This Is The Way, Walk In It
‘Though the Lord gave you adversity for food and suffering for drink, he will still be with you to teach you. You will see your teacher with your own eyes. Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, "This is the way; walk in it." ‘ (Isaiah 30:21-22)
I have spent a lifetime living under the influence of the opinions of others - their wishes, desires, expectations. It’s part of normal living and loving that we seek to please and accommodate others, often giving way to their opinion about how we should live and behave.
Sometimes we get an opportunity to live completely under the influence of the Holy Spirit without surrendering to what others think. This has happened twice in my life. The first was when I met the Pallottines at the age of 17. I knew immediately that I had found my home with them and I was quietly determined that nothing was going to stop me going there.
The second came last year when I decided to do the Camino to Santiago. Many people expressed reservations and concerns as to why I shouldn’t go - it was not a good time of year, fear of isolation, why walk such a long distance. I heard all of these, I sensed the unspoken worries, and criticisms but I ignored them all.
This was a calling and the only voice I would heed was that of the Spirit.
During the month of November 2011 and for a couple of days in December I did the pilgrimage, walking 500 miles in 32 days, beginning at the foot of the Pyrenees in France, right across the north of Spain to the Cathedral where the bones of St. James are reserved.
In Santiago they ask you why you did the Camino. For me there are a few reasons - penance, reparation, conversion, simplicity. But ultimately it’s a calling, a mystery. Like the call of the sea, the pull of it. The call of the Camino has a connection for me with Abraham and I am pleased that the prayer in the pilgrim passport begins with God calling him to leave and go.
I came to St. Jean Pied de Port late on a Sunday night, having travelled most of 24 hours from Mervue - first by bus to Dublin, Ryanair to Paris Beauvais and a delightful 8 hours journey on the TGV from Parish to Bayonne, the fastest train I was ever on.
It was 11.15 p.m. when I got to the hostel which was all locked up and dark. After knocking and knocking and phoning, the woman of the house eventually came down to let me in. I was talking loud with nerves and excitement and she told me to be quiet because “people are asleep”. Hostel lights go out at 10.00 p.m.
Opening the door into the dormitory she pointed to the top bunk inside the door. “This is yours” she said and then withdrew, leaving me to the darkness and the sounds of others sleeping. It was not the time to go rooting in my bag for anything so I threw it onto the bunk, climbed up and went to bed fully clothed. There was a blanket.
On All Saints Day I woke at 6.00 a.m. to the sound of thunder and lightening. A look out the window revealed black skies and torrential rain. Daniela (the woman of the house) said it was too wet to go, that I could stay in another hostel up the road because she was closing. But I was not for staying and so at 8.00 a.m. I walked out into the gloom of the morning rain, uncertain and with the intention of going to the church to pray for guidance but it was locked and soon I found myself walking the lower road to Valcarlos where I arrived two hours later soaked to the skin, despite my rain gear.
From there the rain eased off and most of the day took me through miles of beautiful forest, mountains and rivers - 18 miles, a lot of which was uphill. And utter solitude! Only two people crossed my path that day - one a hunter with his dog and the other a sprightly Italian pilgrim whose pace left me feeling somewhat inferior. But, unlike me, he didn’t have to deal with the weight of a rucksack!
Watching the movie ‘The Way’ last summer I was put off by the three strangers who latched onto Martin Sheen’s character Tom and I said to God that I wanted none of that. I wanted no hassle - jus solitude, peace. And there was quite a bit of that, plenty of time for reflection and prayer.
However, I met the most wonderful, beautiful people along the way. The journey and my life would not be the same without them. And when I look back now I can’t remember the names of most of the places I went through but I remember each person.
My first companion on the way was Alfred from Scotland who has no religious affiliation, is not baptised but feels his culture has been dominated by Christianity and not always positively. He’s very prophetic in his relationship with life and culture in that he steps outside what is commonly accepted and asks questions that we would rather not hear. He also had the capacity to break away from the established route of the pilgrimage, often sleeping out under the stars and there experiencing what most others did not.
In all my days walking I met about 5 people older than myself - one was a man of 80, another man of 75 and a woman aged 74 and a couple of others. Everyone else was a lot younger than me, mostly in their 20’s and 30’s. I was also the only Irish person on the route and the only priest.
There’s an unspoken rule of reverence & acceptance on the Camino, an openness to whoever crosses your path in a day and my being a priest was received in that way. It surprised me that there was no negative reaction to me at all and, though most walkers had no religious motivation or belief, they were still drawn to the priest for all sorts of reasons.
I experienced a level of happiness that I’ve not known before. There was a simplicity that brought me back to my days in Tanzania and a sense of community that had the freshness and innocence that we experienced when I joined the community in Thurles almost 40 years ago.
My companions in faith and heart and soul were Mark and Becky, an Anglican couple from Boston. We had lovely moments of spontaneous prayer along the way and when I injured my foot they would pray with me in the morning for strength to make the day’s journey. They are a very affectionate couple who always came with a hug in the morning and before going to bed at night.
