Thursday, 17 August 2017

Eat, Pray, Walk: the 800k Journey closer to the Soul

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By Isaac Withers

The journey is the great metaphor of life. There. Done. The cliche is down, now we can talk.

Yesterday, I came home after 34 days of walking the pilgrim way to Santiago de Compostella, the city in which the body of St. James, the apostle of Jesus, is said to be held. In Spanish, this way is known as the Camino, it's a near 800 kilometer stretch, starting at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France, before it crosses the whole of northern Spain, and continues to the coast. It has been walked by pilgrims for well over a thousand years and is up there with Rome and Jerusalem. Ok, so there's your facts down too.

Now that I'm home, people are asking me, 'how was the Camino?' and really, it's hard to put the experience of a month's adventure into one answer. You can give the cliche and the facts, but what was it actually like? I've got about 70 pages of notes in a book, but I want to try to answer that question here, of what walking the Camino every day does to a person. It should be said as well that most don't walk it for religious reasons, but I think so many of the lessons I learned from it would have been the same for anyone who takes on the Camino.

The Simple Things

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The first things are obvious: the thought, 'oh, I really can carry all I will need for a month, in one bag'. You realise that so much of what we see as necessary, just isn't.

On day 10, I said to a Danish woman I was walking with, 'I'm really excited for dinner and to sleep', and as I said it, I realised how I would never say that in normal life. On the way, Sleep and food were big highlights. They were usually totally to do with alburgues too, which were the Spanish hostels that put pilgrims up all along the way, some times asking only for a donation. On a bad day, I could have a pretty big emotional reaction to seeing the word 'alburgue' on a sign.

Sleep was complete physical shut down, and yet, we were always up at 7am. We would remark at how we had had 'an 8am lie in', and then laugh at our student selves. I could nap anywhere. Our bodies needed it. It was the same with food, my appetite had never been so big, but you knew it was all going into building muscle and energy for the next day (except for the pulpo - octopus - that was more for fun). On the Camino, these simple things came to the forefront, and we valued every bit of them.


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Before I set off, I knew that I wanted to use some of my time everyday to pray and read scripture. I thought I'd tackle one gospel chronologically, something I've never done before. Really, this was because I wanted to get to know Jesus better. I went for Matthew's gospel, it's 28 chapters, I had 34 days, easy. I got to chapter 14. But, something really amazing started to happen the more I read, that I hadn't really experienced before. You often hear Christian's talking about scripture talking to them as if Jesus were speaking straight to them. I had never had this as strongly as on the Camino, and sometimes, it could be pretty funny.

One of my big lessons on the way was about weird people (yeah, they've made it to the camino too). I had just left the company of a really cool, young, multinational crew, and I was soon walking with people that I just found it really hard to get along with. So I was really praying with this. Did I just outwalk them? Would I only walk with certain kinds of people? That afternoon, sat in the square of a small town with a coffee, I opened up Matthew 7. It's title was literally 'Do not judge'. I laughed out loud. Jesus proceeded to be pretty blunt. 'Why do you observe the splinter in your brother's eye and never notice the plank in your own?' (Matt 7:3).

This sounded like Jesus saying, 'why do you do this?' to me. And so, I tried to take this as my approach to the people I met, whoever they were, whatever they were like, I was going to try and treat them like anybody else. I was actually surprised at how difficult I found that to live. I think a little of my high school conditioning is still there, in terms of who I accept, how well I try not to react to their splinters, and how well I am mindful of my own.

'Why are you doing this?'

When I set off, I really went with the mindset 'I want my own spiritual journey, I don't want to be leading other people much'. This has become a big part of my faith over the years, helping other people to know the Church and Jesus, and I was starting to feel that my own seeking was taking a back seat.

And yet, the conversation among pilgrims would quickly come to the question 'why are you doing the Camino?' or 'how did you find out about this?' My answer would be, 'my family's really Catholic, my sister and brother both did the Camino at uni, and I wanted to do it too before I start work'. This was all true, but my real reason was to encounter Jesus again, however like I say, I didn't want to freak them out with all my Jesus stuff yet. And yet, even this would perk up follow on questions. 'So you believe in God?' or 'So you go to Church? Why?' I realised fast that the people on the Camino are really seeking, and they're really interested in anyone who thinks they've got an answer.

