The Yin and the Yang of it, the ebb and the flow; torrents, tranquilities, they come and then go. The breath that inspires it, then leaves it in peace. The power that inflates it, the humble release. The desire to unchain it and know it in full. The flee from the truth of it. The infinite pull... ...to the centre of gravity, that source of all Love; as dark as a dungeon, as light as a dove. The binding of purpose, and braiding of thread, the salve of communion, and breaking of bread. And so we keep learning as onward we go, in the Yin and the Yang of it; the ebb and the flow.
I believe that our experience of God is like an endless Sea of Love and, in that sea of love, God will send us perfect storms in an effort to perfect us to his own design. I believe his common design for all of us is that we think, speak, live, love and act from a place of compassionate truth. But, within that Grand Design, I believe there´s also a personal and unique design inscribed within each of our hearts.
I think the more we try to shape ourselves to a given model of authenticity, normality, conformity, goodness or perfection, the less we give ourselves the opportunity to gaze upon and contemplate the singular blueprint of our own unique design. And the more we try to limit, constrict or fit ourselves into stereotypes that others offer to us, with their expectations and their judgements of criticism or praise, the less we allow the will of God to work through us in a way that feels sacred and true to that unique, divine inscription we hold within.
To me, our unique design is one that gradually reveals itself to us throughout the course of our lives, through the situations we experience, the feelings they stir within us and the level of courage we display in accepting the truth of the messages that they bring to the surface from the deep. Messages about the truth of God´s love and how it manifests itself here on earth.
For the Sea of God´s Love encompasses everything: love for ourselves, love for others, romantic and erotic love, spiritual and divine love, maternal and paternal love, filial love, love of creation and expression, love of passion, love of nature, love of community, love of peace. It is not a constant and static entity. It is continually moving, continually shifting, continually growing and expanding and it gives and takes its different shapes and forms in its invitation to us to understand, trust, accept and willingly enter its life-giving ebb and flow.
“Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.“– Rumi
Sometimes the storms God sends to us will physically break apart the vessel of security that we were given, fashioned for ourselves or chose to board; a significant relationship; a state of health; a much-loved job or profession; a family; a community; a place we thought was home. And sometimes the storm will wreck the internal image we were carrying of ourselves, and the external identity that came with it; the one which gave us status, confidence, a feeling of security about the future and a sense of calm.
These internal storms are the most challenging to weather, I believe, because they call into question everything we thought about ourselves and leave us feeling adrift in a sea of emotions that threaten to sink us and everything we took for granted about who we were. They can leave us feeling ship-wrecked, exhausted, half-drowned in confusion, anger, frustration and despair. But, I believe, these painful and challenging moments are the ones that truly form us and offer us the opportunity to become the ´all´ that we were designed to be.
There is truth in the age-old saying that “God never sends us anything we´re not strong enough to bear.” We only have to look around us at the countless number of those who´ve experienced, been humbled by, learned from and grown stronger from seemingly catastrophic events in their lives. These are the people that we admire, are inspired by and learn from; the ones who energise us and show us the healing power of hope.
"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms , to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one´s own way" Viktor Frankl (Neurologist, Philosopher and Auschwitz Survivor)
They have taken what the experience taught them (after allowing themselves time, with love, to grieve for what they lost) as an invitation and gift to seek something different, something more in their lives. They don´t allow themselves to become embittered, they find enough love for themselves to learn and grow and, in doing so, they create for themselves lives of meaning and they shine the light of love, hope and possibility which acts like a beacon for us all.
It´s only lack of faith in ourselves, lack of true love for ourselves, and lack of trust in the mysterious and endlessly-challenging ways of God that stop us from discovering and living this self-same truth.
You are the deep innerness of all things, the last word that can never be spoken. To each of us you reveal yourself differently: to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship. Rainer Maria Rilke (The Book of Pilgrimage)
“O God of earth and altar, Bow down and hear our cry, Our earthly rulers falter, Our people drift and die; The walls of gold entomb us, The swords of scorn divide, Take not thy thunder from us, But take away our pride. From all that terror teaches, From lies of tongue and pen, From all the easy speeches That comfort cruel men, From sale and profanation Of honour and the sword, From sleep and from damnation, Deliver us, good Lord. Tie in a living tether The prince and priest and thrall, Bind all our lives together, Smite us and save us all; In ire and exultation Aflame with faith, and free, Lift up a living nation, A single sword to thee.” - G K Chesterton
“Exactly one year ago today I published this website for the first time” was something that suddenly occurred to me on yesterday´s morning walk. Although I´d been preparing the site for a few weeks before, it wasn´t my intention to´go live´ on that particular day. But a significant experience in a church that I´d wandered into, on the island of Fuerteventura, changed all that and gave me the impetus I needed to write and publish my first post; Love is like a Lighthouse:
That memory made me reflect on how significant the church (both the buildings themselves and the people I´ve found inside them) has become in my life in the last 12 months. And then the title of today´s blog post, which first popped into my head on another morning walk at the end of November last year, came to mind…and finally began to make sense.
