Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Where faith and doubt unite

Hola from Santiago. I came out to join a group of 35 members of the Confraternity of St James. Around 25 of them walked up the Coastal Route from Oporto to meet the rest of us who flew to Santiago. This is to be a week of fun and celebration, visits and reflection. I’ll tell you more about it soon.

I also have a confession to make. As I write this post I am not here in Santiago I am back in my study in London last Saturday morning. I am trusting that the technology will work and that this will appear as scheduled on Tuesday. Today!
Last week I told you about a visit to the Hindu Temple in Wimbledon and the animated conversation we had about pilgrimage. During that conversation, Gheeta, one of the leaders of the Temple mentioned the fulfilment of a promise was often a motivating factor for Hindus to go on pilgrimage or to give other kinds of thanks to the Deity they believed had assisted them. When she said this many people nodded in agreement.

Since then I’ve been thinking about the pilgrims who arrive in the Pilgrims’ Office. Some pilgrims ask for their Compostela to be dedicated to a loved one. This is usually someone who has died and the pilgrim has perhaps made the journey in their memory. No records are kept of how often this is requested but chatting to people in the Office they think perhaps once or twice a day. Much more frequently however I’ve heard people talk about making the Camino because of a “promesa”. They are invariably Spanish. To be honest it took me a while to understand what was happening. People who have been to the Office know that they will be asked to fill in a form. Amongst other data to be collected it has three boxes which ask about the pilgrim’s motivation for making the Camino. Religious. Religious and others. Non-religious, are the three categories. Before writing the Compostela staff in the Office wait until they can see which of these boxes is ticked. If either box one or two is ticked the traditional Compostela is issued as a symbol of the journey made for spiritual reasons. If it is the third box then the Certificate is issued. Many people receiving “only” the Certificate get very upset and ask to change the form to Religious reasons. This is rarely permitted. However what I have seen happening frequently is that if the pilgrim asks “what is this category?” pointing to the Religious or Spiritual box or indeed if their pen hovers above it but then moves slowly above the Non Religious box the Spanish members of staff intervene with an explanation. It goes something like this: “The Non Religious Category is if your motives are purely cultural, or for tourism or for sport, for example. The Religious and Others Category is when your motives are spiritual such as if it was a promise”. Frequently it is as if the veil has been lifted, heads nod vigorously, “a promesa” they say and tick the appropriate box to receive their Compostela.

At first I thought the explanation was provided by Spanish people to Spanish people because of the limitations of their English, German or the many other languages pilgrims speak. So, I decided to try it in both English and Spanish. With Spanish people it worked a treat. If I saw their pen hovering I simply said, “Cuidado (be careful) that box is only if your motives are cultural etc….this one is if it is for example a promesa” That worked. Less disappointed customers. However with the English speakers it was a different matter. “A promise?” drawled an American lady from Texas, “Whaddaya mean a promise?” she legitimately asked. “ Oh my God”, I thought, ”how do I explain this?” and I could see her eyes widen as I embarked on a convoluted explanation, “you know if you have been ill, or someone you love has been ill and you pray and say “if they recover, I’ll walk to Santiago” for example”". From her look I could tell she thought I might have been a witchdoctor. On a number of occasions I tried more sophisticated explanations but just got more incredulous looks. In English it was taking many sentences to explain what the Spanish and Hindus understood by one word, “a promise”.

