Darkness and Light – Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo

As we walked today, Lena and I talked about how often we leave towns in the dark, and sometimes walk in the dark for as much as an hour or so. As I think we said before, we kind of like it. The dark feels welcoming to us.

What I/we find interesting is that this kind of darkness walking is something we would rarely do in the United States. But here we are finding our way through strange large cities. Sometimes we find that revelers are still in the street from the night before. We are moving though farmlands and forests in pitch black trusting that we are on the right path. We are strolling down empty paved roads, believing that if a car comes out of nowhere we know how to get to the side of the road and be safe.

I have never spent much time in California walking through the wilderness in the dark. I have never wandered the streets of Sacramento before the break of dawn. I think I might be afraid. What is that about? Two days ago, Lena and I were walking through a forested area, and my flashlight created a shadow in a strange way. I jumped back in fear, but realized it was the first time I had been afraid like that on this whole trip.

What creates a fear and what creates trust? Do I trust because I know that so many have walked this path before me? Do I trust because I am with the person I love most in the world? Do I trust because I can see the scallop shells and yellow arrows pointing the way? (Which I don’t always…) Am I just foolhardy? It is interesting that darkness can have such a negative effect on me at times and at other times seem quite benign.

Today was a long day, and it felt longer than we expected it to be. It was blissfully flat and smooth and I was grateful for many, many steps of the way. But I got a bit cranky by the end. What was interesting is that at the end of our walking day was when the light became most brilliant and revealed so much of the beauty of the day. Thankfully, though I could have, I didn’t miss it. I’ve included a few photos of what we saw.

Tomorrow, another long day (18 miles) and another big climb. Always new challenges. Darkness and light.

Releasing and Remembering: Cruz de Ferro – Rabanal to Ponferrada

One of the highlights of our day and the physical high point of the Camino was the Cruz de Ferro (Cross of Iron). It actually sounds more grand than it is. This small iron cross is mounted on a tall wooden pole. The heritage of this site is uncertain – with some claiming ancient Celtic origins, some connecting it with the Roman God Mercury (god of travelers) and some saying it was reclaimed as a Christian site by the 9th Century hermit Guacelmo. This is how one writer describes what happens at the cross: “For centuries, pilgrims have brought a stone to the place (either from home or the flatlands below) to represent their burden. The stone and the burden are left here, leaving the pilgrim lighter (literally and figuratively) for the journey ahead.” (From Camino de Santiago, Anna Dintaman & David Landis, p. 188.)

So I actually didn’t have all this figured out when I arrived. I guess I should have been reading ahead. I did know about the leaving of a stone and I brought one that I picked up on a walk along the American River. But when Lena asked me, “What did you release when you left the stone?” I had no good answer. So I spent the next hour of so thinking about things of which I need to let go. It is actually a great question, and if it is of any interest, I decided I needed to release the pleasing of people (I know, big surprise). So, for now, that’s what my rock stands for.

Except I think I people create their own interpretations of all this rock-leaving business. I read somewhere that you are supposed to turn away from the cross and throw the rock backward over your head like you are at the Trevi Fountain in Rome. (Huh?) People leave memorials to loved ones who have died. People write intentions on rocks, attach ribbons and notes, even create a rock as art piece. Part of the fascination of Cruz de Ferro is seeing—in fact walking on—other people’s rocks. You can imagine, if every pilgrim from centuries back brought a rock, that’s a lot of rocks. I found myself wondering, does the Spanish government or the church have a rock disposal service when the pile of stones gets too high? Surely, what I saw today couldn’t have been all of the rocks from all the pilgrims from all the centuries of the Camino and before!

Please don’t think I don’t take this seriously. I love the idea of unburdening myself. I love the idea of releasing. And I love the idea of remembering. It’s what humans do, isn’t it? Remember the Jacob of the Bible who erected an altar (a pile of stones) to commemorate where God met him? It seems to me that Cruz de Ferro is something just a bit more formal than what I see everywhere along the Camino. Memorials to people who have died. Rocks in various shapes with messages like “Pray for South Africa” on them. Crosses made out of sticks and stuck in fences. People leaving articles of clothing or personal items in a high place or “holy” place. Even some graffiti fits this category. We are people who commemorate—so as not to forget a person or a commitment. Rocks are that ancient, solid, everywhere thing that helps us do it best.

