Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

Links to the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages are on the navigation links to the right of the web page.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Walking in the Kingdom of Heaven

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.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Can't Walk On Any More

Coming off the Camino de Santiago, I still find that journey and travel passages in the Bible capture my attention. So imagine my surprise when I saw that our gospel reading this week is the well known Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) parable.

We are told of a traveler of unknown ethnic or religious origin who gets robbed, stripped, and left for dead at the side of the road. We are told a priest saw the man, literally crosses the road to avoid him, and passed on by. Then a Levite did the same. A Samaritan comes by and actually helps the beaten man.

How fitting for the distressing stories in the news this week and all too often recently. Fitting not because of what happened, but because of how we respond.

A priest in Biblical times performed many of the duties you would expect in a temple. A Levite is performs other temple duties that the priest does not do. They serve the church and supposedly God.

The foreign Samaritans were largely detested by the Jews. Since Jesus was giving his parable to a Jewish lawyer, he clearly was trying to make a point about who stopped to help and who didn't. Clearly those who we expected to be "good" did not act righteously. It's even more poignant because Jesus gave this parable in response a question on the Great Commandment. "How do we get into heaven?" "Love your neighbor as yourself." And, like a lawyer, he asks "But who is our neighbor?"

So Jesus responds with a parable that is meant to provoke, to make you notice the log in your eye. There's a person who's been hurt and all people, even those you detest, can be the one who stops and helps that individual and do what God expects. Those who seem to be good could ignore the Great Commandment and walk past what they see as an obvious injury.

I see the events in regarding Alton Sterling and Philando Castile in this light. It seems to be happening all across the country. African Americans have a frighteningly high mortality rate at the hands of police. People of color, people like myself, feel that we have to be extra careful when confronted by police, to be docile, to have our hands out in the open, to not make any sudden moves. I remove my hat so that my face is seen when police are around. There is no sense of safety, but of caution. I fear that I could be the next statistic or hashtag on Twitter.

And yet the media and most people who don't worry about their safety at the hands of their protectors walk on by. They change the subject, maybe blaming the victims for their problems. Sometimes, they'll offer "thoughts and prayers".

I see it happening to immigrants and refugees. I see it happening to those who are in poverty or who are forced into homelessness. I see it happening with women whose rapes are blamed by their attire and were asking for it. I see it happening towards the LGBTQ community where their deaths and beatings are blamed upon them. I grew up hearing that we could not possibly be born this way and are living out our lives not out of honesty but in defiance of some concept of normalcy. I see it happening to the weary traveler who is confused and lost, but gets in the way of those in a rush to drive to work in their nice car.

Well the Samaritan story doesn't accept that apathy and denial and those blinders that impair the light of God from shining forth. The neighbor isn't the person who looks like you, the person who shares your faith or homeland, the person who even likes you. The neighbor is anyone who needs a neighbor. The neighbor is the brother and sister, for all are children of God.

So what are you going to do? What am I going to do? I don't know an easy answer. But I do know this. I can't cross to the other side of the road and turn my head away. I won't ignore, blame, deflect. I accept responsibility for my complicity in the problem, whether its because I actually harmed someone, or because I walked past the injured. I don't know the answer, but I know it's not what we have today.

May we be given the courage to get right on down on our knees, down in the dirt, and help those who need us most. To help. To touch. To love.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Camino 2016 07/04 - Thankful for today and tomorrow, tonight

Happy Independence Day! May it be truly a day where we recognize our freedoms in life and not take them for granted. Freedom isn't received. Freedom is lived and exercised daily. And it goes hand in hand with a feeling of gratitude for what we have, compared to what we could otherwise have to endure. It's taken two months in the making, but I've come to understand this in a much deeper way than I expected. 

I left the front door of my home 54 days ago, backpack strapped on loosely. I said goodbye to Stephen as I walked to the Gold Line light rail, first of several travel segments that eventually landed me in Paris.

