The Advent Calendar of Life…

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.

Star of Bethlehem, Iglesia Santiago, Logroño

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.

Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

The Melt

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?"
Images from:
Snowflakes in Photographs
by W A Bentley

Where there´s a will…

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

“Start here, start now…”

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”

Who am I to tell you…?

 
Who am I to tell you how to seek and find the all-confounding, 
all-demanding, all-providing and glorious God
that is Love?

 Who am I to offer guidance or reassurance that might help you stumble blindly into it, 
as I have, 
 over the self-inflicted wreckage of 
 fantasy, frustration, false images, failures, hidden frailties and forlorn hope?

 Who am I to stick my head above the parapet and to scream, until I´m hoarse?
 - amid a roar of differing, strong opinions -
 “Keep going.  Keep searching.
 Keep trusting in that doubt-filled longing deep within you that 
 ´There…IS…More´”

 What difference will one, timid, easily-distracted, easily-discouraged, 
 lone and fallible human voice make?
 
We´ll never know.
 That´s the beginning and the end of it.  The Alpha and the OmegaWe´ll never know.

 Have Faith.

 I do know that listening to the drum-beat of my heart and following its guiding rhythm 
has been my Way and my only Way, 
 and that it´s cut a swathe through me and the lives of others in its drive to find this Truth. 
 That it´s swept ´neediness´ and ´ego´ and ´wish-to-please-others´ 
and ´desire-for-applause´ directly into my line-of-sight 
and lead me deeper and deeper 
 into this Labyrinth of Life, 
in which we´re all held.

 It´s taught me, 
time and time again, 
 that no-one is only what they choose to show others 
 or what they appear to be, 
on the surface.
  
 It´s shown me, when I´ve looked…and looked again,
 with presence of compassion and absence of defence,
 a glimmer of my glorious but frightened, 
lonely and defended self, 
 within each and all.
  
 And in that glimmer of recognition, that flash of mirrored light,
 I´ve felt and recognised, just fleetingly, the smiling presence of God.
 Disarming, energizing, all-powerful, 
 a sacred gentleness,
 filling a timeless moment of eternity,
 with the infinite force of Life 
called
 Love

Why not take all of Me?

It’s just over two months since my Korean flatmates left Logroño, carried away into the darkness one morning in a taxi bound for Barcelona airport and then onwards, by plane, back to Seoul, family, friends and home.  It’s amazing how quickly that time has passed and how things have changed, both for me and for the city, since then.  

We stay in touch via iMessenger and my friends tell me that they’re all well.  After 14 days quarantined in a hotel at Seoul airport they’re now reunited with their families, back at work and returning to a sort of normality (albeit, as they say with a little sadness in their hearts, “It’s a masked reality”).

They’ve asked me to send them photos from the Camino when I restart the Way and I’ll be happy to do it.  It will be like we’re together once again and they’ll be able to walk it ‘virtually’ with me, until the day they’re free to return in person and finally arrive in Santiago, and then Finisterre, themselves.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege of sitting out my social isolation in this beautiful, ancient and historic northern Spanish city, which initially meant marvelling at its empty streets and soulful silence from the little balconies of my rented apartment (during the 6 weeks that any form of venturing out for exercise was forbidden).  Then gradually witnessing the city’s awakening from slumber, as streets full of joggers, cyclists and walkers suddenly appeared at 6am on the first day that exercise restrictions were eased.  And now, as more and more freedoms return, seeing Life breathing itself back into the city centre and cathedral square. Pavement cafés are filling up with animated and gossiping teenagers, shops are opening their doors, and old men are lining the benches of Logroño´s plazas and parks once again.

I‘m very conscious of what a great privilege this has been; spending these lockdown months in a country I love, in a city on the Camino that I love and, through my deliberate choice, largely on my own.  When the Coronavirus pressed the pause button on life-as-we-know-it and gave us empty cities, plane-less skies and a level of peace and quiet we’d never seen or heard before, being here alone provided me with a unique and very special opportunity.

I’m a reflective person by nature and walking Caminos has helped me to accept, explore and value this part of my nature in a way that my life BC (Before Camino) did not. But the global lockdown provided me with an invitation to ‘go even further inwards’, which felt somehow unique and new.  With no walking to occupy me, no beautiful scenery to enchant me, and only limited exposure to distractions like TV, radio or social media (my conscious choice at that time) I was left with just myself…and a different, more concentrated, more honest inward journey began; one that I welcomed as the `once-in-a-lifetime´opportunity that I believe it was.