One more thing about rocks—today they were also our enemy. On this beautiful day, we hiked far, 20 miles. And much of that hiking was downhill. Sounds easy, huh? But on those down slopes there were a lots of rocks in the path, some to avoid, some to slip on, some that stubbed our toes, some that threatened to twist our ankles, and some just to make our feet sore. With all this heralding of stones, stones of remembrance and stones of release, frankly I was glad to be off the darn things and walking on human made sidewalks for the last four miles of our journey.

Dweller on the Threshold – Astorga to Rabanal

Ok, so humor me with one more musical reflection. Van Morrison has an old song called “Dweller on the Threshold.” I have always taken it to be a reflection on what it is like to enter new territory, to walk into a new reality. Here are some of the words:

I’m a dweller on the threshold
And I’m waiting at the door
And I’m standing in the darkness
I don’t want to wait no more

I have seen without perceiving
I have been another man
Let me pierce the realm of glamour
So I know just what I am

Feel the angel of the present
In the mighty crystal fire
Lift me up consume my darkness
Let me travel even higher

I’m a dweller on the threshold
As I cross the burning ground
Let me go down to the water
Watch the great illusion drown

This is another song from my playlist and it came up the other day. It reminds me of how we are always entering into a new country, a new land, a new room and making amazing discoveries. I am “waiting” to enter, so that “I know just what I am.” “We go down into the water” (and water is always mysterious and destructive) so that we “watch [our] great illusions drown.” We find out who we are.

Today we walked into the foothills, into a new country, a place with trees and stone instead of open fields of grain. It all looked and felt very mysterious. (It is said that the place we are entering even has some Celtic heritage and roots.) We kept walking and walking into the mist (a kind of water), not knowing what was ahead. We climbed up and up—again reminding us that were were entering a new land. When the sun finally broke through, it all looked so different than what we had been seeing for the last ten days. There was a beauty, a relief, and a wonder.

We are on the threshold. The entry to the final third of the Camino. We have about 150 miles to go. You might remember that it is said that the final third of the Camino is for the Spirit. We will see. We are on the threshold of our hardest day, as we will be walking over 20 miles tomorrow, a good portion of it uphill. We are at the doorway of an important site on the Camino, one of the highest points. It is the place where the Cruz de Ferro (cross of iron) is erected, the place where most pilgrims will place a stone they have brought and carried with them the whole journey. (I will say more about the symbolism tomorrow.) As if to emphasize all this, the church here has a special evening service, where the local brothers will sing 30 minutes of Gregorian chant. For me, not knowing the language and only able to connect to the tones of that chant, that will feel like mystery.

But really—whether we feel mystery or not, whether we have a hard or an easy day ahead, whether we are chanting or doing math—aren’t we always on the threshold, in the doorway, entering a new reality? I just want to be awake to it.

Song: Dweller on the Threshold

Songs on the Road – San Martín del Camino to Astorga

Similar story to yesterday, but we were better prepared. Rain most of the day, a little less wind, a little more attentive to how we dressed and prepared (at least for me). So…after 15 miles…a little happier. Things I am grateful for today: my warm gloves, a wonderful café/bar after about seven kilometers, beautiful landscapes, and a place to buy a new poncho at the end of the day. We have now essentially left the meseta and are climbing into the hills of Galicia (though we are not yet officially in that province).

Though I didn’t listen to any music today, I have been doing it at the end of long days as we enter our last hour or so. Some song lyrics have come up that spur my imagination and touch on life here and I thought I would share some of them and what they mean to me.

The first is Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” Don’t be fooled by its seeming silliness. I love this part of the lyric:

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around
He doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, sound
Cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings and orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning into infinity
He says, Amen! Alleluia!

“It’s a street in a strange world.” It is a confession of strangeness, of not-being-at-home. But it is also a proclamation of insight, “he sees angels in the architecture.” Literally! In the face of the newness, the wonder, the fullness, what can a person do except proclaim, “Amen! Alleluia!” The only response to wonder is gratitude.

Another song I have enjoyed along the road is Sandra McCracken’s “Abiding City.” Based on a old hymn, as so many of her songs are, I both rejoice in this song and reject it. The idea is that what is now in this world is not what will be, that God is bringing something better. The problem I have is that a full embrace of her idea might mean a rejection of this world. I don’t buy it – God created and will bring this world to fulfillment. But there is something about this song when we are entering a new city, entering our destination for the day:

Spirit heal our neighborhood
Until your kingdom work is done
Teach us what is just and good
As we look for the city that is yet to come

Oh lift up your head
For the day is near
And we have no abiding city here

A city filled with gold and light
God the builder and the architect
When our faith is turned to sight
Oh I cannot imagine it

Oh lift up your head
For the day is near
We have no abiding city here

As I look around, I see goodness and joy. I see gratitude and vulnerability. I experience hope. Christians might say that “God’s reign” is breaking in, already in front of us. That is what I have been feeling as I have met people, heard stories, stayed in albergues, and entered cities and towns. No “abiding” city. But a transformed world.

