I was asked what were my most memorable moments along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. I reflected on this, as I had so many memories, photographs, and blog postings. It occurred to me that my most memorable points were not about me alone, about the flowers, or about specific places.
It was about people.
Now, I found many amazing people along the Camino but for this question, I focused on three people in particular. Three people who I view as messengers in my life. Angels really. After all, the original depiction of angels were messengers, so perhaps it's fitting, on this Feast Day of Saint James the Apostle, the saint for whom the Camino de Santiago is named, that I dwell on those who bring Good News to people.
The first person came to me in the middle of my deepest fear I've had in decades. The full account of that day is in "Angel Messenger and the Comfort of Christ". I held back tears because I was afraid that I would die of exposure while crossing the Pyrenees. I thought I had such good fortune because just when I thought my hip and lower back could not get me over the mountains, I saw the luggage transportation van, and the woman was able to take at the last minute my backpack to my destination. Unfortunately, in my haste, I grabbed almost everything I needed for the daypack, except my jacket. As the clouds came, the rains came and the painful hail poured down for two hours, shredding my poncho and leaving me basically with my day pack and my quick dry long sleeve shirt. The fog and my steam-covered eyeglasses could barely see where the trail was and where the cliffs threatened. I could not even venture to see a statue of the Virgin in the mountains because I feared falling off the slopes.
And then came a vision from behind me. I only saw his chin peeking out from his clothing, a chin where my immediate reaction was "Oh, that looks like the guy who played Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar". He asked me how I was and I responded with "cold and frightened." And this person just smiled and said "You'll be fine." He continued, "Where are you going?" I answered "To Roncesvalles on the other side of the Pyrenees". With his calm smile he said, "I'll see you on the other side" and continued walking into the foggy hail. For some reason, this was weirdly re-assuring. Moreover, he wore a fluorescent red backpack poncho, a colour so bright that I could actually see it and follow along the twisting, unseen trail. So I followed this young man who looked like Jesus into the unknown, somehow comforted, somehow feeling safe, somehow confident.
And the next day, after I made it, after I slept, I was back on the trail and he placed his hand on my shoulder and said that he knew I would be there. And he walked with me the whole day. We broke bread together on a mountain top. His name was Thore, after the Norse God of storms and protection.
And on this fifth and sixth day of my Camino, yes, this person whose image first made me think of Christ, he met me in a storm and was my protector.
The next influential person appeared after Pamplona. I had been upset and fearful that my blisters, acquired from wet feet and the struggle over the Pyrenees, would impair me. For now, I was doing better. And I came across a person who simply radiated love. In fact, almost every person who ever met Daniel from Oxford described his intensely caring eyes and his beautiful affection for everyone he met. He was astonishingly humble. We talked and walked all day, breaking bread at dinner and the next day at breakfast. He was thrilled that I had water from Lourdes that I was sharing with those on the Camino, and he thankfully took a sip and asked to be anointed with it. He touched almost everyone he seemed to meet.
And he did this while walking on crutches. You didn't notice them after you talked with him; you didn't usually see his bruised hands and feet. The reality was that his ailments slowed him down to just over 1-2 mph and it was taking him three months to reach Santiago, three times longer than most. I can't imagine how he navigated the muddy, rocky slopes of the various mountains we crossed. When asked why he was on the Camino, he would respond "so that every day I can walk again." But he inspired such care in others, as we all cared for him. After evening mass, for example, I lost track of him even though he was sitting beside me. I found him; he was giving alms to a needy man and asking if he was safe this evening.
He embodied so comfortably, so easily, the unconditional love that graces us and that we are called to show. Despite his challenges, he feared not, almost a posterchild of St Teresa's "Nada de Turbe" (Do not worry) prayer. Yes, I shared the healing waters with him, and in his presence and love, I was the one who was healed.
The third person who touched me greatly on this Camino walked into my life the day after Burgos City. I took a rest day in Burgos because my blisters were so painful. And for some reason, on a day I was feeling quite healthy, I saw a grove of trees next to a sign that said "Fuente" (water fountain). I had lots of water and wasn't tired. In fact, I was only an hour away from my destination. But I felt called to sit under these trees, so I listened to the Holy Spirit and walked into grove and sat at the tables. I chatted with some pilgrims and found out the water was empty. Soon, a woman from Italy came over and was looking for water. She became frightened and upset when I said that the well was dry.
I offered her my water since I had plenty. After all, I was only an hour away from my final stop of the day. She filled her bottle and drank much of it. I topped it off for her. In talking, she found out I started in Lourdes and she expressed her interest in visiting it one day. I offered her some of the Lourdes water. And that's when she really caught my attention. She burst into tears, hugging me for a couple minutes, sobbing. Silvia drank the Lourdes water and asked to be anointed by it. In the next week, I would come across her several more times, including walking with her for a whole day surrounded by flowers.
That day, that evening, I didn't know why she cried. It took several more encounters with her to understand that she was exhausted, thirsty, and spiritually challenged. She had come onto the camino looking for a spiritual experience but she was coming away thirsty and longing for that touch with the divine, the mystical. Here I was, thinking I was merely offering her water, but when the Holy Spirit drew me to that well, I was guided to give her a glimpse of the waters of life.
So these three people, these three angels affected me most. As I described them, the person who asked me the initial question reflected and said, "I asked you to describe your most memorable Camino memories. You've just described the Kingdom of Heaven."
I was at first surprised and then it began to sink in. I was so close to these stories, I hadn't stepped back to put them together. In Thore, I encountered the comforting, guiding Christ. Beside Daniel, I walked with unconditional love. And with Silvia and guided by the Holy Spirit, I acted out the great commandment and loved my neighbor as myself. It wasn't a fluke that these three were in my life and were somehow prominent memories of my Camino.
They represented the best promise of life, the promise of the Kingdom of Heaven. In their presence in my presence, in our encounters on the Camino de Santiago, I was making my journey to that Kingdom.
So step back and look at the angels in your life. Where are they guiding you? Where are you leading them? And are you awake enough to see where you are and where you are going?
May your footsteps always walk beside the angels in our lives, on a journey of love, peace, and comfort.