The Yin and the Yang of it, the ebb and the flow; torrents, tranquilities, they come and then go. The breath that inspires it, then leaves it in peace. The power that inflates it, the humble release. The desire to unchain it and know it in full. The flee from the truth of it. The infinite pull... ...to the centre of gravity, that source of all Love; as dark as a dungeon, as light as a dove. The binding of purpose, and braiding of thread, the salve of communion, and breaking of bread. And so we keep learning as onward we go, in the Yin and the Yang of it; the ebb and the flow.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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?"
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
Who am I to tell you how to seek and find the all-confounding, all-demanding, all-providing and glorious God that is Love? Who am I to offer guidance or reassurance that might help you stumble blindly into it, as I have, over the self-inflicted wreckage of fantasy, frustration, false images, failures, hidden frailties and forlorn hope? Who am I to stick my head above the parapet and to scream, until I´m hoarse? - amid a roar of differing, strong opinions - “Keep going. Keep searching. Keep trusting in that doubt-filled longing deep within you that ´There…IS…More´” What difference will one, timid, easily-distracted, easily-discouraged, lone and fallible human voice make? We´ll never know. That´s the beginning and the end of it. The Alpha and the Omega. We´ll never know. Have Faith. I do know that listening to the drum-beat of my heart and following its guiding rhythm has been my Way and my only Way, and that it´s cut a swathe through me and the lives of others in its drive to find this Truth. That it´s swept ´neediness´ and ´ego´ and ´wish-to-please-others´ and ´desire-for-applause´ directly into my line-of-sight and lead me deeper and deeper into this Labyrinth of Life, in which we´re all held. It´s taught me, time and time again, that no-one is only what they choose to show others or what they appear to be, on the surface. It´s shown me, when I´ve looked…and looked again, with presence of compassion and absence of defence, a glimmer of my glorious but frightened, lonely and defended self, within each and all. And in that glimmer of recognition, that flash of mirrored light, I´ve felt and recognised, just fleetingly, the smiling presence of God. Disarming, energizing, all-powerful, a sacred gentleness, filling a timeless moment of eternity, with the infinite force of Life called Love
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 bear–traps (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…
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
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
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’.