My experience of the Nativity period this year (the whole of Advent, Christmas itself and the week that followed it) has been like no other Christmas experience before. It felt like the culmination of a year of personal revelations and it´s changed the way that I´ll be celebrating Christmases in future…I believe.
As I´m currently living in a church hostel I attend Mass daily, because I love the rhythm that it brings to my life and because I often hear things (either in the Gospel itself, or in the sermons that the priests give after the readings) that speak directly to my heart. One of the gifts of this practice, I now realise looking back, is that it´s given me an appreciation of the whole Nativity story´s meaning, and its timeless significance, that I´ve never really had before.
From the beginning of the Advent period (when four candles were placed in front of the altar) I began to learn things about the traditions I´ve followed at Christmas time, habitually or just because they felt important and right, without ever understanding the inspiring messages behind them. As an adult, I´ve continued the Christmas practice of making an Advenz Kranz, which I remember from my childhood home, but it was only here that I learned what the four candles symbolise and the significance of that symbolism, which can be used as a guiding light in the journey of life.
The first candle symbolises Hope, the second Faith, the third Joy, and the fourth candle Peace.
Each Mass began, on the four Sundays of advent, with a young boy from the congregation ascending the large altar step and lighting the next candle in the countdown to Christmas; and the meaning of each candle was then used as the focus in that week´s church bulletin and in community prayer. The light of awareness, of how important hope, faith, joy and peace are in living positive, constructive, creative and compassionate lives in community with others, was the underlying message; powerful in its potential but delivered in a traditional, understated and gentle way.
As we entered the second half of December a special service was held to share The Peace Light of Bethlehem; a light that´s been lit each year, since 1989, from an oil lamp that hangs in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is then transported and shared with communities who welcome it, throughout Europe and beyond. The light symbolises the approaching light of the birth of Jesus as a focal point for faith, hope, joy and love which, when unified in our own lives and used as the basis of our relationships with others, helps us to discover and create inner and outer peace.
At the service, individual votive candles were lit from the Bethlehem flame that came to the church, and were handed out to parishioners who were then free to take them home and pass them on to other family members and friends. The significance of this ´passing on of light´ from one person to another, especially at this time when so many are feeling the darkness of fear and uncertainty about the present and the future, touched something deep inside me.
As Christmas Day came and went the services and symbolism continued, infusing the whole Nativity period with spiritual meaning and offering me insights that I´d been oblivious to before. Amongst those Catholic Feast Days was La Fiesta de La Sagrada Familia (the Feast of the Holy Family) when the role models of Mary and Joseph as parents were highlighted, and the strong and healing power of mutual family love and respect were expressed.
When Epiphany/Twelfth Night approached I finally grasped why the Spanish have always used this as their official ´present-giving´ date, as opposed to the wider and now largely-secular Western practice of giving presents on Christmas day. It reflects the giving of gifts by the Magi (Wise Kings) to honour the birth of Jesus; as the presence of Divine Love in Human Form. When I returned home from my morning walk on that day, I found these presents on my doorstep with a message telling me they were left on behalf of The Kings, who´d heard of my kindness to others in the year before. And the significance of those small expressions of human love, given in the things I´d done for others and reciprocated in the gifts left on my doorstep, became clear.
Which brings me to…the baby and the bath water…
In the Catholic church the Nativity period officially comes to an end on the Sunday after Epiphany, with a Mass that celebrates´The Baptism of Jesus´. On the face of it this may seem a little strange, bearing in mind that Jesus was baptised, in the River Jordan by John the Baptist, the age of 30. But, in the Christian Church, baptism symbolises an inviting of the Holy Spirit to enter our lives, in hope and faith that it will fill us with the light of God´s Love.
At this Sunday Mass the parish priest made the point that most of us, probably baptised as babies and infants, were unable to make decisions about our own faith at the time, and that our parents will have made this decision for us and selected Godparents to speak on our behalf. As adults, we´re now capable of choosing for ourselves if we want to live lives infused with hope, faith, joy and peace and whether we want to share this way of living – spreading this light – to others.
Sunday´s Mass gave all of us the opportunity to bring this awareness to mind and to choose for ourselves if we wanted to say again the words of commitment (to a life based on an active faith in the love of God) that our Godparents spoke for us, all those years before. They were words that I was happy to speak and to feel in my heart because I now see that, when I decided as a teenager I wanted no further involvement with organised religion or with anything that it stood for, I threw the baby out with the bathwater.
The bathwater was all the human-made religious rules, judgements, restrictions, contradictions, dogmatic opinions and hypocrisy that I´d observed as a child and associated with traditional religion. The baby was what Jesus represented, and what I´ve seen manifested here in a traditional Catholic community; the pure light of divine love in human form, actively seeking to be seen, heard, felt and shared with others.
