Reflections from the Road

During our 30-day pilgrimage along the Ignatian Camino, I wrote five reflections which the Ignatian Volunteer Corps emailed to the many people who were following our journey. Here they are, in chronological order.

tree over valley

October 10: Beauty

In the first few days of walking, one thing has become clear: this is hard.  The pace is hard; the distance is hard; carrying a pack all day is hard; dealing with blisters is hard, and trekking both up and down a mountain in the same day . . . Well, that needs a different adjective altogether. 

But the beauty is astounding.  Fr. Jose keeps reminding us that pilgrimage is an outer and an inner journey, and this is true for the beauty as well.  So often, we round a corner or summit a hill and gasp at the gorgeous landscape:  mountaintops draped in clouds; lush green fields dotted with sheep; sunlight piercing foggy forests.  Everywhere, grazing animals welcome us with their cheerful bells (cowbells being not just for Basque cows, but for horses and sheep as well).  When we can unglue our eyes from the path at our feel and look up, we know God’s glory, and we feel a rush of gratitude for being able to be here, now, in this beautiful place.

But the interior—or perhaps a better word is interpersonal—beauty may be what we remember most.  We’ve only been together four days, and walking for three, but people are being so kind to one another.  Several experienced hikers are expert blister-repairers; one is skilled at pulling a needle and thread right through the base of a blister, leaving the thread in place as a wick before taping it up for the day ahead.  (I speak from experience, having sprung a blister the size of a grape on Day Two.) People fall back to accompany and encourage those who are flagging.  They carry one another’s packs.  They share snacks, ice packs, cough drops, walking sticks, advice. It is humbling to be on the receiving end of such spontaneous goodness. Everywhere there is a sense that we pilgrims are looking out for one another; the fact that our fitness levels and hiking chops vary is not a source of condescension, but compassion.  

In this first week of walking, we are praying with the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises, trying to grasp the immensity of God’s love for us.  For some, that could be hard to wrap our minds around.  But if we want to know how much God loves us, all we have to do is look around.

As we set out on Day Five, one of the Scriptures we’re encouraged to pray with is Mark 12:28 – 34, the Greatest Commandment.  “Love the Lord your God with your whole heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.”  The next mountain will demand all of that.  I suspect we’re up to it.

St. Ignatius, walk with us.

Pink rose

October 13: The Distress of the Vulnerable

“Do you know why that rose is there?”  

I wouldn’t have noticed the roses at all, if Fr. Jose hadn’t stopped to point out one cheerful, unseasonable yellow blossom.  But sure enough, there they were: each row of the reddening autumn vineyard was capped by a rose bush.

I guessed wrong twice (bees? beauty?) before he explained that roses are particularly sensitive to disease and pests, so they serve as a sort of canary-in-the-coal-mine for the grape vines.  If something is distressing the roses, that means it’s coming for the grapes, and the vine grower knows to take protective measures.

As we continued our pilgrimage through the vineyards, I found myself thinking a lot about those roses, and how their vulnerability makes them valuable.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could regard vulnerable people with equal respect?

This is the beginning of Week Two of the Ignatian Camino, so we are moving into the material of the second week of the Spiritual Exercises, turning our mind to a consideration of sin.  Today, we were to think about sin from a global, rather than personal, perspective. With the roses on my mind, I began to see much of the sin that afflicts our world as a choice to ignore the distress of the vulnerable.

Climate change comes first for people in poor nations, and toxic pollution comes first for people in poor neighborhoods, freeing those of us who live elsewhere to remain blithely attached to our comforts. CEO’s can safely ignore the distress of their stakeholders as long as their shareholders are happy.  Countless political, fiscal, and social policies make things harder and more expensive for people who are poor, easier and cheaper for people who have more.  Over and over, the distress of the vulnerable is at best ignored, at worst derided.  (After all, isn’t it their fault that they’re not strong like us?)

