The Hardest Question

How was the Camino?

This question is both utterly welcome and so hard to answer. Where do I begin? It’s easy to talk about miles and blisters; it’s delightful to describe gorgeous vistas and wonderful companions. However, as I predicted, the essential things all happened on the inside, in the space created by my walking, prayer, and ultimately surrender to the experience.

I was determined to keep track of the outer and inner journey, so after waking up early every morning to get hydrated and caffeinated for the walk ahead, I pulled out my bluetooth keyboard and captured everything I could recall from the previous day. This left me with lots of raw material for my next book (tentatively titled Finding God Along the Way: Lessons from the Ignatian Camino for Life at Home), but it doesn’t help me answer the “how was it” question. It’s too much, just as my photos are too much; I need to cull the impressions down to a shareable size.

I did manage to write five short essays for the Ignatian Volunteer Corps to email to those following our journey. Here are my Reflections from the Road, which capture some of the experience as it was unfolding.

The point of pilgrimage, however, is transformation, and transformation takes time. The true measure of the Camino will be taken after my feet have healed and I am fully integrated back into my “normal” life, not thinking of Spain almost every waking minute. What changes will persist after the drama of the physical journey has subsided? That’s what I’m eager to know, yet only time will tell. For the moment, let me share just two words that I hope will continue to mark this experience: solidarity and indifference.

Solidarity

During one of our group reflections, I shared that I was trying to let the challenges of the Camino connect my heart to people who do hard things every day. Walking across a desert on blistered feet, for example, I tried to hold in prayer all those refugees who make arduous desert crossings without LL Bean hiking poles in hand or a pilgrims’ shelter on the horizon. “So many people’s lives are impossibly hard every day,” I said. “This is just a month, and we volunteered for it.” At that, Fr. Jose cracked up. “Volunteered?” he laughed. “You PAID for this!”

Indeed we did. This exercise in solidarity was imaginative at best, and is valuable only if it is also transformative, keeping me mindful of and compassionate towards those who suffer hardships that my month-long sojourn only hinted at.

Indifference

How much longer will we be walking uphill? Is it going to rain today? When do we stop for lunch? Will we sleep in private rooms or a bunk room tonight? Is there a washing machine at the next hostel? These and countless other questions popped into our heads and flew out of our mouths all day long, but Fr. Jose kept encouraging us to stay focused on the now. This path. These companions. This moment. This prayer. These smells and sounds and sights and feelings. He was teaching us to unhook our minds from a preoccupation with what might be, so as to be fully present to what was right in front of us, and to welcome with open hearts whatever came our way.

Of course, this was rendered easier by the fact that we had so few choices available to us (other than, in the words of Victor Frankl, the freedom to choose our attitude). Now that we are home and get to decide every blessed thing for ourselves again, it is easy for those superficial wants to clamor for attention. My hope is that I can allow my passing preferences to matter less, so as to be more present to what is, and allow that to call forth, as Ignatius would say, a deeper response to my life in God.

How was the Camino? It was the hardest and best thing I’ve ever done. Yet ultimately, we will know this experience by its fruit, and it’s not even close to harvest time.

Stay tuned!

Fresh pilgrims depart from Loyola.

Journey’s End: Manresa!

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