Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Confessions of a "True" Pilgrim

Camino Day 32
Today there was a marked change in how I experienced the Camino. I knew it was coming and tried to prepare myself as best as possible. This morning I left from Sarria, which is the port of entry for folks wanting to earn a Compostela—or certificate of completion—for the Camino by traveling the shortest distance possible. In order to get a Compostela, you need to show you have walked at least the last 100 km to Santiago de Compostela. Sarria, at a distance of 112km away is perfect for that and the town has clearly made that a successful tourist industry. Consequently, whereas heretofore I had enjoyed long stretches of solitary walking, interspersed with short pleasant periods of conversations with other pilgrims, today I would find myself swamped on all sides with fresh pilgrims, many of them young and traveling in groups, as well as couples and friends of all ages and from all around the world.

My trusty guidebook had tried to prepare for this inevitability. In fact, it had even shared this sage bit of wisdom with me: 
"Note to 'seasoned' pilgrims: Beware of signs of irritation at the intrusion on 'my' Camino--remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing they need is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority. A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path with an open mind and an open heart... Without judgment." 

So this morning, as I arose and did my morning preparations (which consists of taping the balls of my feet with paper medical tape and using KT tape on my heels, as well as the normal morning ablutions I do, regardless of where I am) I tried to mentally picture the difference and imagine what it would feel like. Perhaps a little nervous of what this day might bring, I scarfed down a breakfast of bread and ham, with a side of mixed fruit (in another blog, I’ll talk about the food on the Camino) and hit the road at 815—which is early for me.
Sure enough, I had barely stepped into the street when I was joined by throngs of fresh-faced, energetic, noisy pilgrims. 

Almost instantly I forgot my best intentions but I soldiered on, actually churning along at a pretty good clip, hopeful that I could soon outdistance the new pack and find some peace. This plan was hampered by a) having to start by going up a really steep hill, and b) no matter how far ahead I got of one group, there was another still in front of me to surpass.

It wasn’t even 9 AM and sweat was pouring off my head and down my face and neck. Making matters worse, it seemed as if a lot of the new peregrin@s were American, which meant I could understand what they were saying and, inadvertently and unwillingly eavesdrop on what I can only classify as insipid conversation. I mean, seriously--- did they have to come on this sacred path for this?

Yes, yes, I prayed this morning, as I do each day, that I would see what I need to see, hear what I need to hear, know what I need to know, and say what I need to say. But did I really need to hear the latest about the mutual friend of the two young college students behind me? And seriously, there was a man my age wearing black slacks and a clergy collar! I mean, really! Why on earth would you feel the need to identify as clergy while walking the Camino? Time and again, I had to reign in my judgement, my resentment, my irritability at “my” Camino being taken over by these upstarts who clearly didn’t have the stamina to go the whole distance and therefore had no idea what a Camino really was.
Then, thankfully, the better angels of my nature took over, and reminded me to feel compassion for those just starting out, to remember that there were a lot of reasons they were starting in Sarria rather than at St. Jean Pied-de-Port. I was older than many of them and I had more resources and help in getting to the starting point at SJPP than they did. Maybe they took all the time off they had to do these next five or six days. And for them, this was everything.

I began to feel compassion rather than criticism toward the newcomers. And I realized it reminded me of something else I am currently experiencing on Facebook.

We’ve had some tragic times in the United States over this summer, most recently the completely unjustified shooting deaths of two Black men by white police officers, followed by the shooting deaths of five white police officers in Dallas, TX by a Black man who had access (as do we all, tragically, in the USofA) to weapons of mass destruction and who took out his rage and helplessness equally violently by gunning down a dozen police officers, killing five, and wounding 7, including two civilians.

All of this happening so suddenly, one after another, barely gave any of us time to breathe, to mourn, to question, to seek comfort, to seek change.  In the wake of the Dallas shootings, a number of people began to post a well known quote from civil rights prophet and activist, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he said, 
“Darkness cannot  drive out darkness;
only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate;
only love can do that.”
That was the basic quote that people, including myself, shared.

I thought as I shared it from a friend who had posted it that this quote summed up such a key root of the violence and destruction that has been so much a part of the fabric of America. I wasn’t thinking only of the white Dallas police officers but of all who have been killed as a result of hate and violence—the African American men and women gunned down or otherwise killed by officers of the law because of a deeply embedded hatred and distrust of the “other,” the horrific shooting at The Pulse night club, all of the acts of violence that seem to be hand stitched into this crazy quilt of our nation.