Surely St. Ignatius knew this.  Though we haven’t reached Manresa yet, we know that he was tormented there by guilt over the sins of his earlier life.  Had he agreed to surrender at the Battle of Pamplona instead of urging the outmatched soldiers to fight on, far fewer lives would have been lost. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that the distress of the vulnerable widows and orphans created that day weighed upon the conscience of the Saint.

We pilgrims have abundant opportunities to practice responding to the distress of the vulnerable in personal ways, as we support one another in whatever weaknesses manifest themselves from day to day.  Take the people always at the back of the pack—the Turtles, we’ve begun calling ourselves. Without us, the faster pilgrims wouldn’t get such long rest breaks waiting for us to catch up!  Seeing my companions cheer as I top a hill, rather than sigh and check their watches, makes me grateful for how beautifully the people in this group respond to vulnerability.

What works for the Body of pilgrims is true for our individual bodies as well. For example: to save the delicate shin muscles from distress, one needs to let the big muscles of the legs and butt do the work on the steep grades.  Overburden the vulnerable, and no part of the body is going anywhere!

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower,” Jesus said (Jn 15:1).  Now that I have gotten my sneakers muddy among the vineyards of La Rioja, I can more easily imagine God the Vine Grower deliberately planting the vulnerable among the strong, so that all may thrive.  

Saint Ignatius, walk with us!


October 22: Be the Sweetness

The hill was steep, the day was hot, and my shin splints were hobbling me.  For too long, I’d been catching only occasional glimpses of my fellow pilgrims, impossibly far away around a distant bend.  “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together,” someone had shared, yet here I was, neither fast nor together, but decidedly slow and alone.

Suddenly, footsteps sounded behind me. Oh, no! Fr. Jose, who’d been hanging back to take pictures and brighten up the orange Camino arrows with his handy can of spray paint, was gaining on me fast.  I braced myself for his familiar “Come on, pilgrim,” knowing that I was incapable of any additional speed.  What if there were a bear behind you? I asked myself.  Answer: then I’d be eaten—and could stop walking!  (It was a rough day.)

Falling into step, however, Fr. Jose did not berate me for my pace.  Instead, he said simply, “Would you like some grapes?” He extended one of two bunches of tiny dark grapes he had gleaned from the vineyard through which we were walking.  I accepted them gratefully, and he accelerated on.

The sweetness of his gesture was matched only by that of the grapes.  I ate them slowly, savoring each one.  As I trudged the last mile, I realized that each little grape I enjoyed took my mind off my gripes.  For whole moments at a time, I was not thinking about my pain, and the walking grew easier.  I reached the rendezvous with fruit to share.

Since that day, I’ve been noticing other sweet moments in our group—like when Tony from Australia took it upon himself to walk a short distance behind me on a challenging, rocky hill.  Quietly, he paced his steps to my steps, pausing patiently whenever I paused to gasp for breath.  Later that afternoon, when I had air to spare on flatter terrain, I told him, “In a movie, footsteps behind you in the woods that stop when you stop are horrifying.  But on Camino, they’re holy!”

Speaking of our Australian friends, Tony’s wife, Jane, often brings up the rear, not because she must—the two of them are veteran hikers with more energy than the rest of us combined—but so that she can keep an eye on the stragglers and engage the “turtles” of the day in fascinating conversation to pass the time.

Everywhere, sweetness has abounded, as people have shared hats, flip flops, painkillers, and chocolate.  (We’ve even shared needles—but only to lance blisters, and then only after disinfecting them!)  On a deeper level, we’ve shared the hard stories of our lives as we’ve paired off walking: stories of being widowed, of the heartbreak of drug-addicted loved ones, of illness and diminishment, and of the search for meaningful direction after retirement (which many of us have found through IVC).

The pilgrims have been exceptionally kind and patient, no matter which of us is “Paddy Last” arriving to breakfast, or who merits the “Bad Pilgrim of the Day” award.  (Usually it’s for a mindless violation of some pilgrimage protocol, like failing to stop at the designated spot or deciding to rummage in one’s backpack after everyone else is strapped up and ready to move again.  There’s also an unofficial “Best Pilgrim of the Day” award for those who go above and beyond.)