After a lifetime of rejecting ´the ultimate Christmas present´ that my parents gave me, in deciding to have me baptised, I now understand that I´ve spent 56 years ripping up the wrapping paper and pulling apart the packaging and that they were never meant to be the focus of my attention. They were just ways of presenting and preserving the message of divine love that they held…and continue to hold…within them.
We´re now one week into 2021 and, not for the first time in my life, I feel a little out-of-step with the rest of the world. Almost everyone I know (and the vast majority of those I don´t but who share their views on both social and the wider media) seem to have had a “good riddance” attitude to 2020, as the old year bowed out and the new year strolled in. It´s an attitude I understand. People have experienced tremendous uncertainty, insecurity, isolation, illness, death of close friends and family members and these are all things tied memorably and inevitably to the passing year.
But, for me, the experience was different. I didn´t lose anyone close to me, my contact with family members and close friends usually takes place through social media and living a life of uncertainty has been my conscious choice over the last 5 years; so I appreciate that the unknown is not as daunting or unsettling to me as it has the potential to be for many others. In all honesty, 2020 was a very special year for me, in all that it taught me and gave me the opportunity to live and learn, and I´ll be remembering it as the year that the light in the distance came closer.
It´s the year in which I learned the history of the extraordinary pilgrim hostel, housed within the Parish House of Iglesia Santiago El Real; how it came into being from one man´s creative thinking and countless hours of voluntary labour and help from Camino-committed individuals within the local community, seminarians from the Seminary in Pamplona and volunteers from Spain and other countries further afield. It´s the year that my respect for all these unsung heros, unmotivated by the pursuit of individual fame, recognition or applause for themselves, grew to such a extent that I realised, at last, how service to others really does bring a treasure trove of its own rewards.
It was the year in which I found myself making a temporary home, and being tentatively but warmly welcomed into a small parish community, in the heart of La Rioja in Spain. It was the year in which I witnessed the effect that one individual can have on so many others during the course of their lifetime, through the sheer strength of their faith in the universal love of God and the power of fellow human beings to manifest that love here on Earth. It was the year that I learned the true importance of making silent and solitary time each day, to listen to my heart and to follow what it quietly but persistently urges me to do. And the year in which I finally realised that this quiet, calm and constant voice (which never voices opinions, criticisms, comparisons, justifications, judgments or fear) is the way in which God talks to me.
The church has a banner hanging at the base of its bell tower, close to the entrance. It states that it is committed to evangelical mission; words that would have summoned up images of bible-thumping-TV-Evangelists within me in the past and would possibly have even initiated a nervous facial tick. But that´s the thing with words I´ve found, the images and meanings that we attach to them usually tell us far more about ourselves than about anyone else. Because, what I´ve discovered is, the thing that this church is evangelising is nothing more than community-based love…through its simple example, and in a quiet, supportive and healing way. And that realisation prompted the memory of an incident on a part-time Creative Writing course that I attended many years ago in Wales.
The course lasted 4 months, meeting one morning each week, and we were a group of 18 people of varied ages, experiences and backgrounds. Amongst our number was a very religious, middle-aged woman called Elizabeth who I remember getting quite agitated one day when we were discussing ´The Church´. She was upset by our interpretations of what ´The Church´ actually meant, as the views being expressed referred to the buildings (how unnecessarily opulent and ornate they were), and the institutions (how powerful, hypocritical and corrupt they appeared to be). Elizabeth was adamant that the true meaning of ´The Church´ was neither of these things but, rather, that it was the community of people who came together to share their love and worship of God in a collective and active way.
At the time I thought she was being pedantic and defensive but now, several years and many personal experiences later, I see exactly what she meant and how limited, opinionated, disrespectful and uninformed our scathing judgments were. The buildings are ornate, the institutions (like every human institution ever created) does have its hypocritical and corrupt aspects and individuals, but the spirit of love that emanates from communities of people, who choose to come together to honour God and to help each other, are what the Church really means and is at heart; whether they choose to use a particular ritual of religious observance or not.
This year is a Holy Year on the Camino (a year when the Feast Day of Saint James, or Santiago, falls on a Sunday). In Holy Years the number of pilgrims who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago usually multiplies many, many times. The last Holy Year was in 2010 and, when I was busy painting some rooms in the church hostel last month, I found the wall calendar (pictured below) gathering dust on top of a wardrobe. When I asked about it I was told that the church decided to place a light at the top of its tower, in honour of the Holy year, and that it became known locally as ´The Lighthouse of Logroño´, with the City Council deciding to feature it in wall calendars that they produced. The beam of light shone out towards the Camino coming into the city, acting as a guide to any pilgrims who chose to follow it, and leading them directly to the doors of the church and to the hostel itself.
This year, like several years previously, the church erected a giant, illuminated star on top of the tower and it shines from the hour of sunset, through the darkness of night, and on until dawn. It can be seen for miles, all along the riverside path and from several different vantage points around the city. Long before it was put in place this year, people began asking the parish priest if it would be lit again and when…it seems that it´s become a focal point for feelings of goodwill with many people who are not local parishioners and have nothing to do with the church.
