Along The Way


Along The Way         

In the spring of 2019, I had the opportunity to join a group of about 50 other pilgrims to walk part of the Camino de Santiago, a famous pilgrimage that leads to the Cathedral in Compostela where it is believed that the apostle St. James the Greater is buried.  This is why it is known as “The Way of St James”.  There are multiple potential routes to follow; the section that our group walked was the final 120 kilometers of the northern route across Spain from Sarria to Compostela.

I had trained hard for the pilgrimage by walking 60 miles a week for several months.  Our group had allotted five days to walk the approximate 75 miles.  Despite the training and spiritual preparation, I was anxious as the bus dropped us off at the starting point.  That didn’t surprise me because I have been a Martha personality my whole life – anxious about many things.

Although I knew a dozen or so of our group quite well from previous pilgrimages, I had really come on this trip alone.  My wife Michelle stayed at home, stating firmly, “Walking 15 miles a day doesn’t sound interesting to me at all.”

It didn’t take long once we got going for the group to begin to spread out based on the different paces that people felt comfortable with.  The path was pretty easy to follow, with regular markers every kilometer.  Still, that first day I had to fight off worries about somehow taking a wrong turn and getting lost in a country where English is not the primary language, and not finishing on time. 

We had the luxury of the bus hauling our main luggage to the next evening’s hotel.  All I carried in my day pack was water, first aid supplies, extra dry socks and a rain coat.  Most of the group had talked of stopping to buy lunch in a little village near the midpoint of the distance we were walking that day.  I was a bit surprised when that little village came into view sooner than expected.  I checked my watch; I was ahead of schedule.  Good, maybe I could convince myself to relax.

I found a table in the restaurant.  The waitress greeted me, poured me a glass of water, and disappeared.  It was probably 15 minutes until I saw her again.  She walked right past me.  A bit later she came through from the other direction and walked right past me again.  On her next pass I managed to flag her down to request a menu. 

There wasn’t much of a decision to make as there were only about three options of “pilgrim meals”.  Regardless, the waitress kept appearing and disappearing.  Several times more she walked right past me.  A couple of people from our group came into the restaurant, but they only stayed long enough to use the restroom and buy some bottled water.  When they waved good-bye and the door closed behind them, I couldn’t fight off the sinking feeling that I was falling behind.

Finally, I managed to get the waitress to take my order.  While I was waiting for the omelet I ordered I decided to pay for the meal when she brought it, as I didn’t want to take up even more time trying to pay the bill.  So, when the waitress set my plate down I tried to hand her my money.  She shook her head no.  I insisted.  She said “no”.  She walked away.  When she came by ten minutes later I handed her my money again; this time she took it cautiously but I could tell she wasn’t happy about it.  She walked over to an elderly man who sat at the little corner table.  He listened to her, looked over at me, shrugged his shoulders; and I heard him say, “Americano”.  He took the money and gave her change.  She set the change down on my table without speaking to me.  I left it there for her tip and added another coin – I felt guilty but I didn’t know why. 

That night at dinner with the rest of my group, a much more experienced traveler explained that it was rude to hurry a guest.  When I thought the waitress was ignoring me, she was waiting for me to say that I was ready.  Also, she expected me to enjoy my full, leisurely meal, relax a bit to let it settle, and then pay the bill.  She didn’t know how to cope with someone in a rush, who insisted on paying even before only wolfing down half of my lunch.  What we had, to quote the movie, Cool Hand Luke, was a failure to communicate. 

At the breakfast buffet in the morning, making my way along a feast of dried fruits, nuts and smoked and cured meats and cheeses, an idea came to me.  I had some plastic sandwich bags in my pack, so I filled them up from the buffet.  This way I could stop along the path whenever I wanted, take whatever time I wanted, and not worry about having to learn any more cultural lessons the hard way.

The plan worked even better than I imagined.   About the time I was getting hungry I came to a little opening along the path.  There was one of the original Camino carved stone markers there – a crucifix atop a 15-foot stand.  These crosses seemed to be about 20 or so miles apart since this was only the second one I had come across, and they were the only markers for the pilgrims for centuries.  Opposite the marker, in the little grove, was a huge oak tree.  The base of its trunk was easily more than 10 feet across.  A little stone wall around it made a comfortable sitting spot.  I spread my lunch out in a sunny spot and sat down.

It began to feel warm in the sun, so I moved over to the shade.  Without even thinking about it I pulled off my hiking shoes and socks and let my feet breathe.  I listened to the breeze rustling the leaves of the great oak.  I moved up to the tree’s trunk, slipped off my pack, and leaned back against it.  A European robin landed in the oak and began to sing. 

How many pilgrims had passed this way ahead of me?  How many pilgrims stopped to feel the shade of the oak?  How many pilgrims were assured by the crucifix marker that they were on the right path?  How many feet had beaten down this path, so that now it was easy to follow?  Each one walks the part of the path that has been given to them.  It doesn't pay to hurry or to dawdle. Walk steady and alert.

That crucifix, that oak, that lunch, that rest, that birdsong changed the remainder of the pilgrimage for me.  All the worries about getting lost, falling behind, not being strong enough to finish, slipped off my shoulders like that day pack.  I realized that I had come on this pilgrimage looking, but not being sure what I was looking for.  I breathed in deeply and exhaled.  I leaned my head back against the oak’s trunk, closed my eyes.  It occurred to my heart that I should stop looking, and instead, I should let God decide what he wanted to show me, when he wanted to show me.  And he did.

I cannot deny that a little of Martha still lives in me.  But, I am much more ready to seek the better part now.  If anyone notices that little change and asks, I tell them that it is just a little something that I found along The Way.

His Peace <><

Deacon Dan