Beginning with the grapes, and inspired by my fellow pilgrims’ kindness to one another, I’ve begun clinging to a simple motto: Be the Sweetness.  On pilgrimage, and in life back at home, why not look for opportunities to be that simple touch of sweetness for someone?

This sends me back to my Gwynedd Mercy days and a favorite quote from Catherine McAuley, founder of the Sisters of Mercy.  She wrote, “There are three things which the poor prize more highly than gold, though they cost the donor nothing.  Among these are the kind word, the compassionate glance, and the patient hearing of their sorrows.”  She was speaking of the materially poor of her day (19th century Dublin), but the same wisdom applies to those who are experiencing any kind of physical, emotional, or spiritual poverty today—and it still costs the donor nothing.

For whom can you be the sweetness today?

Saint Ignatius, walk with us.

Backpack and hiking pole in the Monegros Desert

October 26: What Makes a Good Pilgrimage?

Last night, after dinner in a former convent turned pilgrims’ shelter, Fr. Jose gave us a bit of a talking-to.

“Tell me, what is a good pilgrimage?  If someone says, Oh, I’ve walked to Santiago de Compostela five times, 2,500 miles, very quick, does that mean it was a good pilgrimage?  Does that make it a better pilgrimage than someone who walked fifty miles prayerfully?  No!”

He has told us repeatedly that anything can be a spiritual exercise.  Walking,  Breathing.  Packing your suitcase with the intention of doing it for the greater glory of God.  But still, many of us are clinging to the “ideal” of striding energetically the whole way from Loyola to Manresa, as though that were the point.

But that is not the point.  Pilgrimage is walking with God.  You can move your feet without placing yourself in God’s presence, and you can walk with God while riding humbly in the luggage taxi. 

Pilgrimage is also learning to free yourself from unnecessary attachments.  Tomorrow we will reach Montserrat, where Ignatius kept an all-night vigil of arms in front of the statue of our Lady of Montserrat then changed into his rough pilgrim’s garb, gave away his finery, and left his sword at the altar.  

What have we abandoned over the course of these many days?  What are we called to lay down?

We’ve abandoned control, for one thing.  “Whatever town you enter and they welcome you, eat what is set before you,” Jesus said (Luke 10:8). Not since childhood have I had so little control over what I ate (three weeks now with neither oatmeal nor peanut butter) nor what I wore (only a few choices in the suitcase) or where I lay my head at night (hotel, hostel, pilgrims’ shelter?) or what time I needed to be up and out in the morning (5:30? 8:45?). I think most of the pilgrims would agree that control has been the hardest thing to give up, since it meets us at every turn.

But in being apart from our usual routines—like the one in which I get to wake up according to my own body clock, take a leisurely morning, and eat my oatmeal-with-peanut-butter when I’m good and hungry—we’ve also abandoned much that stands in the way of quality prayer time.  Those two hours of silent reflection on our morning walks have become precious lifelines with the Divine.  Separated from so much that ordinarily comforts us (or brings us false consolation, Ignatius might say), we find ourselves firmly in God’s hands.

“Pilgrimage is life,” Fr. Jose reminds us over and over.  As we meet the uncertainties of each day and walk in solidarity with those who face pain, hardship, and uncertainty every day, we pray—indeed, we trust—that God is transforming us, one rocky step at a time.

Saint Ignatius, walk with us.

Photo of Fr. Iriberri

November 3: Our Fearless Leader

If the Ignatian Camino has been a long, tumultuous ride down ever-shifting rapids, these last days in Manresa and Barcelona have been a waterfall, cascading us to the abrupt end we knew was coming, but which seems to be catching us by surprise nonetheless.  The pilgrims’ goodbyes have been hard; after so much time in each other’s company, it’s almost inconceivable that we’re scattering not only across the country but around the globe.  The most gut-wrenching farewell, however, was the one we had to say to our faithful guide: Fr. Jose Luis Iriberri, SJ.

