Sea of Love…

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

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

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

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

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

– Rumi

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

´The Tempest´ – John William Waterhouse

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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”