After dropping things off at a B&B, I took a train to Chartres, where the ancient labyrinth represents pilgrimage for those who cannot take a journey in person. That night in Paris, I also visited the Tower of Saint Jacques, the starting point for those walking from Paris to Santiago de Compostela (Saint Jacques is the French name for Santiago or Saint James). The next day, to open my eyes to new ways of seeing things, I visited Giverny, where Monet painted his waterlilies and through Impressionism gave us new ways to see light. Then I went to Lourdes for several days of healing, for myself, for others, and in the company of thousands.

And then my walking began. Through all that time, I met those who I now view as angels or messengers of God, those who made me laugh, cry, and even  scream in pain. And after a month, I in León met Stephen once again. I missed my husband dearly, and he promptly accompanied me to Urgent Care so that I could attend to blisters that wouldn't heal or may have gotten infected. 

Friends, new and old, walked beside me along the dirt, the mud, the rocks of the Camino de Santiago. Friends, those I've met and those I haven't, walked beside me over the fissures, the blockages, the blisters of my heart. I feel I've learned much.

But most important, I feel that I've begun the process  of cementing the lessons of this Camino into a place in my life. Many of the lessons learned here were made known to me on my prior pilgrimage in 2014. And yet I was surprised to relearn them. And yet I had to be made aware yet again. And yet my dependence on God, on others, and on God in others needed to jar my consciousness into alertness and wakefulness. 

And yet I know I will continue to need my reminders for the rest of my life. Because just as my journey didn't end in Santiago, nor did it end in Finisterre, nor other places visited, my need for an alarm clock to consciousness doesn't go away. I must still expect to wake up every day, wake up to an alertness of what can be and will be the journey of a lifetime.

Let me recount some things that happened during the week between my last blog (just prior to entering Santiago de Compostela) and this morning, as I fly home.

We arrived in Santiago de Compostela after a quick and mostly easy final walk. We ran into Grant and Astrida at the Pilgrim's statue at Monte de Gozo. As we walked into the city, I wasn't moved to tears as I was the first time. This puzzled me, as I realized that according to my walking app, I had walked 1087 km since leaving my front door. Why wasn't I tearful?

I think I it was mostly because I didn't feel alone this time. I knew God was accompanying me and that the prayers of so many people, both at home and beside me, were with me. I felt like I was marking a step, a milestone, rather than crossing a finishing line. It was part of, not the end of, my journey.

In Santiago, I greeted so many who walked with me on this trip. Thore, my German angel who gave me confidence on my frightful day over the Pyreness and walked with me towards Pamplona, crossed paths with me multiple times including on his walk out of town to Finisterre. Annamaria from Hungary shrieked as she saw me, as we had not seen each other since Burgos. She fussed over Stephen and noted the similarities of their eyes. Rob and Joey found us as we lunched. So did Grant and Astrida. The four of them sat near us at the Pilgrim's mass that evening and we all watched the enormous Botafumeiro as it spread incense throughout the Cathedral. And Peggy showed up as well, which was quite welcome because we thought she had pressed ahead. We found Dennis and we congratulated him on finishing his pilgrimage. And I caught up with a group of Texas A&M students whom I thought went ahead of me after Santo Domingo.

During dinner we found Nancy from All Saints Pasadena. We already had an unplanned meeting at Cruz de Ferro and we were able to have dinner together in Santiago de Compostela before she left for home.

We did some tourism around the city. We were thrilled when we found not just a Taizé worship service, but that it was in the chapel of the new Pilgrim's Offices. What a gift to those needing spirituality, music, and prayer as they arrived!

We left for Muxía. The winds were mighty and after Sunday mass, we found the area they filmed the final scenes of The Way. We spread some of (Stephen's brother) Tim's ashes. We continued to Finisterre, the end of the world, and after walking to the ocean, left more of Tim there. He loved the beach and thought the daily sunset views would be a fitting place for him. I sat at the beach for some time, watching the waves, scavenging for seashells, letting the cool waters lap at my legs.

