A Presence that Continues…

For a number of years now, long before I accepted that I am (and have always been) a Christian at heart, I´ve subscribed to a weekly email service from The Centre for Action and Contemplation; founded by Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr. A friend sent me some reflective pieces that appeared on the site, knowing that I was on a ´life purpose´ journey of my own, and they always seemed to contain just the thing I needed to hear at the time I received them, which made me intrigued to read more.

The philosophy of the Centre and its contemplations are very appealing to me. And its focus is well-reflected in the title of Richard Rohr´s latest book: ´Every Thing is Sacred´. It is an inclusive philosophy; one grounded in continual movement towards a better acceptance, understanding and love of the ´universality´ of God. It is rooted in a sacred respect for the spirit of Love that dwells within us and within all living and natural things, and the fruit that it bears is a constant awareness of the need to ´actively live this universal love´ in the choices we make and the things that we do each day.

Below is a beautiful piece of writing that appeared in this week´s email and that reflects perfectly what I’ve come to learn in the last few months, living and working in the heart of a Christian Catholic community in Spain. Firstly, that healing, life-enhancing Love (that which Theresa calls ‘The Great Good’ or ‘God’) is found in the simple daily tasks and world that surrounds us. And secondly, that there was a spiritual purpose for me in being born into this Universal faith that I distanced myself from for the majority of my life.

It seems fitting that, on Mother´s Day, I should acknowledge the debt that I owe to my mother who decided we should all be baptised into the Catholic faith, shortly after my birth. Because it´s only now, much later in life, that I´ve come to appreciate the value of such communities and how much I´ve learned (through example) about unity, respecting difference, sensitivity to the vulnerabilities of others and the rewards of working together with a common purpose that is larger than our individual egos and selves. I´ve learned this through simple projects, working with others, discovering how daily, practical tasks become meditations, prayers and songs of praise in their own right; through the love and care we invest in them, which mirrors the love and care we receive ourselves.

“Theresa Torres’ description of receiving her faith through her grandmother is a wonderful reflection of how faith was once passed down generation to generation. Her grandmother, or “abuelita”, inspires spirituality not as a religious creedal statement or morality code, but as a healing and transformational way of life.” 

– Richard Rohr

Theresa Torres´ Childhood Memories: “As I reflected on the various types of prayer I rely on to give me strength and support on a daily basis and to carry me through the dark times, I had to return to my childhood. It was my ‘abuelita’. I am a third-generation Mexican American, and it was my grandmother who taught me so much about our culture and spirituality. I keep these nuggets of wisdom, knowledge, and strength close to my heart and soul. Because what she taught me was that prayer is about life – there is no division between daily life and daily prayer, they are one and the same. She taught me that ‘the great Good’ that we call ‘God’ is present all around us and we are one in ‘the great Good’.

Some of my fondest memories of childhood are of getting up early in the cool, damp summer mornings and finding my grandmother working in her garden and blessing the earth with her hands and her gentle spirit of reverence and awe. In the silence of the morning, as she worked, I found her at prayer – in silence and the presence of love for all of us and the earth. She was at one with the Spirit of ‘Good…God’.

She was the ground – the foundation and the presence of spirituality for me and for our entire family. . . . I was twelve at the time of her death, and she died after a short illness. Because she was so strong for most of my life, I could not envision she could be so ill or even could die. I was in denial and, while my mother tried to prepare me and console me, it was abuelita herself who showed me that her goodbye was not an end. In her death, she came to me and said her goodbye through the shared memories of our many experiences, and I felt her love and spirit go through me. She knew that her dying would be hard, but her presence was not gone – we are united in the grounding of ‘the great spirit of Good’. She also showed me the unity among those who have gone before us. Her presence and wisdom continue in my life – she has returned in dreams at important points in my life, and she continues to bless me. It is in living and even in dying that we are united in ‘the Spirit of Great Good’, so long as we love and we listen deep within. In the grounding of our lives, in the silence, we come to KNOW the wisdom and the transformative ‘Good’ that exist in us and around us and in the lives of the ‘abuelitas’ who have gone before us.”

That Light in the Distance…

We´re now one week into 2021 and, not for the first time in my life, I feel a little out-of-step with the rest of the world. Almost everyone I know (and the vast majority of those I don´t but who share their views on both social and the wider media) seem to have had a “good riddance” attitude to 2020, as the old year bowed out and the new year strolled in. It´s an attitude I understand. People have experienced tremendous uncertainty, insecurity, isolation, illness, death of close friends and family members and these are all things tied memorably and inevitably to the passing year.

