Monday, 28 June 2010

Pilgrimage is not just for the good times

It is easy to be romantic about the Camino and I’m aware that many words have been written which positively gush with superlatives.
“Life changing,” “awesome,” “fabulous,” are right up there with “the best thing I have ever done” and “I will remember this forever”. In the Pilgrims’ Office the arrivals are fit, lean, tanned and glowing with good health. Often a Camino marks a celebration such as retirement or a significant birthday or simply getting a month off work to do it.
Occasionally, just occasionally, a pilgrim will sit, exhausted and drawn. For some there are different reasons.
During the week I have been thinking about the last year and how my journeys on the Camino Inglés in the Spring, the Madrid route in the summer, and the Camino Hogmanay at New Year punctuated a difficult time in my life. Despite my natural reserve about all things personal I’ve decided to tell the story. Life like the Camino can be a rocky way sometimes.

It started with a routine blood test just before Easter 2009. I was due to leave on the Camino Inglés when I got the results. “The doctor would like to see you” they said. So he did. That very day. I understood the implications of the abnormal result and the doctor said I would see a consultant within two weeks. The journey to Spain and the departure from Ferrol took my mind off what the future might hold. I was sitting in a restaurant in Neda only one day into the journey when my phone rang and it was the hospital to arrange an appointment. Walking that Camino gave me time to think, to quell any rising panic. I thought of pilgrim friends I had met, like Lillian, who had conquered life threatening cancer. The satisfying exhaustion at the end of the day fuelled sleep which otherwise may have escaped. My arrival in Santiago was as joyful as it had been on other occasions.
The appointment at the hospital was horrid. I am a huge believer in the National Health Service in the United Kingdom having been involved in it in some capacity almost all my life. But that day the 2 hour wait to see the consultant did not help my anxiety levels. His conclusion was that I had a 50/50 chance of having prostate cancer. An immediate biopsy was ordered. Now I was worried. But just like waiting for the albergue to open, or trudging those last long miles to the destination at the end of the day, I had to wait. The result was inconclusive. “It may be this…it may be that” the doc speculated. "We may do another larger biopsy but for the moment let’s get treatment started." This lasted three months. It brought spiking temperatures and for a brief time an extensive rash. I was in the throws of this at exactly this time last year. By the time the walk on the Madrid Route came round in August I was feeling better although I could have done without walking in the 40 degree temperatures some days.
I have heard many pilgrims talking about how the Camino can bring its own kind of optimism. Perhaps it is the constant serendipity of seeing new scenery round every corner, the reflective walking on the long meseta, the encouragement of the local Spanish people, the homemade food wolfed down at the end of the day, the time spent with friends. By the time I got back to London I had a rising sense that no matter how this turned out everything would be ok. Whatever that meant.

The doc however wasn’t the cheeriest of characters when I saw him next as he reviewed the latest blood tests. His view was that if matters did not improve significantly then they should operate to determine whether the abnormality was caused by cancer or not. More waiting.

The New Year adventure on the Camino Francés was a huge boost to the spirits. If I could conquer O Cebreiro in the snow and be the first into Galicia to start the Holy Year I could do anything. The companionship of that pilgrimage, the wondrous vistas of snow clad Galicia and bowls of steaming hot caldo will remain life long memories.

January brought good news and bad. The blood tests were returning to normal but they had decided to have a look for themselves anyway. Thankfully due to robots, probes, computers and a considerable loss of dignity no knife was to be involved.

And so it was in March after a final examination the doctor proclaimed me fit and well. “Discharged” was the glorious word. Never have I put on my clothes so fast in all my life.

It was a Friday and the boys were meeting in the bar as usual. I was in the mood to celebrate. It was all going so well until the Big Man said “if you don’t mind me asking why do you have your jumper on inside out?” In a confessonial burst the story of the last year tumbled out. The best kept secret was revealed. The boys were agog. Having established I was fine…discharged…no more hospital, Sean said with characteristic charm, “it’s your round then.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about this over the last nine days as I played at as many of the 4 services a day as I could. This annual festival of prayer is my equivalent of Joaquin playing every day of the year for the pilgrims’ mass in Santiago Cathedral. A full church every day with wonderful singing, no organist could ask for more.

Bear with me whilst I fill in the background a little. I’ve never been attracted to holy images except as works of art. I suspect it may be the Presbyterian genes I inherited from my mother. I often look at statues and pictures in Catholic churches and wonder if they are more about superstition than inspiration. I shudder when I see statues in Spanish churches dressed up in real clothes. Spooky. But there are some images, particularly icons, which radiate their own beauty and which I can readily see would appeal to people who believe. One such is the 13th Century icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help or Nuestra Señora del Perpetuo Socorro.
The story goes that Pope Pius XI gave this priceless icon to the Redemptorist Order asking them to make the image known throughout the world. And so they have. Wherever there are Redemptorist churches you will find the Icon and often a festival or novena with the image as its focus. In Ireland some 10,000 people attend each day, in the Philppines 250,000 and in London a more modest 500 participate.

In truth I feel very ambivalent about the whole thing. It isn’t my style and I suspect if I wasn’t there to play I wouldn’t go. But this year the introduction seized my attention. Brendan who was leading the Novena said, “If you don’t feel like doing this, if you are angry, if you have problems, if your faith is weak…you are especially welcome…come on the journey with us and let us support you through these nine days together.”

In that moment I realised that last year that’s what my Caminos including the nine day journey in Clapham had done for me. I’ve learned that pilgrimage is not just for the good times in life, it can also be about sustaining us through the times of great difficulty.