Anthony Bloom the Russian Orthodox Archbishop who died in 2003 wrote about this in his book Living Prayer. He talks about the “asking prayers” which believers and non- believers alike make. His argument is that this is something deep within us human beings…”dear God, help me to pass my exams”, “help my mum get better”, “stop my daughter taking drugs” are all things most of us have said at some point in our lives, whether we care to admit it now or not. It seems to me to be a natural step then to turn this into a reciprocal request. “ God, if you do this for me, I’ll do this for you” – inevitably that involves changing in some fundamental way. It is hard to talk about these matters in a public forum and I feel slightly shamefaced to say I’ve not only done that but at times of crisis in my adult life I’ve continued to do it. Anthony Bloom says this is ok. It isn’t offensive but is in fact an admission deep inside us that there might actually be a God who has some interest in us. It is when faith and doubt unite for a common purpose.
That’s what I’ve discovered about the Camino in Spain. All Spanish people know about it. Santiago is their national Saint. The story of Compostela is taught to them as children. Pilgrims have been walking through Spain for many hundreds of years. A Galician friend and academic reckons that “every single Spaniard has made a promise to walk to Santiago or will make that promise at some time in their lives. They may not admit it but it is there.” I found “every single Spaniard” a bit hard to swallow so I started asking the Spaniards I know. The reply was often laden with the implication “of course I’ve made a promise, everyone does, are you crazy, you know little about us.” My friend Lourdes says very honestly, “I’m very lucky that thank God nothing so bad has happened to me that I’ve had to promise to walk to Santiago”.

The pilgrimage is in the popular lexicon. A number of football players promised to walk to Santiago if the national team won. They did! In 2004 Javier Irureta the then coach of Deportiva Coruna made the pledge if his team qualified. They did. Irureta kept his word and in two days covered the 100 kms promised. But it seems that the road was tough: "We have to thank St. James for his divine power, through the efforts of the players, helped us eliminate Milan. But next time, I bet a dinner," said the coach.
Maybe, then we shouldn’t be surprised that so many Spaniards walk the Camino, more than half the total and many of them walk the last 100 kms from Sarria using annual holidays for the purpose of the “promesa”. I’ve been talking to many of them. The nature of the promise is rarely revealed. Too personal. For many the moment when the Compostela is presented has a special poignancy. It is a symbol of their promise fulfilled. Tears in the office are not out of place. No one is embarrassed, yet no one would ask. We all know the private agonies inside that some people have to bear.

Many of them though talk about how difficult it was. The blisters and tendonitis. The problems of carrying a huge rucksack. They also talk about the sense of achievement and satisfaction. How beautiful the countryside can be and the friendships which were deepened. “Para repetir” is a phrase frequently heard. What started as a promise, an obligation, because of problem is to be repeated for the sheer joy of what the Camino brings.

I am reminded of John Bell’s beautiful song, the words of which I leave for you here:

We cannot measure how you heal
or answer every sufferer’s prayer,
yet we believe your grace responds
where faith and doubt unite to care.
Your hands, though bloodied on the cross,
survive to hold and heal and warn,
to carry all through death to life
and cradle children yet unborn.

The pain that will not go away,
the guilt that clings from things long past,
the fear of what the future holds,
are present as if meant to last.
But present too is love which tends
the hurt we never hoped to find,
the private agonies inside,
the memories that haunt the mind.

So some have come who need your help
and some have come to make amends,
as hands which shaped and saved the world
are present in the touch of friends.
Lord, let your Spirit meet us here
to mend the body, mind and soul,
to disentangle peace from pain,
and make your broken people whole.

Thursday, 23 September 2010

The things you learn when you go for a walk

It seems to have been a week of religion. First of all the Pope visited the United Kingdom and there was wall to wall coverage on television and radio. The visit was historic in that for the first time the Pope had been invited by the Queen to make a state visit. As I watched the images I wondered how strange it would all look to people who had never seen a Pope. It was no surprise when I eavesdropped on a conversation on the bus. “What is it they call him?” A woman asked her friend. “Your Holiness”, her friend replied knowingly. “Your Holiness”, the woman repeated to herself as if to rehearse the strange words of the title. “Yes, I know it is an odd name,” her friend went on, “When he arrived, His Royal Highness the Duke of Edinburgh met him at the airport and then took him to meet the Queen. I noticed straight away that Her Majesty called him, “Your Holiness.” ”
I was fascinated by this exchange and the use of familiar and unfamiliar titles. The feeling was reinforced when I went to a meeting last week in a Hindu Temple here in London. It was the first such temple in Europe and they showed me round with pride. There were images of all of the various Hindu deities. Candles were lit, bells tinkled and prayers were said aloud. People took off their shoes at the door as a mark of respect and reverently knelt before the Deities with offerings of food and bottles of milk. The milk is used to bath the images of the Deities before worship. It felt slightly like being in a parallel universe from the images of the Pope and the ritual of Catholic services. It was also the first time I have ever been at a meeting where all of those attending sat without their shoes on. Business suits and bare feet were an unusual sight to my eyes.