But, for me, the experience was different. I didn´t lose anyone close to me, my contact with family members and close friends usually takes place through social media and living a life of uncertainty has been my conscious choice over the last 5 years; so I appreciate that the unknown is not as daunting or unsettling to me as it has the potential to be for many others. In all honesty, 2020 was a very special year for me, in all that it taught me and gave me the opportunity to live and learn, and I´ll be remembering it as the year that the light in the distance came closer.

It´s the year in which I learned the history of the extraordinary pilgrim hostel, housed within the Parish House of Iglesia Santiago El Real; how it came into being from one man´s creative thinking and countless hours of voluntary labour and help from Camino-committed individuals within the local community, seminarians from the Seminary in Pamplona and volunteers from Spain and other countries further afield. It´s the year that my respect for all these unsung heros, unmotivated by the pursuit of individual fame, recognition or applause for themselves, grew to such a extent that I realised, at last, how service to others really does bring a treasure trove of its own rewards.

It was the year in which I found myself making a temporary home, and being tentatively but warmly welcomed into a small parish community, in the heart of La Rioja in Spain. It was the year in which I witnessed the effect that one individual can have on so many others during the course of their lifetime, through the sheer strength of their faith in the universal love of God and the power of fellow human beings to manifest that love here on Earth. It was the year that I learned the true importance of making silent and solitary time each day, to listen to my heart and to follow what it quietly but persistently urges me to do. And the year in which I finally realised that this quiet, calm and constant voice (which never voices opinions, criticisms, comparisons, justifications, judgments or fear) is the way in which God talks to me.

The church has a banner hanging at the base of its bell tower, close to the entrance. It states that it is committed to evangelical mission; words that would have summoned up images of bible-thumping-TV-Evangelists within me in the past and would possibly have even initiated a nervous facial tick. But that´s the thing with words I´ve found, the images and meanings that we attach to them usually tell us far more about ourselves than about anyone else. Because, what I´ve discovered is, the thing that this church is evangelising is nothing more than community-based love…through its simple example, and in a quiet, supportive and healing way. And that realisation prompted the memory of an incident on a part-time Creative Writing course that I attended many years ago in Wales.

The course lasted 4 months, meeting one morning each week, and we were a group of 18 people of varied ages, experiences and backgrounds. Amongst our number was a very religious, middle-aged woman called Elizabeth who I remember getting quite agitated one day when we were discussing ´The Church´. She was upset by our interpretations of what ´The Church´ actually meant, as the views being expressed referred to the buildings (how unnecessarily opulent and ornate they were), and the institutions (how powerful, hypocritical and corrupt they appeared to be). Elizabeth was adamant that the true meaning of ´The Church´ was neither of these things but, rather, that it was the community of people who came together to share their love and worship of God in a collective and active way.

At the time I thought she was being pedantic and defensive but now, several years and many personal experiences later, I see exactly what she meant and how limited, opinionated, disrespectful and uninformed our scathing judgments were. The buildings are ornate, the institutions (like every human institution ever created) does have its hypocritical and corrupt aspects and individuals, but the spirit of love that emanates from communities of people, who choose to come together to honour God and to help each other, are what the Church really means and is at heart; whether they choose to use a particular ritual of religious observance or not.

This year is a Holy Year on the Camino (a year when the Feast Day of Saint James, or Santiago, falls on a Sunday). In Holy Years the number of pilgrims who choose to walk the Camino de Santiago usually multiplies many, many times. The last Holy Year was in 2010 and, when I was busy painting some rooms in the church hostel last month, I found the wall calendar (pictured below) gathering dust on top of a wardrobe. When I asked about it I was told that the church decided to place a light at the top of its tower, in honour of the Holy year, and that it became known locally as ´The Lighthouse of Logroño´, with the City Council deciding to feature it in wall calendars that they produced. The beam of light shone out towards the Camino coming into the city, acting as a guide to any pilgrims who chose to follow it, and leading them directly to the doors of the church and to the hostel itself.

This year, like several years previously, the church erected a giant, illuminated star on top of the tower and it shines from the hour of sunset, through the darkness of night, and on until dawn. It can be seen for miles, all along the riverside path and from several different vantage points around the city. Long before it was put in place this year, people began asking the parish priest if it would be lit again and when…it seems that it´s become a focal point for feelings of goodwill with many people who are not local parishioners and have nothing to do with the church.

