The Evolving Shape of Faith

Definition of “Camino”:
Camino, translated from Spanish has a number of meanings in English. The main meaning is as a track, path or road. It also can mean a literal way, route or journey. Figuratively it means path or course.IMG_8771El Camino, Camino de Santiago and The Way all refer to specific paths that are the Way to the tomb of Apostle St James in Santiago de Compostela. The discovery of the remains of Apostle Saint James at the beginning of the IX century, marked the beginning of the pilgrimages and thus creating the “Way of St James”. Additionally, King Alphonso II, “the Chaste”, was responsible for the construction of a small church on the site of the discovery and the news spread among the community of believers and the Christian kingdoms of the western world. This pilgrimage walk has been embarked upon for centuries by millions of “peregrinos” and over this time, various routes to Santiago have developed. As well, a support system of cathedrals, monasteries, towns and cities also became established. In fact, “The Way” was in part responsible for the creation of a culture based on exchange, personal relationships and an iconic boom that resulted in the development of vast areas, which had been unpopulated up until that time.img_7911It’s both impossibly easy and unimaginably challenging to be a pilgrim, to walk every day, to be both always arriving and always leaving.img_6406Sometimes I am SURE, and sometimes I think that I honestly don’t understand what faith is. Yes, I know: Faith is a virtue. Faith is a principle. Faith is a force. I know all this, and I experience its power over my life. “Faith is the realization of things hoped for and evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)IMG_6765I felt this dichotomy in an animated way a few weeks ago, while walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain. I pondered the mysterious nature of faith and how it directs my life.  I was walking a path that thousands have walked for hundreds of years because of their devotion and faith, passing centuries old stone churches, pondering Holy words and moving among other religious people who put their fidelity into motion, step by step. As well as many others who did not claim Christianity but a spirituality important to them, manifested in many forms. There, among all those expressions of faith, I realized I wasn’t so sure what faith was.IMG_7170It seems I had to step out my routine, become a pilgrim, and get in touch with my vulnerabilities for me to be humbled. Pilgrimage is an experience of stripping, of detaching from those blinders that have blocked a grasp of the truth. “Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage”, Psalm 84:5IMG_7157But then we began walking. Shoes shuffling, breath huffing, dust stirring – we moved along sidewalks, streets, over bridges and through neighborhoods. It wasn’t in the afternoon of the first day, when we found ourselves out of the urban area, weaving up and down hills under pines and eucalyptus trees. It wasn’t the first night at the albergue we stayed at out of Zamora – where I gave up my bottom bunk to to a late arriving, limping man from Japan, in obvious pain, who spoke no English but who communicated in a way I could understand how grateful he was for my trade… Perhaps it was midday on our grueling highway walk of 17.2 miles, but it was definitely by evening of that “highway from hell” stretch, our second day, that doubts started to chip away at my faith that I could do it, that I could really walk all the way to Santiago.

 

Feeling my aching legs and tender feet beneath me, a bright hot sun overhead, and waves of exhaustion starting to churn, I longed to roll into the ditch and close my eyes. The path and the roads began to feel endless and the layers of sweat and griminess thickened. Mi amigo, Ryan, and I entered the town – wait, what?? The albergue is across town and up, what? That hill?!?!? I lost it! I swore and I cried and I wanted to just sit down there on the street and STOP, only 3 kilometers from that day’s destination. Questions about another word began to stir: Is this only endurance that is keeping me going?

Each day we walked, I had such mixed emotions. On one side was the energetic, peppy, confident pace in which I found joy in the rhythm of walking. And on the other side was the part of the day that felt like drudgery and impossibility, when pain cycled through me to the tune of a negative mantra My feet hurt, my feet hurt – and some judgement of my comrades – why can’t we keep going – why do they have to stop and eat so much?!?!IMG_6754
Along the way, perseverance began to have a new meaning for me, too. I made the effort to redirect my mind from complaints to tuning into what was necessary and helpful. It seemed the Spirit whispered suggestions: Be humble, judge not, take breaks, drink water, enjoy beauty. My thoughts shifted as I followed the prompts: Thank you, thank you, thank you. Yet, my doubts that I could actually walk all the way to Santiago didn’t vanish initially.

Confidence can also help to construct faith. After experiencing such an accomplishment — after countering the agony of doubt with an embodiment of faith — the rest of the pilgrimage felt graced. I started to wonder what else in my walk with God, in the world overall, was actually possible that I had dismissed as unattainable or unlikely. The pain and exhaustion lingered, but I no longer doubted I would arrive. Faith, it seems, was winning.

The day that we arrived, we made our way through the dark medieval streets to the Cathedral of Santiago (after having tequila shots on the outskirts of town at 10:30 a.m.). We climbed the stairs and went up the steps and through the ancient doors. Entering, the assembly was standing silently. We wove through the pillars, beside gray stones, to glimpse the candlelight procession in the back of the church, where a group of priests in white vestments proclaimed, “La luz de Christo!” In unison, hundreds of faithful chanted in response, “Gracias a Dios”! I sat with my group in pews packed with pilgrims. As I prayed, my eyes moistened with tears, my chest shook with sobs. I couldn’t understand since most of it was delivered in Latin or Spanish, yet I could still FEEL it deeply – an intrinsic truth, synergy, unity.
After the proclamation of the story of our faith, the bishop stood in the center of this most beautiful and ancient cathedral, preaching. As I did not understand what he was saying, I was lost in myself, in my own prayers and thoughts about the incredible magnitude of faith’s mystery. But then, in English, “Welcome to this holy place. Your being here expresses the strength of your faith”.

I am done. I walked over 250 miles. I wanted to and had planned to do more – with my husband, who volunteered to coach Little League baseball, a real gift that he has and as he should have done (so I tagged along with a college group who had a more limited time frame). I slept in about 17 different beds –

sometimes scoring the bottom bunk, other times being stuck with the top one. Sleeping at times with 30 people in a room, usually chilly, occasionally hot, yet always a familiar symphony of snoring (including my own). I thrilled at the finding of bathrooms (including the ones in the woods) and I lost a couple of pounds (though expected and wished I would have lost more…) I have seen so many churches and cathedrals that I (embarrassingly) kind of quit looking at them. I discovered going down hill is harder than going up hill sometimes. My blisters (which I was sure that I would not get, given my training and breaking in of shoes) are just ”fond” flaps of skin reminding me of my toils.

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