Everybody hurts….

….sometimes.

No pain, no gain. You certainly get to know the truth of that on the Camino. I’ve walked a lot and am used to covering the sorts of distances I was doing on the Camino, but what I wasn’t used to was getting up the next day and doing it all again. And the next day. And the next. And the next….. You expect to have the odd blister, but it’s how you cope with them that is the real issue. I got 3-4 small blisters that didn’t amount to much and were easily treatable with blister plasters. I saw other people with infected blisters which looked like they were one step away (excuse the pun) from having their foot amputated. Usually when I go walking my rucksack doesn’t weigh 9kg like it did on the Camino so for the first few days I really felt the weight of it and my shoulder blades ached at the end of each day. The other thing that caused me considerable pain were the muscles right at the top of my thighs. I was Ok whilst walking during the day, but in the evenings they contracted and virtually seized up making walking very difficult and making me look like an old man [pause here for sarcastic responses]. So what did I do? I called on the faith community of which I am a part to help me. Through Facebook I was able to keep people updated with my progress and I also took the opportunity to ask them to pray for me, specifically about my various aches and pains. It was great to know that as I was walking each day there were people all over the world praying for me (that great cloud of witness again), it was such an encouragement and an inspiration. More than that, I believe that the prayers worked – my blisters didn’t give me the slightest bit of trouble and my aching limbs were good to go at the start of each new day.

Someone asked recently, “what good do our prayers do?” This is a searching question, which those of us who do pray and believe in the power of prayer need to address. God’s Word invites us to respond. In Matthew 7 we are told “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” In John 15 Jesus says, “Whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” It all sounds too easy, too good to be true. Dietrich Bonhoeffer might help us understand a bit better: “God does not give us everything we want, but he does fulfil all his promises.” Prayer isn’t about testing God or seeing just what he can (or can’t) do. It isn’t about what he will or won’t do. It is about relying on what he has already done in Jesus. It’s a reliance on the promise we see in Psalm 50, “Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” Why would God be concerned with us, why should he answer our prayers or help us in times of need. The greatest act of benevolence was God being born among us, Jesus Christ. Because of this we can fully expect God to act with benevolence towards us again.

Knowing that the prayers of others were carrying me along in both spiritual and practical ways was (is) an amazing, faith affirming thing. Other than the obvious answer, the question still remains “what good do our prayers do?” Sure, I was walking better and feeling up-lifted, but is that all there is to it? After all those things don’t last. Remember that verse from Psalm 50? God answers, I glorify him. My testimony to this reveals something of the glory of God to those around me. In walking and suffering and calling out to God he ministers to me, body, mind and soul. I, then, have something to offer to my fellow pilgrims: through my own experience of being wounded and the ministry of the Great Healer I am able to model that same healing to others who are wounded. Our prayers bring the reality of God who is making all things new into a lost and broken world.

Fall together

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At the end of each day on the Camino you find yourself, all being well, in an albergue sharing a room with 10, 20, 30 even 50 other people. In just about any other walk of life you probably wouldn’t be in such close contact with them but on the Camino you’re thrown together with a wide and diverse spectrum of humanity. In Calvor there were 14 of us in a dormitory: one Brit (me), 3 French, one Belgian, one Estonian, one Serb, one Taiwanese, 2 Italians and 4 Spaniards. There are those who lie on their bunk and sleep in the afternoon expecting everyone else to be quiet but then leave at 6am with little regard for those still sleeping. There are those whose gear spreads beyond ‘their bit of the dorm’. There are those who seem to be for ever packing and unpacking their rucksack. There are those who find it impossible to climb onto the bunk above you without seemingly trying to turn the whole thing over – they also seem to be the same people who need to go to the toilet at least once during the night. And of course, there are the snorers.

You have to ask yourself if you would choose to spend time with these people if you weren’t thrown together like this on the Camino. And the answer is probably ‘no’. And that’s a pity, because playing it safe and sticking only with people who are like you and have the same values and code as you robs us of something. If you only associate with people who believe the same things as you believe you might be in danger of forgetting what you believe because you just take it all for granted. Spend some time with someone who believes something different and you will begin to remember how to express and articulate your beliefs in conversation with them.

