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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