That summer, we decided that we would drive the Camino, this time from Roncesvalles to Finisterre and Muxia, and introduce our 9-year-old daughter Sylvana to the world of pilgrimage. We were also leaving copies of our book Walking for Peace, an inner journey in English and Spanish, in all the major albergues along the way.
Driving or not, however, the Camino is always working its magic.
I will readily admit that I'm a stickler for being on time. I don't mind if others are late, but I need to be on time. When we make plans to leave at a certain hour, to me, we are leaving at that time, give or take fifteen minutes. That was why surrender and trust were so difficult for me initially on the Camino and, later, on our walking pilgrimage to Jerusalem. With time and persistence, I have learned to follow my own inner callings and the omens that have presented themselves to me, trusting that I will always arrive at the perfect time - which is not necessarily my time. And despite my many failings in applying this day-to-day, I continue to commit myself to the effort.
Our plan was to leave at 10:00AM, along the Spanish route 66 (the Via de la Plata) to Salamanca.
So, you can imagine how I was feeling when it was close to 11:00AM and the car was still not packed. As hard as I tried to remind myself to simply let go of my need to be on time, I couldn't, and only grew more agitated. It didn't help matters that I felt that I was running around preparing everything while Alberto was on the computer doing I didn't know what... but it didn't matter, because he wasn't helping me!
One sarcastic comment brought out another, and the next thing we knew, we were arguing. Alberto and I generally don't argue, but this time, it got heated and fast. At least we had the wits to each step away to regain their composure. We quietly packed up the car and drove to the gas station in icy silence. With tank filled and coffee in hand, we were ready to start. When I glanced at the time, it was 11:11AM. I finally paused, and took a deep breath, acknowledging this tap on the shoulder I was receiving from the heavens. The first element of any pilgrimage is letting go of control, and being in flow with the rhythm of the Camino. Even though we were in a car, we were still along a sacred route, and all such routes are walked with open minds, and even more open, hearts.
In the moment I realized this and surrendered, everything flowed. We had no plans, no agenda, no hotel rooms booked. We didn't know exactly where we were going, just that we were on the Way, and that our task now was to be present, and attentive to our intuition and surroundings.
Our first stop was historic, spectacular Salamanca. Alberto had gone to high school there, in a residence that prepared young men for seminary. He never made it to seminary, but the city clearly had woven its spell, as he showed us all the places he had known, including his residence. We walked streets forged by history, and entered monuments that testified to the balance of the minds and hearts that created them. We enjoyed too many pintxos. We followed the yellow arrows and Camino shells near the Cathedral, and found the albergue, the pilgrim shelter, open to those pilgrims braving the July heat to make it here. We introduced Sylvana to the pilgrim world here, trying to make real for her the many stories we had told her of our adventures along it.
We continued eastwards towards Roncesvalles, stopping first in Viloria de Rioja to visit our pilgrim friends Acacio and Orietta. Even in car, it was hard not to be mesmerized by the scenery: the rolling fields, the lush landscape, the medieval towns that peeked out from the hillside, or the endless Roman bridges that we crossed. The modern and the ancient in perfect harmony.
As we drove, we tried to paint a picture for Sylvana of pilgrims in ancient times, walking long distances, following a calling to see the tomb of the apostle St. James in Santiago (or, in the case of prisoners, to have their sentences commuted). There were no yellow arrows then, no well-marked paths. There was the danger of being robbed, even killed, by bandits. For this, we explained, the Templars (as exemplified by Tomas in Manjarin) began accompanying pilgrims and building refugios (or refuge) along the way. Some pilgrims became very ill or infested with disease, and could not continue. For this, the hospitals were built, and the hospitaleros tended to the sick and ailing, not only in body, but in spirit as well. Perhaps, the pilgrims found love along the way, and decided to settle in one place rather than continue walking. For these, and so many more reasons, many pilgrims never made it to Santiago. That was why la Puerta del Perdon in Villafranca del Bierzo was so important because if they could make it here, it was as if they had made it to Santiago.
We walked the medieval bridges and entered the castle walls. She donned a knight's helmet and carried a sword. She met pilgrims and hospitaleros, young and old, speaking languages indistinguishable from her own, and yet united in a spirit that propelled them to pilgrimage. She shared a pilgrim meal in more than one refugio, and slept among them in Viloria de Rioja, witnessing the daily ritual of pilgrimage. She began to wish complete strangers a buen camino, even though watching her mom yelling it from the car to passing pilgrims was "just so embarrassing"!
Despite her resistance and complaints, we know we touched her. At nine years old, she will never admit to this, of course, since her parents cannot possibly be so cool. But, one night, still in deep sleep, she called out my name and only said, "Mom, adventures really are a lot of fun," before giving me an angelic smile and falling back to sleep. I couldn't agree more.
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The Way of the Sword, as the Camino is known, also wielded its power, revealing a wound that I had not realized still existed. And it chose Sylvana as the teacher.
Our daughter, like her parents, loves her food. At times, it feels as if she's inhaling it all without even tasting it. And as we ate in restaurants every day, and watched all our waistlines expand, we began to once again enforce some limits, cutting back on ice cream and dessert, while controlling portion size – for all of us. Her resistance was great, with every meal an ordeal for all.
