Dan entertaining participants at the first AFotC Conference in October 2019 in Adelaide
I was sitting in Plaza del Grano, opposite the municipal albergue in Leon in 2016. My Camino was a blessing I didn’t see coming. I watched the sun set over the buildings on the western side of the square, inviting me to follow it over the horizon the next day. A group of Polish pilgrims were walking with a young priest. The priest’s name was Peter. The mostly young men were considering a life in the priesthood. I called them ‘Peter and the Poles’. Touched by their piety, I found myself drawn to them, seeking guidance; perhaps some of their holiness would rub off on me.
A few days later I crossed the bridge into Molinaseca and saw Peter and the Poles with their feet cooling in the river. We sat and talked and I thought about walking on to Ponferrada, or staying in the river town, the water looked so inviting. One of the young men, Antony, asked me to read a passage from a flyer he’d picked up back in Leon. It read: You may think that you are completely insignificant in this world. But someone drinks coffee from the favourite cup that you gave them. Someone heard a song on the radio that reminded them of you. Someone read the book that you recommended, and plunged headfirst into it. Someone smiled after a hard day’s work, because they remembered the joke that you told them today. Someone loves themself a little bit more, because you gave them a compliment. Never think that you have no influence whatsoever. Your trace, which you leave behind with every good deed, cannot be erased.
The author is not known, but the sentiment is clear. You are SOMEONE.
The Camino provides pilgrims with an opportunity for reflection. Often on my podcasts, guests tell me they wanted to find themselves, they walked the Camino to see if they could delve a little deeper into their psyche. What a wonderful opportunity; to have the space and time to peer into your own heart and soul to find YOUR spirit. The endless rhythm of the soles of your feet caressing the Earth, the majesty of the landscape drifting by as you enjoy the slow tourism to the beat of your heart. The other souls you meet, hearts ringing like the bells you see swinging in church steeples all along the Way. This is YOUR Camino.
The night I read Antony’s flyer and we shared his collective blessing, I was invited to sing songs for a large group of pilgrims at an albergue on the outskirts of town. The hospitalero called me ‘máquina de discos humana’ – the human jukebox. We laughed at my dreadful attempt to repeat it back to him. “At least you’re trying peregrino” he said.
We shared a bottle of La Rioja Tempranillo. We sang some more. Neil Diamond, Bruce Springsteen, Cat Stevens, Bob Dylan. I knew them all. My cheeks were flush with joy, my eyes with tears, my heart with love, my soul with peace. My journey of the spirit had well and truly begun.
On returning from Spain in 2016, I knew I wanted to nurture this feeling, this Camino glow.
I had worked for the Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones, for 15 years, so I had a long and very enjoyable history in radio. I decided to start a podcast, inviting pilgrims to tell their story – why they walked the Camino, what they learned about themselves, what they learned about others….and what the Camino brings to the world.
I’ve interviewed almost 230 people from all four corners of the globe, pilgrims who have walked to mourn a loved one; to decide what their next stage in life would look like; where they would live in retirement; whether they wanted to start a new business. The range of intention is one of the great features of the Camino. You find YOUR spirit and walk to find the peace within you.
Many guests talk about the surprise of finding an energy on the Camino. Some say the Camino follows the ley lines of the earth, a network of electric pulses criss-crossing the planet. Others talk about the collective energy of walking in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims before them… centuries of intention and dedication. Thousands of years of hope. A journey of the spirit and soul in eras past.
A miracle you and I were lucky enough to find.
In 2017, I sat one quiet afternoon in the garden of a municipal albergue in Belorado. My Camino family had drifted off. I have very fair skin so I can’t sit in the sun. But I’d walked that day in damp shoes and wanted to dry my feet. The hospitalero suggested I wrap my feet in a sheet and put them in the sun. It actually worked really well!! My feet dried out and I could relax.
The hospitalero’s name was Felipe. As we watched pilgrims wander into town, he told me the most wonderful story, continually interrupted by guests seeking a bed. He took all afternoon… but it was worth it. The Reniega fountain is about 13 kilometres from Pamplona, toward the Perdón mountain pass. You’ll recall the wind turbines, the sculpture at the top of the rise.
The story goes, many centuries ago, a pilgrim arrived atop the pass, tired, thirsty and exhausted. There was no water to be found. Only dirt and dust. A pilgrim
appeared before him – and our exhausted peregrino asked if his fellow pilgrim knew where he might find water. It was no fellow pilgrim, but the devil in disguise. Satan told the pilgrim if he rejected God at that moment he would soothe his thirst. The pilgrim said no. The devil tried again. I will give you water, pilgrim, he said, if you renounce the Virgin Mary. The pilgrim said no. Determined, Satan tried a third time. If, he said, you renounce the saint in whose footsteps you walk, Santiago the apostle, I will soothe your thirst and you’ll avoid death. The pilgrim said no. Satan, furious, dissolved and disappeared. Soon after, the pilgrim, expecting to die, prayed for help. Santiago himself appeared dressed as a pilgrim. He made a fountain appear and the pilgrim was invited to drink. Saved. This is the legend of the fountain of Reneiga outside Pamplona.
