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.