Saturday, April 30, 2016

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela Day 8:

Beyond a doubt, this was our most beautiful day yet on the Camino!
The morning opened with a cold mist permeating everything, but the fog gradually gave way to brilliant sunshine and it felt like spring again! New hope and vitality filled my heart!
We planned to go from Sarria to Mercadoiro today, only 18 kms, very close to Matthias’ recommendation, and
totally manageable compared with how far we’d walked other days. I left my pack in the albergue foyer for the transport service to pick up and, free from its burden, we started walking through the city, up100s of stairs!
One thing became quickly apparent: many more peregrinos were joining us this morning!
They were everywhere: it was like ‘rush hour’ on the Camino! Sarria was 120 kms from Santiago, about a week’s journey by foot, and this being Semana Santa = Holy Week, many Spaniards were starting here to complete a mini-pilgrimage.     
We walked through a mix of farms and forests. Streams overflowed all around us: spilled over the walls and onto our pathway. Sometimes we crossed the waters by centuries-old bridges, stepping-stones or simply waded through. The trees, giant oaks and chestnuts, exuded character and seemed to speak out of the mist. Susan from Paraguay called them ‘talking trees’. I likened them to Tolkien’s ents in The Lord of the Rings and fully expected them to pull up roots and start walking with us.
The mist burned off, the sun shone clearer, and as we walked, I felt how much Erica would have enjoyed this natural beauty and suddenly really missed her company, her presence with us. At times, the Camino’s natural beauty verged on perfection, but this only seemed to make her absence all the more prevalent in my mind. Like how can there be such perfection when she is no longer here?!
Again tears flowed as memories quickened and past and present came alive together.
‘But,’ I heard the wind in the trees say, ‘This is for healing: the leaves of the trees are for healing the nations…
and for you and your family!’  
And that’s how and when Revelation 22:2 became my verse for the day!
As we walked through this morning, I felt Erica walking with us as I’d not known before, somehow still here, among the talking and walking trees of life, together with me on this pilgrimage to heal.
And that’s when the Spaniard, who’d still been sleeping when we left early, biked past; and the 2 German guys too.
In fact, I awakened to the fact a lot of other peregrinos were passing me. Was I slowing down again? The only guy I’d passed was a very white-haired 75-year old grandpa, probably the only guy older than me on the whole Camino!
So… time to move a little faster?!  
No… time to inhale a deeper breath, take it all to heart and enjoy these God-moments of life!
As it turned out, we had more than enough time! We even stopped for lunch and arrived at our next albergue early. My pack arrived safely. We settled into our room – had it all to ourselves! No caliente = hot water for showers, and  when the sun went down, it got cold and our stone albergue room grew even colder, but Michael found a space heater  and warmed ours up. After supper in the dining room, we even scrounged some cardboard and wood, built a much-needed fire and Michael and I played a game of chess, something we hadn’t done in a long time. 
Like I said: it was the most beautiful day!

Friday, April 29, 2016

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela Day 7:

We left La Piedra = the Rock albergue in Villafranca and our next one had basically the same name: A Pedra.  Some people might say this put me ‘between a rock and a hard place’, but today was mostly a planning, travel and rest day. My verse was appropriately:
Matt 16:18 ‘On this rock I will build my church’. Not any rock, but Peter’s and our confession of Jesus as the Christ.
Sometimes you just got to stand on the Rock to move you forward!
Our next stage on the Camino climbed another summit and with just over a week left, we needed to refocus so we could still make it to our destination in time. We planned to tackle less distance: about 20 kms/day and carry less: hopefully, sending my pack on ahead daily will lighten my load and let me walk more easily. So to position ourselves better, we decided to take a bus over the summit and walk the last 120 km.
Actually reaching Santiago now appeared more possible than it did just a few days ago!
Our bus didn’t leave till noon, so after all the other peregrinos had left, Mike + I shopped and ate breakfast out in a park in the sunshine - a wonderful change after yesterday’s rain!  We also checked out the town’s well-fortified castle and church, especially its Door of Forgiveness: the church’s concession and absolution for pilgrims so sick they couldn’t make it all the way to Santiago. I thought, it’s good the church was so gracious, but isn’t forgiveness more than just making it through a physical door?
Driving over the summit, we hit more snow again: I never knew Spain had so many mountains! Doesn’t the song says, ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain’?! We changed buses in Lugo and in just over an hour, we had crossed into Galicia, Spain’s most north-western province. Our Irish friends had proudly told us Ireland and Galicia share common Celtic roots: their languages are quite similar and both play bagpipes!
From a Biblical perspective, I remembered what I’d learned about how the Galatians in the New Testament had common roots with Galicians who’d migrated from here 100s of years before Christ. Now I could actually see it for myself.
In Sarria, a couple young German students from Berlin joined us walking from the bus to our hostel. We registered, confirmed my plan to send my pack ahead the next morning and then spent the afternoon exploring: up a couple 100 stairs to a ruined castle, abandoned tower and monastery!
This hostel expressed the most personal sense of church-community sharing of any we stayed at along the Camino. 
Our other room-mates were: a Finn, even from Turku, where Erica and I had taught a Father’s Heart seminar, and a Spanish biker who was so tired from his day’s ride that he disappeared under his blankets from the moment he arrived till we left the next morning.
That evening, the manager invited us all to a communal meal in the dining room. He had a real fire blazing and their little dog was sleeping on a chair beside it; he looked just like our family’s Chippers and it felt just like home!
The 2 Germans joined us with the manager, his wife and a bunch of other Spaniards for an excellent meal together: lentil soup served out of a big bowl: hot and filling! real salad: lettuce, tomato, with lots of olives and cheeses! and platters of Spanish omelettes! Plus good vino and a special shot of ‘grappa’, which one of the Germans bravely
(or naively) downed in a single gulp; we were all full and sleep came easily. 

