How I walked 500 miles and got my soul cleansed 

Limp of Faith


Right now, I could murder that little old lady in the confessional.

I am not actually proud of this.

But a moment ago, without a word, without a glance, she swept past that other — sweet, startled — little old lady just then exiting the confessional, barreled on through, and installed herself in the penitent's chair, blithely jumping the queue ahead of us, the last two people waiting for the only priest hearing confessions today. Elena and I are speechless, reduced to staring daggers at the woman's profile so neatly framed by the window glass in the confessional door: the thrust-out chin, the bony index finger wagging at the priest, and that thin line of mouth in nonstop motion, peeling the varnish off the walls. With just a few minutes remaining before the Mass begins, this woman is running out the clock on confession time.

Ordinarily, I wouldn't be bothered. I haven't pestered God with my transgressions for ages, at least not in any formal way. But making this confession is important to me. I am on a deadline. It's like this:

In France, some six weeks ago, I found myself joining ranks with a great horde of similar vagabonds trudging along the ancient pilgrimage route called the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St. James). Camino pilgrims traverse northern Spain, advancing toward a single objective: Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, specifically the cathedral there, which houses the mortal remains of James the Elder, Santiago: apostle of Christ, largely ineffectual evangelist to Roman Iberia, martyr to Herod, patron saint of Catholic Spain. This demanding trek to visit the apostle's relics has been thriving more or less unhindered since the Middle Ages, and at that time the Church began granting to Camino pilgrims, in recognition of their demonstrated piety and sacrifice, a unique parting gift: a plenary indulgence, giving their souls a virtual clean slate. To qualify, the pilgrim must make his confession and take Holy Communion — in any church of their choice — within 15 days of completing the journey. In the two weeks since I completed the Camino, celebrated, hugged, and parted company with my pilgrim pals, I've meandered alone with my thoughts, aimlessly lollygagging around Spain. Then I remembered the indulgence thing, never completed. One frantic phone call and an overnight bus later, here I am with Elena, fellow pilgrim and procrastinator, some 400 kilometers from Santiago in her hometown of Santander, where this little church is the only one in town offering confessions today. It's Day 15 of the 15 allotted to meet the last two requirements for the indulgence, which suddenly looks lost to us because once the Mass begins, confessions will cease and there's that gray-haired confession interloper yakking precious minutes away while we cool our heels on this hard wooden bench, all the while deeply, desperately regretting the fact that we waited until the very last day to get all this sorted out. Hence, the murderous frustration.

It is possible that I'm a little cranky.

It is also possible that devoting the last couple months to the Camino has proven to be a terrible shock to my otherwise reliably erratic Ambition Circuits. Walking nearly 500 miles across Spain while leaving in the dust a steady job, two unlamented waist sizes, and a good chunk of my travel budget has, perhaps, knocked some well-tempered wire loose, somehow sparked a flinty, damn-the-torpedos tenacity which, in turn, fired up this brilliant beacon of an idea. I must confess, yanking that matronly monkey wrench out of the only operating confessional in a three-parish radius no longer looks like a bridge entirely too far. All because of this plenary indulgence.

Like many things associated with the Camino, "plenary indulgence" sounds more than a little moth-eaten, suspiciously improbable. It's a notion that must be long past its sell-by date — at worst, evocative of medieval clerics fleecing the faithful and at best, surely no more valuable than a renaissance faire tchotchke. No matter. The Catholic church never entirely abandoned the practice of granting these things, and anyway, I am within mere minutes of clinching this especially thorough cleansing of my sins. I want mine. True, I've ignored critical tasks until now. Mea culpa. My bad. Yet one could argue that the queue-jumping biddy right now hogging the confessional is, in fact, imperiling my immortal soul and not merely pissing me off.

Yes, I reflect, I could take her out.

I find the principal objection to this proposed carnage is a purely aesthetic one. Unlike most churches I've seen lately — and it seems like thousands — Sacred Heart, this Jesuit church in Santander, is light-filled, airy, and uplifting. Svelte columns, graceful as dancer's legs, frame cheery primrose yellow walls. No creepy, glowering gargoyles spoil the fun. Here, the interior ornamentation is all Laura Ashley colors and sunny portraits of easygoing saints. A vicious blood bath just doesn't fit the pastel color scheme of this boutique church. Congenial surroundings such as these are better suited to calmly taking stock of one's life, an exercise which for me has rarely turned out to be very gratifying.