The fourth member of our little group was Brend from Holland - well I was the fourth as Brend had been with Mark & Becky long before I came along. It was he who said, on a day when I was limping badly, that they would carry me if I couldn’t walk. He meant it!. That was the level of generosity and care that we experienced with each other.
Many others moved in and out of our days. Relationships were immediate, intense, intimate. We slept in dormitories in bunk beds, got to know each others ways, ate each others food, told the story of our lives, laughed and at times we cried. At least I did!
The fourth day out for me was one of grieving for my Mam and Dad and my sister Maura, for my own past, my time as Provincial, the mistakes and failures. It began with heavy rain and fog and I was totally alone stumbling and sliding in the mud as I made my way up Alto de Perdon (Mount of Pardon) praying the stations of the cross internally as I went. When I came to the placing of Jesus in the tomb I put all these there with Him, feeling the emptiness and waiting for a resurrection at some future date. After that it seemed like the past melted away from me and the only burden I was left with was the bag on my back!
That day I walked alone for 25 miles, bringing myself a day ahead of schedule. And that was Providential because it was then that I met most of the people who would become my companions for the remainder of the journey - those I’ve already mentioned and the six members of the Guzman family from Mallorca who rescued me when I was lost.
A frustration for me was the fact that churches were mostly locked and I felt like a beggar knocking on doors that would not open, especially at times when I really felt the need to be embraced by the Church, to feel the comfort and consolation of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. In larger towns I was able to go to Mass in the evenings. At other times I celebrated Mass in a field or in a hostel.
But there were exceptions, moments when the doors were open and great blessings received.
One Sunday morning I left the hostel early in the hope of finding an open church somewhere and I thought of Abraham saying “the Lord will provide”. Along the way I met Bilal who told me he might not be able to finish the Camino because he was running out of money. I said to him “the Lord will provide” and left him as I moved on ahead.
At 11.30 I arrived at a small village as the people were coming out from Mass. And even though they lock the churches as soon as Mass is finished, I decided to go in and ask the priest if I could say Mass. He was very welcoming. Bilal arrived and asked if he could join me. I asked if he was Catholic, Christian. “No” he said “I was born Muslim.” I told him he was welcome and asked him to go back up the road to tell the others I was going to celebrate Mass. I was anxious that Mark & Becky would have the opportunity to worship as they are so committed to their faith.
So Bilal went to call them. He told me later that while he was standing in front of the church a local woman walked up to him and gave him bread and he remembered the words “the Lord will provide”. This was the beginning of the Lord providing for him in this way. He received as he went and completed the journey.
The others arrived for Mass - an Israeli Jew, a Hungarian catholic, Jacquie from Scotland, Brend from Holland and Mark and Becky from Boston. And Bilal. Those who could not receive came for a blessing and there was great joy for all of us in that moment. “It was fortuitous” Jacquie said. Bilal, at the end of the pilgrimage said, “I will never forget the Mass!”
Another lovely moment for me was in the dormitory one night Katrin from Germany was in the bed opposite me and she said across to me “Eamonn, say a prayer for us” and I said I will, intending to do so quietly, to myself. She shouted over again saying “I want it now, out loud!” So I closed my eyes and prayed spontaneously for all of us there, for our night’s rest, for the day to come and for the remainder of our Camino. Everyone paused to listen, to pray in their own interior way, and Katrin spoke often of how beautiful an experience this was for her.
An experience that brought us all great joy was to witness Daniela & Andreu falling in love, listening to them laugh together in the distance, seeing them hold hands for the first time, to witness the radiance that emerged from within them. And they were aged 44 & 55. Beautiful!
On and on we journeyed until the final day arrived. Mark, Becky, and I wanted to arrive in the Cathedral together for midday Mass. It was a 20 km walk and because of my injured foot I started out two hours earlier than the others, leaving the hostel at 5.00 am. It was raining again after a couple of weeks of beautiful weather. The first couple of hours were in woodland in the dark but I had Mark’s headlight to help me see the way. I looked like a miner!
We got to the Cathedral together with Lorna from England at 11.55 am, gave each other a hug and then I took off to the sacristy to see if I could con-celebrate. The others didn’t know where I had gone. The priest again received me warmly and the sacristan brought me to get an alb and chasuble. I looked down and pointed to my dirty pilgrim boots. He smiled and said “you are a pilgrim”. So I went on to the sanctuary wearing my pilgrim boots! Though exhausted and in pain I felt utterly complete.
When my companions saw me arrive at the altar some of them cried because I was one of them up there. The priest was not a stranger. At holy communion time they all filed up to me with radiant smiles, some to receive, others to be blessed. For some of them this was the climax of the Camino. It certainly was for me. The Mass was talked about for the whole weekend and those who who were not there heard that they had missed something very special.
And most of them do not share my Catholic or Christian faith but we were all on the one road searching for something, some new direction. Each one of us touched in a profound and unique way.
Part of me did not come back from the Camino, part of me is still out there on a parallel journey and the part of me that did come home is very happy with what is - living mostly in the present, unencumbered by what is not necessary.
When I got home Bilal invited me to be his friend on facebook and had this to say “You are already a friend in my heart, so facebook is nothing but a formaility.” Amen!