I was glad for that because this was our last rest day: tomorrow we would begin our push towards Santiago!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela Day 6:

This morning as we left The Way-Hostal to resume The Way-El Camino, Matthias briefed us on The Way-ahead,:
‘Don’t take trail,’ he advised, ‘it’ll be too wet! Take the road… and only 15 km today!
  And you’re going to Villafranca?  Then stay in de la Piedra – it’s the best albergue!’
People in general and Matthias in particular were so kind and helpful on the Camino. Right after we left him,
we stopped at a tienda  = cornerstore for some bananas and the owner gave us handfuls of free trail mix because we were peregrinos! Those who live along the Camino actually see themselves as a part of  it; many of the villages owe their very existence to it, and so they want to bless those who pass through.
We walked the next 7km through vineyards and lush vegetation. The Bierzo Valley’s mico-climate is more like the Mediterranean in stark contrast to the barren mountain summit only the day before.
Our walk into Ponferrada was all downhill – and I was walking quite well, even with my pack. It was one of the biggest cities on our journey and got its name = Iron Bridge from one of the world’s first iron-reinforced bridges; makes sense, eh? As we entered, we noticed people carrying laurel sprigs and palm branches, and I  finally remembered today was not only Sunday and people were going to church, but Palm Sunday. In Spain, that’s the beginning of Semana Santa = Holy Week, the time for religious rituals, festivities and processions: the holiest week of the year and here we were, without really planning it, heading for the holiest site in Spain in their holiest of weeks. Pretty good timing, eh?
We continued through the city centre, stopped at the Tourist Info office, found some decorated religious floats parked from an already finished morning procession and concluded we were too late. So we walked further towards the Castillo de los Templarios = Knights Templars Castle, a formidable-looking 12th Century fortress.
But Matthias had warned us, ‘Don’t go inside; too expensive and nothing in there!’ so we just walked around it,
over the bridge… 
and that’s when the pain hit me again in my hips and legs and I could barely move forward?!  
But we turned a corner onto a palm tree-lined avenue, and suddenly we saw lots of well-dressed people and kids with balloons filling the street ahead, gathered in front of a church. We asked what was happening? Some motioned us to look back in the direction we’d just come from, and through the crowd, we saw banners and heard music coming toward us. Michael climbed up higher for a better view; I dropped my pack to move in closer.
Soon we could see a band and people dressed in colourful costumes and above them all, the focal point of the procession: a float with a figure of a very Spanish-looking Jesus, riding a donkey – carried on about 20 shoulders, slowly moving down the avenue towards the church.
And then my daily verse made sense: Galatians 4:4 ‘In the fullness of time, God sent His Son’ = at the right time, not too early and neither too late, but Jesus came at the right time! And He not only came for all mankind at the right time then, but He’d also brought us here now; not just pretty good, but perfect timing!
The procession made its way into the church, but I wasn’t doing very well: I was moving very slowly and increasing difficulty. Physical pain seized my entire being. Every step became an agonizing ordeal. But with this awareness of my own pain, I became all more conscious of the pain Jesus suffered for all and how much it cost Him! He wept over Jerusalem, they refused His love and yet He still gave His life for them and us!
And coupled with these, the emotional pain that Erica suffered with for so long again overwhelmed me.
Tears welled up from deep within and overflowed as I walked, barely able, but somehow continuing, putting one foot in front of the other. I was only following One who had gone before me, and it was all I could do, simply by grace in His footsteps: the pain gradually giving way to the healing… and  ultimately the glory.
We made it to the bus depot and I laid my packsack down. It must have been like Christian felt in Pilgrim’s Progress when he laid his burden down at the Cross.
The depot was open, even on this holiday; a bus left shortly, and it only took a half hour to reach Villafranca del Bierzo. It rained all the time we drove and poured even more when we got off. The next bus to our next city didn’t leave till the next day so we took Matthias’ advice and stayed overnight at Albergue de la Piedra = the Rock.
A really great place, literally hewn right out of a massive rock! Nice people too: on such a cold, wet day they poured us cups of hot tea right when we stepped in! And it proved to be a popular gathering place, as many peregrinos we’d already met along the Camino joined us throughout the afternoon. We may have only met 2 or 3 days ago, but the Camino had already made us old friends: the Toronto duo, S from Seattle, English Ben and a couple Berliners and a Portuguese mom and son. Together we shared our trials and victories, our pains and joys, our blisters and laughter; and somehow even that once dreaded Green Monster became a memory of overcoming.
A welcome place to dry off, warm up, and rest for a while on a Sunday afternoon…

