Tree of Life…

Someone I love recently asked me if I was “in love”; because Love seems to be a theme in so much of what I write about when the spirit moves me, in both my poetry and my prose. My answer was “Yes, I´m in love…with my life and with God“. Because, to me, God is (quite literally) Love, and it´s become impossible for me to write about one without the other. Both within my heart and within my consciousness, they are one-and-the-same thing. But I also appreciate that people who don´t share this belief, will naturally attempt to categorise any talk of Love into one of our human definitions of it.

Love is the one thing that every human-being searches for and craves, from our beginning to our end, whether consciously aware of it or not. But, as my post ´Sea of Love´ tried to convey, Love comes in so many forms – as does God – that it´s almost impossible to analyse, define or contain in a way that makes it fully understandable or known. Just as we will never be ´fully known´ by another human being during our lives here on Earth, neither will the mystery of God/Love be fully known to us during our “four score years and ten“.

It´s only when we truly open our minds and our hearts up to this unsettling realisation, and start to accept what the divine mystery is trying to teach us, in each of our indivdual life experiences, that we begin to learn how potentially limiting our human definitions of both God and Love can often be.

We begin to see why we will never find ´perfect love´ with a single human-being here on Earth (be that perfect parental, partner or friendship love); because none of us, no matter how well-intentioned, good or noble we try to be, is a living embodiment of divine Love. We need to widen our gaze and perception of Love to catch even fleeting glimpses of the true glory of God that lies dormant inside every one of us…including ourselves.

This personal revelation has helped me to accept that human limitations are´God-inspired´. Because it´s the limitations in one person, that highlights the strengths in another and, in doing so, it invites us to see how cooperation and inter-dependence can foster a sense of common purpose, mutual respect and shared Love; when we allow it to. I´ve learned that, when we keep looking outwards for love, we ignore the Love that is God-made-manifest within us, and we surrender all conscious ability to share that selfless, powerful and authentic love with others; which leaves us spiritually poorer as a result.

I´ve been personally fortunate in finding a Christian community here in Spain that has welcomed me both as a rarity (a passing pilgrim who chose to stay-a-while), and also as one-of-its-own (someone with trust and faith in the mystery that is God). Here I´ve learned about the immense healing power of simple human kindness shown to strangers, whilst also retaining my previous awareness that Love demands much more of us than “simply being kind”.

My last five years of pilgrimage and, in fact, all of my life experience to date, has shown me what Love ultimately demands: that we see and accept its presence in all that it sends our way. But I´ve also learned, by observing the lives of people around me, that being kind to each other and making the effort to live in harmony, makes the bearing of Love´s occasionally-painful-armour-piercing gifts, both more bearable and survivable at the same time.

In this community, and in other similar Christian communities, it´s called fellowship; a recognition of the truth that we are a Brotherhood of Man. It´s the manifestation, in day-to-day life, of the main message that Jesus conveyed and embodied during his lifetime: “Recognise and honour the ways in which God´s grace is compassionate to you; and – in your gratitude for that grace – feel, show and share that same compassion (or love) with those around you.

I know that it´s a tough call for people who haven´t grown up in mutually-supportive communities like these, and it´s a big ask for those who´ve grown up with trust issues and, through necessity, have learned to mistrust others and to count only on themselves. But it´s a ´lesson worth learning´ and a ´risk worth taking´ because, ultimately, every one of us learns that we are all held in the immensely-powerful hand (and live at the mercy and grace) of God´s unfathomable divine Love. A love that lives and grows when shared…and which becomes deformed, slowly withers and then dies when jealously-guarded, stifled or kept in isolation.

I see it symbolically as the Tree of Life referred to in Genesis (about which so little is written in the Bible and around which so much has been speculated), because it´s this feeling of fellowship that is the principle way in which we experience God´s divine Love in this life. And I see the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil (or opinion, as I´ve come to call it) as the source of all division and suffering between us. If we over-indulge in fruit from the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil we run the risk of becoming opinionated, self-righteous and distant from the warm and loving, compassionate human beings we are capable of being…not just with family and close friends, but with the strangers we also encounter, day in and day out.

But when we choose to eat from the Tree of Life – consciously playing our part in building and sustaining a universal sense of brotherhood and fellowship, trying to look with the eyes of compassion at both ourselves and at those who enter our lives – we not only feel more alive and more worthy of love, we plant the seed of Love in others…and this is a seed with the power to bear fruit…from generation to generation to come.