I feel like an invisible beam of light drew me to the open door of this church in April of this year, that it pulled me back here again in October and that it was the light of God´s universal and powerful love. Its purpose was not to convert me into a regular churchgoer, to reclaim me as a good Christian or to save my Catholic soul. Its intention was much wiser, simpler, subtler, far-reaching and more profound than that. It knew that the time was right to show me, after years of individual searching for and finding a reflection of God within individuals (including myself), I was ready to see that same reflection within communities of people with a traditional, open and shared belief in God.
Not long after I returned here I had a conversation with the priest about my belief in God. “I think that God is Love and it´s a simple as that” I told him “and if I live and act with a sincere heart, with love for myself and for others, I will please God”. “Yes” was his response, “but love is not a theory, it´s an active thing, and you can´t learn about it in isolation; you have to live it and create it with others in the real world”.
And I agree, because that´s what I´ve found. It´s how that light in the distance…if I keep turning towards it…and keep moving steadily forward in the direction from which it shines…gradually comes closer and closer…each and every day.
There´s a Celtic folklore belief in something called ´Thin Places´. These are places around the world where the gap between Heaven and Earth is so thin that the magical quality of Heaven can be actually, physically felt.
Clarity; perspective; sudden recognition of what really matters in life; feelings of immense peace and great joy; a profound sense of spirituality…all of these are things that people have described in Thin Places.
I have my own theory about this. I believe that they really began as Thin Spaces, rather than Thin Places. I think that when people are open enough to experiencing the universal love that is God, and to living a life of acceptance, tolerance and respect for the differences of others, they begin to experience more and more of these spaces. Time momentarily stands still, everything becomes suddenly simple and clear and, when enough people have these Thin Space moments in one particular place, they leave a legacy of this pure and positive energy behind…eventually creating Thin Places.
The Camino de Santiago is one such place…the whole length of it. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims (both pagan and Christian) have walked this route throughout the ages in search of love, peace, faith, hope and God. Each left their own personal trace of positive and Thin Space energy and that´s why so many people who walk it today have similar, inexplicable, life-altering experiences.
I´ve always loved to welcome in the New Year by listening to the sound of ´Big Ben´, broadcasting from London across the world. Before the new hour of the New Year strikes, the smaller bells of The Palace of Westminster ring out ´The Westminster Quarters´ and then there´s a pause. I believe that pause is a Thin Space. A moment when time stands still and we can wish whatever we want for the New Year, knowing that God and the Universe will be listening to what´s in our hearts.
Imagine if all of us wished to be the change we want to see in the world in this coming year…and then did all we could to support that wish in the year ahead. Imagine how even more wonderful this world could be.
It´s easy if you try…
Happy New Year, Happy New Decade and Happy Año Santo (Holy Year) to all of you. And if 2021 is the year you choose to walk the Camino de Santiago may God guide and bless you all the Way. And may this be the year when you also have many Thin Space moments.
Celtic Blessing A Morning Offering I bless the night that nourished my heart To set the ghosts of longing free Into the flow and figure of dream That went to harvest from the dark Bread for the hunger no one sees. All that is eternal in me Welcomes the wonder of this day, The field of brightness it creates Offering time for each thing To arise and illuminate. I place on the altar of dawn: The quiet loyalty of breath, The tent of thought where I shelter, Waves of desire I am shore to And all beauty drawn to the eye. May my mind come alive today To the invisible geography That invites me to new frontiers, To break the dead shell of yesterdays, To risk being disturbed and changed. May I have the courage today To live the life that I would love, To postpone my dream no longer But do at last what I came here for And waste my heart on fear no more. - John O´Donohue
So here we are, approaching the end of the year in the week of Christmas, mentally and physically preparing for, anticipating, joyously awaiting, ignoring or dreading the arrival of The Big Day. And how we´re feeling will, no doubt, have been shaped by our life experience up to this point, and by the circumstances of our lives as they are today.
For some of us, this year will have been deeply, deeply challenging and maybe our hopes are pinned on living as ´normal´ a Christmas as we can, given the current Covid-affected times. For others (and I include myself in this group), this year will have been a gift in the sense that it gave us a pause, a space and an opportunity to pull the threads of our life experience together and maybe it delivered a ´wake-up call´ about the things that truly count. For me it was a timely and enlightening ´wake-up call´ and I now know that its effects will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of my life.
At the beginning of this month someone I love sent me an advent calendar. I have it pinned up in the kitchen and I religiously open a new door each day. The other day, as I was doing this, I remembered something that my sister said to me several years ago, when I was going through a particularly challenging, emotional and difficult time of my life.
