Twenty-four years ago, just before Easter in 1999, I left my home in the Netherlands to walk the pilgrim road to Santiago. It took me seven years to prepare for my first Camino and it’s interesting to notice that I don’t think I ever used the word ’Camino’ during that time. I was going on a pilgrimage. The Camino was not yet a brand.
In August last year I walked another Camino with my son and I’m not sure how many times I’ve been back to the Camino in the intervening years.
Earlier today we heard about people’s thoughts and feelings on arriving at the Cathedral of Santiago. When I arrived there in 1999, I felt great. I was fit and ready to keep walking. In the lovely bookshop in Rua do Vilar I saw a small guide to the Via de la Plata and I wanted to leave straight away to start that one. But life took over – I emigrated, retrained and tried hard to settle into life in Australia. Although I’ve been back to Spain and done various Caminos many times since, it took me 20 years to actually get to the Via de la Plata.
I assume I am not the only one here who has felt the need to go back to that initial experience of life on the Camino – of a better life. Of finding yourself in a place of Love and Peace, in a sanctuary.
For some reason it seems we have to ‘get away from it all’ to be able to have such experiences. It’s almost like going on a holiday. And having just been back to the Camino Francés, I have to say that Camino life today has many of the trademarks of the tourism industry, with reservations for accommodation and luggage transport, even of suitcases on wheels! A lot has changed since 1999.
I believe that ultimately the goal of walking a pilgrimage is an attempt at making the world a better place. And you do that by working on yourself. Mark talked about that – reflecting while ON the Camino.
So I asked myself, do we have to keep doing more and more Caminos or is there a way we can make that original experience of creating a better world, of being a better person, part of our everyday life – of what we call ‘normal life’.
Years ago I read an inspirational book by Abbot Christopher Jamison, an Australian born Benedictine monk. Preparing for this conference, I re-read this book: Finding Sanctuary.
The Abbot talks about how aspects of traditional monastic life might help us to deal with the busy-ness and challenges of life today. Obviously his approach is firmly based within traditional Christian thinking. I do not want to simply follow his approach here but I would like to share some of his thoughts with you.
Jamison highlights seven aspects of monastic life under the Rule of Benedict.
Silence is often experienced as awkward. We often want to fill it up. We have different words for the opposite of silence. ‘Sound’ is good, such as music, voices, sounds of nature. We call bad sound ‘noise’ – industrial working, even music we don’t like. There is also ‘the noise in my head’, the busy-ness of life the demons that keep us awake. But earlier today, with Cici (see pp12-15), we experienced how beautiful and nurturing silence can be. Buddhist wisdom has it that silence will teach you everything, hence it is worthwhile to build a daily routine of silence and solitude.
When we talk about contemplation we often immediately think about meditation. During the 1960s meditation gained enormously in popularity with the Beatles going to India following Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The words guru and mantra entered everyday speech. In monastic life, meditation is known as lectio divina or the slow reading of sacred texts. You take a short section of a text, maybe just one sentence and you read it over and over. Repetition is important. The text is a gift – try not to dissect it, try not to get into the text but let the text get into you. Memorise a phrase. Teresa of Avila said “Your soul is a garden. Get water from a well or a waterwheel or a spring. And trust the rain.” The first three involve your work, they are meditation. The last one is a gift of the divine. That’s contemplation.
For most people today’s ‘rule’ sounds more like ‘I don’t want to be told what to do. I am free. I want to do my own will.’ There’s a story of the Desert Fathers that can give us guidance. Four monks were all trying their best to follow the monastic rule. They asked their abbot about their efforts. One was fasting, one lived in poverty and one performed acts of charity. A fourth dedicated himself to serving an old man. The abbot said that three obtained the virtue they wished to achieve. The fourth was doing the will of another in loving service.
The etymology of the word ‘obedience’ is interesting: ob-audire or ‘listening towards’. Benedict summarised his Rule of obedience in one word: “Listen!”
We all know the caricature of humility in Dickens’ Uriah Heep. That’s not the virtue Benedict was talking about. Nor should humility be confused with passiveness or humiliation. Its linguistic root is humus, or soil, earth. So it’s very much like being down to earth, realistic, honest and truthful.
Jamison makes reference to a research project called Good to Great. It looked at what characterised companies that were good but went beyond that and could be seen as great. It turned out that the common quality was that their CEOs were humble people who endeavoured to listen to their staff.
‘Community’ is a word in big trouble as it is now used to mean any group of people that has something in common eg the cycling community, a school community or even a database community. What about the pilgrim community? On the Camino and off it? Obviously these groups have something in common but does that make them a community? Today’s individualism makes real ‘community’ difficult – I am my own sanctuary. The original meaning of the word means ‘living together’ – and interacting with other people is central to this. Good conversation requires not only good speaking but good listening.
The early Christian meaning of spirituality meant doing things in accordance with the spirit of Christ, ie acts of love and generosity, involving your whole life. In later centuries a separation occurred (Ignatius, Teresa of Avila) and body and soul were seen as distinct from each other. These days, religion is seen as distinct from spirituality. For years, when setting out from Roncesvalles you had to tick one box or the other. The institutional part of religion is now optional and spirituality is a wholly private event. Just look at the Mind-Body-Spirit shelves in any bookshop. You can shop for spirituality, individuals are responsible for their own spiritual progress and Truth is personal.
I don’t believe there is a real difference between religion and spirituality, but church institutions have made it difficult to embrace both. We have to embrace the two polarities – doing good in the world and following our own path.
Jamison’s last step is not an easy one. To illustrate it, he tells the story of the Atlas Martyrs (movie—Of Gods and Men). A group of Franciscan monks were serving a local community in Algeria when political unrest spread across the country. The monks were given the chance to leave their monastery and flee to safety. Most of them decided to stay and keep serving the local people. All were eventually killed by the militia. Their abbot wrote to the world to explain their decision. He also wrote to the rebels and gave them his blessing. The ultimate sacrifice.
[This talk was given at the 2nd National Conference of the Australian Friends of the Camino, Amberley, Victoria, February 2023]