This is the second in a three-part series of reflections from the Camino de Santiago
I had my first real experience of the Camino 5km from the town of Portomarin. I had just completed a 45-minute climb out of the town on an ankle that I had injured two days earlier. I was tired, hungry, sore, and just generally fed up with the whole thing. I found myself looking up at another climb in the gloomy pre-dawn light, contemplating whether or not I had will to go on when I heard his voice in the distance behind me. It was loud and American, and he seemed to be speaking on the phone. I tried to ignore him, took a deep breath, and began my climb.
Within a few minutes he came up behind me. He was a large man in his late-fifties, with the kind of road-hardened body you often see in Camino veterans. When he drew level with me, he turned and said, “how’s it going buddy?” Even now, I’m still not sure how he knew I spoke English. “Oh you know” I replied, “you put one foot in front of the other” He smiled, “yeah brother, that’s the truth. How long have you been on the road?” “This is my fourth day. I began in O Cebreiro” “Cebreiro? Up in the mountains? Man, I loved that place” “What about you? Did you begin in St Jean?” St Jean Pied de Port is the traditional starting point of the French Way of the Camino. “Yep, St Jean. I’ve done 35 days on the Camino and I think I have another five to go. That’s a long time, but I like what you said man – you put one foot in front of the other.”
We continued to talk about various parts of our lives, he was from the outskirts of Chicago, and I was from Auckland. He had a knee injury, and I had an ankle injury. After a few minutes of conversation, he said to me “well, I’m gonna push on. I hope to see you again soon.” Before he had a chance to leave, I asked him “sorry, what was your name?” “My name’s Scott. What was yours?” “My name is Hemi.” “God bless you Hemi.” “God bless you too Scott. Buon Camino”
A few hours later, when I pulled into the next town with a café, I found Scott about to begin his breakfast. He invited me to sit with himself and another pilgrim, a young doctor from West Virginia. It happens that Scott is the Pastor of a small Protestant church in his town. We talked about how God is a God of surprises. Scott talked a lot about his son. We shared our fears and our triumphs. We laughed together, cried together, and we prayed together. As the morning grew longer, we knew we should really be on the road, otherwise we would be caught in the afternoon sun. But we continued to sit and talk because this was far more important than anything else we could be doing. Taking a long breakfast that day was the right thing to do. This was the true Camino.
There is a terrible cliché in writing that goes: the real treasure were the friends we made along the way. On the Camino, there is an element of truth to that. The magic of the Camino is in fraternity, communion and love. Encounters are opportunities to share, and God works within that. I walked with a man from Australia who had been molested by a priest as a young boy. He said to me, “Maybe I’ll manage to forgive him someday.” I met a high-powered stockbroker from Germany who told me the Camino was the only place he had ever felt accepted. I sat with a man from Eastern Europe, who when I told him he was loved broke into tears because it was the first time he had ever heard that. It was not by coincidence that I met these people. When I was making preparations to make the Camino I questioned the point of going. A good friend told me that God was placing me there on purpose, to encounter the people who need to be encountered, to be an instrument of His mercy. In some ways my friend was right – that I met these people when I did was no accident. But as I heard their stories, I realised that God was already at work in these people, that the blessing had been made and the healing begun. My presence was only secondary.
Many times, our encounters on the Camino lead to deep conversations, and God moves in those. But sometimes God is in the small conversations. On the fifth day of my Camino, coming out of the town of Palas de Rei I hurt my ankle again, more seriously this time. But I continued walking, very slowly and in great pain. A few hours later I came to a very steep descent, and halfway down I could see an old man moving even more excruciatingly than I. With some hesitation I began to climb down, and I quickly caught up with him. As I approached, he stopped to let me pass. “Hola. Buenos dias” I greeted him. “Buenos dias mi hombre. Poco a poco no?” he replied, pointing to his hip as the source of his pain “Si senor, poco a poco” I said, pointing to my ankle as the source of my pain. He smiled and gave a little laugh. “Buon camino” “Gracias senor. Buon camino.” And I carried on my way.
Though he spoke no English, I spoke very bad Spanish, we were able to communicate so much to one another. We shared our pain and discomfort, and we shared our mutual disbelief that only on the Camino can you almost break your leg and continue walking for 100km. We wished each other well and prayed blessings for the other. Despite the lack of language, we could communicate all of this because God was in our conversation.
God is there on the Camino, and the pilgrims are His people. In the book of Exodus God tells the Israelites “You will be my treasured possession, and you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex 19:5b-6). He makes the same promise to His pilgrims. We are God’s People, His most treasured possessions. He is with us as we walk, and by our encounters and experiences, he makes us priestly people, and holy people. He makes us the People of God.