Finally, the song I asked Jenny Read to sing at my retirement gathering keeps coming up on my playlist. There are lots of words and ideas in this song, so perhaps people don’t get it the first time. It is Mary Chapin Carpenter’s, “Something Tamed, Something Wild,” and it is a kind of theme song for my life these days. Here are a few of the thoughts she shares:

For every time that I’ve been
Foolish when I’d wish that I’d been wise
The power of regret still gets me
Right between the eyes.
And sometimes I want to weep
With nothing but the tears of a little child
What else are there but
The lessons in your heart?
Something tamed
Something wild

So the things that matter to me
Now are different from the past
I care less about arriving than
Just being in the path
Of some light carved out of nothing
The way it feels when the universe has smiled
What else are there but
The beating of your heart?
Something tamed
Something wild

As I walk along, there is plenty of time to think about regrets and lessons. There is a lot of time to think about what matters most and how things I used to cling to have dissipated. And sometimes, most times, there is nothing to think about – as Mary Chapin Carpenter puts it – all we can do it “just be in the path.” Hmm.

If you would like to hear any of these songs, here are the YouTube links:

You Can Call Me Al

Abiding City

Something Tamed, Something Wild

Hardship: Rain and Annika – León to San Martín del Camino

This was one of the hardest days for me on the Camino. It rained consistently for about four hours of our walking. Though it wasn’t freezing, it was cold enough. My fingers felt frostbitten as they held the trekking poles. (I didn’t use gloves until later because I thought they would be soaked.) We walked about 11 miles before we had our “coffee stop.” That helped immensely and the rain seemed to subside after that break. Visions of bus rides and taxis were playing in my head.

Though I have rain gear, I was wishing I bought that high-tech rip-stop poncho that I saw in the store in León the day before. Maybe I will buy it in Astorga. Today was the first true test of our rain gear. Lena has a waterproof jacket covered by a plastic poncho. It seemed to work well for her. I have a waterproof shell and a backpack rain cover. We both wore our hats. Both of our pairs of shoes got a bit soaked, but are now drying in the boot rack, stuffed with newspaper. We made it – but had the rain continued and the wind kept up, it would have been an even harder day.

All this makes me think about hardship. I have not had too much of it in my life. Certainly people I love have gone through crises and friends and family have died—I don’t ever want to minimize any of that. Yet, life for me has been quite fortunate. I hesitate to say “blessed,” not because I don’t recognize that all I have received in life is a gift, but because saying “blessed” might imply that I receive good things from God and while others do not. I am so grateful for everything that has come in my life.

I also don’t live life under regular daily hardships. I have never had to struggle to find food. I have a warm bed to sleep in. I am deeply loved by many people. So a walk like today is a tiny hint that life is not always easy. I feel almost embarrassed saying this because I am well aware of the hardships that many face. The journey/the Camino is not always easy. I suspect it is not meant to be so. But I have no idea why it is easy for some and hard for others.

Today we met a woman named Annika, who shared a little bit with us about her life and the hardships she has seen. Her story is complicated one but I will try to give a hint of the reality. Annika is in her late 20s, a British citizen, born and raised in Birmingham. Her ancestry is Pakistani and she tells us her immediate family includes 21 people, including six siblings and their children.

She is walking part of the Camino on a bet, her winnings being a Papa John’s pizza. Really. (I know, I know,—the Camino is the source of many strange habits.) She wore a dress and boots and carried an umbrella. She currently lives in Warsaw, Poland with her boyfriend who is Polish. Her occupation is selling Pakistani street food, and she tells us she does well just to break even.

Prior to all of this, she spent time working with refugees. (In fact, that is how she met her boyfriend.) She started, almost on a whim, traveling to Greece, getting bored with partying there, and being invited to work with refugees in one of the larger camps in Greece. I believe she worked with both Afghani and Syrian refugees. Later she worked in refugee camps in Serbia, where evidently they have been taking a good number of refugees. (The United Nations has offered the government there some support in doing this.) She worked particularly with the Afghan refugees. She told us of stories of how Afghan young men were offered tales of the wealth and safety available to them in Europe, and how they would utilize all their resources to pay smugglers to get them to some part of Europe. Once arriving and realizing how hard it was, these young men would not consider returning home because of the shame they would experience after their families had given up so much to get them to Europe. So they perpetuate the myth and live through the poverty, the cold, and the abuse by smugglers.