“Sometimes the knocking on the door gets so loud we just have to open it to see what´s there”
And, as I looked at the calendar with its 24 doors, the memory made me smile because I feel like I´ve spent the last 6 years opening different doors to my heart, to see and understand what the knocking was all about. There was the door called “Who is Michele?” (when you take away all her attachments, her job, her possessions, her home, her partner, her fancy clothes, make-up and long hair). Then the one called “Who are other people?” (when you take away my prejudices about them and peel back our combined layers of defence). There was the door called “The Past” with all its feelings and memories and emotional power and regrets. And the one called “The Future” with all its uncertainties and possibilities and range of choices and fears of the unknown.
And then finally (and inevitably for someone whose heart repeats rhythmically, like a mantra, “You belong on the Camino”) there were the doors called “Who is God?” and “What is God?” and “Where is God?” and “How is God…ever to be understood?” And opening each door, by following what my heart urged me to do, led me to a treasure trove of experience and knowledge. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible; that other people were kinder, more understanding and more caring than I ever expected them to be or gave them credit for; and that God was visible and present in everyone and everything I encountered but, often, in inexplicable and mystifying ways.
One way that´s been especially mystifying to me, until very recently, was why following the voice of my heart during the last few years has brought me repeatedly into religious environments when I´ve been so convinced by my own spiritual experiences that God lies beyond the limits of organised religion. I´ve found answers here (in a Catholic parish in Logroño) that resonate strongly with what my heart feels is truth and I´ve learned, yet again, how lazy and unreliable it is to ´lump people together´ as a way of easily criticising and then rejecting the value of anything they think, do or say.
Out walking this week with one of the parish priests I shared with him my bafflement about why God clearly wants me to return to my Catholic roots after rejecting them for so much of my adult life. “We can´t ignore our roots,” was his response “they´re a part of what made us who we are, part of the tree of our ancestors and of our life. What happens to a tree if you just sever it at its roots?” “It falls over in strong winds” I replied. “But, to me, God is so much more than organised religion!” I countered with feeling, and his simple and disarming reply was “Yes…God is”.
I´ll be spending this Christmas in the church house of the parish in which I´m currently living, and I´ll be sharing Christmas Eve dinner (because Noche Buena is the major celebration in Spain this week) with the priests who also live here. In a way, this feels like an echo of my childhood because, having a German mother, Christmas Eve (rather than Christmas Day) was always the main event in our family home; we always had our own advent calendars and our Catholic religion was a formative part of our family life.
But before I help with preparations for our Noche Buena dinner I´ll be lending a hand at the local ´Social Dining Room´, where people with no kitchens, homes, families or resources will be coming to eat their festive meal this year. I mention this only because it´s the first year I´ve ever felt remotely inclined to do anything at Christmas time that involved strangers or service-to-others and I´ll be doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy it.
I´ve heard many, many times over the last 5 years that “happiness is found in service to others” but I had to keep opening the other doors of my heart before I reached the one that showed me this essential truth. It´s the same door that showed me that Jesus really is ´The Way, the Truth and the Life´…to finally finding that God is ever-present in this man-made world. But I had to build my relationship with him gradually, brick by brick, and in my own deeply personal way before I found a place inside me that truly looked and felt like Home. Being metaphorically told by others “Jesus is the key, go right ahead and open door 24!” never made any logical or heart-felt sense to me. The Advent Calendar of Life just doesn´t work that way…at least not the personal one that I´ve been given.
But having faith in the quiet urgings of my heart and opening the other doors, one by one, led me back here to this Christian and Catholic community at the start of October and, living and working within this community, has given me the opportunity to see how it really lives the doctrine of what is preached. I´ve seen what the belief that ´we are all part of the same human family´ really looks like in practice and I´ve been on the receiving end of that welcoming, inclusive, generous and giving belief. I´ve learned that actions matter more than opinions, that strangers really are friends waiting to be made, and that the simplest, most authentic and effective way to spread kindness, goodwill and hope is just by living it day-to-day and demonstrating it ourselves to others.
Advent, symbolically, represents the journey of darkness into light. A time when the all-powerful, unknowable, potentially-terrible-and vengeful God of the Old Testament became a human being, with a sacred human heart, and a relentless, endlessly-forgiving New Testament message of love. Jesus, as a messenger of God´s love, is revered by Christians, Muslims and people of the Jewish faith. And I´ve met many ´non-believers´ in my spiritual searching of the last 5 years who, nonetheless, believe deeply in the sincerity, authenticity and example of Jesus, the way he lived his life and what his essential teachings say.
Whatever we believe or don´t believe about God, we are all part of the same human family, we do all long for and search for love, we do all experience debilitating moments of darkness and we do draw strength and hope from people who are bold enough to offer their hand and the light of simple human compassion and kindness to those outside of their immediate circle of family and friends.
Christmas represents the birth of a man who epitomised this way of living and his message is one that I believe is worth repeating, sharing and spreading, in any way we can.
