by Mary Patrice Erdmans
She joins the river of souls that is the Way of St. James.
Ulrich, a robust 52-year-old pilgrim dressed in a red flannel shirt, told me, “I want to walk through the world without leaving footprints. It’s hard work to be silent.”
Sitting alone inside the walls of the convent of Santa Clara in Carrion de los Condes, Spain, I stretch out my legs under the early summer sun, relax my back into the warmth of the bricks, and listen through the silence to the twelve chimes. A fresh-faced nun in full black habit pokes her head out the door. I lean my head against the wall, close my eyes, sigh.
Ulrich the pilgrim started walking to Spain from his home in Austria. Paul started out from France. Others came from Scotland, Holland, Brazil, North Carolina, and the Czech Republic to walk the Camino de Santiago de Campostella (the Way of St. James). The Camino, which became known in the 12th century, is a key Christian pilgrimage to the believed burial place of the apostle Saint James (Santiago) on the Iberian Peninsula. His bones were happened upon centuries earlier by a shepherd following a field (campo) of stars (estrellas).
The Camino is actually several pilgrimages running across Europe, starting in Holland, France, Germany, Poland, Austria, and Portugal with all paths leading to Santiago. The most popular and developed route starts in the Pyrenees (at St. John Pied de Port in France or Roncesvalles in Spain) and cuts across the North of Spain. This 500-mile route is marked with bright yellow arrows and provides refugios, municipal- and church-sponsored places to stay for only a few pesetas a night.
I set off on the 30-day pilgrimage from Roncesvalles last May with my friend Paige. Both of us had recently stumbled through a life portal (master’s degree for her, academic tenure for me). I wanted to escape for a while from the world of the mind and was attracted to the Camino because it was a physical challenge (a month of walking 15 to 20 miles a day) made comfortable by the promise of a nightly shower and a bed in a beautiful old convent or monastery.
I did not walk the Camino for religious renewal, I did not go to fall in love all over again with my Catholicism, my spiritual birthright, my doctrinal heritage. I did not go planning to spend my days dwelling on the hospitality of Mary Magdalene, smiling into the gentle faces of Benedictine nuns, eating cheese on the warm cement of the convent of Santa Clara, learning to say a slow-paced rosary with imaginary beads. I did not go to hear the Our Father spoken in seven languages nor to have long afternoon conversations about the importance of fe (faith). I did not go to return to a childlike trust in Jesus Christ that I had last felt in third grade with the curly, black-haired Sister Kathleen Marie at Holy Name School.
I went to walk and to clear my head. I went because of the wretched monkey of yearning that never lets me know what exactly it is I am yearning for. Along the way, the innocent faith of an 8-year-old came back to me as I walked without a map or knowledge of the language across the foggy mountains, blue asparagus fields and enigmatic silent villages of Spain.
Day 5: Leaving Estella, we pass tall clay cliffs – vertical shadows long in the morning sun – tromp through fishnets of spider webs bejeweled by water. The May morning air chills my bare knees and licks the top of my ears. A cool constant rush of wind sifts and shakes the heads of silver and green poplars. Midday, the peaks of the blue and purple mountains lined up in the distance are hazed flat in the hot sun; lunch on the side of the road with a million ants, my body balanced by opposites – warm sun-dipped skin with cold-wind goose bumps.
Some pilgrims walked the Camino expecting Santiago to give them something — forgiveness for their sins, determination to stop smoking, or something more concrete like a limited edition 1982 Alfa Romeo that one pilgrim said he found in his driveway after his first pilgrimage (this time he was asking for a wife). Many of us were at a turning point in our lives and walked for courage and guidance. Some were deciding about relationships — to have them, to leave them, to change them; others were deciding about jobs — to have them, to leave them, to change them. Rare was the person simply walking to walk. Yet that is what we all did. Walk.
Throughout the day, I follow the etchings of slugs and the footprints of pilgrims — people whose names and stories I learn over the miles and meals, others whose names I never learn because of both language barriers and our common desire to practice solitude and learn silence. Still, we share nods, bits of chocolate, palm swigs of water from the town fountains, and the ritual of praying the Our Father and the excitement of watching the World Cup. I feel a connection to the past, to the centuries of others who stumbled over these same stones, to the tribe of slugs and pilgrims. They make me grin.
I am present to my mortality — my muscles, my soles, my ligaments. The hot June sun fatigues me, like a strong wind it slows my steps. Pain slithers through my body up the shin of my right leg, over to my left shoulder, down into the ball of my feet. I am alive. I lighten my pack, throwing out everything that is not necessary.