She related that in Hungary the treatment of refugees was even worse. She shared a saying that at least one Syrian refugee had painted on the outside of his tent. “Better to die in a war in Syria than live in a refugee camp in Europe.” In her work she offered what care she could to those who came, she negotiated with smugglers (she said they would listen to her because of her “maternal” approach), she even thought about trying to mount a media effort to communicate the truth of the refugee situation to the people of Afghanistan. But her own work with refugees ended relatively quickly. After a bit more than a year she had to give it up, suffering what she called a kind of PTSD.

Annika’s story was captivating to us. A story of hope. A story of pain. A story of real hardship in our world.

Is This a Religious Thing or What? Mansilla de las Mulas to León

What is the nature of a pilgrimage? What is the character of the Camino as pilgrimage? It obviously has a religious character, as peregrinos are traveling many miles the reach Santiago de Compostela, to the remains of James, one of Jesus apostles. As pilgrims travel their way they visit many cathedrals, churches, and holy sites. They might be seen attending pilgrim masses or blessings and offering their own personal prayers.

As we entered León today, the site of an incredible 13th Century Gothic Cathedral, I wonder what it must have been like for ancient pilgrims. I can’t imagine they did the traveling that many of us do. They certainly did not have digital or print images of what they were about to see. There must have been some excitement as they caught a first glimpse of the spires of the cathedral from the hillside. Perhaps they had heard stories. They must have been flabbergasted when they entered the space to see the mass of stained glass. (Frankly, I was overwhelmed – and I knew a bit of what to expect.) Was it a foretaste of heaven for them? Or was it simply a human-made wonder that they admired as one among many things that men and women have created? Was it a religious experience for them?

Which begs the question, “what does it mean to be religious?” I actually don’t use the word too much. “Religion” has a kind of bad taste in our century and many people would prefer to describe themselves as “spiritual.” Even in my own faith, Christianity, religion gets a bad rap and is often associated with rote compliance to empty ritual. But let me give you a window into what I mean by “religious.”

I think religion is the practice of what we do to open ourselves to the divine, the holy, the spiritual. It is something we can control that opens us up to that which we can never control. Praying the Lord’s Prayer can be a religious act. Living out the 12 Steps of AA or NA can be a religious act. Walking the Camino can be a religious act. I don’t think religion can ever produce God’s presence. I don’t think our practices are transactions that can automatically manifest the spirit. But, I think our religious acts make us ready for that which we can never produce of our own accord. The presence of the holy always comes as grace. So I celebrate ritual, prayer, worship, pilgrimage, architecture, spiritual direction, and anything that prepares our hearts for something beyond ourselves.

So yes, the Camino is a religious act. I know that I am looking for something beyond just a challenging walk. It feels very different to me than marathon training (although to be fair, long distance running does have a spiritual component). I bring certain intentions and realities to my pilgrimage. I have just retired. I am in the latter years of life. I am a Christian. I am traveling with the person who is my best friend, my lover, my wife. I am a person with wealth and resources. I want to be part of the global human family. I am a questioner. I want to be open to the unexpected.

So will God show up? Will the Spirit become manifest? Will I be transformed? Will miracles happen? I have no idea. But, why not wait and see? Why not walk and see?

Patterns – Calzadilla de los Hermanillos to Mansilla de las Mulas

It is hard to notice patterns we have in our lives until we are forced to break them. When we eat. When we sleep. What level of activity we have. Whom we spend out time with. For me, this Camino seems to be a time of of breaking patterns.

Th most obvious thing in Spain is the daily schedule. Aside from a really long lunch time (Noon until 3:30 p.m.) almost everything else shuts down in this country. Museums and churches are closed. Pharmacies and banks lock their doors. The streets look deserted. The Spanish really get going after eight at night. It presents an interesting challenge for people who are used to the daily patterns of American life.

On top of this, there is another new pattern, “Pilgrim hours.” Get up at 6:30 a.m. Eat a small breakfast. Walk seventeen miles (with a coffee and snack break along the way). Find a place to stay. Get a shower. Wash some clothes. Find something to eat – maybe a big lunch. Try not to drink too much wine. Walk around and see the sights (as if you haven’t already done enough of that.) Get an evening snack. Read and communicate a bit. Sleep at 8:00 p.m. Repeat.

