FAITH MATTERS: Pain, Prayer, Penance and Paella   

I now know why there are so many books and stories told about the Spanish Camino.

The road that is taken by many over hundreds of years is pretty much the same, but the journey is different for every set of feet that walk the Way of St James from St Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago in Spain.

800km, looking back, seems like a crazy thing to do. To tell the truth, I was in my comfort zone. I’m no fitness guru, nor am I one for achieving great milestones, however I woke up every morning, put on my favourite pair of shoes (my hiking boots) and the same set of comfortable clothing, sans make up, and for forty days I walked with a painful prayer.

My journey was nothing extraordinary, or maybe, with God’s presence, it was…

I never really experienced the pain of excruciating blistered feet or extreme weather conditions. I didn’t share lice-ridden beds with a cohort of snoring, sleep deprived travellers.

Nonetheless, I felt a pain of my own sort. I struggled at times with my own acts of penance. I grappled with my negative thoughts and I prayed through them as I walked. Forgiveness manifests in the untimeliest ways.

Before I left, I wrote a letter to each of my children seeking atonement. I received beautiful messages from two of my children but not from my firstborn.

Weeks later, however, he turned up in Sarria, meeting with me to walk the last 100 km’s together. I was overwhelmed with love and gratitude for him and his selfless act of giving so much of his time to be with me.

I expected to be sitting on a mountain, with an incredible vista, discussing profound observations about faith, life, love, family, and forgiveness.

What actually happened was an encounter with God and my son whilst crossing a road. We had not spoken much about ‘the letter’, however, as we crossed the road together, we embraced, and my son spoke candidly about his love for me. There, on the side of an insignificant road, on the way to Santiago, I made peace with my beloved son. God makes the call. God chooses and justifies the time and place.

Forgiveness holds one heavy in the heart, and I spent time with a pilgrim whose agenda was to seek such. She had experienced the tragic loss of her husband, didn’t believe in God and yet was seeking forgiveness.

As we walked and listened to each other, I watched her open herself to the possibility of encountering God in ways that were not just within the four walls of church.

I told her about a pilgrim I met earlier who I jokingly told was going the wrong way. He laughed and told me that he needed to do more k’s. What he actually did was drop his pack at the top of a challenging ascent (where I was resting), scrambled back down the mountain to pick up the packs of a couple of strangers who were struggling with blistered feet and carried their packs for them.

I asked my new Camino friend “was that not the Holy Spirit working through him?”  She stopped walking and had an incredible look of astonishment on her face, saying, “I never thought about God like that.” We walked in silence together for some time. I hoped that she saw that grace allows us to witness and perhaps be random acts of loving kindness.

My dear friend Liz had her own struggles. Her feet became so blistered, and legs troubled with shin splints that at times she could not walk any further. Coupled with that was the news that her son, back home, had a terrible accident. As a mother, she wanted to be home with him. Her strength, motherly love, and resilience showed to me a woman who can overcome adversities. It was a privilege to walk with her, whether in animated conversation that resulted in fits of belly laughter, or in times of deep sadness and tears or just in times of shared silence. We prayed our own petitions of shame as we helped each other lug our huge suitcases of unnecessary ‘stuff’ up the steep stairways in our accommodation each evening. I will forever be grateful to have Liz as a companion on the journey.

 “I went up the mountain to pray.” Luke: 9: 29

One warm spring day Liz and I decided to avoid the regular Way and take the road less travelled. We started to climb a mountain and it was steep, rough, and relatively unmarked. I felt fatigued and really wanted to give up and call for an Uber (as if they’d come out there!). The wind was in my face. The mountain was challenging, and I didn’t feel up to the task. Then I felt pressure, not unkind but a feeling of a physical presence on my back. Hands were supporting me, pushing me, urging me up the mountain. There is no physical way of explaining the ‘push’ that I was given. When I reached the top, I knew that I had not hiked it alone. My beautiful team from Pastoral Ministries, who had placed hands on my back and prayed for me just days before I left Australia, were now with me, pushing me on, helping me up. At the top I gave thanks to God for his constant presence in my journey. That walk was painful, but it was real and extraordinary, such is the power of our God.

“Sing to the LORD; praise his name. Each day proclaim the good news.” Psalm 96:2-4

One afternoon, in the village of O’Cebrero, I was enjoying a taste of the local cuisine, when a stranger came and asked me what I was eating. I invited him to share a sample. Later, that night, I met Jeremey and his beautiful wife Mary from Singapore. At Mass we prayed together, speaking the parts in our own language. After dinner I walked outside to hear someone singing the beautiful hymn How Great Thou Art. I sat with Jeremy and sang with him, taking in the wonder and awe of a billion stars on a chilly Spanish evening. From then on, Mary, Jeremy and I often celebrated Mass together in the villages we passed through.

 “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Hebrews 13:2

What blew me away was the generosity and genuine kindness of the locals. They must feel inundated with pilgrims passing through their towns. It must seem exhausting. The first time I experienced such generosity of heart was in a remote village (population of possibly 10) when I was tired and thirsty. I walked into a building with very little money. I was welcomed in and offered anything I wanted; food, somewhere to rest, a kind ear to listen, for nothing but a donation of whatever I could offer in return. This act of kindness happened a lot along The Way. No one ever told me about this, how I would encounter locals still upholding the centuries old tradition of embracing and welcoming pilgrims into their village and home.

Hospitality also comes in the form of your Camino family. You meet people along the way and inevitably you end up sharing a table with them at dinner. It was not unusual to start dinner at a table for two, only to find yourself pushing tables together to share with a dozen pilgrims - once strangers, now Camino family. Faith runs deep and in abundance and this is one aspect of the Camino that I will hold in gratitude to the locals and my Camino friends.

I’m passionate about walking, but more so, about walking with others on their faith journey. I believe, with a passion, that walking in the great outdoors provides the opportunity to listen but also to allow the Holy Spirit to work through us all, in our own way within the wonderful tapestry of God’s creation.

Part of our mission to help others share the joy of the Gospel is to tell our story. If the moment arises, I do this on our own Maitland Diocese pilgrimage, the aMeN CaMiNo and we invite you to join us on one of our pilgrimages offered: one day community walks, overnight retreats or the full 100km camino. We are happy to offer opportunities for pilgrimage to suit your parish and community.

 “The only ones among you who are truly happy are those who have found how to serve.” Schweitzer

Did I receive blessings along the way? Every day.

Were my prayers answered? In abundance.

Buon Camino

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