Each day on the Camino you walk, perhaps on your own, and then each evening you gather together with other people who have also been making the walk, perhaps on their own, and you share something together: fellowship. Being with other people is a fundamental of what it means to be human. Yes, I know that for some people solitude is bliss and there are times, there certainly were on the Camino times when I just wanted to be on my own. Those early morning starts when the sun wasn’t up and the mist was still on the fields and there wasn’t another soul around were some of the best moments for me. And yet, like all of life’s experiences I wanted to share that with someone else, maybe not just at that minute, but to share it none-the-less. I believe that we were made for fellowship and that God draws us together so that we can share in all that life has to offer (good and bad) with each other. This is part of what the church is for. If someone tells me about a great experience they’ve had – maybe the birth of a child – I get to share in a little bit of their joy, which is good for me. Likewise if I share some of my good experience with others they get to share if only in a small way some of the blessing I have received. We are building each other up. As for the bad experiences, well there’s the saying, a problem shared is a problem halved. True or not I find a great deal of strength and comfort knowing that others who I share my experience of life with are thinking about me and more importantly praying for me during hard times.

As long as you follow

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Getting lost on the Camino is quite difficult because there are signs and arrows everywhere showing you which way to go. The one in this photo is pretty obvious and you know you’re on the right path with that. If you scroll down through the earlier posts you’ll see a couple more signs showing the way. Quite often in the middle of a village you will see a yellow arrow painted on a wall telling you which way to go. In the middle of some of the cities and larger towns you pass through there are scallop shells set into the pavement. Even when there are no signs or markers, after a few days on the Camino you start to get a sense of which is the right path to take. Getting lost on the Camino is quite difficult….but not impossible.

I met two people who did take a wrong turn, a father and son, who after a stop for lunch in a bar turned the wrong way on leaving the bar. After walking for about 0.5km they reached the edge of the village and a lady came running out of her house shouting to them in Spanish, telling them that they were going the wrong way. They retraced their steps and once again picked up the yellow arrows.

If a pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place as an act of devotion, then for me as a Christian, life itself is a pilgrimage since I am journeying to the most sacred of places possible: the eternal, living presence of God. I suppose a lot of people might call it heaven. At the end of 317km I reached my goal, my prize, Santiago and heaven is often viewed as a goal or a prize that, hopefully, you attain at the end of your life when you die. That view of heaven is Ok, but it also assumes, decrees, that you have to put up with the present state of things until you die and then everything will come good. Disease, illness, famine, poverty, addiction? Put up with them and one day it’ll all be OK. But Jesus didn’t operate like that and he certainly didn’t teach that. Quite the opposite. In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus tells us to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”. In other words if something is out of line with how things are in heaven here on earth we pray for the reality of heaven to be the reality here on earth – today! Not when we’re already dead. So my pilgrimage is a journey to a sacred place and each footstep I take must be about following Jesus’ command to his disciples to find the lost, heal the sick, cleans leapers, cast out demons and raise the dead.

Like the Camino, this pilgrimage has signposts to show you the way: the Bible is the Word of God and is the supreme guide on your pilgrimage. Jesus, God’s Son, showed us God’s glory in his teaching and ministry and also calls each one of us to follow him in a way that brings the reality of heaven into the brokenness of a lost and dying world. Other people (that cloud of witness again) can remind us of where the guiding arrows are pointing. The key like all journeys is to start walking. Start walking, following after Jesus and he will be your guide and also your companion: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age”. You will never walk alone….

Walk with me

One of the great things about the Camino is meeting other people. Some people you maybe see just once and you don’t get to know them at all, others you maybe say ‘buen camino’ to as you pass them and then others you get to know a little more. But with each one you share something with them – the Camino. If you’re really lucky you get to hear a bit about their camino and share something of your own with them.

I arrived in León on a bus at 19:25 and headed straight for the Albergue Santa María de Carbajal. There were still a few beds available in the 132 bed albergue! Having got settled in I went in search of something to eat and found they offered a pilgrim’s menu, which I was soon to discover was available just about everywhere I went. A typical pilgrim’s menu has two dishes plus a desert and either water or wine. The two dishes are typically pasta, mixed salad or soup followed by steak, or fish for the second dish and it all costs €10 0r less. There were a few pilgrims sat at a large table when I arrived and although they were obviously nearing the end of their meal I sat with them to be sociable….only to realise that they were all speaking German! Dummkopf. They soon finished their meal and left, except for one man who stayed to talk with me. His name was Hans and he was from Austria The very first person I met on the Camino and got to know turned out to be a Catholic who told me he was doing the Camino as an expression of his devotion to Jesus. What a great way to start my camino, we spent about an hour together sharing some of our faith stories. It was really encouraging and gave me a taster of what was in store for me over the next 13 days. I don’t know if I was worried that the Camino might just be a long walk and not a pilgrimage, but meeting Hans showed me that although I may have a guidebook in my pocket it would be God who would be leading me on The Way. The next time I met Hans was at the end of my second day. I arrived in Astorga very tired after a long day and there he was! It was like God was saying to me, ‘just remember that you’re walking with me and I’m walking with you’. I got the feeling that I was going to be meeting people along the Camino and that all of them would be an opportunity for God to show me something new. It would be up to me to be alert and keep my eyes open.