The day will come when you and I will cease to be. And all that was said, and thought, and done will melt to nothing. And in that moment of returning to the earth again, as water, - Heaven sent, momentary, lingering in this space that lies between - some of us may pause and ask... "How did I fall and dance on the wind that brought me here?" "How did I bind myself with others to create a soft but yielding cloak of uniform and reverent peace?" "How did I keep and preserve the uniqueness of my magical and awe-inspiring beauty; which others glimpsed in passing and I was blind to for the longest years of life?" "When did I truly love the different individuality of others, falling silently beside me, also blind to the miracle of Life they were?" "What light did I first see, reflect, then feel then hold, with joy, within my heart?" "And for who?" "What did I do with that light, knowing it came from without but lit me within?" "Did I hold the individual form that Mother Nature, so divine in all her timeless wisdom, crafted me to be? Did I honour that same divinity of purpose in those who fell around me, regardless of their falling dance or shape?" "Did I sparkle in the moonlight, however briefly, content and knowing that no human eye may ever see my glory?" "Did I live my full and destined life, however small, however judged by hoard of human minds, before the moment came to surrender all, and melt?"
Another young man knocked at the door of the church hostel this week, Julien, a French pilgrim who has spent the last few years living in Japan and is now walking the Camino backwards towards Lourdes and then onwards to his parents´ home in France. He´s hoping to arrive in time for Christmas and is making his pilgrimage now because he wants to reflect on his last few years´ experience of living abroad and to decide how he wants to shape his life over the next few years.
“I´m here to think about what I really want to do” he said as we were sharing a cup of tea after he´d settled in “but I also want to ask God what his will is for me too. It doesn´t feel right to make a decision like this without taking his wishes into account”. The open, honest and slightly embarrassed way in which he said these words was both touching and admirable at the same time. “My father said to me before I started ´You may not receive an answer to your question you know´ and I know he´s right, but I´ve got to ask anyway”.
Julien´s timing was perfect as, coincidentally, the priest´s sermon at Mass that evening was all about making time for silent prayer, to listen to what God´s will is for each of us as individuals. The part of his dream that relates to us, was how he put it, and not being too impatient to receive a quick answer; having faith that if we just keep living our daily lives as actively and positively as we can, whilst also making time, space and silence for God, the answer will eventually make itself known to us.
As we were eating dinner together later the priest joined us briefly to ask Julien about his Camino and how it was going. “I try to pray when I´m walking, but it´s hard” he said “I keep being distracted by everything around me”. The priest smiled and said that nature IS God talking to us. He advised the young pilgrim to look to the mountains, to stop at the rivers and to listen to the birdsong as he walks and eventually, he said, Julien would hear what God is trying to tell him.
“What do you say when you pray to God?” “Nothing…I just listen…” “Then what does God say to you?” “Nothing…he just listens…”– Interview with Mother Theresa of Calcutta
Later Julien told me that he had tried to Google God´s Will but that all the sites he found said similar things…”Read the Bible, all the answers are in there”, which made me smile because it brought back two significant and valuable memories, which I shared with him. The first was a conversation I had with a young Italian peregrino, when I was volunteering at a pilgrim hostel in the city of Ponferrada earlier this year. His view, based on personal experience, was that becoming too enmeshed in trying to figure out the meanings contained in all of the Scriptures has the potential to distance us from ourselves and other people and (in some cases) to even threaten our mental health…and I agree.
The second, equally valuable but slightly more positive memory, is what a priest in Fuerteventura said during a Mass that I attended there in January of this year:
“Take whatever speaks to you from the Bible, when you hear it or come across it by chance, and feel free to ignore the rest. You’ll know when you hear words that are truly meant for you because your heart will respond to them and you won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job, using your heart not your head. If it doesn´t speak to you, don´t worry about it, because it wasn´t meant for you”.…and I agree.
I felt for Julien because “What´s my purpose?” has been a question that´s travelled with me throughout my life. Sometimes it´s travelled silently, when I was entertained or distracted by other things for a while, and sometimes it´s spoken (or at times even shouted) when I´ve spent too much time ignoring it. I believe it´s the question that my spirit was asking continually and the one that weighed down my soul when I tried to convince myself that it wasn´t there.
I would never have described it as God´s Will for me, I would only have said that it was a deep sense of knowing that…”there´s more to life than this”. And the answers that other people offered to me (ie: having as many different experiences as possible; having as much pleasure and fun as you can; there is no purpose, life is just a game; or the ultimate… life has no meaning at all) just never felt right to me, in my heart-of-hearts.
The more we talked openly and honestly about our thoughts and feelings, the more Julien and I seemed to say things that helped each other and, recognising this, he asked if he could stay another night in the hostel, which the priest agreed to, and so we continued our conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.
I explained to Julien what the last 5 years of my life have taught me; namely, that I had to recognise and hear the voice of my own heart before I could truly hear and respond to the hearts of others. I believe that if we do something because we feel we should, or we´re told by others we ought to, or we´re shamed or made to feel less-than-we-are because we don´t, we´ll never do it with our whole heart and, over time, we´ll become resentful about doing it at all. And that resentment will slowly start to leak out in different ways, doing damage to ourselves and hurting others in the process.