I think I have finally hit my groove. I am learning how important it is to put my feet up. Learning how helpful it is not to eat a large, late meal. I am learning to be flexible with what is, rather than demanding what I want or what I am used to. I think that is part of the key to joyful travel. That doesn’t mean I don’t ask for what I need or want, it just means I take the perspective of a learner, a beginner, of someone who is open to what comes. If I don’t want to do this, why travel anyway?

And so I go to bed earlier than I am used to. I walk farther than is my common practice. I stay in rooms with many more people than I ordinarily choose to. I talk with people along the way even though I might prefer silence. I try to speak a language that I find difficult. I eat different food, at different times, in different ways than has ever been my pattern. It is fun, it is frustrating, it is filling. Really.

Today we travelled about 15 miles of what is said to be part of the Calzada romana, one of the longest remaining stretches of the Roman road in Spain today. Not like the big paver stones of Roman roads in Italy, but a different kind of stone, almost river rock, carefully spread and compacted. Interesting, and not as easy on the feet as you might hope. Those Romans are everywhere.

White Asparagus – Sahagún to Calzadilla de Los Hermanillos

What is it about white asparagus? Every ensalada mixta I have had until today in Spain has been topped with white asparagus. And not fresh asparagus either, but from a can (I think). Ensalada mixta is a bit of a standard here, usually one choice in the menu of the day. Ensalada mixta also usually comes with tuna (again, from a can, not that fancy ahi stuff). I wonder whether there is some special history with white asparagus and tuna? Perhaps someday I will find out. But until then, here are some of my some of my reflections on standard Spanish meals.

We have had some great food and some just passable. Breakfast here is not high priority, at least if you are looking for protein. Mostly, it is toast and jelly or a pastry, a glass of orange juice (often fresh squeezed), and some coffee (for us con leche). What we get for breakfast influcences whether we get a second breakfast – which for us is heavily biased in favor of croissants of a sort. We might also get a slice of what the Spanish call a tortilla, a kind of egg and potato frittata type thing.

Noontime to 3pm is the main meal in Spain. Most restaurants have a menu, by which they often mean the menu of the day. There are generally three courses. The first is usually a choice of soup, pasta, or salad. The second course is usually a meat course—chicken, pork, fish, etc. The third is postre, dessert. Most menus of the day also come with bread and wine or water. (Sadly, beer is extra.) Lately, we have been finding that a midday meal after our walk is the best way to go. Although a three-course pilgrim meal is usually served at 7 p.m. in most places, and resembles the menu of the day, it feels like a lot of food to eat that late at night. I am not sure how the Spanish can eat even later than that. Most pilgrim meals and menus of the day cost from 10 to 13 euro. Really, quite a good deal.

Besides what I have already mentioned, our meals have featured lots of chicken, some pork, and other meat possibilities. We have already had our share of paella, that rice dish with chicken, sausage, and often seafood. Tasty, but not something I can eat every day. Some great soups—today a lentil, yesterday a bowl of chickpeas and ham. We’ve had plenty of French fries with things, and other potato items as well. When we have veered off our Spanish diet, we’ve gotten some good pizzas and even a unique salad or two. (An Irish pub in Hornillos called the “Green Tree” served us hummus, pita, and of course Guinness.)

Desserts vary here. Flan and rice pudding are standards. We have had a good lemon mousse or two. And, we are always up for ice cream. Recently we have become quite fond of a Nestle product called “Black Cookie.” Yum!

Of course, as always, coffee is a good end to a meal. Many people order café americano, but despite the fact that I never drink coffee with milk, I have become a fan of café con leché.

We are almost to the big city of León. A few more short days of walking. We had a bit of rain today and broke out the wet weather gear. We feared the worst but the rain let up fairly quickly. We arrived in this town to a clean beautiful albergue with fabulous food. I am constantly overwhelmed by how people in out of the way places can offer such a rich and comfortable experience to those of us who are pilgrims. Many could just get by and probably still make money, but instead they are true hospitaleros, caring for tired, hungry travelers. Something to rejoice in. Even if they didn’t serve us white asparagus.

