Thursday, July 23, 2015

The apostolic road

The scallop shell is the ubiquitous symbol of a pilgrim on the road to Santiago, but it also offers us additional guidance as well. Let me try to explain. When the shell is held as in the photo to the left it allows us to trace the ridges of the shell to a point of convergence. Symbolically, these ridges depict the many camino routes that all lead to the tomb of St. James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. The orientation with the concave side facing up also creates a bowl or vessel where things might be collected and held. What sort of things might they be?

Remember back to your early days on the camino. Didn't you feel exhilarated. Something was in the air. The commotion of life back home fell way to the quiet of forest paths and country lanes. The demands of jobs, families, and even friends were no longer an issue. All the useless clutter in our minds was emptied out as we realized that our needs were now much simpler and easier to organize. We only had to walk, eat, do some laundry, and sleep. This simplified life allowed room for other things to enter our minds. For some it was the pastoral landscapes that drew them in or, for some, the joy of finding a community of kindred spirits. Others simply felt blessed with the solitude, and a time for prayer. Whatever it was it created a pause, a sense that a new opportunity was at hand, and a feeling that something inside of us was shifting.

They say that the faintest voice you will ever try to hear is God's voice guiding you lovingly along. Usually there is too much much background noise so although we have ears, we do not hear. Sometimes we are so self absorbed that we have no room in our hearts for anyone or anything else. So we have eyes, but we do not see. The hope that the holy spirit offers each of us is the possibility for change, for renewal. In this new environment, free from many of life's other distractions, new discoveries are possible. A stillness can be created where even the faint whisper of the holy spirit can finally be heard.  Day after day we are blessed to remember the kindness of strangers, the ability to be humble and grateful for the help that is provided us, and the joy we discovered as we helped others. Step by step a kind of conversion takes root. Of course there will be days when you feel like you could lose it, but we are humans and for us nothing will ever be perfect or linear. But slowly life adopts a different rhythm as the camino instructs us in its ways, and behaviors. We continue on the road to Santiago gathering a wealth of wonders, teachings, and experiences that will eventually help us reevaluate how we live our lives, and how we behave towards our many sisters and brothers who share this world with us. These are the things that we collect, place into our shell, and hold for the moment.

Upon reaching Santiago we enter the cathedral and, for many, we offer thanks and prayers for the safe completion of the journey, and for all those many others for whom we have promised to pray. But then what? Well let's start by flipping the shell over so that it looks as it is shown in the photo to the right. In this orientation the shell's ridges fan out, and the bowl side is facing down. The ridges now represent the many and diverse roads that will be followed as pilgrims go their separate ways, and return to their homes. The inverted shell symbolizes a pouring out of all the gifts that we have been blessed with on our journey. They were given not for us to hoard but to share. In the many months and years ahead these gifts will rise up when we need them. They will provide us guidance, courage, and comfort as we follow our own camino roads to wherever they lead us and to whatever they ask of us. So much like the original twelve apostles, pilgrims are called (to the camino), instructed (in its ways) and then sent out to share what they have learned. Sounds an awful lot like the apostolic road to me. Who would have known.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

I'll take the holy place with cheese

As our time in Santiago volunteering with the Camino Chaplaincy drew to a close Robin and I took a couple of days to reconnect with a Basque friend, Zazpi, who we met on our Camino Ignaciano this past January. He lives in a small village called Agurain, which lies about 20 minutes east, by car, from Vitoria-Gasteiz. We pondered renting a car, but in the end we opted for the train and that worked out just fine.  It was an inter-city train that took 9 hours to get from Santiago to Vitorio-Gasteiz (just the same time it takes to fly from Amsterdam to Portland, Oregon). It was an older train, but comfortable, and the time passed surprisingly quickly. Mostly our time was spent reading and watching the passing scenery. We arrived in Vitoria around 7:30 pm and walked 7 minutes to our hotel, the Canciller Ayala.  Our friend, Zazpi does not speak any English but his friend, Jose Mari does. Jose Mari was with Zazpi when we met them in January. The plan was for Jose Mari to pick us up and drive us to Agurain. He had a family engagement in Pamplona so, sadly, he could not spend the day with us. However, Zazpi's son, Mikel, does speak English and he agreed to accompany us for the day. So, it all worked out. Jose Mari was out in front of our hotel at 8:00 am sharp and off we went. It was wonderful to see this very happy guy again. He works for a Japanese company in Vitoria that specializes in manufacturing automation. He is one of those fortunate people whose face always defaults to a smile. We passed the time and before we knew it we were parked in front of a coffee bar in Agurain and our amigo, Zazpi, was at the curb waiting for us. Zazpi is a recently retired banker whose passion is simply being outdoors. He hikes daily and also rides his bike a lot. He is always going somewhere under human power. Keep in mind Zazpi, Robin and I share no common spoken language, but that did not restrict us. We chatted and gestured and clearly shared the joy of being together once again.