On Love…

It is the work of a lifetime, coming to know and understand the beauty and truth of these two aspects of Love…

The Prophet
by Kahlil Gibran

Then said Almitra, "Speak to us of Love".
     And he raised his head and looked upon
the people, and there fell a stillness upon
them. And with a great voice he said:

     "When love beckons to you, follow him,
Though his ways are hard and steep.
And when his wings enfold you yield to him,
Though the sword hidden among his
pinions may wound you.
And when he speaks to you, believe in him,
Though his voice may shatter your dreams
as the north wind lays waste the garden.

For even as love crowns you, 
So shall he crucify you. 
Even as he is for your growth,
So is he for your pruning.
Even as he ascends to your height 
and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
     So shall he descend to your roots 
and shake them in their clinging to the earth.

Like sheaves of corn he gathers you unto himself.
He threshes you to make you naked.
He sifts you to free you from your husks.
He grinds you to whiteness.
He kneads you until you are pliant;
And then he assigns you to his sacred fire,
that you may become sacred bread
for God’s sacred feast.
 
All these things shall love do unto you
That you may know the secrets of your heart and,
in that knowledge,
Become a fragment of Life’s heart.
But if, in your fear, you would seek only
Love’s peace and love’s pleasure,
Then it is better for you that you cover your nakedness
And pass out of love’s threshing-floor,
Into the seasonless world
Where you shall laugh, but not all of your laughter,
And weep, but not all of your tears.

     Love gives naught but itself
And takes naught but from itself.
Love possesses not
Nor would it be possessed;
For love is sufficient unto love.

When you love you should not say,
´God is in my heart,´ 
but rather, 
´I am in the heart of God´.

And think not you can direct the course of love,
For love, if it finds you worthy,
directs your course.
Love has no other desire but to fulfil itself.

But if you love, and must needs have desires,
Let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart
And give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love’s ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
 And then to sleep with a prayer for the
Beloved in your heart
And a song of praise
Upon your lips."
St Paul’s Letter to The Corinthians
(1:13)

"If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels,
but do not have love, 
I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, 
and if I have a faith that can move mountains,
but do not have love,
I am nothing.

If I give all I possess to the poor
and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,
but do not have love,
I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. 
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
It does not dishonor others,
it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered,
it keeps no record of wrongs.
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
Love never fails.

But where there are prophecies, they will cease;
where there are tongues, they will be stilled;
where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.

When I was a child, I talked like a child,
I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child.
When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror;
then we shall see face to face.
Now I know in part;
then I shall know fully,
even as I am fully known.

And now these three remain:
Faith, Hope and Love.
But the greatest of these 
is Love."

Sea of Love…

I believe that our experience of God is like an endless Sea of Love and, in that sea of love, God will send us perfect storms in an effort to perfect us to his own design. I believe his common design for all of us is that we think, speak, live, love and act from a place of compassionate truth. But, within that Grand Design, I believe there´s also a personal and unique design inscribed within each of our hearts.

I think the more we try to shape ourselves to a given model of authenticity, normality, conformity, goodness or perfection, the less we give ourselves the opportunity to gaze upon and contemplate the singular blueprint of our own unique design. And the more we try to limit, constrict or fit ourselves into stereotypes that others offer to us, with their expectations and their judgements of criticism or praise, the less we allow the will of God to work through us in a way that feels sacred and true to that unique, divine inscription we hold within.

To me, our unique design is one that gradually reveals itself to us throughout the course of our lives, through the situations we experience, the feelings they stir within us and the level of courage we display in accepting the truth of the messages that they bring to the surface from the deep. Messages about the truth of God´s love and how it manifests itself here on earth.

For the Sea of God´s Love encompasses everything: love for ourselves, love for others, romantic and erotic love, spiritual and divine love, maternal and paternal love, filial love, love of creation and expression, love of passion, love of nature, love of community, love of peace. It is not a constant and static entity. It is continually moving, continually shifting, continually growing and expanding and it gives and takes its different shapes and forms in its invitation to us to understand, trust, accept and willingly enter its life-giving ebb and flow.

Love rests on no foundation. It is an endless ocean, with no beginning or end.

– Rumi

Sometimes the storms God sends to us will physically break apart the vessel of security that we were given, fashioned for ourselves or chose to board; a significant relationship; a state of health; a much-loved job or profession; a family; a community; a place we thought was home. And sometimes the storm will wreck the internal image we were carrying of ourselves, and the external identity that came with it; the one which gave us status, confidence, a feeling of security about the future and a sense of calm.