Halfway and Being an American – Ledigos to Sahagún

Today was a short day – about 10 miles. The next few days will also be short. While it seems a bit odd, we are choosing to do short days because the only other option is really long days (25 miles), so we are “relaxing” a bit. The towns in the meseta are just not that frequent. We will walk about 10 miles tomorrow and a bit more the next day. Then, after León, daily mileage will increase greatly. It’s funny, when only doing 10 miles it is a bit tricky to know what to do with the rest of the day. So today we did a bit of sightseeing, visited the post office, and practiced a citizenship responsibility (more on that later). The big news is that today was also the OFFICIAL halfway point of the Camino – and we have the certificates to prove it! The town of Sahagún has for a while now been known as the halfway point and for three euro you can get your certificate. In one way it is actually hard to believe we have made it this far – in another way it is hard to imagine a time when we haven’t been walking. For us, this is day 19 of actually walking. (Not to jinx it, but we just made reservations in Santiago de Compostela for the end of our trip—free cancellation of course.)

Before we left home, one of the things we fretted about was figuring out how to vote in our nation’s mid-term elections. It turns out that Sacramento County has a way to do that for “Military and Overseas Voters.” We kept waiting for our email ballot, which we only discovered yesterday when we searched our junk email. (Ugh.) Then today we persuaded our albergue hospitalera to allow us to use their printer and computer to print out our ballot. (She didn’t really need any convincing.) Then, because we can’t seem to find a way to fax the ballot, we will mail it off tomorrow. (It is not allowed to email a ballot in.) All this, hoping we sign all the correct documents and address it to the right place. Actually, a small price to pay for American citizenship, right?

Though the walk was short, we saw incredible beauty today. Because got started a bit later, we were gifted with a dramatic play of light on the fields with an amazing background of dark clouds. An incredible sight!

Comparisons, True Pilgrims, and a Blessing – Carrión de Los Condes to Ledigos

One of the things I have realized is that I have been comparing myself to others. Why are they eating pizza and I the Pilgrim menu? How come they are walking 30 kilometers if I am only walking 20? Why do some pilgrims shop at the grocery store to cook up a great meal at the albergue kitchen and others get their meals from a restaurant? Should I go up to receive the Eucharist if all the other pilgrims do? Maybe I should rub Vaseline all over my feet or change my socks more like those Canadians. I guess there are lots of ways of being a pilgrim.

Some ship their bags from albergue to albergue, some carry everything, some do a bit of both. Some stay in the least expensive places to stay, some need a bit more comfort, some do a bit of both. Some just show up in town and see what housing is available and some use Booking.com (my new favorite app). Some stop at all the religious and historical sites, some eat lots of chocolate, some travel alone, some sing as they walk, some listen to music on an iPhone. Some hand wash their clothes and hang them out to dry, some are glad to pay for machine washing and drying.

There is a saying, “It is your Camino.” (In other words, do this journey in a way that makes sense to you.) I am working on trusting that, on removing all judgement, and just letting God show me what I need to do. But is is hard, because my ego has an assessment of what a “true pilgrim” is. It is helpful to know that even in ancient times, pilgrims approached this journey in different ways. Today many walk, some bike, and I even saw a canal boat the other day— evidently you can do part of your Camino on the water! Not everyone covers every inch of the Camino Frances, some walk some and bus or bike through certain parts. Some do only the last 100 kilometers (you need to complete that much to get your compostela, your certificate of completion). Many Europeans we met fly to Spain each year on a cheap Ryanair flight and walk a section of the Camino, so that after five or six years they have completed the whole thing. For me the message is, “enjoy and celebrate the Camino you are doing, and let others do the same.”

Here are two different albergues we stayed in (it’s your Camino!):

Last night we had a unique experience. We attended the evening mass at the church in Carrión. After the mass they called all the peregrinos to the front for the pilgrim blessing. What was unique about this evening is that there was a particular order of nuns who were helping to lead the service (kind of guitar-playing-singing-nuns). After the general pilgrim blessing was read, they offered each of us a multicolored star, which I took to be a way of celebrating God’s delight in any who walked a Camino – to Santiago or through all of life. After that, we were each offered a personal blessing. What was powerful was that the blessings were given by the priest and by one of the sisters. It was a serious business blessing, with two hands on our head and words of encouragement. Though I was in the line to revive the blessing from the priest, I was struck by how earnest and passionate the sister was in offering her blessing to those attending. I don’t know what she said, but as part of the blessing she put two hands on the person’s head and touched her forehead to the forehead of the person receiving the blessing. She took plenty of time. I was moved not only by how important it was to her, but that the church was offering not simply a blessing from a male priest, but from a female leader as well. Even our old institutions can shift.