At the holy place
Zazpi and Jose Mari were out walking, as is their habit on a weekend, this past January, when Robin and I came up a trail shuffling through the snow quite taking them by surprise. Jose Mari quickly translated for Zazpi that we were walking the Camino Ignaciano (which he knew of). He couldn't quite figure out why we were doing it in the winter but that got sorted later as Jose Mari passed along that it was our preference to walk in the colder months. Long story short, these guys took us under their wing and led us along the recently revised camino trail. It happens to now pass quite close to a very steep cliff edge. As we were gingerly making our way along Zazpi asked Jose Mari to see if we wanted to visit a "holy place". He said it was very close to the camino path, so off we went full of curiosity. Zazpi and Jose Mari had two friends who belonged to the same hiking club. They had passed on and there ashes were scattered from a promontory along this cliff where we were walking. This was the "holy place". This place has become a kind of shrine for them. They honor the passing of their friends each year by organizing a major hike up to the "holy place" and a big lunch afterwards. They gather about a hundred people each year to do this. Robin was carrying a personal intention for a family who we are close to. Robin asked Zazpi if she could leave this remembrance at the "holy place." Zazpi, without any hesitation, said of course, so off we went. This is how our friendship was formed. Four people from opposite sides of the world met on a mountaintop in the Basque Country in January and a kindness was offered with no conditions imposed. It was a stunningly beautiful camino moment. Now a prayer card from a Portland family, who recently lost a son, is include in a mountain top shrine simply because of a random act of kindness. So this is why we have traveled 9 hours by train for basically a one day visit. These guys really made an impression on us. They are very nice people and we are truly blessed to call them friends.

So, that is a bit of the back story, but now let's return to our trip from Santiago. Zazpi, a ball of energy, ushered us all into the bar and coffees soon appeared. Zazpi's wife, Esther, slipped through the door and said hello (in Basque) and we were introduced. She was a lovely lady but had to work today so she couldn't join us for the day hike Zazpi had planned to take us back to the "holy place." No worries, Zazpi's son Mikel was on his way and would soon be joining us, and he speaks English. Mikel married a British lady he met in Patagonia while on a hiking holiday with his family. They both now live just outside Vitoria-Gasteiz. He is a fireman, and she is an English teacher, and they have a 2 year old son, Gilen, who was coming along with Mikel to share our day in the countryside. The plan was to spend the morning hiking in the hills and then return to Zazpi's house for lunch before returning to our hotel. We would catch up with Esther later at lunch.

Milking time
So off we went on foot to meet up with Mikel. In a few minutes he pulled up to the curb and we all piled in. We introduced ourselves and shared some of our story as we drove up to where we would eventually leave the car and carry on by foot. Now. Zazpi, being very connected to what goes on around here suggested we visit a shepherd friend of his who just happens to make wonderful sheep's milk cheese. This is the real deal. One shepherd, perhaps 60 sheep, a shelter for the sheep, and a stone hut for living quarters (and cheese making) is all that we could see once we stepped out of the car. The Shepherd's name was Jesus (honestly), and he turned out to be a another fun guy. He is retired and simply likes tending his flock and making cheese as a hobby. He does it all by himself. The sheep stay up on the high ground for the summer snd then he brings them back down for the winter. He, well actually it was his dog, Kale, who was gathering the sheep up and guiding them into the milking shed, as we pulled up. After a quick look around a table and chairs were produced and nice Basque tortilla (eggs and potatoes) along with a bottle of red and loaf of bread. Jesus joined us after the milking was done. Jesus offered us one of his cheeses to go with our lunch and it was terrific. The next thing we were asking if we can buy some and presto 5 wheels appear from beneath the floorboards in his hut. These quickly get stashed in Mikel's car for the trip home to Agurain and then to Santiago (gifts for friends). We thank Jesus, break down the dining set up and set off for the "holy place." Mikel and Gilen will snooze and wait for us further along the track.