I saw it, I shared it; I was not alone. And then, just hours later, I saw a reaction from my liberal friends—many, but not all, who have been on the road to racial justice and equality for a long time; many—but not all, who have stood arm in arm with our black brothers and sisters to proclaim boldly that #blacklivesmatter; many—but not all, who, like me, have stood on the front lines of this battle for the lives and wellbeing of our kin of color.

I read one friend’s post that said if you haven’t spoken up about black lives matter you don’t get to quote MLK. Others chimed in similarly saying things such as “just because you quote a black man doesn’t make you not a racist,” and I saw one meme that condescendingly said something to the effect of, “I see you’re taking a MLK quote out of context. Need some help with that?”
I confess, it had me wondering, were my credentials as a white ally and long time activist for racial justice and equality enough to give me a “pass” to quote MLK? And who should I get vetted by? And what if this was my first step into the conversation? Did it make it wrong if I quoted MLK after the shooting deaths of the white police officers? Would it have been okay if I had managed to squeeze it in between the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile?

And who gets control over the words of Dr. King? Or Jesus? Or Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? Who gets to decide who can “legitimately” use them and who gets excoriated if they try?

How long do you have to have been on this pilgrimage toward justice before you can be considered a “true” pilgrim?

I realized today that my resentment and criticism of the new peregrin@s left no room for compassion for how they came to be a part of the Way. When I respond with bitterness there is no openness that allows for the fact that people can step onto the path at many points different from my own, but no less valid, and that my judgment doesn't help propell them closer to the Compostela—the certificate of completion—but rather, puts up stumbling blocks to them getting there at all.

Actually, that quote from Dr. King comes from his 1963 book, Strength to Love, in which his essays point to the need for all of us to undergo a transformation of love. In a review of this book, Coretta Scott King is quoted as saying, "If there is one book Martin Luther King, Jr. has written that people consistently tell me has changed their lives, it is Strength to Love. I believe it is because this book best explains the central element of Martin Luther King, Jr.' s philosophy of nonviolence: His belief in a divine, loving presence that binds all life.”
Frankly, I think those folks who posted this on Facebook in the wake of the Dallas shootings (and we’ll never know if they meant if for all of the violence we see here in the US, but why not believe they did?) is not out of context at all. It speaks exactly to the point Dr. King tried to make, not only in this book, but in his life. The rest of the quote, equally profound, goes on to say:
Hate multiplies hate,
violence multiplies violence,
and toughness multiplies toughness
in a descending spiral of destruction....
The chain reaction of evil --
hate begetting hate,
wars producing more wars --
must be broken,
or we shall be plunged
into the dark abyss of annihilation.

For me, I see this as a cautionary note for those of us who have been on this road for a very long time. I don’t want to be bitter or resentful or critical of those who are just now finding their way onto the path. I want to make room for them. I want to give them course corrections, when they get off base (as in the whole all lives matter movement) but when they quote one of the heroes of my faith and activism, I want to applaud them and show them even more, reveal even more signs of justice that they can follow.
A few days ago, I arrived in the tiny (wifi-free) hamlet of O’Cebriero.  The church here, Santa Maria la Real, dates from the 9th century and is the oldest extant church directly related to the Camino. In this sacred place is the final resting place of Don Elias Valina Sampredo (1929-1989) the parish priest who dedicated his life to restore and preserve the integrity of the Camino, to encourage people to walk this holy way; it was his idea to mark the entire route with the ubiquitous yellow arrow showing the way to all of us pilgrims, guiding us from wherever and whenever we embark upon this path.
It was powerful and gratifying for me to see his tomb, to offer a silent word of thanks for providing signs to show us the way, and for encouraging all of us to walk this way, that it’s never too late to join in, that if (when) we make missteps, there will be other pilgrims to catch us and encourage us, not jeer at our lack of experience, and to set signs to help us remember that, at the end of the day—each and every day, as Ram Dass said, we are all just walking each other home. I guess that’s what makes a true pilgrim, after all.

1 comment:

Jim Ryan said...


So insightful and the expression of truth.

May we all walk each other home.

Jim Ryan