´The Tempest´ – John William Waterhouse

These internal storms are the most challenging to weather, I believe, because they call into question everything we thought about ourselves and leave us feeling adrift in a sea of emotions that threaten to sink us and everything we took for granted about who we were. They can leave us feeling ship-wrecked, exhausted, half-drowned in confusion, anger, frustration and despair. But, I believe, these painful and challenging moments are the ones that truly form us and offer us the opportunity to become the ´all´ that we were designed to be.

There is truth in the age-old saying that “God never sends us anything we´re not strong enough to bear.” We only have to look around us at the countless number of those who´ve experienced, been humbled by, learned from and grown stronger from seemingly catastrophic events in their lives. These are the people that we admire, are inspired by and learn from; the ones who energise us and show us the healing power of hope.

"Everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms ,
to choose one´s attitude in any given set of circumstances, 
to choose one´s own way"
Viktor Frankl (Neurologist, Philosopher and Auschwitz Survivor)

They have taken what the experience taught them (after allowing themselves time, with love, to grieve for what they lost) as an invitation and gift to seek something different, something more in their lives. They don´t allow themselves to become embittered, they find enough love for themselves to learn and grow and, in doing so, they create for themselves lives of meaning and they shine the light of love, hope and possibility which acts like a beacon for us all.

It´s only lack of faith in ourselves, lack of true love for ourselves, and lack of trust in the mysterious and endlessly-challenging ways of God that stop us from discovering and living this self-same truth.

You are the deep innerness of all things,
the last word that can never be spoken.
To each of us you reveal yourself differently:
to the ship as coastline, to the shore as a ship.

Rainer Maria Rilke 
(The Book of Pilgrimage)
Sanctuary of Our Lady of the Boat, Muxía, Galicia

A Hymn for our Times…

“O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.

From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.

Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.”

- G K Chesterton

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 

The Advent Calendar of Life…

So here we are, approaching the end of the year in the week of Christmas, mentally and physically preparing for, anticipating, joyously awaiting, ignoring or dreading the arrival of The Big Day. And how we´re feeling will, no doubt, have been shaped by our life experience up to this point, and by the circumstances of our lives as they are today.

For some of us, this year will have been deeply, deeply challenging and maybe our hopes are pinned on living as ´normal´ a Christmas as we can, given the current Covid-affected times. For others (and I include myself in this group), this year will have been a gift in the sense that it gave us a pause, a space and an opportunity to pull the threads of our life experience together and maybe it delivered a ´wake-up call´ about the things that truly count. For me it was a timely and enlightening ´wake-up call´ and I now know that its effects will continue to reverberate throughout the rest of my life.

At the beginning of this month someone I love sent me an advent calendar. I have it pinned up in the kitchen and I religiously open a new door each day. The other day, as I was doing this, I remembered something that my sister said to me several years ago, when I was going through a particularly challenging, emotional and difficult time of my life.

“Sometimes the knocking on the door gets so loud we just have to open it to see what´s there”

And, as I looked at the calendar with its 24 doors, the memory made me smile because I feel like I´ve spent the last 6 years opening different doors to my heart, to see and understand what the knocking was all about. There was the door called “Who is Michele?” (when you take away all her attachments, her job, her possessions, her home, her partner, her fancy clothes, make-up and long hair). Then the one called “Who are other people?” (when you take away my prejudices about them and peel back our combined layers of defence). There was the door called “The Past” with all its feelings and memories and emotional power and regrets. And the one called “The Future” with all its uncertainties and possibilities and range of choices and fears of the unknown.

And then finally (and inevitably for someone whose heart repeats rhythmically, like a mantra, “You belong on the Camino”) there were the doors called “Who is God?” and “What is God?” and “Where is God?” and “How is God…ever to be understood?” And opening each door, by following what my heart urged me to do, led me to a treasure trove of experience and knowledge. I learned that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible; that other people were kinder, more understanding and more caring than I ever expected them to be or gave them credit for; and that God was visible and present in everyone and everything I encountered but, often, in inexplicable and mystifying ways.