I believe that, as a collective human race, we thrive when we live, work, celebrate, love and learn from each other, in community. BUT…and this is a vital and essential part of the human equation…not as clones of each other. We were each born with unique gifts, interests, passions, natural skills and abilities and we were born this way for a reason. If we never explore what our special gifts are by listening to the voice of our hearts, we never develop sufficient self-respect to live happily and fully as that person (God´s Will for us, if you like) and we become easy targets for other strong-willed individuals who try to dominate us with the force of their own personal agendas and wills.
“I rejected my Catholic faith at the age of 16” I told Julien, “because I couldn´t accept the message that other people´s needs and wishes mattered more than mine. It just never felt true in my heart. Now, for the first time, I´m hearing a Christian and Catholic message that says Love God first, and then love others as you love yourself. The three work together. They´re equally important. And because I believe God IS love, that means doing everything that I choose to do with love or, if I can´t, then choosing not to do it at all.
I don´t believe that God´s will for me is to do anything spectacular, impressive or particularly memorable. I think he just wants me to live compassionately but unapologetically and fully as the person he created me to be; listening to my own heart always and trying to listen and respond to the hearts of the people that I come into contact with each day. We have the unique strengths that we each have for a reason, and I believe that reason is that we´re supposed to share them with others. I really think it´s just as simple, and as challenging, as that”. And that seemed to strike a chord with Julien who said he´d been concerned that, whatever choice he made about his future, it needed to consider and include the Will of God.
When he was preparing to leave the next morning I asked him how he´d slept. “Really well” he said. “And how do you feel now?” I asked. “Relieved” he answered, with a smile. “Whatever I decide I´ll just try to share God´s hope and love wherever I am and in the way that I do things. I don´t have to decide anything else right now…” And, in saying that, he reminded me of the importance of dealing positively with what is, in the here and now, and not over-thinking or worrying about things that still lie far ahead and unknown in the future.
Because, where there´s a will to truly live with love, and faith that it can be done, a way will always appear…
“There are as many ways to finding God as there are individual rays of sunshine and they all begin and end in a search for love”– Anonymous
Two people inspired me to start writing my blog again this week and they did it subtly and unintentionally, just by telling me their stories, which came straight from their hearts. Talking to both of them felt a little bit like looking in a mirror because, although we had different views and experiences in relation to some things, there was enough similarity and respect between us to find light in the reflections. One of them was Robert (shown outside Logroño´s church hostel in the photos above), a pilgrim from Germany, who had walked more than 2,700km from his hometown of Leipzig (through Switzerland, France and now Spain) and who arrived in Logroño on day 114 of his long-distance trek, looking for somewhere to stay.
I first came to the city in March of this year, also walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, and when I finally reached that destination several months later, I turned round and walked back here again. Because the last 6 years have taught me the value and wisdom of listening to the quiet but insistent voice of my heart and my heart told me to return. It´s six months since my last proper ´blog´post and I shared it just before leaving Logroño, Santiago-bound. I´d spent the first period of the Coronavirus lock-down here, gradually growing to love this beautiful and historic place; and also having most of my prejudices about Christian communities and Catholicism challenged by what I saw and experienced at that time.
For the initial part of the confinement period I lived in a rented apartment which happened to be right on the Camino path through the city; a fact that I was unaware of when I booked it on-line through Airbnb . And again by pure coincidence, I soon discovered on my daily walk to the supermarket that, in the street next to the apartment, was the church of La Iglesia Santiago El Real. When I saw that the church was open I began to go there each day in search of some spiritual connection and solace because, despite being a lapsed Catholic who turned her back on organised religion and belief in God as a teenager (many years ago) church buildings have always felt, somewhat paradoxically, like places of sanctuary to me.
When the priest noticed a regular, solitary stranger sitting quietly in the semi-deserted pews each day, he asked me who I was and why I was here and, discovering that I was a peregrina he invited me to move into the pilgrim hostel which is attached to the church, until the on-going state-of-alarm and its related confinement came to an end.
If I believed in the holy spirit of God (which I do and have used many different names to refer to in the last few years: the Universe, Life, Love etc) I would say that the coincidences that occurred were the Spirit at work. But I also believe that the Spirit doesn´t work in isolation, it needs the force of our trusting cooperation, our loving choice (for ourselves and others) and the conscious use of our own free will. I chose to stay in Spain and to wait as long as it took to be able to continue my Camino because the quiet voice of my heart said “It´s important that you stay”. And staying brought me shelter, a small but welcoming community, and a great big challenge to face the arrogance of my ´blanket prejudice´ against the majority of practicing Christians and the Catholic Church as a whole.