The holy place
Off we go into a breathtakingly beautiful pastoral landscape. Cows and horses are grazing as we pass close by. They don't even seem to notice us as we move along. we come upon trail markers and familiar waypoints that look all very different with the snow now removed. Zazpi guides us expertly along until we reach the shrine. We spend a few moments offering our prayers for the deceased and Surprisingly Zazpi starts singing a sad Basque song of farewell. So for a few moments the world stood quietly by as we remembered friends, now passed, in this remarkably beautiful place. The rest of our hike took us along the Camino Ignaciano until we caught up with Mikel an hour or so later. What a day.

Once back in the car we drove back to Agurain where Esther was now cooking. Lunch was still an hour off so we walked around the village with Zazpi enjoying its medieval walls, and its clean appearance. After lunch Mikel drove us back to Vitoria where we caught the return train the next morning to Santiago. It was a truly blessed gift of a day.

Leaving Santiago for Vitoria-Gasteiz

The train station at Vitoria-Gasteiz
First stage of cheese production
Jesus's hut
Snack time
Some cleaning required

Jesus's cheese before and after cleaning
Robin and Zazpi
Zazpi, Robin and the herd
Very peaceful

Along the Camino Ignaciano


Homeward bound to Santiago

Sunday, July 5, 2015


Each morning as Robin and I walk into the cathedral there are a host of familiar images that serve to remind us of the transforming power of faith. Yes, religions of all sorts have mixed histories. The darkest parts steer us emotionally and intellectually away from them as they do not conform to our morality or are simply otherwise repugnant. We forget that any organization that is populated by humans is plagued with human weaknesses. I remember reading a caution somewhere not to let religion get in the way of faith. Yes, we see what we choose to see, but the Lord is with us always.

The reliquary of St. James

Fr. Joe at his post

Saturday, July 4, 2015

An afternoon walk along the river

Today we found ourselves making the rounds of the market right before Robin and John R. met for a final rehearsal for tomorrow's masses at San Agustin. The market lies right next door to San Agustin so it was very convenient for a quick walk through the various stalls looking for wine, cheese and ham. Before long we had reached the limit of what we could carry and set off for the church. We still had about 10 minutes to kill so we stopped at a nearby cafe, ordered two cortados and waited for John R. to come by. Just as planned 5 minutes later we were saying hello to John, and 5 minutes after that we were stepping into the church.

The very successful rehearsal was followed by a quick beer and some tapas before heading home. The cloud cover was mercifully intact only letting a scant few rays of sun through from time to time. This kept the temperature in the mid 70's. Carrying the tonnage we had with us that was a very significant plus. Once in the door and off loaded we went for the mini siesta before setting out for our afternoon walk, about an hour later.

There is a river, a very small one, just nearby where we live. It has a footpath, is shaded, and is quite pleasant. So our plan was pretty simple. We would follow the river for a bit, do some exploring, enjoy the cool afternoon and wind up back home around 5:30. So off we went and this is what we saw.

All this followed by a very light dinner.