One way that´s been especially mystifying to me, until very recently, was why following the voice of my heart during the last few years has brought me repeatedly into religious environments when I´ve been so convinced by my own spiritual experiences that God lies beyond the limits of organised religion. I´ve found answers here (in a Catholic parish in Logroño) that resonate strongly with what my heart feels is truth and I´ve learned, yet again, how lazy and unreliable it is to ´lump people together´ as a way of easily criticising and then rejecting the value of anything they think, do or say.

Out walking this week with one of the parish priests I shared with him my bafflement about why God clearly wants me to return to my Catholic roots after rejecting them for so much of my adult life. “We can´t ignore our roots,” was his response “they´re a part of what made us who we are, part of the tree of our ancestors and of our life. What happens to a tree if you just sever it at its roots?” “It falls over in strong winds” I replied. “But, to me, God is so much more than organised religion!” I countered with feeling, and his simple and disarming reply was “Yes…God is”.

I´ll be spending this Christmas in the church house of the parish in which I´m currently living, and I´ll be sharing Christmas Eve dinner (because Noche Buena is the major celebration in Spain this week) with the priests who also live here. In a way, this feels like an echo of my childhood because, having a German mother, Christmas Eve (rather than Christmas Day) was always the main event in our family home; we always had our own advent calendars and our Catholic religion was a formative part of our family life.

But before I help with preparations for our Noche Buena dinner I´ll be lending a hand at the local ´Social Dining Room´, where people with no kitchens, homes, families or resources will be coming to eat their festive meal this year. I mention this only because it´s the first year I´ve ever felt remotely inclined to do anything at Christmas time that involved strangers or service-to-others and I´ll be doing it for the simple reason that I enjoy it.

I´ve heard many, many times over the last 5 years that “happiness is found in service to others” but I had to keep opening the other doors of my heart before I reached the one that showed me this essential truth. It´s the same door that showed me that Jesus really is ´The Way, the Truth and the Life´…to finally finding that God is ever-present in this man-made world. But I had to build my relationship with him gradually, brick by brick, and in my own deeply personal way before I found a place inside me that truly looked and felt like Home. Being metaphorically told by others “Jesus is the key, go right ahead and open door 24!” never made any logical or heart-felt sense to me. The Advent Calendar of Life just doesn´t work that way…at least not the personal one that I´ve been given.

But having faith in the quiet urgings of my heart and opening the other doors, one by one, led me back here to this Christian and Catholic community at the start of October and, living and working within this community, has given me the opportunity to see how it really lives the doctrine of what is preached. I´ve seen what the belief that ´we are all part of the same human family´ really looks like in practice and I´ve been on the receiving end of that welcoming, inclusive, generous and giving belief. I´ve learned that actions matter more than opinions, that strangers really are friends waiting to be made, and that the simplest, most authentic and effective way to spread kindness, goodwill and hope is just by living it day-to-day and demonstrating it ourselves to others.

Star of Bethlehem, Iglesia Santiago, Logroño

Advent, symbolically, represents the journey of darkness into light. A time when the all-powerful, unknowable, potentially-terrible-and vengeful God of the Old Testament became a human being, with a sacred human heart, and a relentless, endlessly-forgiving New Testament message of love. Jesus, as a messenger of God´s love, is revered by Christians, Muslims and people of the Jewish faith. And I´ve met many ´non-believers´ in my spiritual searching of the last 5 years who, nonetheless, believe deeply in the sincerity, authenticity and example of Jesus, the way he lived his life and what his essential teachings say.

Whatever we believe or don´t believe about God, we are all part of the same human family, we do all long for and search for love, we do all experience debilitating moments of darkness and we do draw strength and hope from people who are bold enough to offer their hand and the light of simple human compassion and kindness to those outside of their immediate circle of family and friends.

Christmas represents the birth of a man who epitomised this way of living and his message is one that I believe is worth repeating, sharing and spreading, in any way we can.

Light of the World by William Holman Hunt

The Melt

The day will come
when you and I will cease to be.
And all that was said, 
and thought,
and done
will melt to nothing.

And in that moment of returning to the earth again, 
as water,

- Heaven sent, momentary, 
lingering 
in this space that lies between -

some of us may pause and ask...

"How did I fall
and dance on the wind
that brought me here?"

"How did I bind myself with others
to create a soft but yielding cloak
of uniform and reverent peace?"

"How did I keep and preserve the uniqueness
of my magical and awe-inspiring beauty;
which others glimpsed
in passing
and I was blind to
for the longest years
of life?"

"When did I truly love
the different individuality of others,
falling silently beside me,
also blind
to the miracle of Life
they were?"