I wonder how many of us would have resisted the temptation. The Camino is like life, some days are better than others. Some days you feel you could walk forever, others you fall at the slightest hardship. The faith to keep going fuels our journey. Your Camino spirit will guide you. “At least you’re trying peregrino”.
Each week I ask my podcast guests to tell me a Camino story. More often than not, it’s an example of generosity… the old saying goes “The Camino provides”. I’m often reminded of the generosity of pilgrims. It makes the Camino community shine like the sun.
My friend Artura bought me lunch in Puenta La Reina, which translates as the Bridge of the Queen. He was a total stranger, but bought me a six-course meal to show off the local produce. I had walked a few days with his daughter and niece while he drove from town to town to keep an eye on them. As Artura and I walked down through the Rúa Mayor that August day in 2017, he explained to me the history of the bridge. It had been built in the 11th century by a local Queen who was saddened to learn pilgrims were drowning trying to cross the river.
Artura said pilgrims must pause at the bridge to hear the stories of the centuries of pilgrims before them. He told me the legend of the txori. A Basque word for a small bird. At one end of the bridge, there is a small tower. The legend goes there were once three towers and in one of those towers there was a picture of St Mary – the Virgin del Puy. The little bird used to tend to the image of St Mary. It would look after the picture – grooming it, removing cobwebs with its wings and washing its face with water from the river Arga below. The legend goes that whenever the txori appeared, the town’s bells were rung and people would dance in the street. I imagined what it was like back when the bird would visit. The pure joy the small bird would bring. Almost like the flame of the Holy Spirit, flickering atop the heads of Christ’s apostles. I wondered how a boy from Toowoomba in country Queensland in Australia could be lucky enough to live this life. This pilgrim journey. This incredible gift of love and life. I said a prayer to the Virgin del Puy. Provide me with a bird to keep the cobwebs from my heart so it can dance with joy… and flicker like a spirit.
Some podcast guests talk of walking beneath the field of stars, they say the Camino follows the Milky Way, the plethora of stars – some say as many as 400 billion – that form our galaxy. How could you possibly avoid the energy of the universe, walking in the footsteps of St James, by the light of 400 billion stars.
Walking is one of life’s great pastimes. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good walker or you struggle to find rhythm on your feet. You can walk at your own pace… whether it’s walking through your local community or walking 800kms or 500 miles of the Camino de Santiago. You choose how, when and where you walk. There are no steadfast rules, only the ability to find two things so rarely at our disposal in 2021… time and space. Finding the time to walk is a true blessing. Finding time WHILE you walk is an even better reward for your effort. Finding your space on the Camino is exhilarating. The pure indulgence of walking an extra long distance means you can choose how you want to do it. It’s YOUR Camino.
Some pilgrims take a bus to skip the middle section of the walk – the Meseta – a plateau stretching from Burgos to Astorga. The flat plains seem to stretch forever. Huge skies open above you. For some, it’s too hot. Too cold. Too barren. There’s not enough shade or places to rest. To me, it was heaven. I can’t wait to return to walk to León along the dual paths lined with poplar trees. They say those poplars are Roman spears soldiers planted in the ground as they left Spain for Rome. Perhaps I’ll enjoy a caña of beer in Plaza del Grano waiting for the sun to invite me over the horizon. Finding time to wander at your leisure across the Meseta is a rich luxury… it’s not easy… in fact on a very hot day it can be very challenging. But it’s easy to feel blessed. I will ponder Antony’s blessing. I will be blessed.
I often ask my podcast guests if they have any advice for someone thinking of walking the Camino. It’s always the same answer. Just do it. As the long Spanish days unwind, you’ll sit with pilgrims from around the world, praying individually and collectively. Then later, you’ll share a pilgrims’ meal… a cheap and cheerful part of the Camino experience. If you’re lucky, you’ll form a small troupe….your Camino family. People from all over the world who decide to walk together. You’ll come and go… and walk ahead and fall behind… the concertina of souls… a squeeze-box of pilgrims traversing the landscape. You’ll arrive in town, check into your accommodation, take a shower, wash your clothes and take the weight off your feet. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find another pilgrim to talk to… to take the weight off your mind. And if you so choose, you can find a pilgrim to listen to… to take the weight off THEIR mind. Pilgrims are great listeners. They’re very good at providing a soundboard for the problems of others. And maybe, once they’ve had that conversation, they’re not problems any more.
I hope you’re lucky enough to find your significance, your inner you. I hope you’re able to find space to let your heart ring like a bell, to invite others to share in the rhythm of your journey. Your journey of spirit.
The Camino is a gift you give to yourself… and once you open it, you share with others.
It’s pure joy.
I hope you find what you’re looking for, somewhere along the Way.