Since I believe that every experience in my reality is there for my own healing, I began to consistently clean my own energy around this issue using Ho'oponopono, which I've written about before. This kind of work brings out many emotions. One night, I confessed to Sylvana that when I was her age (and into my adolescent years), my parents restricted my food too, and kept telling me not to eat so much because I was getting fat. I grew up very conscious of my body and weight, never quite accepting it, let alone loving it. I told her that my deepest fear was that she would grow up, like me, having a poor body image, not loving herself or her body, and trying to change it into some ideal that could never be. In speaking those words to her, I felt as if it was my own inner child speaking of her pain, making itself visible to me through this experience with Sylvana, so that I may heal it. I felt as the child in that situation, and she the adult as she patiently and intently listened to me.
"Mom, I'm sorry that your parents treated you that way," she lovingly said, touching my hand. "But I promise you that I love my body and will never look at it in that way."
Something lifted in me then, a deep unburdening of a heaviness that I never even realized I carried. Now, back in Canada, we are also back to our healthier meals. We still get resistance, but our energy around it is very different. We respond from a place of love, rather than frustration. We are more patient rather than militant in our approach. Because I see myself in her, I speak and act from a more compassionate place than ever before. I don't do it perfectly, and I slip up often because I don't want to handle the arguments... but every day, I get better at responding from that new place and, with ever greater love, guiding her towards choices that hopefully feed not only her body, but that nourish her soul.
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The closer we got to Santiago, the more that we began to see larger groups of pilgrims, mostly students and young adults; and to better understand why some hospitaleros consider them "tourigrinos", and the Camino a cheap vacation for many. It is true that there are more private hostels, restaurants and services than ever before for the pilgrim. And that there are many cyclists and pilgrims with only a limited time who want to hurry through the Camino to get to Santiago.
This, of course, brings up the question of what is an "authentic" pilgrim, and what makes a pilgrimage a true spiritual quest rather than simply a hike, or a cultural or culinary adventure? Does our driving the Camino make it less of a quest for expansion or reconnection?
The moment I let go of my need to control being on time, I felt we were on pilgrimage. We were present, in tune with our surroundings, following omens or wisps of intuition, allowing ourselves to be guided by the Way rather than by our ideas or plans. If we believe that there is a special energy on this path, an energy drawn from the stars, that has led pilgrims since time immemorial to follow this path -- a path of continual death and rebirth -- to its ending point in Finisterre, the end of the world, then why should this energy be any different to those who walk, bike, drive or take the train? This path traced by the stars was there long before the first pilgrim walked it, or even perceived it...and will be there long after the last pilgrim takes her last step there.
Perhaps being in rapid motion, such as when driving or biking, doesn't necessarily attune you to the Camino's energy; perhaps it doesn't give your body, your soul, time to connect with the soul of the Camino at a profound level. But I am convinced that the Camino is continually transmitting its energy, sharing its wisdom with all those who have spiritual ears to hear and open hearts to receive. The transmitter is perhaps stronger than the receiver, but that doesn't mean the receiver is getting nothing at all.
What's at play, it seems to me, is our expectations of what it takes to be a "perfect pilgrim". But isn't that true of all expectations? I don't think the Camino cares which way the pilgrim chooses to experience it. To walk the Camino is to walk the path of your life. To open yourself to the unexpected, to the gifts showered upon us by a loving Universe. Those are the steps that build the camino of our lives. We get to practice them more intensely on the Spanish Camino. We get to receive these gifts at a deep, spiritual level, so that we may live them more easily in our daily lives.
This is not an energy that dissipates with time, either. It is like the sun. Just because we don't appreciate its power, or its gifts of illumination and transformation, it doesn't stop shining or shine less brilliantly. The same with the Camino.
Those who dedicate their lives to the Camino are, to me, expressing their love for the Camino, for its gifts rendered. Yes, they are outwardly serving the pilgrims who walk it, but inwardly I believe that they serve a greater master. They serve this beautiful energy which animates and gives life to the Camino. Their work, their service, their offerings, is their ode to the Camino, their expression of love and gratitude.
And so long as the love given and received is in celebration of this energy that permeates the Camino and makes it what it is... little does it matter what kind of pilgrim walks it or how they choose to experience it. Those who serve, are serving the Master in the Heart, the one who is communion with the Soul and Energy of the Camino, the one who manifests and expresses Its Essence through loving service to others. There is no greater calling than to be of service to Love, and those who dedicate their lives to this path hold my deepest thanks.
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Finally, it is said that we all find romance on the Camino. My romance didn't exactly happen on the Camino, but its seeds were planted there. In Finisterre, in fact, at the end of the world. There, for one afternoon, sitting on a boulder overlooking the Atlantic, I met a Spanish pilgrim named Alberto. I didn't speak Spanish. He didn't speak English. I explained to him, through an interpreter friend, about my plans to walk to Jerusalem. He congratulated me, and then we each went our separate ways.
Nothing could have prepared me for seeing him again, four months later, as I was making my way to Rome to begin walking. He would later join me on my walk, and the rest.... well, that story fills an entire book! :-)
We could not help but stop in Finisterre to end this pilgrimage by car, and take a few moments to appreciate this great gift that the Camino had granted us. On a day brimming with rain and pilgrims, we chose a boulder and sat to contemplate the infinite horizon. When Alberto took my hand in his, I knew exactly the words that I wanted to say. They flowed from my heart, and spilled out in tears of gratitude that mingled with Alberto's. We gave thanks for the ten years of marriage, and the many more to come. It was a magical moment to end a truly unforgettable pilgrimage.