I found myself looking closely at my story, my memories, my rabbit-holes and beartraps (the ones that catch me and hold me for a time…time and time again).  I spent days on end with the ‘Me that I used to be’ and the ‘Me that I strive to be’ and I learned that neither has any real substance or useful purpose in reality; they’re both just part of the story that I tell myself.  Some days I danced with joyful Me, laughed with playful Me, shook my head at deluded Me, raised an eyebrow at vain Me, cried with shame-filled, sad & hopeless Me or smiled gently at approval-seeking, doubt-riddled Me.

But I also began to realise that there was a central, centred Me; a Me who didn´t chatter as much as the other parts did…in fact…a Me who didn´t chatter at all. But who would say, on occasion, “Ah…yes…now I see” and it did see. It saw that ´the chattering parts´ weren´t bad, weak, evil, ego-ensnared, low-vibrational, masked, false or inauthentic parts, they were actually all real and rightful parts of ´the whole Me´, which I’d never had enough compassion or insight to see before. I saw that each of those ‘rejected, unacknowledged’ parts was just battling to do the best they could to keep ´the whole Me´ feeling safe, loved and protected at stressful or challenging times.

And, like a clear and quiet morning gradually lighting what was dark before, I saw why ‘finding unconditional love for ourselves’ appears to be the most difficult life challenge for every human being alive. To truly love, I believe, we must first see, understand and accept the entirety of the person or thing that calls for our love, exactly as it is. And, perhaps most importantly, I believe that begins with us.

If we begin our quest for self-love by telling ourselves “These parts of me are unacceptable and need to be resisted or improved” or, worse “These parts aren’t really me at all and I’ll do whatever I can to ignore, deny or to disable them”, then we’ve fallen at the first hurdle and we´ll always be looking outwards to another person or thing to save us or to make us feel complete. We are complete. I am complete…exactly as I am. At times I´m joyful, at others playful, sometimes deluded, frequently vain, occasionally angry, but probably as sad, hopeless, shame-filled, approval-seeking and doubt-riddled as the next person; maybe I´m just a little less afraid to talk about these things at times.

And what´s the benefit of all this soul-searching and insight? Will I now be completely accepting of all parts of myself at all times? No…because I´m a human being.

Will I now be endlessly patient, tolerant and considerate of others at all times? No…because I´m a human being.

Will I try to be these things in future? Yes.

Why? Because I recognise that the centred, central part of me is actually the wise and ancient voice of gentle compassion. Compassion for all things, myself included. And I realise that what it is actually saying (and has probably always been whispering to me under the myriad of chatter) is “Ah…yes…now I see…this is how to feel Love“.

And what do I believe Love truly is? Well…that´s another story, for another day…

Fear is the Key…

This post was written at the end of March, but now feels like the right time to publish it…

It’s more than two weeks since my last blog post and what a two weeks it’s been – in all of our lives.  How quickly the world and our experience of it can change.  How effectively Life teaches us to embrace the contradictions of our humanness: fragile and resilient in equal measure; generous or self-serving, depending on our choices and our learned responses to challenges, stress and fear.

My ‘blog silence’ had two main reasons: (1) the practical task of writing and posting the blog while walking the Camino each day, with only a mobile phone and no access to a computer, was more challenging than usual and, perhaps more to the point, (2) I didn’t know what to say.

I knew that this Camino was going to be a significant one for me from the day I decided to walk it but, as is almost always the case, it’s turned out to be so in ways that I didn’t anticipate at that time.  It’s confirmed for me something that I’d already come to understand is an essential truth in my life; namely that the things I fear the most (and do my best to avoid) Life will keep presenting to me in different ways, until I find the courage to finally face ‘the truth of what is’ and to consciously deal with it in a positive way.

Other people’s disapproval has always been a challenge for me and that’s seen me ‘bending myself out of shape’ in the past in an effort to try and keep myself ‘likable’ and inoffensive.  I believe whole-heartedly in the principle of harmony and in trying to create it and sustain it wherever possible.  And, although this does motivate a lot of my actions and decision-making, I’m talking about something different here.  I’m referring to my tendency to be passive or to keep silent when I know I should speak, particularly in the face of passive or open aggression from others.

Last week I found myself facing such aggression from strangers on social media, when the story of me continuing to walk the Camino after Spain had officially closed the route began to circulate and spread on Facebook. I received messages telling me that my behavior was disgraceful, that I should be put in prison and that I was mentally retarded.