I feel like an invisible beam of light drew me to the open door of this church in April of this year, that it pulled me back here again in October and that it was the light of God´s universal and powerful love. Its purpose was not to convert me into a regular churchgoer, to reclaim me as a good Christian or to save my Catholic soul. Its intention was much wiser, simpler, subtler, far-reaching and more profound than that. It knew that the time was right to show me, after years of individual searching for and finding a reflection of God within individuals (including myself), I was ready to see that same reflection within communities of people with a traditional, open and shared belief in God.

Not long after I returned here I had a conversation with the priest about my belief in God. “I think that God is Love and it´s a simple as that” I told him “and if I live and act with a sincere heart, with love for myself and for others, I will please God”. “Yes” was his response, “but love is not a theory, it´s an active thing, and you can´t learn about it in isolation; you have to live it and create it with others in the real world”.

And I agree, because that´s what I´ve found. It´s how that light in the distance…if I keep turning towards it…and keep moving steadily forward in the direction from which it shines…gradually comes closer and closer…each and every day.

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

Where there´s a will…

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

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

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

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

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

Interview with Mother Theresa of Calcutta

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

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

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

…and I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Anonymous

“Start here, start now…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Robert´s story was an unfolding one. He told me that he left Leipzig with the initial intention of walking to Switzerland but that, when he got there, his heart told him to keep on going. He´d had the desire to walk the Camino for some time and that had prompted him to start his epic journey but it was people´s reactions to him, and the good fortune and kindness that he experienced on the way, that had motivated him to keep going. “I´m keeping a diary” he said, “of all the things that people give to me and do for me to help me on my way. Look!” and, with that, he showed me a little notebook, its pages filled with neat, individual entries. “Every one is an individual act of kindness” he said with a smile.

“In Switzerland I only had to pay for one night´s accommodation, all the other times people invited me into their homes or offered me somewhere sheltered to stay. They trusted me, a complete stranger, because I´m having the courage to do what I´m doing. They were interested in hearing my story and I learned something valuable from my experience of spending time with each of them.”

He talked about more things uniting us as human beings, despite our different languages and cultures, than dividing us. He said that what we all want, deep down, is connection, humanity, contact with each other and love. “I don´t want to live in a new normal of social-distancing and wearing masks all the time” he said “I refuse to live with that culture of fear…and part of this pilgrimage is sharing that message of hope with others, because I´m finding many, many people who feel the same way”.

And his words lit a little light of hope inside me, because I also feel the same. This camino has taught me to be respectful of other people´s fears because I´ve come to understand that, in many cases, they´re acutely felt. But what I won´t accept is other people´s pessimism or their attemps to stifle genuine actions or expressions of hope because it feels threatening to their own circumstances or beliefs.

I´m a firm believer in optimism. I believe that there will be many, many pilgrims walking the Camino de Santiago next year, but I´m in a staggering minority in that belief. Someone said to me recently “It´s fine being an optimist, but we have no idea what will happen next year. You have to be a realist too.” I am. I fully accept that I may be wrong and, if I am, that that will be part of God´s plan for us all too. But thinking as I do, and taking action now to help prepare for what I believe, is not being blindly optimistic or unrealistic, it´s doing something positive and creative to manifest a little hope in the midst of all this uncertainty and fear.

Today is the first day of Advent, a massively symbolic period of hope for a brighter future, regardless of individual belief. There is a Spirit that fills this Universe and that touches all of our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not. One of the ways that it manifests itself positively and noticeably is when we cultivate an inner sense of Hope, but it doesn´t work in a vacuum…it has to be invited in.

On my first Camino five years ago I met an Englishman called Christopher. He was on his third attempt to reach Santiago, his previous pilgrmages having come to unexpected and premature ends. He became a symbol of hope personified for me and he left me with some memorable words of wisdom:

You have to be prepared to believe in miracles before they can happen Michele. It never works the other way around”

Why not take all of Me?

It’s just over two months since my Korean flatmates left Logroño, carried away into the darkness one morning in a taxi bound for Barcelona airport and then onwards, by plane, back to Seoul, family, friends and home.  It’s amazing how quickly that time has passed and how things have changed, both for me and for the city, since then.  

We stay in touch via iMessenger and my friends tell me that they’re all well.  After 14 days quarantined in a hotel at Seoul airport they’re now reunited with their families, back at work and returning to a sort of normality (albeit, as they say with a little sadness in their hearts, “It’s a masked reality”).