Although the environment was new to me the one topic of conversation which we all had in common was Pilgrimage. They were fascinated to learn about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela and I was amazed to learn of the thousands of pilgrimage destinations for Hindus, mainly in India. Many people at the meeting had made pilgrimages and much of the language they used was the same. I could have been on the Camino Frances. They spoke of pilgrimage being “time out”, a “physical and spiritual journey”, they spoke of the effort it takes, the difficulties which have to be overcome and the sense of fulfilment in reaching the destination. In passing I mentioned that this was a Holy Year in Santiago when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday. I told them that the numbers of pilgrims was more than double that of regular years. They were intrigued by this and ask what was so special about it. Feeling a bit awkward with some of the language and with many caveats I explained the tradition (in which many people, but not all, believe) of gaining a Plenary Indulgence (first caveat again with the additional: a practice which was introduced in the Middle Ages) which basically is a reduction in the time a person spends atoning for their sins in Purgatory (long list of caveats about to come into play if they ask about Purgatory). No worries. The mention of the two words “pilgrimage” and “sin” in close proximity was like firing a starting pistol. They were off. Sharing stories of the millions who travel to wash away their sins in the Ganges to the personal and private pilgrimages Hindus make at times of great change in their lives. People nodded enthusiastically. The volume of the meeting went up considerably. Talking about pilgrimage drew people together. I wondered if the United Nations had ever debated the subject?
I learned a lot at that meeting. Despite the strangeness the Elephant God, the flower petals and milk and meetings without shoes I learned yet again that the drive to make pilgrimage lies deep in human beings. Part of our hardwire. It also seems to me that much of the practices and rituals of religions are ways that human beings develop to try and make sense of spiritual concepts, make them real, bring heaven closer to earth. Make God more accessible.
I remember the first time I travelled in rural Spain when I called in at the local Church and saw fully clothed statues. This was alien to minimalist Scots with our Calvanistic streak and they looked as odd to me as did the Deities in the Hindu temple. Then whilst walking the Via de la Plata from Seville I saw for the first time the great Procession of the Kings on the 6th of January. The feast of the Epiphany is as important as Christmas in Spain and is the day when presents are given. These processions are held in the smallest villages as well as large cities. Then on the Camino Frances I remember seeing the procession on the Feast of Corpus Christi when the Blessed Sacrament, the consecrated host, was process around the village.

As the Camino routes enter Galicia the land becomes greener and more mountainous. It rains a lot and winters can be cold. The Scots and Irish feel at home and pilgrims on the Way are sustained with Caldo, the famous vegetable soup and the many types of stews. Like other Celtic countries Galicia abounds with folklore and superstition such as the rock at Muxía which they say can aid fertility and the statue of Master Mateo, architect of the Cathedral. Mothers believed that bumping their children’s heads on it three times would impart his wisdom. Pilgrims still do this today. In Galicia I discovered a most unusual pilgrimage which puts my experiences in the Hindu Temple right into perspective.