The man who ran the albergue in León proved the saying, ‘never judge a book by it’s cover’. He was a kind man who obviously wanted to make the 100+ pilgrims as comfortable as possible. On the morning I left León I was sat eating my bread and jam and drinking my coffee and he came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘you will never walk alone’. Wow! This was a word from God, just for me. How amazing is that? At the start of my walk that I really wanted to be a pilgrimage God tells me that I won’t be walking alone, but more than that that I will never walk alone.

Walk on

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I started my sabbatical on the Monday and on Tuesday I left home and set off for the Camino. Having a quick, clean break from my usual life of work seemed like a good idea. And it was.

One of the questions I asked myself was why I wanted to do this. Another question that has been put to me about the Camino is ‘what’s the difference between a pilgrimage and a long walk?’

So why do it?

Because it’s there! I love walking and like the idea of adventure and challenge and I also enjoy visiting other countries and experiencing different cultures. The Camino certainly ticks all those boxes. Of course, I’d seen the film The Way, which helped stir my enthusiasm and I’d heard from friends about people they knew who’d done it and had a great experience. So the idea of walking the Camino during my sabbatical began to grow. I keep talking about ‘The Camino’ as though there is only one pilgrim route. There are in fact many and the word camino simply means path. When you attach it to an understanding of the path leading you into a spiritual encounter then it becomes The Camino and can be anywhere – the street where you live, the local park, or the pathways of Northern Spain.

Another reason why for me comes from the nature of my work. I have to say that I love being a Methodist minister; what an amazing thing it is that God has called me to do. I get to lead worship and talk about God and his kingdom. I meet with people in all sorts of deeply personal situations, most of which are quite traumatic for them and yet they welcome me in as a trusted friend. I get to celebrate with people some wonderful events. And the list goes on…. One aspect of my work that I’ve often been conscious about is that it involves a lot of giving of myself to others, which is good, but is also something that needs balancing out every now and then. So one attraction of the Camino for me is that it was just for me. I made the decision to go alone (although you are rarely on your own on the Camino) in order to have that time of refreshment and renewal that a sabbatical is designed to give.

However, it wasn’t about just getting away from everyone. In fact the one thing I didn’t like about it was being away from my family for so long. There had to be a deeper reason for going than having a good walk and a bit of adventure.

One of the attractions of the Camino for me was that fact that so many Christians had walked the same path for over 1000 years. For someone who has always longed to see the church change and grow into the Body of Christ it could/should be rather than the emaciated body I have experienced throughout most of my lifetime it might come as something of a surprise to you when I say I really value tradition! I probably need to qualify that statement. Some people think of tradition as ‘we’ve always done it that way’. That’s not tradition, that’s being set in your ways and in that state it’s very difficult for God to move. The tradition that I value is the great cloud of witness that we are a part of, in which the essential nature of faith in God and devotion to him have been held and cherished by countless millions of people for over 2000 years. Walking the Camino for me was a physical way to connect with that communion of saints.

The difference between a long walk and a pilgrimage?

During my walk to Santiago I made a point of asking people I met what their motivation was for doing the Camino. Most people talked about the physical challenge, some talked about getting away from everyday life or finding solitude. Some talked in vague terms about seeking something spiritual but seemingly didn’t have any concept of where that might come from or what it’s focus might be. Some, but not many, linked their camino to their devotion to Christ. You see, it’s perfectly possible to walk several hundred kilometres to Santiago, taking in all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Spain, enjoying the history and culture of the region and to have had a great walk but not to have been a pilgrim. The official Pilgrim Office in Santiago sets out what it thinks a pilgrim is. My camino was a pilgrimage because I set aside a time away from ordinary life, where I was on a physical journey that gave me the space to take a spiritual journey.

Perhaps when I tell you some of the stories from my camino this will become a bit clearer!