"What light did I first see,
reflect,
then feel
then hold,
with joy,
within my heart?"

"And for who?"

"What did I do with that light,
knowing it came from without
but lit me within?"

"Did I hold the individual form
that Mother Nature,
so divine in all her timeless wisdom,
crafted me to be?
Did I honour that same divinity of purpose
in those who fell around me,
regardless of their falling dance
or shape?"

"Did I sparkle in the moonlight,
however briefly,
content and knowing
that no human eye
may ever see my glory?"

"Did I live
my full and destined life,
however small,
however judged by hoard of human minds,
before
the moment came
to surrender all,
and melt?"
Images from:
Snowflakes in Photographs
by W A Bentley

“Start here, start now…”

Two people inspired me to start writing my blog again this week and they did it subtly and unintentionally, just by telling me their stories, which came straight from their hearts. Talking to both of them felt a little bit like looking in a mirror because, although we had different views and experiences in relation to some things, there was enough similarity and respect between us to find light in the reflections. One of them was Robert (shown outside Logroño´s church hostel in the photos above), a pilgrim from Germany, who had walked more than 2,700km from his hometown of Leipzig (through Switzerland, France and now Spain) and who arrived in Logroño on day 114 of his long-distance trek, looking for somewhere to stay.

****************************

I first came to the city in March of this year, also walking the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, and when I finally reached that destination several months later, I turned round and walked back here again. Because the last 6 years have taught me the value and wisdom of listening to the quiet but insistent voice of my heart and my heart told me to return. It´s six months since my last proper ´blog´post and I shared it just before leaving Logroño, Santiago-bound. I´d spent the first period of the Coronavirus lock-down here, gradually growing to love this beautiful and historic place; and also having most of my prejudices about Christian communities and Catholicism challenged by what I saw and experienced at that time.

For the initial part of the confinement period I lived in a rented apartment which happened to be right on the Camino path through the city; a fact that I was unaware of when I booked it on-line through Airbnb . And again by pure coincidence, I soon discovered on my daily walk to the supermarket that, in the street next to the apartment, was the church of La Iglesia Santiago El Real. When I saw that the church was open I began to go there each day in search of some spiritual connection and solace because, despite being a lapsed Catholic who turned her back on organised religion and belief in God as a teenager (many years ago) church buildings have always felt, somewhat paradoxically, like places of sanctuary to me.

When the priest noticed a regular, solitary stranger sitting quietly in the semi-deserted pews each day, he asked me who I was and why I was here and, discovering that I was a peregrina he invited me to move into the pilgrim hostel which is attached to the church, until the on-going state-of-alarm and its related confinement came to an end.

If I believed in the holy spirit of God (which I do and have used many different names to refer to in the last few years: the Universe, Life, Love etc) I would say that the coincidences that occurred were the Spirit at work. But I also believe that the Spirit doesn´t work in isolation, it needs the force of our trusting cooperation, our loving choice (for ourselves and others) and the conscious use of our own free will. I chose to stay in Spain and to wait as long as it took to be able to continue my Camino because the quiet voice of my heart said “It´s important that you stay”. And staying brought me shelter, a small but welcoming community, and a great big challenge to face the arrogance of my ´blanket prejudice´ against the majority of practicing Christians and the Catholic Church as a whole.

Because that´s the thing I find with this troublesome Spirit that moves us…it doesn´t just move us into peaceful places filled with harmony, endless birdsong, rainbows, love and light. If we´re prepared to truly surrender ourselves to it and to see things through its unrelenting ´eye-of-truth´, it will also take us to dark and challenging places on occasion, to show us the error of our ignorant, loftily-superior, naive, unforgiving and often self-defeating ways.

So here I am, living once again in the church hostel, which has a long tradition of offering safe refuge to pilgrims who request it. There haven´t been many other pilgrims passing through the city lately, which is understandable, as a second wave of movement and service restrictions is currently affecting both the city and the country as a whole. But, in spite of this, two intrepid souls did appear on the hostel doorstep on different evenings last week; the first a young man in his early 20’s, who´d walked more than 800kms from Le-Puy-en-Velay in France, and the second was mild-mannered but highly motivated and quietly-inspiring Robert from Leipzig in Germany.

Although it´s officially closed (and has been for most of this year) the pilgrim hostel´s guiding principle of Christian hospitality (which it actively lives, rather than just preaches) has always been: “No-one will be left to sleep on the street…there will always be room here for those in need”. And so room was found for each of them and dinner and breakfast were provided too.