This is the annual pilgrimage to Santa Marta de Ribarteme held on the 29th of July each year. It is one of the oldest in Galicia. According to tradition, Santa Marta is the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. During her life, Marta was a symbol of diligence and hospitality. The story goes that she travelled to Galicia to bring Christian faith to the people and performed several miracles involving resurrections or rescues of the nearly drowned or the extremely ill. It was then that Marta turned into Santa Marta: the Saint of those in danger of death. And so each year thousands flock to give thanks for her intervention in restoring them to health of to ask for her assistance if they have health problems. There is a festival atmosphere for days before and like some other modern pilgrimage destinations the village is dotted with stalls selling everything from fluorescent rosary beads to statues of the Virgin Mary which play Ave Maria. However despite the commercial froth, the prayers of the pilgrims are manifested in real, if unusual ways. If you have a problem with your ear, arm, leg or any part of your body you can lay a wax model of it at the altar and pray for healing. You may crawl to the church on your knees as a special act of devotion. If you have been gravely ill and through the intervention of Santa Marta you have survived you may wish to give thanks (and secure your future well being) by getting inside a coffin and being carried by your equally thankful relatives in the procession to the Mass.
This is strange stuff which isn’t for me. I intend to be inside a coffin only once in my life. I said as much to friends in Santiago expecting them to chortle in agreement at the silliness of it all. Instead they fixed me with an amused look. “ The Pilgrimage to Santa Marta lasts for one day, John. How many days did your pilgrimages take from Seville or St Jean de Pied Port to Santiago? ”
It has taken me some time to realize that we are all different and so are our pilgrimages. The things you learn when you go for a walk!

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Time to say goodbye

For many years I worked in the nether world of Non Governmental Organisations. These are organisations formed by governments to do things that governments want done but want to do more effectively and cheaply than they themselves could do them. The funding of NGO’s comes from governments both local and national and inevitably is short term and is often given or stopped at the whim of politicians.
To all intents and purposes that’s the way the Pilgrims’ Office in Santiago is funded. The Cathedral receives a specific grant from local and regional government to fund the work which is done receiving pilgrims in Santiago. Add the bureaucracy of government funding to the less- than- cutting- edge management skills of the Church and you’ll soon see where this story is going.
It is a feature of Spanish employment law that if those employed on temporary contracts are employed too long or too often they are given permanent status automatically with all of the rights that entails for them and the responsibilities it implies for employers. Therefore of the 20 or so staff in the Pilgrims’ Office around 90% of them are on temporary contracts and it is a condition of the funding which the Cathedral receives that they must not go beyond the limit of their temporary contracts.
Even though this is the Holy Year, even though the number of pilgrims has more than doubled, even though they have recently opened a brand new 175 albergue, even although the Pope is still to visit at the beginning of November when pilgrim numbers will again peak…in a magnificent demonstration of strategic forward planning almost the entire staff will leave by mid-September to be replaced by a completely new crew.
Some of the current staff have been associated with the office for some years having used gaps in employment as a way of coping with the temporary contract rules. Some have been there for shorter periods. Almost all are well qualified young people who want to stay in Galicia but because of the employment situation cannot easily find permanent employment in their chosen professions.
In the office they mostly get on very well together under the benign leadership of coordinators Maria and Eduardo who are themselves powerless against the bureaucratic rules. Don Jenaro the Canon in charge of Pilgrimages, the Boss and the link to the Cathedral adopts his most priestly, philosophical look. But there is also good news. Mari, a well known face from the Pilgrims’ Office is pregnant and will go off on maternity leave at the end of the year.
As a team they get on very well together. Paid little for their labours they turn up and day in and day out to deal with the lines of pilgrims. Most of us pilgrims are friendly, smiling and courteous. Others can be downright cantankerous. The staff do their best to maintain a warm welcome for each. This is challenging when every day they are looking at the same sellos and saying the same things, particularly “all the way walking?” The work is hard and relentless.

I think that they are a great bunch. They have been very helpful to me and I have seen how far they are prepared to go to help individual pilgrims in distress. They care about pilgrims. More than that, they care deeply about continuing the medieval traditions of welcome and issuing the Compostela. They hate cheats. They feel that someone who has got the bus or used a car is being very disrespectful to authentic pilgrims. Because they feel that sometimes their reaction can be a bit strong when someone arrives with few sellos or little evidence of a pilgrimage well made. Above all I am convinced that they have the well being of the pilgrimage at heart when they are issuing Compostelas or bed sheets in the recently opened albergue.

Soon they will all be gone. Some have left already as other jobs have appeared. So on behalf of all of us they have served over the last two or three years I thought we should say a collective Thank You.