I don’t share this experience to illicit any sympathy, I played my part in the creation of it and I accept that responsibility without excuse.  Neither do I share it to try and garner support or to reignite a topic that has now been laid to rest.  I share it because it resulted in an experience that taught me something valuable that I was ready to learn about myself and which others may find helpful too.

I learned that everyone is doing their best at the moment to come to terms with the strange and fear-filled times in which we now find ourselves and that, every day, we’ll each be presented with choices.

I learned that some of us will choose to turn away from or against others (letting fear or prejudice dictate how we react and relate to those who we don’t know) while others will turn towards our fellow human beings, even when they speak or act in ways that feel different and/or difficult for us to understand.

I believe that we were each gifted with compassionate and loving hearts at birth.  But that the world in which we live often encourages us to judge ourselves and others quickly, unfairly and harshly; as a way of masking difficult feelings of insecurity and inner fear that we’d rather not examine or face.

I believe this way of living gradually hardens our hearts, particularly in times of stress and uncertainty, and that it makes us quick to judge, shun and distance ourselves from those who appear ‘different’ to ourselves.

But I also believe that, for those of us who are honest enough to recognise that we all still have much to learn, there’s hope…and that hope comes in the form of our own fear, if we’re brave enough to look at it closely and to see it for what it is.

If we do we’ll see that, almost invariably, our fear is about the unknown.  And, so strong is society’s terror of the unknown and its collective denial of that terror, that we demand the illusion of certainty in all things.  We attempt to define and control all things, to keep our terror in the shadows and at bay.  We turn our anger and our hostility towards anyone who challenges the controls, certainties or ‘status quo’ that keep us feeling safe and, in doing so, we distract ourselves from the truth that Life is always in constant flux and that its very essence is uncertainty and change. 

And, in that respect, I see fear as ‘The Master Key’.  

I believe it’s a key that we can turn one way (locking us ever more securely in fortresses of certainty and judgmental beliefs) or the other way, opening ourselves up to the unknown, challenging and potentially painful experiences we often do our best to avoid at all costs.  

I believe that our experience and quality of life, in the brief time we’re here, will always be shaped, moulded and determined by how we choose to see the world and other people around us; and by how we choose to interact with them.

Fear is natural and human.  It is an instinctive response ‘hard-wired’ into us and designed to keep us safe from risk and harm.  But it has an immense and intrinsic power of its own; a ‘polar power’ with the capability to either unite and create new beginnings, or to divide, diminish and destroy.

If we fail to accept the reality that the fear each of us feels inside is generated by us, from within, then we will always look for external scapegoats to blame for our feelings of insecurity and, in extreme cases, choose to express that fear in verbal or physical abuse and attack.

We are fragile human beings because we will always experience fear, but I believe that we’re also an inventive and resilient species because we can learn how to harness and channel that fear to create rather than to destroy.

We are generous human beings (to ourselves and others) when we can accept that ‘getting it wrong’, stumbling on the stoney path of life, is part of how we all learn.  It’s an intrinsic part of our very fallible ‘humanness’.  And when we find the capacity within ourselves to reach out a metaphorical hand of understanding or a physical hand of help to others (most especially when we feel it’s undeserved) then we embody the generosity of spirit and compassion that is the best part of us.  It’s the essence that lies at the very heart of us and at the heart of all religious and spiritual belief.

When I allow fear to stop me from speaking or acting, I not only silence the voice of my intuition, I also silence the spirit of Life within me.  When I avoid saying or doing something that my intuition tells me I should, for fear of negative or aggressive reactions from others, I allow fear to make my choices for me, instead of consciously making them for myself.

When I choose to stand up to fear or to walk with it for a while,  although it often results in painful and difficult experiences, I never regret the decision and I always encounter heart-piercing gifts of Grace.  Gifts of Grace that bring me face-to-face with my human limitations, ego-based delusions, persistent vanity and the reality of my fragility. But which also constantly bless and protect me with unexpected good fortune and humbling acts of kindness and generosity from others.  

And for those reasons alone, if no other, it’s a path that keeps calling me onwards and one I’ll keep choosing to take.

Home thoughts from abroad…

Early this morning the clocks sprang forward one hour, symbolically reflecting this time of change and our forward movement into Spring.  I hear birdsong all around me (all the more audible for the lack of vehicle hum and city noise that usually fills the streets here).

I frequently see storks overhead, making their way to the cathedral turrets, building their nests and ‘clacking’ the news of their arrival and the blossoming of another, new, vernally-eternal season of growth and renewal.

I’m in the Northern Spanish city of Logroño, slap bang on the route of the Camino de Santiago, which I cross every day on the way to the supermarket to buy groceries and other essential supplies.  And I feel at home here.