That gave me a wonderful opportunity to share meals with them, to talk about the profound life questions that many pilgrims often find themselves discussing and to hear their stories about why they’d decided to walk now. The young pilgrim from France said he wanted to challenge the culture of fear that seems to be sweeping through the world. “At home people told me that it wouldn´t be possible to walk the Camino now” he said “but I have no problems. People welcome me and I find somewhere to sleep every night. I find that when I listen to other people´s opinions my world becomes small and unhealthy, but when I decide to find things out for myself, I see that they´re not the way others say they are.”

He talked about his frustration that many people seem to just accept whatever they see on television, and the more sensational and pessimistic the news, the more willing he felt they were to absorb it and to pass it on. “I don´t waste my time anymore talking to people who have no direct experience of something and just repeat what they see on television believing that it´s the truth.” he said. “There´s no point in trying to tell them otherwise, they just don´t listen”. He also had an interesting question for me, and for the priest, before he left.

“Why don´t Christians believe in miracles anymore?” he said. “If they truly did they would accept that this is all part of God´s plan and they would have more faith, but they seem to believe more in fear and wanting to spread that fear to everyone around them. No-one seems to believe in miracles anymore”.

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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”

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

Just trying…

I’ve been told in the past that I have ‘a way with words’. Sometimes someone says it when I write something that appeals to them. Sometimes it’s when I’ve listened to what someone has said, responded with the underlying message that I’ve heard, and been told “That’s exactly what I was trying to say but I couldn’t find the words”.

But creating this blog has taught me that ‘finding the right words’ to share my true thoughts and feelings is a bit like deciphering an obscure, internal code and more challenging than I originally thought. And maybe that’s the important and personal message for me. ‘To learn how to do anything well, you first have to start doing it and then you just have to keep trying...’

Last week a friend took the time and trouble to send me some thoughtful feedback about her views on my last post (Blessed be the Navel-gazers). She included things that she agreed with and things that she saw differently. And responding to that feedback was a great learning exercise for me in how to practice what I preach.

Some points she raised immediately rang true for me and will definitely help me in writing future blogs. Others showed me the limitations of language and the many different ways that what we write and say can be interpreted by others. But one of the most interesting questions she posed was “What if being true to ourselves has the potential to hurt others?” Should we still choose the path of personal truth?

It took me a long time to find the right words to respond to this, which helped me greatly in getting to the core of what I truly believe (beyond the simple slogan ‘We should all be true to ourselves!‘). And this was the gist of my reply:

“When I talk about “Being true to ourselves” I don’t mean “Telling everyone exactly what we think of them” I mean “Not pretending to ourselves or others that we’re feeling something we don’t feel or that we’re agreeing with something we don’t agree with”.

I mean recognising that any uncomfortable feelings we might have in particular situations (eg: anger, impatience, irritation, anxiety, fear) will always have an important message for us about something we’d rather not face and are worth inward reflection (if we want to learn more about ourselves and about our relationships).  And, if we find that the message is so important that we need to give voice to our feelings, then choosing the least provocative and most respectful way of doing this. Because only by adopting this attitude can we have any hope that the other person will truly hear us (ie: speaking from a place of compassion for ourselves and for others).

I believe that we only truly learn how to do something well by actually, repeatedly, doing it and then learning from our experience.  And, I also believe, we only build true self-respect by being as congruent as possible (ie: living outwardly in line with what we believe inwardly). 

Anyone can adopt the “I’m right and you’re wrong” stance, or the “I’ll agree with you just to keep the peace” stance, but it takes compassion and skill (which only comes through practice, trial and error) to learn the “I think I have something valid and worthwhile to say, but it differs from what you believe” stance.  And, importantly, to allow others to do the same. And this is the skill that I’m learning how to hone and develop in myself through my personal relationships and through my blog posts.”

I do believe that ‘finding our true voice’ in any situation is an important, respectful and honourable thing to do and that constant avoidance of this can lead to us becoming disingenuous, at worst two-faced, and more distant from our best, and truest, selves. I don’t think that we just show disrespect to others when we behave in this way, I also believe that we dishonour ourselves. Because not ‘giving a voice’ to what our heart truly feels, in the most mutually-compassionate way we can, may be a one-off choice, or it may become a habit and then our normal behaviour which, ultimately, helps no-one.

