That Light in the Distance…

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.

Be the Change…

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 

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”

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

The Way of the Rose & the Alchemist’s house

In 2018 I did something back-to-front, I walked the pilgrimage path of the Camino de Santiago backwards. Starting from Spain’s most Westerly coastal town of Muxia, I crossed the country from West to East, via Santiago de Compostela, and into France through the Pyreneean mountain range, which acts as a border between the two countries . In ancient times this was the way that virtually all pilgrims returned home again, having completed their pilgrimages to Santiago.

Twenty years ago, following the popular revival of this Camino, ‘walking backwards’ would have been considered slightly unusual, a tad unsociable and even a little eccentric. But it’s a practice that’s gaining in popularity now, with many more walkers choosing to undertake it, and even acquiring its own name, Facebook page and related pilgrimage documentation. It’s called the ‘Camino Retorno’ (the way back) and its official symbol is ´the spiral´.

I have many wonderful memories of special moments on that return Camino, but there is one in particular that I’d like to share with you today, because I keep learning something new from it, each time it comes to mind. The most recent ‘spontaneous remembrance’ happened during a service of Mass that I attended last Sunday, in my neighbouring town of La Oliva.

It concerns my visit, during that Camino, to an artist’s home and studio called ‘La Casa del Alquimista (The Alchemist’s House) which also offers accommodation, on a donation-only basis, for pilgrims wishing to spend the night. It was not directly on the Camino, but required a detour of several kilometres, a detour that I wasn’t intending to make, but for a set of happy coincidences which told me that I should.

That morning I’d stopped at a cafe and got chatting to an American woman who was close to reaching Santiago, having walked the length of the Camino, heading the normal way. I asked her what had been her most memorable experience so far and she told me about a small community of “artisan Hippy-types” who were displaying their artwork and sharing their philosophy with anyone interested in stopping as they passed by. She said that she loved the positive feeling that she took away from the place, told me “You must stop there!”, and gave me the name of the small village in the hills where the community could be found.

A Balsa Valley, Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago

A couple of days later I found myself close to the village that the American peregrina had described, set in Galicia’s beautiful A Balsa valley. It was nearing the end of the day, which had been a hot one with a fair amount of road walking, when I found myself climbing a long and winding stony path. I took a breather on a conveniently-placed bench by the path-side, took off my backpack and drank some water, to cool down and to re-hydrate. Then I noticed, in front of me, a small sign to ‘La Casa del Alquimista’ and the words ‘Gallery’ and ‘3kms’ pointing off the Camino route.

I debated just ignoring it, thinking “Do I really want to add 6kms to my walking total now, just to commune with some positive Hippie-types, inspect their artwork and ‘take a positive feeling away’ with me?” But something about the strangeness of the whole day (which may turn into another blog post one day), and the insistence of the American woman, told me that it was important and would be worth the extra effort. So I set off down the detour path…the road less travelled, if you like.

When I arrived at the house there was no-one in sight and it was eerily quiet. The American woman had talked about a thronging and vibrant community, with children and animals running round, paintings and hand-crafted items on display and a welcoming, “buzzy” vibe that felt infectious and which drew you in. I began to ask myself if I was at the right place. But outside the house was a lovely, under-cover seating area, with stools fashioned from logs of wood, Bohemian-type furniture and large, patterned cloth covers draped all around, and that gave me heart that I might be where I was supposed to be.

La Casa del Alquimista

I went up to the half-ajar door that led off from this area and called out “Hola!” to attract the attention of anyone who might be home. No reply. Undeterred, having just invested 3kms of walking in the hope of a worthwhile experience, I tentatively entered the house and ventured another “Hola”, a little more loudly, as I approached another half-open door. And that was when Antonio appeared.

For a moment I was taken aback because he looked so familiar but, when he offered to make us both tea and invited me to sit outside and wait, my memory pulled out the relevant corresponding file and I realised that this was not the community I’d been told about but, rather, the home of a man who was something of a Camino institution; mineral artist Antonio Bello, who I’d seen talking at length on a film that had been made about the spiritual aspect of the Camino, some time before.

Antonio Bello with one of his mineral works of art

Antonio reappeared with the freshly-made tea, explained that his son and daughter-in-law were out shopping and suggested that we sit down and talk, which we did, uninterrupted, for more than an hour. Our talk was incredibly wide-ranging. He listened as much as he spoke. And he said many things to me that I remember; the whole experience vastly repaying any physical investment I’d made in walking the extra kilometres that day. But there was one particular thing that I felt moved to share here. The thing that came to mind during Mass last week; particular words that he spoke to me during our conversation. And these were those words:

“The Way of the Rose is a hard one. To reach the flower you must climb the stalk and the stalk has thorns that can harm you. They can cause great pain and, in some cases, even death. You have to understand this if you want to choose this way”

A couple of weeks before, again during Mass, I’d found myself thinking about why the Catholic Church’s doctrine appears to be so wedded to the concept of suffering, pain and sin, most particularly in its depictions of Jesus, bloodily crucified on the cross. This wasn’t a new theme for me; it was one that puzzled me at length while I walked the Northern Camino route in the Summer of 2017. I wrote in my journal at the time that, just for once, I’d like to see a more hopeful image of Jesus in a church somewhere to redress the balance…and was greeted a few days later by the statue shown in the photograph below:

That ‘different perspective’ is one of the main reasons that I chose to begin regularly attending Mass at the church in neighbouring La Oliva, during my time in Fuerteventura. The sermons that the priest gives are so human, positive, realistic but full of love. In the first Mass that I attended he spoke about “taking whatever speaks to you from the Bible, or any source (a conversation, a song, something that you read) no matter how small, and feeling free to disregard the rest”. He said “You’ll know when you hear words that are meant for you. You won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job”, which resonated with me as ‘the truth’.