I’m sharing an apartment with 3 fellow pilgrims from Korea who started walking the Camino on the same day as me.  Life, the ‘Coronavirus crisis’ and similar temperaments and goals threw us together at the time that Spain announced its State of Alarm and we decided to stop here temporarily, to take stock and to see what would come next.

We’re not permitted to leave the apartment to exercise (police patrol cars cruise the streets with loud hailers urging people to respect the ‘lock-down’ and motorcycle cops stop and question anyone not obviously out shopping or walking their dogs) but the weather is still beautiful and sunlight floods in through our windows each day.

Within two days of moving-in our boiler broke down, leaving us without hot water or heating.  Our landlord was profusely apologetic and did all he could to solve the problem as quickly as these strange times allowed him to.  Five days, three engineer visits, the installation of a replacement pump and several cold showers and bucket baths later, the boiler was fixed.  In true Camino fashion we made jokes about the lack of creature comforts we’d taken for granted only a few days before; were grateful for the fact we had an electric cooker, which enabled us to prepare hot meals; and savored the pure luxury of hot water again when it finally returned.

But during the ‘cold shower’ days I found myself thinking “How many people in Refugee Camps around the world would be overjoyed at the luxury of being able to just turn on a tap and have instant, clean, plentiful cold water to drink and in which to bathe?”

Thousands.  The answer is thousands.  Thousands of fellow human beings who feel sadness, joy, gratitude, frustration, pain, despair and hope, just like us; regardless of their nationality, their language or their beliefs.  People far from home and desperately in search of somewhere to call a safe and secure home once again.  It was a reality check and a sobering thought.

When the lock-down first started the people of Logroño (like people around the world I’m sure) seemed to go into a state of emotional and psychological lock-down too.  The things that I’ve come to truly love about Spain and its people (their openness to others, their enthusiasm for greeting and talking to complete strangers in the street; their relaxed and appreciative attitude to simple pleasures like food, a good cup of coffee or ‘chupito’, conversation, nature and the outdoors) all these seemed to vanish overnight.

I found people suddenly reluctant to make eye contact, unwilling to smile or return a greeting, unable to look around them and just appreciate the beauty of nature or the fine weather with which we were suddenly blessed.  It was public fear manifested on a grand, disconnecting and disconcerting scale.  But it didn’t last.

No doubt it was the shock of adjustment to the lock-down, the uncertainty about how long it would last, and the worry about what would be the ultimate cost to individuals, families, communities and the world at large.  These uncertainties remain but, being human, resilient, sociable and open by nature, people here have started to relax, to smile and to greet each other once again – as a new ‘normal’ settles in.

People seem to have quickly adjusted to this new reality, to be feeling more at home with it and this, to me, is what the word ‘home’ really represents.

‘Home’ isn’t a physical place for me (although I appreciate that for many it is), it’s the feeling that that place provides.  A feeling of safety and of ease, a place where we feel able to breathe, to relax, to kick off our protective boots, loosen our social ties and just ‘be’; knowing that we’ll continue to be loved and accepted for exactly who we are and that the sky won’t fall in.

One of the principle reasons that I’m able to feel at home here in Logroño, sharing a flat with 3 people who were complete strangers to me less than 3 weeks ago, is because I have the emotional safety and security of the love of family and friends.  Many of whom are very different to me, but all of whom accept and love me as I am.

Family members who initially were keen for me to return to the UK but who understood my reasons for staying here when I explained them after serious reflection and thought.  Friends who keep in touch with me via the miracle that is modern technology and the social media platforms that connect us.  Platforms that can be used so easily to generate and spread creative, positive messages of love, compassion, hope and understanding, or destructive messages of fear, drama, judgment and hate.  The choice is always ours.

Just as the choice for how we react to and engage with the world and the people around us is a daily and infinitely renewing choice; a metaphorical Spring if you like.  Every day gives us the choice and chance to blossom into something more, to grow into a way of being that is bigger than we were before, if we’re prepared to embrace the (sometimes painful) growing process and allow it to occur.

Now is a time of crisis in the world but the Chinese symbol for crisis also means ‘change’ and I’ve found myself reflecting on the fact that how we choose to interpret and respond to this change will determine the lasting effects of it on us and the world around us. 

If we allow ourselves to be placed in ‘emotional and psychological lock-down’ by our fear then it will underpin all of our decisions and responses, leaving us feeling unsafe and ‘far from home’.  We’ll be more likely to experience ‘dis-ease’ within ourselves and disharmony or disconnection in our relationships with others.  And it’s my belief that the world needs less dis-ease and disharmony right now, not more.