They’ve asked me to send them photos from the Camino when I restart the Way and I’ll be happy to do it.  It will be like we’re together once again and they’ll be able to walk it ‘virtually’ with me, until the day they’re free to return in person and finally arrive in Santiago, and then Finisterre, themselves.

Meanwhile, I’ve had the privilege of sitting out my social isolation in this beautiful, ancient and historic northern Spanish city, which initially meant marvelling at its empty streets and soulful silence from the little balconies of my rented apartment (during the 6 weeks that any form of venturing out for exercise was forbidden).  Then gradually witnessing the city’s awakening from slumber, as streets full of joggers, cyclists and walkers suddenly appeared at 6am on the first day that exercise restrictions were eased.  And now, as more and more freedoms return, seeing Life breathing itself back into the city centre and cathedral square. Pavement cafés are filling up with animated and gossiping teenagers, shops are opening their doors, and old men are lining the benches of Logroño´s plazas and parks once again.

I‘m very conscious of what a great privilege this has been; spending these lockdown months in a country I love, in a city on the Camino that I love and, through my deliberate choice, largely on my own.  When the Coronavirus pressed the pause button on life-as-we-know-it and gave us empty cities, plane-less skies and a level of peace and quiet we’d never seen or heard before, being here alone provided me with a unique and very special opportunity.

I’m a reflective person by nature and walking Caminos has helped me to accept, explore and value this part of my nature in a way that my life BC (Before Camino) did not. But the global lockdown provided me with an invitation to ‘go even further inwards’, which felt somehow unique and new.  With no walking to occupy me, no beautiful scenery to enchant me, and only limited exposure to distractions like TV, radio or social media (my conscious choice at that time) I was left with just myself…and a different, more concentrated, more honest inward journey began; one that I welcomed as the `once-in-a-lifetime´opportunity that I believe it was.

I found myself looking closely at my story, my memories, my rabbit-holes and beartraps (the ones that catch me and hold me for a time…time and time again).  I spent days on end with the ‘Me that I used to be’ and the ‘Me that I strive to be’ and I learned that neither has any real substance or useful purpose in reality; they’re both just part of the story that I tell myself.  Some days I danced with joyful Me, laughed with playful Me, shook my head at deluded Me, raised an eyebrow at vain Me, cried with shame-filled, sad & hopeless Me or smiled gently at approval-seeking, doubt-riddled Me.

But I also began to realise that there was a central, centred Me; a Me who didn´t chatter as much as the other parts did…in fact…a Me who didn´t chatter at all. But who would say, on occasion, “Ah…yes…now I see” and it did see. It saw that ´the chattering parts´ weren´t bad, weak, evil, ego-ensnared, low-vibrational, masked, false or inauthentic parts, they were actually all real and rightful parts of ´the whole Me´, which I’d never had enough compassion or insight to see before. I saw that each of those ‘rejected, unacknowledged’ parts was just battling to do the best they could to keep ´the whole Me´ feeling safe, loved and protected at stressful or challenging times.

And, like a clear and quiet morning gradually lighting what was dark before, I saw why ‘finding unconditional love for ourselves’ appears to be the most difficult life challenge for every human being alive. To truly love, I believe, we must first see, understand and accept the entirety of the person or thing that calls for our love, exactly as it is. And, perhaps most importantly, I believe that begins with us.

If we begin our quest for self-love by telling ourselves “These parts of me are unacceptable and need to be resisted or improved” or, worse “These parts aren’t really me at all and I’ll do whatever I can to ignore, deny or to disable them”, then we’ve fallen at the first hurdle and we´ll always be looking outwards to another person or thing to save us or to make us feel complete. We are complete. I am complete…exactly as I am. At times I´m joyful, at others playful, sometimes deluded, frequently vain, occasionally angry, but probably as sad, hopeless, shame-filled, approval-seeking and doubt-riddled as the next person; maybe I´m just a little less afraid to talk about these things at times.

And what´s the benefit of all this soul-searching and insight? Will I now be completely accepting of all parts of myself at all times? No…because I´m a human being.

Will I now be endlessly patient, tolerant and considerate of others at all times? No…because I´m a human being.

Will I try to be these things in future? Yes.

Why? Because I recognise that the centred, central part of me is actually the wise and ancient voice of gentle compassion. Compassion for all things, myself included. And I realise that what it is actually saying (and has probably always been whispering to me under the myriad of chatter) is “Ah…yes…now I see…this is how to feel Love“.

And what do I believe Love truly is? Well…that´s another story, for another day…

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