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.

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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”.

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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”