Where there´s a will…

Another young man knocked at the door of the church hostel this week, Julien, a French pilgrim who has spent the last few years living in Japan and is now walking the Camino backwards towards Lourdes and then onwards to his parents´ home in France. He´s hoping to arrive in time for Christmas and is making his pilgrimage now because he wants to reflect on his last few years´ experience of living abroad and to decide how he wants to shape his life over the next few years.

“I´m here to think about what I really want to do” he said as we were sharing a cup of tea after he´d settled in “but I also want to ask God what his will is for me too. It doesn´t feel right to make a decision like this without taking his wishes into account”. The open, honest and slightly embarrassed way in which he said these words was both touching and admirable at the same time. “My father said to me before I started ´You may not receive an answer to your question you know´ and I know he´s right, but I´ve got to ask anyway”.

Julien´s timing was perfect as, coincidentally, the priest´s sermon at Mass that evening was all about making time for silent prayer, to listen to what God´s will is for each of us as individuals. The part of his dream that relates to us, was how he put it, and not being too impatient to receive a quick answer; having faith that if we just keep living our daily lives as actively and positively as we can, whilst also making time, space and silence for God, the answer will eventually make itself known to us.

As we were eating dinner together later the priest joined us briefly to ask Julien about his Camino and how it was going. “I try to pray when I´m walking, but it´s hard” he said “I keep being distracted by everything around me”. The priest smiled and said that nature IS God talking to us. He advised the young pilgrim to look to the mountains, to stop at the rivers and to listen to the birdsong as he walks and eventually, he said, Julien would hear what God is trying to tell him.

What do you say when you pray to God?” “Nothing…I just listen…” “Then what does God say to you?” “Nothing…he just listens…”

Interview with Mother Theresa of Calcutta

Later Julien told me that he had tried to Google God´s Will but that all the sites he found said similar things…”Read the Bible, all the answers are in there”, which made me smile because it brought back two significant and valuable memories, which I shared with him. The first was a conversation I had with a young Italian peregrino, when I was volunteering at a pilgrim hostel in the city of Ponferrada earlier this year. His view, based on personal experience, was that becoming too enmeshed in trying to figure out the meanings contained in all of the Scriptures has the potential to distance us from ourselves and other people and (in some cases) to even threaten our mental health…and I agree.

The second, equally valuable but slightly more positive memory, is what a priest in Fuerteventura said during a Mass that I attended there in January of this year:

“Take whatever speaks to you from the Bible, when you hear it or come across it by chance, and feel free to ignore the rest. You’ll know when you hear words that are truly meant for you because your heart will respond to them and you won’t need anyone else to interpret them for you. That’s your job, using your heart not your head. If it doesn´t speak to you, don´t worry about it, because it wasn´t meant for you”.

…and I agree.

I felt for Julien because “What´s my purpose?” has been a question that´s travelled with me throughout my life. Sometimes it´s travelled silently, when I was entertained or distracted by other things for a while, and sometimes it´s spoken (or at times even shouted) when I´ve spent too much time ignoring it. I believe it´s the question that my spirit was asking continually and the one that weighed down my soul when I tried to convince myself that it wasn´t there.

I would never have described it as God´s Will for me, I would only have said that it was a deep sense of knowing that…”there´s more to life than this”. And the answers that other people offered to me (ie: having as many different experiences as possible; having as much pleasure and fun as you can; there is no purpose, life is just a game; or the ultimate… life has no meaning at all) just never felt right to me, in my heart-of-hearts.

The more we talked openly and honestly about our thoughts and feelings, the more Julien and I seemed to say things that helped each other and, recognising this, he asked if he could stay another night in the hostel, which the priest agreed to, and so we continued our conversations over breakfast, lunch and dinner the following day.

I explained to Julien what the last 5 years of my life have taught me; namely, that I had to recognise and hear the voice of my own heart before I could truly hear and respond to the hearts of others. I believe that if we do something because we feel we should, or we´re told by others we ought to, or we´re shamed or made to feel less-than-we-are because we don´t, we´ll never do it with our whole heart and, over time, we´ll become resentful about doing it at all. And that resentment will slowly start to leak out in different ways, doing damage to ourselves and hurting others in the process.

I believe that, as a collective human race, we thrive when we live, work, celebrate, love and learn from each other, in community. BUT…and this is a vital and essential part of the human equation…not as clones of each other. We were each born with unique gifts, interests, passions, natural skills and abilities and we were born this way for a reason. If we never explore what our special gifts are by listening to the voice of our hearts, we never develop sufficient self-respect to live happily and fully as that person (God´s Will for us, if you like) and we become easy targets for other strong-willed individuals who try to dominate us with the force of their own personal agendas and wills.

“I rejected my Catholic faith at the age of 16” I told Julien, “because I couldn´t accept the message that other people´s needs and wishes mattered more than mine. It just never felt true in my heart. Now, for the first time, I´m hearing a Christian and Catholic message that says Love God first, and then love others as you love yourself. The three work together. They´re equally important. And because I believe God IS love, that means doing everything that I choose to do with love or, if I can´t, then choosing not to do it at all.

I don´t believe that God´s will for me is to do anything spectacular, impressive or particularly memorable. I think he just wants me to live compassionately but unapologetically and fully as the person he created me to be; listening to my own heart always and trying to listen and respond to the hearts of the people that I come into contact with each day. We have the unique strengths that we each have for a reason, and I believe that reason is that we´re supposed to share them with others. I really think it´s just as simple, and as challenging, as that”. And that seemed to strike a chord with Julien who said he´d been concerned that, whatever choice he made about his future, it needed to consider and include the Will of God.

When he was preparing to leave the next morning I asked him how he´d slept. “Really well” he said. “And how do you feel now?” I asked. “Relieved” he answered, with a smile. “Whatever I decide I´ll just try to share God´s hope and love wherever I am and in the way that I do things. I don´t have to decide anything else right now…” And, in saying that, he reminded me of the importance of dealing positively with what is, in the here and now, and not over-thinking or worrying about things that still lie far ahead and unknown in the future.

Because, where there´s a will to truly live with love, and faith that it can be done, a way will always appear…

“There are as many ways to finding God as there are individual rays of sunshine and they all begin and end in a search for love”

– Anonymous

The Way of the Rose & the Alchemist’s house

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

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

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

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

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

A Balsa Valley, Galicia, on the Camino de Santiago

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

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

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

La Casa del Alquimista

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

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

Antonio Bello with one of his mineral works of art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Rumi

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