but Monday morning was coming and, like life, that means another morning to get up and start walking again. 

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Day 5

Only 5 days on the Camino, but so much has happened already, it seems like an eternity!
The weather forecast is for 2 more days’ rain, hopefully with improvement following, so I decided to forego today’s 26km hike over the summit, the highest elevation in the entire Camino, and ride with the bag transport service rather than risk a serious injury. Word was that 2 elderly German ladies attempted too much each day, ended up in hospital and had to return home. I didn’t want that to happen.
So Michael started walking this morning on his own. But I was sure he’d find company along the way: more peregrinos are showing up as we get closer to our Santiago destination.
I spent the time waiting for my ride taking pictures around this town; everything’s made of stone: houses, churches, roads, walls! I also bought a walking stick with a carved shell + cross in its handle, believing I would again be walking tomorrow. And I bundled up in front of the fireplace to read: my Verse for the Day: Ps 84:6-7 continuing from Day 1’s:
 “As they pass through the Valley of Baca (Weeping), They make it a spring; The rain also covers it with pools.
  They go from strength to strength; Each one appears before God in Zion.’
Seemed appropriate! And did it ever rain: even sleet and snow! The 26 kms only took 40 minutes to drive through Asebo, Riego de Ambros, and other ancient stone grey villages. After we crossed the summit, the road wound down narrow mountain switchbacks, suddenly the valley opened wide before us and in a short time the driver dropped me with the bags in Molinaseca at… you guessed it: ‘The Way’ Hostal! It seemed a bit expensive, but the receptionist and an older man with a cane quite similar to the one I’d just bought, offered a good deal for a room all to ourselves, so I took it. That older man, Matthias, turned out to be the owner, had walked the Camino 15 times and insisted very emphatically, “You not walk more than 15 km/day. You do more you get hurt and then you no good to nobody!”
I didn’t argue with him.
I settled in our room, looked around town (didn’t take too long!) and decided to walk back uphill and meet Michael on his way downhill. I took my time for this more of a leisurely stroll. The rain stopped, the sun even came out and the mountain scenery was wonderful!
Soon I started to meet peregrinos coming down the mountain.
The crazy Italians ran by me in their flip-flops.
‘S from Seattle’ had pressed on ahead of everyone again, and I got to confront his cynicism in a very practical way. In his haste that morning, he’d forgotten his fancy wristwatch at the albergue, but the cleaning lady had found it and seeing I was going on ahead, gave it to me to in turn give to him if I should ever see him.
“See,’ I told him as I handed him his watch, ‘there is a Redeemer!’
Also met a couple South Africans. I asked if they’d seen Michael and described him.
‘Oh, you’re the dad in this Canadian father-son team! We heard about you, you’re the guy with the giant blister! He’s just a short ways behind.’
Seems news travels fast and we’re already known on the Camino!
So I kept going, taking more pictures. This side of the summit was much warmer; spring was already here: flowers blooming, trees turning greener; I continued to soak it in.
Finally I spotted Michael’s yellow pack cover coming down the mountain and soon he came around the corner with… our Irish friends again! Turned out they had pre-booked the same Way Hostal as I’d found, so after a rest,
we spent the evening together - even had supper.
Michael + I studied the next stages of our Camino and agreed that with just over a week left, it would be best to spend some time actually seeing the towns and sites rather than just pressing straight through.

So our strategy has changed: we’ll take a couple buses over the steepest sections during the next few days and then walk the last 120 kms into Santiago. Surely I should be able to do that?! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

El Camino de Santiago de Compostelo Day 4:

Dawn seemed to arrive earlier today - guess I was tired? A glorious sunrise, and we were up, packed and out the door by 8. Beautiful monastic music plus my verse for today renewed my spirit and, I hoped, my body too.
Isaiah 40:31 ‘Those who wait = serve patiently, walk together with, upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they will mount up = not fall, but rise up above every obstacle and triumph through every test; with eagle’s wings = Word + Spirit, faith + grace, truth + love; They shall walk + not be weary.’ I especially claimed this last part!
So we walked through Astorga: its plazas, past the catedral, even a Gaudi landmark – his fantasies always stand out!
And just at the city edge, we found a café con leche abierto = coffee shop open, before heading out into the country.
Then the Irish couple we’d met on the train appeared and walked with us for the next 10 kms. We even took a slight detour to a unique Maragoto = a distinct ethnic group, village. Everything was built of stone: houses, walls, roofs, roads. Made to last!