Iberico ham, O'Cebreiro cheese, Cordoba olive oil, and a nice Ribeira Sacra Mencia

Friday, July 3, 2015

And then there is lunch

Yesterday, after morning mass, Robin and I headed off to find a coffee (not much of a challenge). We were to meet John R. at San Agustin so the he and Robin could rehearse the music they would be using for Sunday's mass, at the same church. The weather has slipped into a period of cool mornings and just warm enough afternoons to rate it as perfect for our preferences. A fine rehearsal was held and all the notes seem to hang in their proper places so after about 45 minutes of very pleasant music filling the old church we slipped back into the street and headed off towards home. We walked past two other churches that John has his eye on as future possible locations for English language masses. We toured them both and agreed with John that these could both be ideal locations should the need arise. Now, with that small reconnaissance behind us we parted company with John and continued on our way home. We slipped through the Plaza Inmaculada amongst the throng of pilgrims and visitors,  went down through the arch and out into the Plaza Obradoiro, past the Parador Hotel, following the yellow arrows on the ground that mark the route to Cape Finnisterre, and also to our apartment.

On a previous trip along this route we has noticed a fine looking restaurant in the Rua Hortas just below Rua Carretas on the left. As we passed by we noticed it was open so in we went, just curious. It had a modern decor without being sterile and the layout placed the diners at least in part right around the kitchen area. This is where we were seated, and where the show was about to begin. First of all this is not an every day restaurant as it a bit on the pricey side, but the menu looked intriguing so it was in for penny in for a pound. It is a rather small place but well laid out so that everything from food prep to food service seemed to flow seamlessly. We were watching what others were ordering to get a sense of what we might try when a young lady, who spoke very good English, offered to help with the menu. I got the sense that she might be the owner's wife. She was very helpful and quite accommodating. So now that we had food on the way we turned to the wine list and followed a recommendation and selected a very nice Ribeiro. It was fun enjoying the wine, watching our meal come together in front of us, and then finally savoring the very well prepared and flavorful food. We were sitting just down from two guys who had ordered a whole fried fish. It looked stunning. They caught my eye and waived me over. They were two businessmen. One was from Bilbao and the other was from Porto.

They were singing the praises of this restaurant and in particular the fried fish. Before I knew it they were dissecting a piece of the fish and passing it over for us to taste. it was indeed well prepared and quite tasty. Our meal arrived in stages as dishes were prepared. We had a cherry tomato salad, an eel dish that was remarkably like unagi donburi, a spicy tuna dish, and grilled pork short ribs. The dishes arrived at a pace that was unhurried but timely. Once we had finished eating our waitress invited us to sit out in their back garden and finish our wine. It was beautiful, calm and peaceful. A perfect way to end a very enjoyable meal.

The bell tolls

San Agustin bell tower
Santiago is a city of churches many with tolling bells. They ring out their majestic voices night and day, perhaps to the dismay of some, but in doing so the bells provide a sense of continuity, like the ticking of a clock that reminds us that something basic, even foundational is still in place, and is still working. The tolling of the bells here reminds us that life continues and has purpose. It matters that we know the time for things that are important to us, whether that is a call to prayer, to work, or even to rest. We live in a digital world where electronically synthesized tones have become our reminders, the parenthetical noise of modernity. But, they don't communicate they just alert us in a particularly sterile way. A church bell has tonal authority, a stateliness, a comforting presence. It pulls communities back into their history and gifts them with a sense of dignity. If we don't like a tone emanating from a phone, computer, or even a refrigerator, we just change it. No problem. It is the immutability of church bells that bring us back to earlier times, a different era, to a realization that more choices are not always a blessing. The reassuring sound of a church bell tempered by wind and weather creates a tonal landscape that is filled with nuances that lifts our spirits up and away from the ubiquitous chirp or beep or trill that tend to define when our world now wakes and begins to move. Yes, the bells might occasionally be inconvenient for a variety of reasons, but then what isn't. And then there is always that intriguing question, for whom does the bell toll? I think we all shift in our beds a wee bit as we hear the distant toll of a church bell. We involuntarily slip into recollection, counting the strikes, as we ponder the things that move through our minds as we rest. Yet we bless the measured resonance of the bell, regardless of what it calls us to do, for it speaks to our kindredness, and brings us together. Whereas the intrusion of the many beeps and buzzes that punctuate our daily lives, do their job, but in a lifeless sort of way, and without comfort. They are jarring, disturbing and unpleasant. Church bells, admittedly cannot be infinitely adjusted to the rhythms of modern life, but that is just the point. It is their singular function to mark time in a very human way that reminds us that we have things to do and reassure us that somehow we will have the strength and courage to do them.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