How can I capture this amazing man in words?  Perhaps the shortest and most accurate thing I can say is that he is a true son of Ignatius.  (He even looks a bit like the Saint, being of Basque descent and cultivating a bit of an Ignatian beard!)

Let’s start with this: Fr. Jose’s knowledge of Ignatius is encyclopedic.  He freely shares a vast amount of information about Íñigo’s life, culture, and spirituality each day.  He is intimately familiar with the terrain the Saint traveled, pointing out churches where he worshipped, streets over which he traveled, buildings where he conducted business, and hostels where he might have stayed.

It is one thing to know about Ignatius, however, and quite another to know Ignatius and to model one’s life after him.  That is the experience of traveling with this man: the sense of being in the company of one of Ignatius’ close companions.

 Fr. Jose has been our guide through both the outer and inner landscape of the Camino.  Backpack on, walking stick in hand, he moves like a mountain goat, lightly, over any kind of terrain, knowing every twist and turn of these hundreds of miles—most of which he has marked by hand. But he also knows the contours of our hearts, watching us carefully, listening closely to what we say and don’t say, reading our faces, and offering sage observations.  He knows when to encourage a flagging pilgrim, when to offer a bit of respite, when to lighten things up with a joke, and when to put his foot down if someone’s ambitions exceed their abilities.

The practical tasks he has done on our behalf are staggering, starting with arranging (and sometimes re-arranging) housing and meals for seventeen to twenty-five people for a whole month.  Sometimes he’s taken our lunch order two days before arrival at a remote bar/restaurant; when the food starts to come out, he ferries it from the kitchen, shouting out the names of the sandwiches to hasten the process.  He’s performed first aid on the fly, lancing blisters in his own room at night and taping up one pilgrim’s potentially sprained wrist after a fall on the road from Montserrat. Drawing on his skills as an administrator in the Ramon Llull University school of tourism, he’s used his connections along the length of the Camino to arrange meetings with mayors, local experts, and those all-important persons-with-the-keys-to-the-churches, so we can slip in after hours to ponder and pray.

Fr. Jose wasn’t always an administrator, however.  He was also a campus minister, and it shows!  He knows how to frame our prayer at the beginning and midpoint of the morning’s silence, when to gather the group to check in about how we’re feeling or lead us in a touch of the Examen, and what song to play during our communal prayer to evoke feelings lingering just below the surface.

Like a spiritual Zumba instructor, Jose deftly switches up the pace as needed.  A few nights in a pilgrims’ shelter will be followed by one in a surprisingly comfortable hotel.  A long climb will be met at the top by a cafe straight out of Brigadoon. A torturous descent will be followed by rest in a woodsy clearing.  A sparse breakfast will be followed by an ample one. (“Comfort comes soon after a well-received trial,” Sisters of Mercy founder Catherine McAuley would say!) Jose seems to know exactly how far he can push us, and when it’s time to ease up. 

A classic example of this happened during our 17-mile walk from Montserrat to Manresa.  After our customary sandwich lunch, as we were lacing up our boots and using the restroom and generally preparing to hit the road again, he said “Oh, we’re not leaving yet.  Go to the ice cream freezer and pick out a treat for yourself!”  (Best. Dad. Ever.)

As I sit on the roof deck of our final Camino hotel, gazing at the Mediterranean in one direction and the La Sagrada Familia Basilica in the other, I can say with some certainty that it was downright batty of Fr. Jose (and battier of us) to attempt this journey together. But here we are: feet worse for wear, minds overflowing with images, memories, and convictions, and souls transformed—we pray—in ways that will continue to unfold in the weeks, months, and years to come.

Let me close with the words I shared at our final gathering. “Fr. Jose, you have taken such good care of us, and you have taught us so much, not only through your words but through your example.  You have modeled Ignatian spirituality, Ignatian indifference, and Ignatian generosity.  If, as Ignatius said, love should consist of deeds more than words, you have loved us very well indeed.  You told us at the beginning that pilgrimage can change the world, and we have come to believe that this is true.  Thank you, and may God continue to bless you and your ministry.”

Saint Ignatius, keep walking with us!