It occurred to me that it was a sort of complement to the immersion in the healing waters of Lourdes when I began my walk, book ending my Camino with baptismal water. After that swim, we dined and then watched the sun set. The Romans and ancients worshipped here to pray that as the sun set on the western frontier of Europe, it would once again return the next day. It was a fearful prayer for them. I prayed that, knowing the sun would return, the day was a good one and that the rest of night would bring a revitalized life, one full of love and reconciliation, on the next day.

Before we left Finisterre, we chatted at breakfast with a Jennifer Clampett from South Africa. Small worlds again showed up, as she and her husband Jeremy knew of the Rev. Wilma Jakobsen, a former priest at All Saints and the person who introduced me to Taizé.

We drove all day to San Sebastián, with a refreshing stop in Gijón. There we found pilgrims walking on the Northern route. We loved our stay in San Sebastián, which is the starting point of the Northern route, and spent an entire day simply touring the Castillo, resting at the beach, eating enormous quantities of pinchos, and leaving the last of Tim's ashes in a beach area we were sure he'd love. Our AirBnB host opened his home and heart to us, talking our ears off and sharing his city's vibrancy and history.

We did a day trip to Saint Jean Pied-de-Port, Pamplona, Alto Del Perdón, and Borja. The first three felt wildly odd to me, as I walked through those places weeks ago. It made me think that we never pass through a place once. We may return. And it will look different with a new light of day. The fears and tears were dulled by the sterility of a car ride, but I know they affected me deeply. 

We drove quite a bit out of the way to Borja because I wanted to see the failed restoration of an Ecce Homo fresco that made news the world over four years ago. It struck me that the town, discovering a sudden new source of income from tourism, was being revitalized because of the ridiculous situation. But they didn't lament it. The monastery actually embraced it and helped folks laugh at the situation. And I was touched by this. Here's a woman who sincerely wanted to help (there were photos of her wedding and first communion with the fresco in the background) but couldn't and made things worse. I thought that sometimes God gives us trials that we could lament, or we could embrace, grow, even profit from, if we just accept them. I'm still chewing on this. I think I was called to this 3 hour detour to find some lessons.

We proceeded to Bilbao to see the amazing Guggenheim museum and then to Burgos. There Stephen saw where I rested and we enjoyed the lively small city. During dinner at a Chinese restaurant, for I craved something that tasted more like home cooking after all this time, we met Jennifer and Katie, who were in the midst of their Camino. It underscored for me the feeling that ours is a shared pilgrimage, and though we are at different points, starting and stopping at different times, we walk the same paths, just differently. Our journeys intersect at different stages and we can be frustrated by that or we can embrace it.

Then, with a short pit stop in Segovia to see the 2000 year old massive aqueduct, we continued to Toledo, the one time capital of Spain. We went from 75F to 100F. Though the city sizzled, the history was no less profound. The city was once home to a lively, interdependent multi-faith population. There are Jewish and Muslim references in the architecture of every older Christian structure, including the Cathedral. We visited a couple convents that were once synagogues, and the El Transito Jewish museum which was once a majestic synagogue. We also saw a tremendous amount of El Greco works, as the artist spent much of his life in Toledo.

And on the eve of my birthday, I rode a zip line over the river gorge, beside the ancient Saint Martin bridge, originally Roman, and Muslim, then Christian. I'm normally fearful of heights but on that day, at the end of the Camino, I felt free. I was grateful that I could enjoy the exhilaration without paralyzing fear.

We spent the last two days in Madrid. Upon coming into the city, we realized that our central hotel by the Puerto Del Sol (the Madrid Time Square) was adjacent to a huge stage and that within a few hours, we would be able to catch their Gay Pride parade. As it turns out, the Madrid pride parade and festival is the largest annual public event in all of Europe by far, with some two million attending. It seemed every bit as busy as anything I've seen and we in Pasadena have upwards of a million celebrate New Year's Day at the Rose Parade. It seemed as though every business in the city was showing off their rainbow flags. It was liberating, intoxicating, empowering. The number of straight folks celebrating was astonishing. Love wins when people are allowed to live truthfully, lovingly, faithfully. Gratitude filled the air for this freedom from fear. And this wasn't a Madrid only phenomenon. We saw rainbow flags at many business and public buildings throughout the country.

