Sunday, 28 April 2013

A Long and Winding Word

It was a week that most would look on as a crashing bore: a hundred hardcore Catholics, gathered in a moldering seminary in a far corner of Spain – people determined to keep Mammon from stealing away the historic Christian savor of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. There were Benedictines from Samos and Leon, Augustinians from Avila, three flavors of Franciscans, priests, monks, and nuns – people who work every day along the pilgrimage routes. There were laypeople too, hospitaleros, academics, students, and even a few people like me. Foreigners, Protestants, arrivistes, adventurers – “others.”

And this time there were bishops, at least four of them, and two archbishops. Even a Dean, for Chrissakes. Suddenly we are newsworthy, credible. In a town built around a Cathedral Shrine, we Made the Scene.

With that additional clerical firepower we were the first International Congress of Christian Welcome on the Camino. We had three days dedicated to the apostolic sweetness and light we all like to imagine has motivated this pilgrim pathway for a thousand years. Evangelism, ministry, communion, community-building.

I went because I am myself a Christian, an Anglican/Episcopalian with a Buddhist outlook. I attend Catholic Mass each week, as it is the only game in town (I have official permission). I have belonged to the Acogida Christiana group for a couple of years now, almost from its inception, because I live the Christian Acogida ethos – Christ told us to welcome strangers, travelers, and pilgrims into our homes as if they were Christ himself. I find this appealing and pretty easy, and divine providence so far seems to approve the decision.

The original ACC members still can fit into one meeting room at the Benedictine convent in Leon. But as the group grew, the bosses decided to move the April meeting to Santiago de Compostela, the goal and the nerve center of the pilgrimage. They decided to go international, invite like-minded ministers from outside Spain. Big hitters. They booked into the big seminary complex.  

And some of it was wonderful. We had Mass each morning in the seminary chapel,  presided-over by the beanie-bearing bishops, concelebrated by eight or nine priests, sung by skilled musicians with readings in several languages by native speakers that included me. Delicious worship. It alone was worth the trip!

But then the talks began. Talks at ACC gatherings are usually lively affairs, presented by people who have walked the camino, experts on the artwork and buildings and saints that populate the Way, people with real insight on pilgrim spirituality, albergue management, healing, how to pray and counsel and cook with groups big and small. But this time was different.

This time we sat in red-velvet theater seats in the Major Seminary of San Martin de Pinario, and heard a bishop from France describe, in French, the Philosophy of The Word "Pilgrim" ... or so I think he described. I do not speak French. And neither did 80% of the other people in the room. The bishop is a fine man, I am sure – he presides over the dozen or so bishops in France who have camino trails passing through their respective turfs. But he has never walked a pilgrimage. And even a bishop should not talk for two hours when he was assigned 45 minutes.

Other people had discussions planned for those later time slots. Discussions that many of us had a part in scheming and planning and presenting. Discussions with some real relevance. But no, we all were treated to the philosophical musings and scriptural ponderings, in French, of a highly respected bishop that no one had the rank or audacity to tell to sit down and shut the hell up.

He was not the only offender. I learned an important lesson this week about bishops, at least bishops in Spain: schedule them at the END of the agenda. These are men unused to controlling their verbiage. Some are gifted speakers, but more are very, very narcotic. Give them a chance to bloviate, and no one else will get a word in edgewise. I hate to say so, but the bishops, the very men called in to give the conference credibility, just about highjacked the whole thing.

If not for the time alongside – the communal meals, the sessions skipped for a quick coffee or vermouth – it would have been a bust. Outside the meeting room I met Faith and Nate, two American Evangelicals who are setting up an outreach center near the pilgrim reception office. That takes a lot of nerve and patience and conviction. They see how many pilgrims finish their journey having found no answers on the trail, and only incomprehensible rituals at the cathedral at the end. So they´re opening an English-speaking Christian meeting place, where they´ll offer a simple, clear Gospel message to people who may never have tasted spiritual food before.

A German couple were there, who do the something similar in German. And a Dutch group, who do it in Dutch. The Spanish are missing out, perhaps... but I do not think they can see that. But then I am a foreigner, raised by Protestants. I am not an Evangelical, but I see them doing great things.