Religion is a nasty word among my peers, tail-end baby boomers, new-agers, twelve-step program followers who explore exotic Vietnamese Buddhism but reject the Christian religion of their youth. Religion, they say, is for people who fear hell; it is institutionalized, exploitative, and, in fact, un-Christianlike. I understand. I agree. When I show movies in my college classrooms of the horrors inflicted on the indigenous peoples of the Americas by Christian missionaries, I cringe and want to deny my religious heritage. It is easy for me to explore religion from a distance as a sociologist, through the works of Max Weber or Jacques Ellul, for example, but up close with my leftist academic peers I keep silent and downplay the fact that I like to go to church and observe the religious holy days. A colleague asks me to take her daughter to church on Easter Sunday and compares the experience to a Grateful Dead concert. I wince, yet understand how she conflates the two events — rituals, motion, incense, followings, ecstasy. Religion is something I submerge even in front of my therapist, who defines my weepiness in church (which I attribute to the presence of the Holy Spirit) as an inability to master my emotions.
In my modern day professional life I am Peter-like in my denial of Christianity, but on the Camino, on my Camino, I fell in love, unashamedly in love, with my religion, Roman Catholicism. I fell in love with the Mass, the rituals, the dogma, the rosary, the Word, the beauty on the faces of the statues expressing pain, joy, sorrow, peace. I sang hymns to the new flowers, clumps of brilliant golden yellow splashed about the mountainside, and kissed the base of crucifixes in the fields to express my gratitude.
My days take on a soothing uncomplicated rhythm — pack, walk, eat, shower, sleep. Through the monotony of routine, in the space of silence, the demons appear (fears, frailty, the flawed nature of our very being, our humanness — the barren desolate ground of private hags). They develop a body and form that can be addressed, dealt with and then put away. I have a long conversation with my father.
I walk on alone, long long hours alone every day, every day, every day, thinking about my life, my loves, my work, my God. And then the thinking and self-dialogue riff into non-thinking as the rhythm of monotony pulls my soul into the moment. I spend the long hours of slow-motion movement absorbing the blue of the sky and the green of the grass. Days pass in this blue-green mode. Past and future lives funnel into the fulcrum of the horizon and return as the present with the thought that everything I will ever need has already been given to me. God is within. Out on the open mesa of tall green grass and below the endless skies of cloudless blue there is no space for past regrets or time for future worries; for now there is simply the blue and the green.
The Catholic church is not God, and therefore the Church is flawed. The church is the map, and on the Camino I fell in love with the terrain. The Church was made by man. I do not deny nor dismiss the misogyny, the imperialism, the stupidity of past and present church leaders — but they were men, simply men, and the church an institution created by men. Tet, the beauty of the church should not be denied me because of the sins of men. Roman Catholicism is my language, it was given to me to help my search for the face of God.
Catholicism gives me something that Buddhism, Hinduism, animism does not. Not because it is right. I have no idea if it is or not. Catholicism is the religion of my innocence, my childhood. It bypasses my cerebrum and enters my nostrils, floats into my eyes, resounds in my ears. The smell of burning incense, the delicacy of Madonna statues and the gruesome horror of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Killer), the deep resonance of Angelus bells at noon, the hymns of eating the body and drinking the blood, the brass cylinders of the organ and the chorus of novitiate faces framed in the whiteness of the wimple: I fall to my knees and cry. Cry because it touches something deep inside of me, it touches my child, my soul, the nipples of my breasts.
The sun slips out from behind a cloud and the heat releases me. I think of being here now, and all the nows that created this moment, and how this now will add to future nows, a string of life beads, each as precious as the next. My worries about what to do with my life recede — but stay with me. So what. They will always be there, like the ants every day when I stop for lunch. I know too little to have big worries.
Day 25: Shrouded in the early morning mist, I climb straight up to the small mountain village of O Cebreiro. The higher I climb the thicker becomes the shroud. My legs are drenched in the dew of outstretched ferns; my neck and hair damp from the wetness of sagging branches. I climb through sleeping hamlets spackled with cow dung, pass regal black stallions munching in yellow-sun pastures. I listen to the wind talking, jabbering through the branches of the poplars; I drink in the little purple heather and the fields of flowing wheat. I wander into ancient churches and stare at the statues; waiting, listening for one to talk to me. I search the rivers of rushing water. I forgive my feet for hurting. I forgive myself for being human, for smelling like a goat.
Mary Patrice Erdmans is a professor of Sociology at Central Connecticut State University. The first mountain she ever climbed was in the Himalayans and it has been downhill ever since. She is the author of The Grasinski Girls: The Choices They Had and the Choices They Made (Ohio University Press, 2004) which won the Oskar Halecki Prize in 2005. Her articles and essays have appeared in North American Review, The Sociological Quarterly, Notre Dame Magazine, Polish American Studies, Journal of American Ethnic History, and 2B Quarterly.“Gods Who Smell Like Goats” won the Gold Award for Travel and Transformation in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
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