The enemy is fear. We think it is hate; but it is really fear.”

– Gandhi

I’m aware that if we begin to divide our thinking into forms of “them and us” and start to target our fear or anger (which is just the aggressive face of fear) towards any “them” that we may have created in our imagination then we’ll only be contributing to the epidemic of destructive dis-ease in the world, not helping to heal it. 

But I don’t believe that any of us want to consciously do that.  I believe we all have the ‘homing device’ of our hearts calling us to lean into our fear, to support one another and to spread harmony, compassion, understanding and connection…in any way that we can.

We are a brotherhood and sisterhood of fellow human beings however diverse, on the surface, we may seem to be.  We bleed the same blood, we cry the same tears, we feel the same pain and we’re all on the journey that will, ultimately, lead us all home.

“I am an incurable romantic.

I believe in hope, dreams and decency, love, tenderness and kindness.

I believe in mankind”

– Leonard Nimoy

The Clearing…

I’ve written a number of blog posts during the last week, since stopping the Camino de Santiago and going into ‘lock-down’ isolation with 3 fellow pilgrims here in Northern Spain.  But my silent inner voice has shaken its head to them all.  

I don’t know why, which is not unusual, but I know enough to know that there’s a good reason and that it knows best.

So, rather than just leave the website dormant indefinitely, I’ve decided to periodically post other people’s words that feel appropriate in some way at this time of uncertainty and change.

I’m grateful to a good friend for sending me the following poem this week:

Do not try to save the whole world
or do anything grandiose.
Instead, create a clearing
in the dense forest of your life
and wait there patiently,
until the song that is your life,
falls into your own cupped hands
and you recognise and greet it.
Only then will you know
how to give yourself to this world
so worthy of rescue.”
💜

-  Martha Postlewaite

New Boots…

I bought a new pair of walking boots yesterday. The perfect pair to fit my growing feet. Feet that seem to keep growing, with each long walk that I do. I start my next Camino de Santiago (an old friend, a Camino I’ve walked three times before) in less than a week. And it’s currently snowing…something that I hadn’t expected…and so the speedy purchase of new waterproof boots.

But this is why I walk the Camino. This is why I walk the same Camino…because it’s never the same…and that’s both the beauty and the bounty of it. Something that my forgetful self still needs to be reminded of it seems.

Only a few weeks ago I was thinking about the length of time the walk would take, what I would do when I arrived in Santiago, and the likely stops that I’d make along the way. I’d already informally labelled it ‘My Gratitude Camino’ in my head; a physical act of thanks for all the gifts of good health and good fortune I’ve received in the last few years. A sort of ‘tying up of loose ends’ before seeing what comes next.

But now I see Life smiling at me again, gently shaking its head, and silently whispering “When will you learn? There are no loose ends. It’s all my Way.”

I had a different blog piece prepared for today. It was called ‘Why we’re all Superheros at heart’ and I’d been adding to it, honing it and polishing it throughout this week. But, even as I was working on it, I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t be using it. Because my heart is already putting on its thermal hat, strapping on its backpack and, now, lacing up its new boots. Ready to walk again. In a slightly different way. And all is as it’s meant to be…

Every time you leave home
another road takes you
into a world you were never in.

New strangers on other paths await.
New places that have never seen you
will startle a little at your entry.
Old places that know you well
will pretend nothing changed
since your last visit.

When you travel, you find yourself
alone, in a different way,
more attentive now,
to the self you bring along.
Your more subtle eye
watching you abroad;
and how what meets you
touches that part of the heart
that lies low at home.

How you unexpectedly attune
to the timbre in some voice,
opening a conversation
you want to take in
to where your longing
has pressed hard enough
inward, on some unsaid dark,
to create a crystal of insight
you could not have known
you needed
to illuminate
your way.

When you travel,
a new silence
goes with you.
And, if you listen,
you will hear
what your heart
would love to say.

A journey can become a sacred thing.

Make sure, before you go,
to take the time
to bless your going forth,
to free your heart of ballast
so that the compass of your soul
might direct you towards
the territories of spirit
where you will discover
more of your hidden life,
and the urgencies
that deserve to claim you.

May you travel in an awakened way,
gathered wisely into your inner ground;
that you may not waste the invitations
which wait along the way
to transform you.

May you travel safely, arrived refreshed,
and live your time away to its fullest;
return home more enriched, and free
to balance the gift of days which call you.

- John O'Donohue

Amen