More than anything else, my pride is wounded. And I particularly resent this glaring fact smacking me like a whipped cream pie in the face just as I am about to confess my sins. I had convinced myself, weeks ago, that I'd gotten a very good handle on humility despite persistent first-hand experience that pilgrims on the Camino enjoy a certain stature. And a few privileges as well — reduced price meals, cheap accommodation in pilgrim albergues, special pilgrim blessings at Mass. No pilgrim would argue that these benefits tip the balance in favor of undertaking and persevering on the journey, but even the scruffiest of pilgrims earn instant recognition as a fraternity apart, and the locals generally treat us well. This fleeting status of sorts is astonishingly easy to get used to. That's the trouble now — in my heart I am still a pilgrim, but the queue-jumping biddy might search all day for visible evidence of that and never find it. Have I changed that much — or at all?

Two weeks off the road and I don't look like a proper pilgrim anymore. My clothes are clean and pressed. I've finally succeeded in scrubbing down through the layers of Camino dust and grime on my arms, legs, face. My eyes aren't bloodshot, dry and scratchy from the blazing sun and piercing wind. A few days' solid sleep and waking without the prospect of a long slog ahead has restored my ability to circulate inoffensively among civilized people. I've shaken off my telltale resemblance to the undead, scraping along all bent over from the burden strapped to my back. Face it, I tell myself, you've left the company of pilgrims. The outward trappings of pilgrimage, boots and burden and maps and hunchback, are gone. Even Elena's Camino walking stick, which she still carried the first few days back, is home now, leaning against her bedroom wall amid a pile of Camino clothes that need laundering and all the scattered bits and bobs of an only partially emptied backpack. The only documented proof of my pilgrim status, a vellum certificate, is now safely rolled up in a cardboard tube and waiting to be framed on my return home. The cardboard tube cost a euro. The certificate cost nothing but days and weeks of trudging, climbing, getting lost, sleeping too little, eating and drinking just enough, along with a full measure of shared laughter and solitary silence and blisters and lungs huffing to keep pace.

It's all sinking in. I miss the glorious madness I went through to keep that one promise to myself — I will reach Santiago.

At the Pilgrim Office in that city, before awarding you the Compostela, the certificate confirming that you've traveled the minimum 100 kilometers or so on foot, horseback, or by bicycle, they survey your motive for making the pilgrimage. Choices: Tourism, Sport, Religious Reasons. Lately, a new option has been added — Spiritual Reasons: a grudging, ambiguous gesture toward that epidemic of secular vacillation ("I'm not really religious, but ..." ) which often besets lapsed Catholics and other intermittent heretics. Motives aside, the proof of your earnest intention (and mileage) is the Credencial, an accordion-folded "pilgrim passport." The Credencial is issued at your starting point, the very first place you're asked what has motivated the journey before you. It's the sort of question that demands to be taken seriously. Perhaps you mumble something in response, vaguely suspecting a trap. At the moment, all you know is that there in your hand is the long cardstock booklet, unfolding like a map, vastly blank except for your name and a single, fresh stamp marking the date and place this entire mad enterprise began. By journey's end, your Credencial will bear the stamps of many albergues, hostels, and churches, documenting your progress along the way. Many pilgrims come to regard this document as the most important thing they possess on the Camino, second only to their boots. Every Credencial is unique, a map of the journey each pilgrim creates for themselves. But what they say is true, the map is not the territory, and my own Credencial does not serve as an answer to the one question that stubbornly refuses to take a hike: Why did I put myself through all this?

No one — and they all seem such honest, upright, encouraging folk — tells you this is a trick question.

On the first day, you awaken early in St. Jean Pied de Port, on the French side of the mountain pass. The breakfast you were too excited to linger over has barely made its way into you before you find yourself at that juncture where the cobbled charm of the Rue d'Espagne peters out and your eyes follow the asphalt road to your right, up, way up, until the blacktop is entirely lost among the trees and the only thing visible, the brutes that will harrow the rest of your day, loom before you — the Pyrenees, sitting there like a heap of bad news on a Monday morning. Your face may still wear a smiling enthusiasm, but you can't help noticing that your abbreviated breakfast suddenly feels like a granite monolith lodged in your gut.