In this little presentation which follows I apologise that I haven’t captured everyone. I’m aware that at least three are missing…Pili, Fernando and Katusha and probably others but there were limits to the amount of photostalking I could do whilst we were meant to be working. So fellow pilgrims if you have received your Compostela in the last few years join me in thanking some of the Pilgrims’ Office volunteers and staff of this Holy Year.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Sex, lies and Compostelas

The lady who sat down at my desk was large and impeccably well dressed. She was in her mid sixties and her well groomed hair was silver with a blue tinge to it which only ladies of that age seem to achieve. She wore a watered silk dress of deep blue set off by many strands of gold around her neck and even more on her well manicured, puffy, fingers. “Can I help you?” I enquired. “I’ve come for my Compostela with my husband,” she replied. With that she handed over her Credencial or Pilgrims’ Passport. I went through the routine first confirming her name. “Maria Angeles Rodriguez Garcia?” “Yes,” she nodded. Then looking at the stamps on her passport I said,” You started your pilgrimage in Ferrol on the Camino Inglés?” I enquired. “Yes,” she nodded. “Did you walk all the way? Did you only travel on foot?” “A pie” (on foot) was her quick reply. “Could you fill in this form please?” I continued.
I watched as she filled in her name. Then in the box marked Sexo (gender) she marked H. By this time I knew that in Spain the words Masculino and Feminino aren’t in common usage. They are biological terms. The older generation are more likely to use Hembra for woman and Varón for man. Younger people would use Mujer for woman and Hombre for man. People from other countries are comfortable using Masculine and Feminine. Confused? I certainly was in the beginning.

But if the terminology is different from country to country one thing which unites all pilgrims at the end of the road in Santiago is their possession of a Pilgrim Passport or Credencial full of the stamps they have collected along the way. They need this record of their journey to sleep for a few euros in the huge network of albergues along the routes. They also need it if they wish to get the traditional certificate, the Compostela in Santiago. For some this is just a piece of paper which holds no importance. For others it is a very significant symbol of the journey they have made and the effort it took. Compostelas in some form or another have been issued for 300 years. To obtain the Compostela pilgrims need to have walked or rode on horseback the last 100kms or to have cycled the last 200kms into Santiago. Stamps or sellos are very easy to get and pilgrims usually get one where they sleep and in a café or restaurant along the way.
The lady handed me back her form. I gazed at her credencial again. The stamps were all there. However I know the Camino Inglés very well. It is a tough little route with considerable bite in places. “Had this manicured lady really walked to Compostela?” I wondered to myself. “Que tal el Camino Inglés?” I enquired how she had found the route. “Bien” she said, not giving much away. “You walked all the way?” My fingers walked across the desk in case there was any doubt what I meant. “A pie” she said again. I decided to enquire just a little further without appearing to be a smart Alec. “This stage between Betanzos and Hospital de Bruma” I pointed to the two sellos, “Did you walk that stage too?” My reason for asking is that 11 kms before Bruma there is a steep ascent which takes the best part of an hour. If this woman attempted it she would need oxygen and possibly a helicopter. My question hung in the air. At that point her husband, the Varón, approached. They exchanged a few words. He fixed me with a stare and said, “Hemos andado toda la ruta” confirming they walked all the way and defying me to say otherwise. I reminded myself that we are not the police.
The general principle in the office is that if the pilgrims say they have walked all the way and they have the sellos then the Compostela should be issued. Colleagues try to give most people the benefit of the doubt. For example three young people from Germany arrived. They had very few sellos. One colleague thought they should be refused. One was undecided. The other said “ show us your camera and describe the route.” This they did describing where they slept and details of the walking. They were issued with their Compostelas. But in the office they also talk about the “Trampas de Agosto”. The August cheats. The people who drive the routes collecting sellos on credenciales just to end up with a Compostela on their wall. The embarrassing thing is they are almost all Spanish. The staff of the Pilgrims’ Office think that telling lies to get a Compostela is hugely disrespectful to authentic pilgrims many of whom walk hundreds of kilometres to get to Santiago but some people continue to do so.
Enter 18 Italian pilgrims all chatting excitedly. One of them a young lassie came to my desk. I was registering her when voices were raised across the room. There was a man surrounded by several others in this group arguing loudly with one of my colleagues, Maria. She is very experienced and has been a pilgrim herself. Eagle eyed she spotted a gap of more than 50 kilometres without stamps. The spokesman who turned out to be a priest assured her repeatedly and increasingly loudly that all 18 of them at various ages had walked every step of the 50 kilometres in one day. Colleagues were not convinced and Eduardo the coordinator was sent for. Eduardo is kindness personified and around the room staff winked to each other. “He will take their word for it as he generally does” was the message between us. Some people even started writing the compostelas. “What’s the problem?” Enquired the young lady at my desk. She spoke in Spanish not Italian. I pointed to the place on her passport and explained that colleagues were finding it difficult to believe they had walked the 50 odd kilometres being claimed by the priest. With the most innocent look on her face she said “But he must have forgotten we took the bus for that part”. Light the blue touch paper, stand well back. Fireworks.
The sad thing is that they left empty handed. Had they explained that for whatever reason they had been forced to cut the journey short they would have had the stamps of the Cathedral and individual certificates. Like most times in life lies only make things worse.
So fellow pilgrims when you reach Santiago and someone asks you if you have walked all the way don’t put your feet on the desk and say “look” as I felt like doing, just understand that some people don’t!

