'To be a pilgrim', Part 2

Published on 22 Oct 2019
La meseta, el Camino de Santiago de Compostela

by a Santiago pilgrim

We resume our journey from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela as our author faces his fears and discovers what it means ‘to be a pilgrim’:

‘At Roncevalles, the ancient monastic hospice on the Spanish side of the mountains, everything changed. Many, perhaps the majority of Compostela pilgrims start their walk from either St Jean Pied-de-Port or here; from now on, the pilgrim refuges would be full, often by mid-afternoon; the bars and restaurants along the route geared to the pilgrim trade; even the path seemed crowded, as one was rarely out of sight of another walker. Often I felt nostalgic for the long solitary stages of France, the companionable evenings in the half-empty gîtes with members of my little travelling family. Things were going to be very different from now on.

For a few days, in the Rioja, I tried walking with other people, but quickly became frustrated with doing shorter daily distances and whiling away the afternoons in small Spanish towns. Realising that I was not yet ready, or perhaps even able, to surrender control of ‘my’ walk, that I was merely doing the right thing for the wrong reason, I reverted to walking alone.

After two weeks in Spain, I reached Burgos, the second major Spanish city on the route; and after Burgos came the meseta, the empty tableland that stretches a hundred miles westward, and regarded by many as the toughest stage mentally of the Camino. ‘Wheat fields and sky,’ Raphael, a retired American businessman, had warned me in Pamplona, ‘And the path running away in front of you, far as you can see. Lot of folks can’t handle it. Nothing for the mind, you see. Lot of folks give up on the meseta.’

Three days out of Burgos, I awoke in the refuge at Fromista with an inexplicable sense of deep unease. Later that day, I found myself looking down the path across an empty plain. It was just as Raphael had said. And at that moment, I knew with absolute certainty that somewhere out on that plain I was going to come up against the border of that inner kingdom I had discerned at Auvillar; and, with equal certainty, that I would then have a choice: I could stay safe, within my own little kingdom; or step out, cross the border that was a projection of all my fears. What would happen then? Back in the Massif Central, I had seen a granite boulder that had been split open by the weather. I thought that if I crossed that border, something like that was going to happen to me.

I started to walk.

The sun beat down out of a cloudless sky. There was a nagging head-wind. I walked and walked, and seemed to be getting nowhere. That earlier sense of unease was becoming a palpable dread. Something was about to happen, I didn’t know what. When a crude, concrete-cast table and bench offered a resting-place, I took off my rucksack and sat down. I realised my hands were shaking. Suddenly I was at the end of my tether, I didn’t know what to do. Then it was as though I was face-to-face with whatever I had been fleeing all this time. There was a real sense of terror, of something somewhere collapsing, then I was across the border, out into the open, filled with a wonderful sense of freedom and release. And I laughed out loud. I had been defending nothing, controlling nothing. It had all been an illusion, contained within my fear – and now the fear was gone.

After that, the inner and outer journeys seemed to merge. Wandering across the meseta over the following days, the simplest things – a shepherd leading his flock across a hillside, the ice-cold waters of a river I had to wade, even the metallic-blue flies that swarmed up from some animal faeces beside the path as I passed by – filled me with wonder and gratitude and delight. All was well, there was nothing to fear, and whatever happened was good because it happened. I no longer even much cared whether I got to Santiago or not. What mattered – all that mattered – was that I go on putting one foot in front of the other, attending to the present moment as it came, with whatever it asked of or offered me, then letting it go – then I would get to where I was going, wherever that might be. For the first time, I understood that self-denial is actually about living life to the full – but life as it is, rather than life as I would have it be.

But waking-up to reality is one thing, staying awake quite another. Five days later, in the town of Orbigo, I was hailed by friends across the street. I had just walked thirty kilometres in the heat, the private refuge in the town centre was full, and I had another kilometre to walk to the municipal refuge on the edge of town. All I wanted was a cold beer and a shower. ‘I’ll catch up with you later’ I called, ‘I’ve still got to find somewhere to sleep.’ And I turned away.

Such a small thing… But after almost seven weeks on the road, I was seeing extremely clearly; and when I reached the municipal refuge, I realised what I had done. I had turned away from reality, back into that illusory inner kingdom of the self, to what existed only in my mind. With a shock, I understood that staying awake, living in the present moment – being a pilgrim, if you like – does not just happen: it is something that requires constant, persevering effort. (Later I walked back into town, but did not find my friends. I never saw them again.)

After the meseta came some of the best walking in Spain – through the mountains of Léon and the el Bierzo region – and when I reached the little mountain-top village of O Cebreiro, I crossed into Galicia, the last province on the route. Santiago was now not much more than a week away.

Those last days… There remains a mysterious, elusive quality about them. I still had to walk my kilometres each day, make sure I ate and drank enough, find somewhere to stay each night… But it was as though that realignment of my subconscious, that I had first sensed standing in the abbey at Conques, had been completed; and that the life-force itself {‘The force that through the green fuse drives the flower’, as Dylan Thomas put it) was flowing into and through me, and finding its expression in the very act of my walking.

When I first saw Santiago in the distance, in truth I felt nothing much. Now I just wanted the walk to be over. I passed through the suburbs into the city centre, entered the Cathedral. Passing a group of schoolchildren, I saw one of them nudge her friend, nod towards me, heard her whisper ‘Peregrino’ (‘Pilgrim’) – and at that moment, I felt a complete fraud. Later, waiting in the Pilgrim Office to collect my compostela (the certificate of completion of a pilgrimage) and looking through the stamps in my pilgrim passport (one for each place I had stayed over the past two months), I thought that at this moment, this document was all that defined me, and I was going to have to hand it over. Then I would be nobody at all.

A woman greeted me, took my papers, slid a form across the counter for me to complete, went away. Standing there alone, at the end of it all, I was hit by a wave of desolation. I had walked all this way, yet had a sense of having missed the whole point of it. Marcel had been right: I wasn’t a pilgrim, I was just a walker, and seemed to have remained one. I had been given a wonderful opportunity, and truly felt I had made a mess of it, though I couldn’t have said why. There was a moment of anguish, then only sadness; and a single word from a homily at Mass in France came back to me: ‘Miséricorde’. Mercy. That was all I could ask for now.

I filled in the form, signed my name, and when I looked up, the woman had returned and was smiling at me. ‘Congratulations’ she said, took the form and handed me my compostela. I thanked her, we shook hands, and then I had to turn away.

‘And that is how it will be’ I thought, as I walked back to the Cathedral for the midday pilgrims’ Mass, and the penny finally dropped. ‘That is how it will have to be when we die, and come to that Being or place or state we call God or heaven or ultimate reality: there, any sense of entitlement of deserving, or pride in what we are pleased to call ‘our achievements’ will be like flaws in glass that would cause it to shatter in the light or under the weight of glory. Christ emptied Himself to become human, surely we must expect to have to be emptied to become divine. For unless we are emptied, how can we be filled?’

Entering the Cathedral, for a moment I saw a multitude of individuals, each with a journey behind them similar to my own; then they merged into a great crowd. The Mass began: all familiar; all, in Spanish, incomprehensible. The priest took the bread, spoke the words of consecration: ‘Esto es mi cuerpo, que sera entregado por vosotros’, and raised the Host high. And I knew that the journey was ended.

Now all that remained was to learn the lessons of pilgrimage, and apply them to my everyday life.