Jennifer and I are taking something of a sabbatical this month and walking the Camino de Santiago, a 500+ mile pilgrimage from France, across northern Spain, to Santiago de Compostela, the traditional resting place of St. James. I’m writing a bit about the experience along the way.
We made it across the Pyrenees and did it all in a cloud. Here and there, we got hints of the heights we’d attained but for the most part, it was an eerie wonderland of mist and trees and the ringing bells of wandering horses. After getting lost in the fog and wandering an unneeded four kilometers to find our way, we descended into the tiny town of Roncesvalles and spent the night in the ancient pilgrim’s hostel there with hundreds of other weary travelers. Before bed, we attended mass at the adjoining church.
The service was in Spanish and we stumbled our way through the liturgy, not always sure when to stand or sit, but catching refreshing hints of familiarity when hearing and recognizing the creed or names like “Pedro” (Peter) or “Pablo” (Paul). Tired and footworn, my mind wandered and it wasn’t long before I found myself getting unexpectedly emotional. I was sitting in a chapel older than my country by centuries and the words of the Gospel were spilling over me in a tongue not my own. I marveled that for all these quiet hundreds of years in a Spanish wood shrouded in mist and trodden by legions of peregrinos from every imaginable walk of life and nation and tongue, the Gospel is preached each night over whomever will come—and the pews were filled with those who came. Whether we who gather understand the liturgy or not is ultimately irrelevant. After all, even in my own tongue, the Eucharist is a mystery. The added distance of a language puts it no further from my comprehension than it is on a Sunday in my home church. I do here as I do at home: I assent to the holy mystery and it envelops me, even in my ignorance. Praise God.
At the end of the mass, the priest came down from the dais and asked everyone who was a pilgrim to gather around him. He called us all out by our nations: Spain, England, Germany, France, the United States, Canada, Hungary, Korea, China, Sweden, Switzerland, Poland, Ukraine, Mexico, Brazil, and so many more. There was kindness and laughter in him as he struggled to encompass us all. Dozens had converged from all over the globe, some in search of adventure, some looking for enlightenment, some come for quiet, or companionship, or health, or grief, or a hundred other reasons. Yet here we converge in our ignorance, and in mystery, the priest blesses us with a smile.
People have sometimes asked me what I hoped to get out of walking the Camino. That word, by the way, means “The Way,” the way of St. James, and the layers of meaning the descriptor carries in it are still expanding before me as I walk its paths. But I’ve tended to be evasive when the question comes. “I’m just here to walk,” I say. I’m open to something more, but I don’t want to expect anything more than some quiet and some scenery.
What is the work of the church if not to offer the world back to God, even in its brokenness, its unreadiness, its rags, its smells, its blistered feet, and limping legs? We offer it back to God. The rest, perhaps, is not our business.Pete Peterson
Receiving the priest’s blessing that second night, though, would be my first clue that the Way is so much more than a walk. And the form of that clue was a vision of the church that opened up before me and suggested that her quiet work in the world goes on in loveliness and humility even when I’m tempted to fear it’s drowned out by furor, scandal, and misuse. Is this smiling priest not an icon of Christ? The world comes before him in ignorance, some believe, many may not, yet communion is offered (yes, even in this Catholic mass—for who can parse us), and all are blessed—we have only to come and stretch out our hands.
What is the work of the church if not to offer the world back to God, even in its brokenness, its unreadiness, its rags, its smells, its blistered feet, and limping legs? We offer it back to God. The rest, perhaps, is not our business.
We slept soundly. We woke early. And on the road ahead, the clouds began to clear. A blessed green country spread out before us like a gift. This is the Way. I was only just beginning to understand.
Pete Peterson is the author of the Revolutionary War adventure The Fiddler’s Gun and its sequel Fiddler’s Green. Among the many strange things he’s been in life are the following: U.S Marine air traffic controller, television editor, art teacher and boatwright at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, and progenitor of the mysterious Budge-Nuzzard. He lives in Nashville with his wife, Jennifer, where he's the Executive Director of the Rabbit Room and Managing Editor of Rabbit Room Press.