John Brierley author of best selling Camino Guides is one of the most well known names in the Camino world. In the last seven years over 40,000 of his guides to the Caminos Francés, Portugués and the route to Finisterre have been sold. His books are guides to what he calls the “inner and outer journeys” and as well as route information they contain notes on the “mystical path” and encourage self review and reflection. This aspect of John’s work is not universally popular among pilgrims many of whom simply want information on where to walk and where to sleep and so I was very
interested in meeting the man behind the book cover.
To prepare for my conversation with him I had read some of John’s story on his website and I was even more intrigued. I put it to John that many people at the age of 40 have these feelings of restless emptiness but that is a world away from up-rooting the family, selling everything and living in a camper van. How did it come about? John described a year of having the daydream but was so “spiritually blind” he didn’t know what to do about it. He decided to follow the fashion of the day and have a sabbatical. He wanted to make it a real break so they sold the house and set off travelling. He described it as just like going on pilgrimage and the act of “taking time out” was what grew into a lifelong spiritual search. On the last day of his year out he resigned from his firm. He realised that the journey he was on was not geographic but spiritual and for the last part of the year he and the family and settled down in the spiritual community at Findhorn in Scotland.
When they were on their travels they parked the camper van in the car park at St Jean de Pied Port and looking out they saw pilgrims starting the Camino over the Pyrenees to Spain. Wanting to find out more about the Camino they drove along the Way stopping in Roncevalles, Pamplona and other places en route. When they stopped they spoke to pilgrims and got some sense of what it was about. This was the first time John had heard about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. The seed was sown but it was to be another two years before he packed a rucksack and walked the Camino Francés for the first time.
I couldn’t resist asking, “When you set out from St Jean that first time, did you have a guidebook?” “I did” he said, “but it was full of inaccuracies particularly wrong distances and at the end of the day an unexpected extra two or three kilometers is a nightmare when you are exhausted.” That’s why in John’s Guides the distances are deadly accurate. “I measure them on maps and wear a GPS device on each wrist,” he said proudly.
As we talked I could see in John’s eyes that he was taken right back to that first pilgrimage. “I got a sense that I was searching for something. I spent a week in silence, avoiding contact with others. Lost in thought as I walked the route. There was a lot of rain and I was soaked through most days. I climbed the mountain to O Cebreiro and I went into the little chapel. I was cold, confused. I was aware something big was happening to me but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that the parish priest of this church, Don Elias Valina Sampedro, had been responsible for much of the modern revival of the Camino and as I knelt beside his memorial I got a huge sense that I was being called to write Guidebooks to the Camino routes for future pilgrims. In that moment a rare ray of sunshine shone through the little window in the wall high above me and bathed me in sunlight. In floods of tears I committed myself there and then to write the Guides.”
“I spent more days in silence but when I stopped in the rain at an ancient cross outside of Portomarin I met two pilgrims I had encountered much earlier on the route. We embraced each other and there was a wonderful sense of joy. I had friends. I had a new sense of purpose. Above all I had a great sense of affirmation that everything was going to be ok.”
At this point in our conversation John enthused about this discovery then caught himself in midsentence and apologised for rambling. “I’m Irish” he explained with a smile. I was interested in everything he had to say but I wanted to know what he felt like entering Santiago for the very first time. John focused. “It was so disappointing,” he said. “I couldn’t cope with the crowd, it was so oppressive, I retreated from the cathedral in tears. In that moment I decided to keep walking and so I immediately set off for Finisterre.”
John said that although he had walked 33 days to Santiago, “one day for each year of the life of Christ”, it was on the 3 day journey to Finisterre, “I got an overwhelming sense of death and resurrection.” He explained that on the way up the hill to the end of the world at Finisterre he realised with utter conviction that the spiritual journey he was on would not end but would continue for the rest of his life.
John decided that he needed to explore this “inner journey” and that this exploration would be an integral part of the Guides he would come to write.
I was confused. “What is this “spirituality” you are propounding John?” I asked. “For some people the Camino is God centred, for others it is simply a walk, for some people there is meaning in crystals, for others it is the Cross. Under the new- age-speak what does John Brierley believe?” I apologised for being intrusive but John continued with absolute honesty. “I am on a journey of enquiry” he explained.”I accept everybody and what they believe. I can sum up my philosophy as being trying to find what connects us rather than what separates us.” He talked about his traditional upbringing in the Church of Ireland, “but it never became an important part of my life.” In contrast the spiritual awakening he experienced as a pilgrim has led to a lifelong search for understanding of the nature of “God, Jesus and the Trinity.” As we talked further the jargon of self help psychology fell away as John spoke about his developing relationship with Jesus Christ. He described him as his brother, an older brother who he can depend on. Just for a moment the simplicity of what he said hung in the air then in a rush like a descriptive chapter in one of his Guides he was off again describing the self help book a Course in Miracles which he uses as a framework for life. He quoted the book verbatim, “Words are just symbols of symbols, and therefore twice removed from reality.” He explained that he is conscious of the limitations of language and that what he tries to do in his Guide books is not simply give directions and information but “like a brother to the pilgrim, I try to walk the spiritual journey with them”.
“What I do,” he concluded with total conviction, “is write Guide books which point people to an empty space which they can then fill with their own journey”.
“Do you have the best job in the world?” “You bet I do” he answered without a hint of smugness.
We talked for a considerable period more, the conversation reinforcing my impression of John as a man without guile, successful in what he does, energised by the Camino and planning more adventures. Before I met John I had wondered about the whole “inner journey” thing. At the end I realised that although we may question whether a Guide book is best place to promote the concept, his sincerity in doing so cannot be doubted. He is a very nice man.