Mel's Healing Pilgrimage 2016

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Angels By Our Side

I'm often asked about what I discover while walking along Spain's Camino de Santiago. I say that it's the people I meet that show me what I seek. It's not about me, my thoughts, the flowers, or sights. I learn and grow because of the relationships, short or long-lasting. The universe calms you on the walk and in the wild, quiets you down so that you can really meet people and listen to them, be present with them. And in doing so, well, in doing so that's really how I feel like I'm in touch with God.

In the 600 mile walk in 2016, besides my husband Stephen who joined me on the final 200 miles, I can say that I found three people who most influenced me. Three people who I view as messengers in my life. Angels really.

The first came to me during my most fearful moments in decades. I held back tears and panic 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, with the hot temperatures, my hyperextended hip could not get me over the mountains, I saw a luggage transport van which took my backpack to my destination. Unfortunately, in my haste, I grabbed almost everything I needed for the daypack I retained, everything except my jacket. As the clouds came, the temperature plunged, the rains attacked, and painful hail poured down for two hours, shredding my poncho and leaving me basically with just my daypack and quick-dry T-shirt. I could barely see past the fog and my steam-covered eyeglasses, where the trail twisted and where the cliffs threatened.

A figure came from behind me. I only saw his chin peeking out from his hat, a chin where my immediate reaction was "Oh, looks like the guy who starred in Jesus Christ Superstar". He asked me in an accent how I was and I responded with "cold, frightened." This young man just smiled, saying "You'll be fine. Where are you going?" I answered "To Roncesvalles (on the other side of the Pyrenees Mountains 15km away)". Calmly smiling, 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. Better yet, he wore a fluorescent red poncho, a colour so bright that I could actually see it through the fog and follow him along the unseen trail. I followed the young man into the swirling fog and hail, somehow comforted, somehow feeling safe, somehow confident. I wept as the hail stopped and I made it to the monastery which would house me, skipped dinner, and just slept.

I was back on the trail the next morning when someone placed a hand on my shoulder. I turned to see him once again, and he said that he knew I would make it. We smiled and he walked with me the whole day. We broke bread together on a mountain top. When I found out that his name was Thore, after the Norse God of storms and protection, my jaw dropped.

The next person who deeply touched me appeared after Pamplona. I had been upset and fearful that my blisters, earned 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, touching almost everyone he met. We talked and walked all day, breaking bread at dinner and the next day at breakfast. He was thrilled that I started in Lourdes and had some of the water that some say is filled with miraculous healing power. I brought the water to share with those on the Camino. He took a sip and I rubbed some into his hands.

And he did this while walking on crutches. You didn't notice them after you talked with him; you stopped seeing his bruised hands and feet. The reality was that his life-long condition slowed him down to just over 1-2 mph and it would take 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 learn to walk." But he inspired such care in others, as we all cared for him. After evening church services, I lost track of him even though he had been beside me. I found him: he was giving alms to a needy man and asking if he had a place to sleep.

He embodied so comfortably, so easily, the unconditional love of the universe. Despite his challenges, he feared not. Yes, I shared the healing waters with him, and in his presence, I myself felt healed. Like St Francis' prayer, I saw us both receiving when we were giving... And every day, I learned to walk.

A third person who touched me was a deeply spiritual professor from Hungary. She was a talker and lit up every conversation. Annamarie speaks 7 languages fluently and showed deep caring about all she met. Soon after she checked into any albergue, she'd be leading yoga with anyone interested. At every stream she found, off came her shoes and socks, and up came her trouser legs. Wading into the rather cold waters, she'd laugh and thank nature, God, the universe and invite others to wade in with her. Despite my blisters, I would accept her invitation and wade in - albeit briefly - just to share in the invigorating joy of waters full of life.

To me, she was a messenger that said life isn't just for just walking the camino, but for living and being part of the camino. Annamerie reminded me that we don't just talk the talk, or even just walk the walk, but that we also live the life. Walking with her filled my days with joy and gratitude.

All three taught me lessons along the Camino. And like the dense person that I can be, I didn't realize it can work the other way too. I now realize that I too could sometimes act as a messenger, an angel, to others, if I let myself be present in the journey.

I took a rest day in Burgos because my blisters were so painful. After that rest day, I continued onward, feeling much less pain. And for some reason, on a day I was feeling healthy, I saw a grove of trees next to a sign that said "Fuente" (water fountain). I had lots of water, wasn't tired, and was only an hour away from my destination. But for some reason, I felt called to stop. To sit. To soak be a part of this rural setting under these trees. I had no reason to stop, but I turned down that path to stop. So I walked into the grove and sat at the tables. I chatted with other pilgrims and learned the well was empty. Soon, a woman from Italy stopped by looking for water at the well. She became concerned when she learned that the well was dry.

I offered her my water since I had plenty and was near my final stop. She filled her bottle and drank most of it so 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 did the unexpected. 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 glorious, bountiful flowers. Stephen got to meet her in Leon on his first day of his Camino, as she translated the pilgrim's blessing from Spanish to English for the basilica priest.

That day I met her, that evening, I pondered why she cried. I didn't have a clue at the time. 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 tired and longing for inspiration, for the mystical. It took me a while to figure out what was really happening. In fact, I needed my spiritual advisor to help me figure out why I was confused. Here I was, thinking I was merely offering her water, but when I got called to that well, I was guided to the well, prodded to be present. I was sent to help her, share the water, share some rest and a smile. With the woman at the well, thirsting for water and something deeper than a well, I offered her a gift and a message that she needed to hear. To be her angel.

So I walked with three angels. And with a woman at the well, I eventually realized that I was the voice and flesh by which angels had come to her. Life can be that way in so many ways. We walk with people who we may immediately recognize as important messengers to us, telling us to wake up and smell the roses, to find ourselves, to be inspired. And maybe without us knowing it, we too may be that angel messenger to others.

Most often, we're too close to our own stories to realize what's happening. We forget that we should walk intentionally, always awake, always open to the new. Sometimes it takes a prolonged journey to realize that you're always on a pilgrimage and should be ever present to those who may be there to help you and guide you. May your heart be always open to so that you can hear and see and touch the angels walking by your side.

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