’t like to see old Jikan smoking”. “Old Jikan” is Cohen himself. I like the idea of outrage at old Jikan “smoking”.  Could be just cigarettes but I prefer to think Old Jikan teaches while toking a bong: just so!  Hmmmmm. Ahhhhhhhh. Ohhhhhhhhh.

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Being in Lisbon, Reflecting on Thomas Merton in the Woods

Thomas Merton’s essay, “Day of A Stranger”, is among his best. Written for Ludovico Silva’s literary magazine Papeles, “Day of A Stranger” relates a “hermit’s day” in Merton’s living at his concrete bungalow on Mount Olivet at Gethsemani Abbey. Merton’s prose-poem speaks in the unexpurgated voice of the self he was finding to be most true. He speaks of who he has become through his unique monastic journey in three simple, declarative sentences:

What I wear is pants.

What I do is live.

How I pray is breathe.

Merton’s speech, for this one day at least, becomes terse and impoverished. He distills his voice down into its ordinary communion with the chorus of all simple beings inhabiting the world.

“What I wear is pants.” (He puts off his monastic robes and the cowl that implicates his distinction and “specialness” from others. He knows himself only as he is, another ordinary man in blue jeans accomplishing ordinary tasks. He sweeps his porch, he tends his fire.)

“What I do is live.” (His vocation is a call to be simple. He needs no other place to go than where he is now. He has no one else to meet. He quiets his pronouncements. He surrenders, to this one day at least, all his grandiose plans. He considers the next task in front of his nose, even just chopping wood, as a divine will for him right now.)

“How I pray is breathe.” (Being grateful to be alive is prayer. Being awake and watching as day breaks, and staying up all night as the stars dance, is his contemplation. He forgets whatever he has written on prayer and prays. He listens to whatever voices in the trees or in the gardens of his mind call out for his attention. Silence harmonizes him; it renders him receptive to the ‘hidden wholeness’ of each thing with every other thing on which his heart lands. Alone in the woods, he listens to the speech rain makes. He plays his small part in the simple ecologies of another day. He realizes, for this one day at least, the way the wind is blowing through the pine trees. And thus he receives the fruits of a sermon by the birds living near his hermitage: they invite him to share their liberty, to know the ordinary freedom of those who do not know they have names.)

Jonathan Montaldo
in Lisbon on Holy Wednesday

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Jonathan Montaldo Podcast March 27, 2012 “In the Basement, Ready to Fly”

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Jonathan Montaldo’s Podcasts Begin

On Thursday, March 29th, I am departing from Newark to Lisbon, Portugal. After ten days in Lisbon, I’ll fly to Oakham, England to deliver an address. On April 16th I’ll cross into Italy, taking the train from Rome to Assisi, where I’ll spend three weeks studying Italian. I’ll be commencing a four months sojourn in Italy that will include Venice, Milan and Rome. After camping in the Douro Valley of Portugal, on August 16th I’ll take the train to southern France and meet up with Jim Gravois. He and I will walk the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compostela from the French side of the Pyrenees. We will be on the pilgrimage road for seven weeks, walking ten miles a day and mostly staying in hostels. My time after walking the Camino is open-ended. Suspended by a little help from my friends, I’m ready for anything to happen.

 

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