On my 21st birthday (day 18)  I got into a big God and the universe chat with a Dutch cyclist that went on for hours. I also walked with a young German guy, who had had totally different life experiences to me, and we talked about relationships a lot. I really believe the Camino puts you back together with people you need to continue conversation with too, and 4 days from Santiago, the same guy just asked me very earnestly, 'can you teach me how to pray?' It was amazing. People don't ask that question often, and it was just how Jesus gets asked in scripture by the disciples, 'Lord, teach us how to pray' (Luke 11:2). And so, I told him that Jesus had already answered his question, and we just talked about the idea of calling God father and that closeness. So even though I had set out reluctant to get into the conversation of faith, I really felt like I was being built in my ability to help people who are sincerely seeking. All because on a daily basis, people were asking the question, 'why?'

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Foncebadon, 1440 meters above sea level.

Reading scripture often also started to give me a real sense of the person of Jesus. It was funny how pilgrim life was actually super close to how he and his twelve friends lived. One day, me and a friend got to a corn field and he pulled some corn off and took it apart, it wasn't ripe. That night I read 'His disciples were hungry and began to pick ears of corn and eat them' (Matt 12:1). And then there was, 'Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head' (Matt 8:20). That's life without even alburgues. Unthinkable.

But beyond this similarity in style of  living, I started to realise what was really important to Jesus, mainly because he said it all the time after every major thing he did. Before he heals this centurion's daughter, 'nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this' (Matt 8:10), before the calming of a storm 'why are you so frightened, you men of little faith?' (Matt 8:26), after healing someone else, 'your faith has restored you to health' (Matt 9:22), I could give you loads of these.

I think as a Catholic, I like the pairing of reason and faith a lot, but I definitely lean a lot more on reason because it's safe. Jesus never mentions it. He was constantly calling people out into faith in him. That was what he always said saved people. When I got to the end of my journey, to Fisterra, so called because it was believed to be the end of the world, I climbed down the rock face and was surrounded by a rough sea. There was no further to go. And as I got more than a little emotional, I wanted to know what Jesus would say that day. I opened up Matthew 14. 'Jesus walks on water and, with him Peter'. My prevailing thought was, 'no thanks, I'm good'. But again, when Peter falls in, 'Man of little faith, why did you doubt?' (Matt 14:31).

Really what I want to say is : do the Camino. It's making the choice to put yourself, your history, all of your relationships, under the microscope for a month, to have all the time to think you could want, and at the same time to enjoy an ultimate adventure, amongst the most welcoming group of strangers in the world. Pilgrim existence lies somewhere between tourist and homeless person, and yet somewhere in there is how we were made to live. I'm still trying to figure out what that was.

Roll credits.

Thanks to: Billy and Dan (Colerado), Max (Germany), The Captain (Hungary), Devin (California), Eddy (Italy), Jonas (Denmark), Guilia (Italy) and Joy (South Korea) and Ana (Hollande) and the rest of the Funkcoolo crowd,  Duncan (Boston), Helene (Denmark), Toni (Australia) and Paul (Italy), Merlin Wolfe (Germany), Yilmaz and his scooter (Germany), Will (Australia), Rosie (New York) and Selina (Scottland) and Manuel (Germany), Eoghan and Ciara (Ireland), Christophe (Hungary), Madalene (Australia), Freddie (Germany), Rosio (Italy), Simon (Germany), Marjin (Holland), The Danes with the Impossible Names, Martina (Holland), A.J. (U.K.), Ania (London), Alexi (Russia), Jong and O (South Korea), Constance (France) and Loula (Spain), Clemence (Germany), Viet (Canada) and Julika (Austria), Daniel (Germany) and Julia (Germany), Pablo (Spain) and his dog Rohan (also Spain), Naomi (Jersey), Jean (USA) and Antonio (Italy). Think that covers everybody. Buen Camino.

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