However the confusion about gender terms and the heated arguments about who walked where and when did nothing to dampen the immense pleasure of meeting to many pilgrims during my 5 weeks there. During that time all pilgrim records since the middle ages were broken. We issued 2,500 Compostelas, one day, we were going at a rate of 220 per hour, we passed the 200,000 barrier which will be hard to beat in future. On one weekend 12,000 young people arrived. It was hot and got hotter. But I have many memories of these weeks…

Just engaged
The pilgrims who shared it was their birthday only to be embarrassed by this mad Scotsman singing Happy Birthday to them. The two couples who happened by my desk at different times. In answer to the question, “que tal su camino” they announced, “fabulous we got engaged”. The German couple who had walked the Camino Inglés without an official passport. “We used this” they said as they laid open their family bible on the desk, the front page stamped with sellos. “ Did you use a guide?” I enquired. “Oh yes a very good guide by John Walker, do you know him?” Compostelas issued instantly! The two separate pilgrims in wheelchairs who at different times waited patiently in the queue and only when they reached the front did they send their carers up the stairs to ask if there was access for wheelchairs. There isn’t and I went down to issue the stamps and Compostelas. They were hugely proud. I’ve told you about the day Amado arrived having walked barefoot from France and the queue parted to cheer him into the office. Just after that I took him and a French priest over to the sacristy as they wanted to concelebrate the 12 noon Mass. Amado whispered to me and so I asked the Master of Ceremonies, “This priest has walked from Lourdes in his bare feet and he is asking if you would consider it discourteous for him say Mass also in his bare feet.” The Master of Ceremonies of this grand Cathedral spoke directly to him, “If it is your wish, it is our privilege”. The many families with children who were as proud as punch to have completed their camino. The pilgrims both men and women who wept quietly at a journey well made and now ended. And many, many more.
A final word about the growing respect I have for the people who have limited time to walk to Compostela because of work or family commitments. In the main they are Spanish and mostly they walk from Sarria just over the 100 kms limit. These are the ones the long distance walkers disparage. “Tourigrinos” we’ve all called them. No doubt some are and no doubt some use buses or cars to collect sellos. But there is no doubting the evidence of my own eyes as I’ve seen them limp into the office in a state of exhaustion with feet covered in blisters and tendons strained but every one of them says “It was worth the pain”. Their chests swell with pride when they get their Compostela. I’m left in no doubt they are as much pilgrims as anyone else.
But there are exceptions and as the lady in the blue silk dress walked away with her husband both with their Compostelas in hand I wondered what the point of having it is if you haven’t earned it? That's their problem.