It was a beautiful day

As I woke up this morning a cool westerly breeze funneled through our open window, blowing the steam off my coffee in the direction of my down jacket, which I then reached for. Tufts of mist were clinging to the hillsides, a nearby rooster was announcing the day, and Robin was stirring in the other room. It always starts this way, a seemingly ordinary day. The joy of this volunteer work we are doing with the Camino Chaplaincy is that each day arrives with its own new rewards. Today awaits but yesterday's joy has already been delivered. Our presider at mass, was Fr. Juan Carlos, a Venezuelan priest who relieves Fr. Joe on Wednesday's, to give him a day off. He is a delightful human being and a passionate priest. When you leave his mass you are definitely smiling, because his faith and warmth are both genuine and infectious. We usually go for a coffee or get something to eat after mass but yesterday was a bit of a shopping day so we headed off into the new town (outside the medieval city walls) and roamed the shopping district picking up a bit of this and that. Robin finally had to eat so we stopped at a Chinese restaurant we had previously discovered and had lunch. We had been invited to dinner last night by some friend's we know through the Camino Chaplaincy. As it turns out we spotted a florist as we turned the corner heading for the restaurant so after lunch in we went to pick up a small plant as a gift. Now with lunch aboard and the plant in a sack we made our way home to rest a bit and gather some thoughts for evening prayer which Robin and I would lead later this evening.

Sr. Marion and Sr. Katherine 
I am finding that I can get used to the siesta approach to life. A bit of a mid afternoon break just seems right these days and it does provide some quite time to reflect or have a beer or perhaps both. Before we knew it we were heading out the door to the Cafe Tertulia for a couple of cortados (small coffees) before heading up the hill to the cathedral to open our chapel and prepare for evening prayer. This is a nice time of day to be in the cathedral. It is usually not too busy and I am able to find a quiet spot to gather my thoughts. It is also a perfect time to clean everything up from the morning mass. Evening prayer came and it was remarkable. We only had three plus Robin and I and two of the three were not Roman Catholics but Mennonites from Canada. In our chapel all are welcomed and it turned out to be a very positive experience for all who gathered, especially our Mennonite friends. We then straightened up the chapel to get it ready for the next morning's mass, turned off the lights, slid the bolt in the heavy iron gate, turned the key in the lock and headed off to the sacristy to drop off the key. Leaving the cathedral we stepped into the Plaza Inmaculada and turned uphill to the Plaza Cervantes. It was a right turn there and down a few doors to entrance of the apartment where friends and a home cooked meal awaited us. Sr. Katherine, and Sr. Marion are nuns with the order of the Faithful Companions of Jesus (FCJ). They both are involved in another pilgrim outreach program called Camino Companions. They provide one on one conversations, and spiritual direction to arriving pilgrims who have reached out for help. They do fine work and are quite good at bringing some peace to the troubled pilgrims who have sought them out.

Our dinner was both delicious and bountiful, but it was the time we spent talking over the meal and afterwards that made the evening such a wonderful experience. It has been quite dry in Santiago, but last night the rain just pelted down as we ate and talked. We all agreed at around 10:30 that we had better head off to bed. The rain was still hammering down. The streets were awash as we made our goodbyes, popped our umbrellas, and stepped out into the storm. Our walk home was all downhill and the medieval streets, being all stone, simply invite the water to just course along, finding the path of least resistance. This path usually happens to be just where you have to walk. The streets were pretty much deserted, as we made our way footfall by footfall looking for the driest path in the flowing stream. But, with all that, it was indeed beautiful. The old city, was showing well with streams of water cascading from every possible place where water could gather. This was all set off off by the soft glow of street lamps and made for a very intimate and enjoyable walk home. We arrived home a bit damp, but none the worse for wear. The joy of it all broke over us we shared a glass of wine before bed. It was indeed a beautiful day.

Plaza Obradoiro

A proper Irish feed