The next few hours will, in retrospect, seem like some of the most richly lived hours of your life, full of sheep and lush valleys and stones and dusty paths and way-marking fingerposts. Septuagenarian hikers sneak up out of nowhere and glide past you, heartily wishing you the best over their shoulders, with those two words you will hear a thousand times in the next few weeks, "Buen Camino!"

The first three days are the toughest. Your body and mind have not yet decided whether to rebel against this foolishness or drop the bitching and play along. The first casualty of the Camino is sleep. Thanks to the Wagnerian arias of snoring and midnight misadventures of bathroom seekers that are the only real constant of your shared accommodation in pilgrim albergues, you head off each morning in a surreal, somnambulistic daze. By mid-afternoon, as the sun or the rain or the wind finally relents, you waken sufficiently to be dimly aware of having had lengthy, wide-ranging discussions — possibly with other pilgrims — stunning, epiphanic conversations of which you cannot remember a word.

Gradually, it dawns that you are one of many thousands of pilgrims ahead of you and behind, all these purposely wandering souls — a hundred Burning Man festival's worth — all walking along in the same direction. More than a million pilgrims once came this way in the Middle Ages — the adventure of a lifetime! — and here you are, dogging those footsteps so long ago pounded into the dust, learning what they learned, understanding with each arrival in a curious, lovely village that the joy of shared hardship and small triumphs is precious, no small comfort, and perhaps the best argument for tolerance among humankind.

The pilgrimage shapes your days. Unapologetically tossed out of the albergue at 8 a.m., you spend your waking hours constantly on the look-out for the yellow arrows that point you in the right direction, opting for short breaks and a quick bite instead of a meal, and walking on, limping at last into the albergue just in time to shower before the pilgrim's supper, where over a glass of wine or two you recap the day with friends before ambling off to your bunk and a few fitful hours of sleep.

Days pass, then weeks. Over the mountains and through the woods. Into cities and villages. Even at a walking pace, it's something of a blur: neat little Basque enclaves out of a postcard dream; Pamplona, city of running bulls; Burgos, dour and proud; tiny Hornillos, an ill-tempered stain on the landscape; León, with its towering cathedral and wonderful bars; O Cebreiro, the last big gasp of a climb; and Sarria, which you realize, with unexpected melancholy, is home to the final 100 kilometers.

On the Camino, every passing day serves to firm up the covenant between you and the pilgrimage. You decide that you will not fail. You will instead take your ambivalence along for the walk, gently hold it by the hand, and show it a newfound world.

In Santander, the church organ wakens with a determined, resonant chord. The Mass is beginning. All hope is lost. Almost instantly, the old lady strides out of the confessional and close behind, the priest follows, turning off the lights, shutting the door. Something draws his eye toward us. Perhaps it is the penitent, pathetic pleading on our faces. With a nod, he turns back toward the chair he just left, and Elena dashes in after him before he changes his mind. Only minutes later, she emerges, smiling a sad yet happy smile I do not recognize. Then it's my turn. And here I am, speechless. I don't know what to say to this man.

What's left to confess? I've spent weeks on end in God's own open-air confessional. I've already unburdened myself to the sun, the wind, the rain, and snow. Barrel-chested mountain ponies and sloe-eyed, grazing cows have been my confidantes. Fellow pilgrims, in the space of hours, became my dearest friends on earth. All I have left are emotions, raw and wonderful, but no good to me in this moment. They're only choking my ability to speak at all, piling up like dry crusts at the back of my throat.

Is it possible I have nothing to say for myself, for this entire journey? The silence in the confessional is crushing. I feel just as I once did at the funeral of an old friend, steadying myself at the lectern, meaning to deliver a eulogy but stuck fast in a bog of emotions that would not tolerate the intrusion of speech, and struggling even to draw a breath and begin. That moment then and this powerless moment now — few things have cut into me quite the same way. I see that. I have been mourning the pilgrimage every day since I reached Santiago, and this is goodbye — the thing I kept at arm's length, the thing I was actually putting off. Each pilgrim down through the ages must have come to this, turning homeward. Elena, smiling just then, must have seen it, too: the pilgrim spirit walking along, staying its course, but now tangled up in everyday life even as loss and resolve intertwine, chuckling at us when we lose the way. So I get it, finally, and it hurts like hell, but I can suddenly breathe again, because really there's only one thing left. Here at the close of one long journey, only the simplest thing remains to be said: "Thank you."

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