So for the love, friendship and companionship of my fellow pilgrims, thank you. I said I wouldn’t get gushy so I’ll say it in music. Recorded last night with 500 people coughing and moving around… apologies for the quality but the message is the same.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

The Simple Life

Last Saturday I packed my rucksack. I couldn’t decide what to take so I used a mixture of a summer packing list and a winter packing list. My winter sleeping bag was wakened from its lofting bag and rolled small again and my miniature toilet bag was replenished with its diminutive contents. I was off.
I left home and made for the underground train. It was busy. If there is anything I hate more about London it is the Tube where everyone is packed like sardines, bodies pressed against each other, many hands reaching for the rail above to steady themselves but always avoiding the least finger contact. Always avoiding any eye contact. Always maintaining absolute silence. On the Tube people behave as if they are the only one there. With elbows out to create a little personal space people read folded newspapers or have their nose in a book. Those lucky enough to have a seat stare straight ahead ignoring the girl who is applying her makeup as if she was in the privacy of her bedroom. All strangers in this alien place.
London. Loveable and hateful London. For me this is a place of day to day living and formerly full time work. Even now when I am here it can be busy as it has been recently. The familiar weight of the rucksack on my back was like an antidote. In an instant I could see the journey ahead. The airport, then the 2 hour flight, then Spain. I had looked at the long range weather forecast before I left the house. The weather was perfect for walking the long miles of the meseta.
7 minutes and only 2 stops later I was drawn from my reverie, the crowd parted and I got off at my destination. You see instead of going on Camino I was going to talk to three new pilgrims about what was in store for them. One of them, Simon, had e mailed me. They wanted to meet and chat about the Camino and the Camino Inglés from Ferrol in particular.
After the introductions they sat with their guidebooks eager to learn. Would I talk through the route? They asked. “Try shutting me up” I thought. I described that little route recommending that they start by spending a day in A Coruña with its wonderful 9 kms promenade and streets of sea food restaurants. Then after a short bus journey to begin the route from the harbour at Ferrol the birth place of Franco. I described the lovely walk to Pontedeume with the scent of salt air and sea views. The uphill struggle to Betanzos on the route which has pastoral scenes just like Devon or Ireland or the Borders of Scotland. And so over the mountain to Hospital de Bruma and onwards to Santiago via Sigueiro. I gave them each a packing list and talked them through the gear they might need depending on when they would walk. A poncho or a rain jacket? I held them up like a fashion model. “John is now demonstrating a poncho from the Army and Navy Stores and a rain jacket by Patagonia”. Would they take shoes or boots? They asked. Compeed or plasters? Albergues or hostals? We all have the same questions.
With the packing lists and the pile of props on the table I made the point about, weight, weight, weight over and over again. I realised that preparing for the physical journey is what makes us most anxious and yet describing it is quite easy. Talking about what makes that journey into a pilgrimage is a different kettle of fish. I’m now aware that what draws me back to pilgrimage time after time is the simplicity of the pilgrim’s life. We get up each day, pack the same few things into the same rucksack and set off following a well waymarked path. We have time to think, to pray, to reflect. Our needs are simply food and a bed. A hot shower is a luxury. On a new route we do not know what surprises lie round a corner. It may be the challenge of a hill, or a conversation with a local, it may be the gift of cold water when passing a house or the encouraging wave of a far off shepherd.
Being happy with what I need rather than what I want is the biggest lesson I’ve learned from the Camino and frankly I can’t get enough of it. My life post several Caminos is far from perfect but it has changed. I’m aware of less striving now. Less ambition to succeed at all costs. Less desire to be first at the top of the hill and more happiness just to get to the top. It may also be age but I also go much more slowly these days. I am reluctant to fill each day with activity and I resent it when days pass and I have no time for myself just to sit and read. Or indeed just sit.
Over and over again I read stories from other pilgrims how five years after their pilgrimage they still think about their Camino every day. What is that about? I’m becoming more convinced that it is the simplicity of the pilgrim life we learn to love.
The world in which we live and work is often the converse of that. Even in church. Maybe especially in church. Let me finish this rant about simplicity on a more light-hearted note. Last week I played for the First Communion Mass. 30 or so children with their families receive communion for the first time. Today another 30 or so will take the plunge. Traditionally the girls are dressed like little brides and the boys like mini waiters. This is a practice I’ve always found bizarre. Today like last week however they will all be wearing a simple white gown. All of them. Sure the girls still turn up in their brides outfits but for the purposes of the Mass they are all simplified by the same white gown. Only later are these discarded and the relatives can ooh and ahh at the dress by Liberty and the shoes by Jimmy Choo. Last week although she knew about it in advance one mother objected vociferously to her 7 year old daughter’s wedding dress being covered up by a simple garment. “It is a breach of our human rights” she alleged. Another parent who was incredibly patient explained the reasons and order was restored.
We sometimes think of the Spanish as being extravagant and dramatic and I laughed out loud when as friend of mine sent me this picture of a child in a Holy Week procession in Spain. Yesterday the picture was passed around the assembled Spaniards in La Terazza. Everyone smiled. Don Antonio admitted, “we crazy Spaniards, we take things to extremes.”
Not just Spaniards. The practice of upsetting parents by children wearing simple gowns for First Communion in Clapham started when a few years ago there was a hushed silence when a horse and cart drew up at the church gates and a little girl in full wedding dress alighted to make her first communion. She was later upstaged by another little girl who at the press of a secret button lit the lights in her head dress which also played Ave Maria in time to the flashes. Enough was enough and simplicity became the order of the day. At least in church.
But even at First Communion it is possible to spot the one who would rather be elsewhere and perhaps this wee lassie is a future pilgrim.