But I noticed I was starting to lag behind again and when we stopped for breakfast, I wasn’t too steady on my feet. Michael noted that we’d taken 4 hours for only 11 kms:  only half way for the day. Perhaps I should try to get a bus?
I didn’t want to give up, but it started to rain, the rest of the way was uphill and now it was cold and wet and I really wasn’t feeling well, so… I phoned for a taxi.
Michael continued walking and as I drove by him a little later; the rain poured down and cars coming from the uphill direction even had snow covering them! My ride covered in 20 minutes what would have taken me 4 hours walking. I thought, ‘This isn’t much fun right now; and if I’m feeling like this on only my 3rd day on the Camino, how can I finish the remaining 280 kms?
My taxi dropped me off in Rabanal del Camino right at Pilar Albergue, a rough and rustic stone wood hostel. Isabella, the hostess, greeted me warmly and led me into an even warmer room with a fireplace burning, but I was shivering, so I right away climbed into my bunk and slept for the next 3 hours! I guess I was tired!
When I awoke, Michael had arrived soaked but happy to find a warm place to dry himself and his wet clothes.
Nothing like a fire to draw peregrinos together on a cold, wet day and as each arrived, we got to meet them and get to know their motives for walking.
Most were young and adventurous.
‘S from Seattle’ had already walked for 3 weeks; his 1st day in the Pyrenees he’d battled 3ft of snow! He wanted to prove he could break through personal limits: the Camino became his endurance test and he’d walked 50 km/day despite tendonitis and a couple toenails falling off. A cynic, he looked at my blister and warned, ‘Doesn’t look good; if that gets infected, you’re done for!’ Not very encouraging, I thought.
Some were trying to escape: walking away from issues back home, circumstances, conflicting relationships?
One was hoping to lose weight, another to overcome addictions.
2 Italians were running over 50km/day in flip-flops!... Why!?
Francesco, another Italian, was biking the whole route.
‘Ohio’ + her mom thought they should ‘just do it.’
Germans comprised the majority; wanderlust I guess?
 ‘B’, a young Polish computer games engineer, was taking his time, writing his thesis: Many who have affected Western society’s moral basis (eg Freud, Marx, Margaret Mead, Keynes, Wilhelm Reich) in the last century were themselves psychologically deranged, actually seeking to undermine family values + gender identity which liberals have tolerated and permitted to the extent they’ve become, as he described it, an oxymoron = oppressive tolerance!.
‘D from Toronto’ wanted to walk all day and party all night, but was really looking for healing in her identity.
Not many peregrinos admitted their motives were ‘spiritual’; most seemed to treat it as being out for a long walk, but few seemed to be here to walk with God?
I remarked how our modern values or lack of them were reflected by the Way, originally a very Roman Catholic route of penance and forgiveness, but now very secularized.
And it made me face my real motive for walking the Camino? especially now it seemed a real possibility I would not be able to continue all the way to Santiago.
When you come face-to-face with losing something, its true value becomes all the more precious and vital.
Later that evening we attended a Benedictine service in what was one of the oldest restored chapels on the Camino.  2 German monks prayed in Latin, Spanish and heavily accented English and I understood very little. I asked the Lord to make a Way where there didn’t seem to be one…. and it didn’t take long!
A group of us went for supper afterwards. Over a welcome bowl of hot soup, ‘K the German lady’ told us how she had her packsack shipped ahead daily to her next stop and asked, ‘Why don’t you do that also?
I remembered the Victoria father and daughter we’d met in the Madrid airport who’d said they were doing this right and now it seemed like a wonderful idea!
Back at the hostel, Isabella kindly phoned the Camino Service and arranged for them to not only drive my pack,
but me too, over the summit the next day.
I went to bed thinking, ‘Maybe it’s not such a bad idea for me to do this for the next couple of days?
After all, this Camino is not my endurance test. I have nothing to prove. Nor am I here to party.
I’m here to walk with my son.  Our family has been through much in these last 3 years and I want to make the most of this to continue walking through, through life, through whatever trial it takes, together, in the faith, hope and love that will open doors for my children, grandchildren and great-children, the next generations who will follow, walk, and fulfill their call.
I’m not here so much for my sake, but for Christ’s sake and them. So I prayed, ‘Let your Way be known, Lord.’

And it was!