The next day, before we wrapped up with a birthday visit to the Cathedral, we spent the day at the impressive Prado museum. Excitingly, they were featuring an exhibition on Heronimous Bosch (or El Bosco), to celebrate him on the 500th anniversary of his death. I've always loved his artwork, as I do El Greco, in spite of his interesting morality in his paintings. He seems to portray good as the absence of temptation rather than as a positive force. This doesn't sit well with me. It works for a model of disease or engineering, but it provides little explanation of the benefits of goodness. It's a punishment only model and that's not the image of God that moves my heart.

Lastly, today we return home, on the Fourth of July, celebrating the birth of American freedom from colonialism (though not remembering that we too have become colonizers despite our former status as the colonized). 

What marks this period of reflection and 2100km of driving around the country? What did it say about my Camino?

I realize that it spoke of freedom. Pilgrimage frees us from the restrictions and confines of daily life, of the self-constructed jails that limit our exploration, reflection, and loving veneration. Our daily lives have too many obstacles to prayer, to community, to real love. Until we shake these off, we forget what's possible. A successful Camino is a revelation of life's potential. It gives us an opportunity to be grateful for what we have.

And it can't be reduced to a single focus point, a tiny laser beam of a spotlight that says "Here! Here's where life is different." Just as Independence Day marked an anniversary of a start but was still to be earned - is still being earned - so to does the end of a Camino. 

So though we picked up our Compostela (certificates) showing that we completed our walks, I know that it's just a marker, a document with a date of celebration, a moment of thankfulness. The journey never ended, but continues tomorrow. The pride parade doesn't mean homophobia and transphobia are gone, but celebrates what's happened so far and what can still happen tomorrow. The wonders of interfaith history shows that we can live in a harmonious world like was possible in the past. The rest and food found at San Sebastián, the ability to celebrate folly in Borja, the gratitude with which we connected and reconnected with friends new and existing on the path or online, these are the ways we recognize that freedom means leaving fear behind, pausing for reflection, and living in the light of love.

When Stephen's brother passed away of cancer two weeks before our wedding, we knew that his journey on earth had changed. But it gave us hope in his memory, in the spirit of healing and reconciliation, in his love, that we were able to leave his ashes on the Camino at the places he would have appreciated. His journey may continue in a realm we can't yet know, but we walked and shared in that journey as best we could.

When I connected with others online or on the Camino, it gave me deeply powerful feelings of gratitude. I was thankful that I could pray with others without embarrassment or fear. I felt free to be myself in an authentic way, talking about Stephen, my journey, my blisters. In that freedom, in the fireworks of that love, in the Christ who helps me see God in all, I felt unending thankfulness.

So, the journey ends; so, the journey continues. The light and aura of the past two months comes to a peaceful silence. It all seems so appropriate after a 54 day journey where the days flow into each other, the villages and dust molding together into a composite whole. It's been a prolonged day where we examine life in the light.

As this pilgrimage reaches this milestone, as it comes to a close for now, I offer a prayer for the coming "night". And unlike Finisterre where the ancients fearfully prayed for the return of the sun the next day, we know this night is not the end, but just a pause after one day, a pause before tomorrow


it is night.

The night is for stillness.
Let us be still in the presence of God.

It is night after a long day.
What has been done has been done;
what has not been done has not been done;
let it be.

The night is dark.
Let our fears of the darkness of the world and of our own lives
rest in you.
The night is quiet.
Let the quietness of your peace enfold us,
all dear to us,
and all who have no peace.

The night heralds the dawn.
Let us look expectantly to a new day,
new joys,
new possibilities.

In your name we pray.


May your night give you rest, free of fear, as we give thanks for the day, and as we look forward to the coming light.