Because that´s the thing I find with this troublesome Spirit that moves us…it doesn´t just move us into peaceful places filled with harmony, endless birdsong, rainbows, love and light. If we´re prepared to truly surrender ourselves to it and to see things through its unrelenting ´eye-of-truth´, it will also take us to dark and challenging places on occasion, to show us the error of our ignorant, loftily-superior, naive, unforgiving and often self-defeating ways.
So here I am, living once again in the church hostel, which has a long tradition of offering safe refuge to pilgrims who request it. There haven´t been many other pilgrims passing through the city lately, which is understandable, as a second wave of movement and service restrictions is currently affecting both the city and the country as a whole. But, in spite of this, two intrepid souls did appear on the hostel doorstep on different evenings last week; the first a young man in his early 20’s, who´d walked more than 800kms from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, and the second was mild-mannered but highly motivated and quietly-inspiring Robert from Leipzig in Germany.
Although it´s officially closed (and has been for most of this year) the pilgrim hostel´s guiding principle of Christian hospitality (which it actively lives, rather than just preaches) has always been: “No-one will be left to sleep on the street…there will always be room here for those in need”. And so room was found for each of them and dinner and breakfast were provided too.
That gave me a wonderful opportunity to share meals with them, to talk about the profound life questions that many pilgrims often find themselves discussing and to hear their stories about why they’d decided to walk now. The young pilgrim from France said he wanted to challenge the culture of fear that seems to be sweeping through the world. “At home people told me that it wouldn´t be possible to walk the Camino now” he said “but I have no problems. People welcome me and I find somewhere to sleep every night. I find that when I listen to other people´s opinions my world becomes small and unhealthy, but when I decide to find things out for myself, I see that they´re not the way others say they are.”
He talked about his frustration that many people seem to just accept whatever they see on television, and the more sensational and pessimistic the news, the more willing he felt they were to absorb it and to pass it on. “I don´t waste my time anymore talking to people who have no direct experience of something and just repeat what they see on television believing that it´s the truth.” he said. “There´s no point in trying to tell them otherwise, they just don´t listen”. He also had an interesting question for me, and for the priest, before he left.
“Why don´t Christians believe in miracles anymore?” he said. “If they truly did they would accept that this is all part of God´s plan and they would have more faith, but they seem to believe more in fear and wanting to spread that fear to everyone around them. No-one seems to believe in miracles anymore”.
Robert´s story was an unfolding one. He told me that he left Leipzig with the initial intention of walking to Switzerland but that, when he got there, his heart told him to keep on going. He´d had the desire to walk the Camino for some time and that had prompted him to start his epic journey but it was people´s reactions to him, and the good fortune and kindness that he experienced on the way, that had motivated him to keep going. “I´m keeping a diary” he said, “of all the things that people give to me and do for me to help me on my way. Look!” and, with that, he showed me a little notebook, its pages filled with neat, individual entries. “Every one is an individual act of kindness” he said with a smile.
“In Switzerland I only had to pay for one night´s accommodation, all the other times people invited me into their homes or offered me somewhere sheltered to stay. They trusted me, a complete stranger, because I´m having the courage to do what I´m doing. They were interested in hearing my story and I learned something valuable from my experience of spending time with each of them.”
He talked about more things uniting us as human beings, despite our different languages and cultures, than dividing us. He said that what we all want, deep down, is connection, humanity, contact with each other and love. “I don´t want to live in a new normal of social-distancing and wearing masks all the time” he said “I refuse to live with that culture of fear…and part of this pilgrimage is sharing that message of hope with others, because I´m finding many, many people who feel the same way”.
And his words lit a little light of hope inside me, because I also feel the same. This camino has taught me to be respectful of other people´s fears because I´ve come to understand that, in many cases, they´re acutely felt. But what I won´t accept is other people´s pessimism or their attemps to stifle genuine actions or expressions of hope because it feels threatening to their own circumstances or beliefs.
I´m a firm believer in optimism. I believe that there will be many, many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago next year, but I´m in a staggering minority in that belief. Someone said to me recently “It´s fine being an optimist, but we have no idea what will happen next year. You have to be a realist too.” I am. I fully accept that I may be wrong and, if I am, that that will be part of God´s plan for us all too. But thinking as I do, and taking action now to help prepare for what I believe, is not being blindly optimistic or unrealistic, it´s doing something positive and creative to manifest a little hope in the midst of all this uncertainty and fear.
Today is the first day of Advent, a massively symbolic period of hope for a brighter future, regardless of individual belief. There is a Spirit that fills this Universe and that touches all of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. One of the ways that it manifests itself positively and noticeably is when we cultivate an inner sense of Hope, but it doesn´t work in a vacuum…it has to be invited in.
On my first Camino five years ago I met an Englishman called Christopher. He was on his third attempt to reach Santiago, his previous pilgrmages having come to unexpected and premature ends. He became a symbol of hope personified for me and he left me with some memorable words of wisdom:
You have to be prepared to believe in miracles before they can happen Michele. It never works the other way around”