The more often we speak from a place of personal truth the more often we demonstrate the belief that this person is wise enough and strong enough to hear what I feel in my heart and, it’s my belief that, the risk of doing this with people we have close relationships with is outweighed by the potential reward of deeper, more honest and more loving relationships as a result.

BUT, and it’s a very important ‘but’, it’s the way in which we do it that will reveal the truth of what we’re feeling inside.

If we speak from a place of aggression (be it open or passive, through our tone or the use of clever, undermining words) I believe we create energy that neither reflects true compassion for ourselves nor respect for others. If I do this, what I hear (when I take the time and trouble to reflect on it) is the repressed anger or fear of my most vulnerable self, which felt that it wasn’t being treated with the respect that it deserves. Or that someone else was giving voice to beliefs that felt threatening to my own, and which I use as an anchor for my self-image, self-belief and identity.

And, particularly if I express that anger or fear in the form of judgement of another instead of asking myself “What triggered those feelings within me?”, then I’m missing a valuable opportunity to learn more about myself and about why I behave in the ways that I do.

To me, compassion is a gentle practice and discipline, a loving practice and discipline, an open-handed way-of-being rather than a finger-pointing one. And I believe that self-compassion and compassion for others are inseparably bound together, because the way that we speak to and deal with ourselves will be reflected in the way that we speak to and deal with others, and vice versa.

I think that the more we open ourselves to looking closely and compassionately at the most vulnerable and needy parts of us (which every one of us carries around inside us, whether we’re prepared to admit it to ourselves or not) the more we allow the possibility that this part will have a voice when we speak in dialogue with others. And, because we’ve given that part of us the respect of being truly seen and heard, it won’t speak in aggressive or defensive language, but rather, it will help us by finding calmer, kinder and clearer words to speak; words more likely to build bridges, rather than to burn them.

But I also feel the need to add a proviso here, about seeing things as they truly are. There will be people who deliberately choose not to hear us, no matter how compassionately, calmly or clearly we form our words. This may be because ‘not hearing others’ has become an effective coping strategy for them; amuses them in some way; or leaves them feeling that they’ve ‘retained the upper hand’, all in an attempt to, inwardly, feel more secure.

These are situations, relationships and people that are uniquely individual and personal to each of us and I believe we must each make our own decisions about how best to deal with them, from a starting point of loving-kindness for ourselves.

When I walked my first Camino in 2015 I stayed overnight in the Convent hostel of León and met a young Spanish man named Matías, at breakfast the following morning . He spoke perfect English, but was trying to encourage me to converse in Spanish, when my grasp of the language was virtually non-existent at the time. I became more and more embarrassed and frustrated with myself, at my lack of ability to converse, and more and more reluctant to continue the friendly conversation. But my reluctance, embarrassment and frustration disappeared in the presence of this young man’s persistence and gentle kindness. He simply looked me in the eye, smiled, and in very a gentle tone said “It’s OK…just try…”

I believe that, whether I´m trying to find the right words to express my true feelings in a particular situation or to build longer-term bridges of mutually-respectful and honest relationship with others, it’s always worth “just trying…” to give my true feelings a voice.

It will seldom feel easy. I may look ridiculous and be embarrassed at times. It needs acceptance that I could meet resistance, ridicule and, on occasion, aggression and rejection from others, particularly if they´re unwilling to look at and deal with their own sensitive and vulnerable selves. But, just as any of us has experienced when learning how to ride a bike or to speak a new language, the stumbling, the getting-it-wrong, the looking or feeling stupid are all just a necessary and integral part of the learning process itself.

I know from personal experience that acknowledging, respecting and giving a voice to my most vulnerable self within, repeatedly and often enough, builds my level of courage to ‘feel the fear and do it anyway‘ in almost any situation in life. I believe that when we do this, hesitatingly, gradually, but more and more often, we build our sense of inner dignity, truth and strength. And I’ve learned that when others instinctively feel this within us they respond to it positively, and ultimately benefit from it, if they’re seeking the same within themselves.

But this is a slow and gradual growth process, a process that comes from within and that draws from within rather than always looking outside for acceptance, validation and love. It’s a process that requires us to ‘see ourselves as we truly are’, without judgement, and to recognise both the vulnerability and the value of that person. Only then can we begin to see every encounter with others as a new opportunity to give our truest self a voice and to silently encourage him or her with the gentle words “It’s OK…just try“…

Risk is the currency of reward”

– Chris Evans