He teaches enjoyment of life as it is…”a relaxed coffee with your neighbour; the admiration of a beautiful woman or man that you see; making a quiet moment for someone who needs it; investing the effort to find harmony with someone whose opinion is different to your own”. He talks about “Being grateful every day for all that we have: our health, our families, our good fortune to live as a free men and free women.”

His mantra is ‘Take maximum enjoyment from these things, the little joys of everyday life, rather than suffering with pointless desire for things we don’t have. If we focus our energy on gratitude and harmony, within ourselves and with others, what we desire will take care of itself.’ It sounds strangely similar to ‘New Age thinking’ but, more to my point, it sounds like the truth to me.

Last Sunday his message was ‘Actions matter far more than appearance or words and true belief in the Love of God is simply living that love through our example. We stop the spread of hatred and intolerance by not responding with similar negative energy when someone treats us unjustly, thoughtlessly, manipulatively or with disrespect’. And that’s when my memory of Antonio’s words to me were triggered, and when I finally understood one of the main reasons why suffering features so prominently in the doctrine of the Christian faith.

The way I see it now, if we choose to live and act from a place of Love, then we will suffer, because we will encounter people who, for whatever reason, treat us thoughtlessly, carelessly, on occasion manipulatively and with disrespect. This is the reality of human life, human relationships and human interaction.

We all have sensitive egos and we always will have, no matter how many meditation, psychotherapy, religious re-birthing or Ayahuasca sessions we may choose to undertake. Such practices may well help us to peel back the layers of our identity, to develop greater understanding of ourselves, our limitations, our automatic reactions and our untapped but enormous potential and gifts. But fallible, sensitive human beings we all are and so we’ll all remain. I think this is an inescapable fact of life.

Mineral artwork by Armiche Bello León, from La Casa del Alquimista

Even Jesus, seen as the epitome of ‘the Divine in human form’ for all Christian believers, is shown within Christianity’s most sacred text (the Bible) demonstrating anger, frustration, impatience, exhaustion and, even in the moments before his death, severe spiritual doubt. Why? Because, as well as being divine, he was also human and so are each of us.

What I now understand far more clearly is that, each time I choose ‘the Way of the Rose’ (which, for me, is the path of gentle, non-aggressive and non-retaliative strength), I will feel pain. My ego’s pain, which will always want me to defend it, which will urge me to ‘respond in kind’ when faced with open or covert aggression from others and which will have to suffer the wounding of its ego pride when I don’t.

Choosing a gentler, more considered, less immediately-satisfying response takes effort, control, reflection, wisdom and grace. But I believe it’s a skill that we all have the capacity to learn. And I don’t mean ‘silent, passive acceptance’ either. I mean ‘active acceptance’. Finding the words or actions, when we feel an absence of respect from others, which demonstrates our non-aggressive strength. A strength that is mature, noble, wise, creative and healing; for ourselves and, potentially, for others…if they choose to take up the opportunity and make the effort to reflect on what, between us, took place.

I’m under no illusion that it’s easy. I realise, from painful personal experience, that there’s a turbulent ocean of emotion between cherished theory and effective practice, day-to-day. But I believe it’s a painful path worth walking because its destination is inner peace. And, I also believe that, the more we choose to adopt it, the more we help to generate and create peace in the lives of others too.

Antonio Bello died a year ago in January but I know that the way he lived his life touched many people and the wisdom he shared with me, during that hour we spent talking together, will continue to help me in the years ahead. He believed, as I do, that we’re all here to walk our own particular ‘Life Camino’, that each of us has a different Way of the Rose, and that it’s up to every one of us, if we accept the challenge, to discover exactly where our path leads.

So, to anyone who consciously decides to make that choice, I wish you a “Buen Camino”, a safe and healing journey and many spiritually-enriching encounters along your Way.

What you have despised in yourself as a thorn opens into a rose.

– Rumi

La Casa del Alquimista continues to operate as an art gallery, a peaceful place of reflection and personal meditation, and a donativo-based overnight stop for pilgrims walking the Camino (no fixed charge; you give what you feel moved to). It is now run by Antonio’s son, Armiche, who I’ve never met but who, by all accounts, has inherited his father’s artistic skills and open-minded, open-hearted way of living. If you’re interested in finding out more, their Facebook page can be found at the following link: ‘La Casa del Alquimista’.