I had a coffee with Laurie, an expat Canadian who´s had to do with the camino since the 1980´s. I spent hours with two friends from Scotland, movers and shakers these days in Santiago cathedral and pilgrim office posts – logistical and strategic geniuses who left big business in London to come here and serve the pilgrims and pilgrimage. I stayed out til the wee hours with the chairman of American Pilgrims on the Camino, a professor out of Carolina. I walked to the Alameda with Marion, the power behind the Confraternity of St. James in England, and did tapas with William, a merry English doctor with a stentorian voice who once rescued our pilgrim Kim from the streets of London and let her stay at his house... he´s a hospitalero in the Great Wen!

The Augustinian sisters from Carrion de los Condes were there, and the sweet Benedictinas of Leon, Isabel from Casa Pilar in Rabanal, and Don Blas, the priest of Fuenterroble – we almost moved there instead of Moratinos! Old friends, co-workers, some of them truly saints.

It was good, and it was exhausting.

I am not a “joiner.” There are many pilgrimage-related clubs and groups, but I do not belong to many of them. There is work enough here at Peaceable to keep me busy, and I seem to make the leaders of many groups feel uncomfortable... I do not toe the line so well. My Spanish is not the greatest. I am foreign. I live a long way from anywhere. I cannot contribute very much that is practical.

I like this Camino Welcome group, though. They do things I believe in. They do not only talk, they achieve. And it is true: we do better with the support of the church authorities. Spain is still a deeply Catholic country, even if most of its people almost never go to church. We cannot continue this Catholic pilgrimage without having the bishops and archbishops on board.

But we don´t have to hand them a microphone.
We don´t have to make ourselves a captive audience.  

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Incoming Outgoing.

These are the best of times and the worst of times. The sun comes out and the flowers bloom, then the wind comes from the east to chill and kill everything.
The swallows arrived early, prompting our friend German to predict the end of the world -- they never, ever come before June, he says. The air is full of them.
Fred the guitar-builder came back too, which is always somewhat apocalyptic.
Malin and David went back to their mountain. Our house is very clean indeed, the under-floor heating is working now (at last, after 5 years!) but we still have a great deal of putting-away to do. 

Bruno went to Italy for a few days, and me and Elan volunteered to run the pilgrim albergue for him. It was a big job, exhausting even. We were not overwhelmed with pilgrims, but there was a steady stream. We had pilgrims here at The Peaceable, too, including our first Siberian.
We get the ones who can´t or won´t pay Bruno´s price. Some would say they are the bottom of the market. But I think, with the exception of the hardcore skinflints, these are the cream of the crop. They aren´t looking for a big bang for their buck, because they don´t have one. They just want a bed to sleep in, and a shower... a meal is a big bonus. They are happy people, and gracious, and grateful.
Which is more than I can say for some of Bruno´s better-heeled clientele.
Anyway, this week I got to use my tendinitis and blister-treatment juju a couple of times. Some lovely Canadian ladies stayed, fans of this very blog. Pilgrims bought some "Moorish Whore"s. I washed floors and feet and carrots, and I made a killer plate of spaghetti carbonara.
Elan did most of the real work, but I was reminded of how hard is the hospitalero life. The life he wants to live. God bless him. He is doing the right thing, looking around first, seeing what it is.
Bruno came back. We said goodbye to Elan this evening.

Two days ago, Paddy´s computer screen went fatal blue. I read up on computers, and we went to Leon and bought him a new laptop. I brought it home and opened it up, and found it utterly incomprehensible.
I am not a stupid person. I have been using PCs and the Internet since they appeared, but evidently the technology has now outstripped my abilities. We will take it back to the store and ask for a refund, cry for a refund, shout and dance around for a refund because I cannot have something this incomprehensible in the house unless it is God. And this is definitely from Satan.

I pray that all computers in the last three years have not "evolved" so far that we cannot use them. Otherwise, we are in big, big trouble. My little netbook can´t last forever. Paddy is a heavy user of the internet. We do not have a television. Reading newspapers and magazines, arguing with stuffed-shirts, and watching live horse races are important parts of Paddy´s day, and he needs a computer to do it all.

And so he has my netbook to use, until I can get the Windows WhizBang model back to the store and find something a bit more obsolete. Which will have to be after this week, because I am off to Santiago de Compostela tomorrow for another of my Acogida Christiana en el Camino meetings. This is a big one, they´re rolling out the archbishops and canons from the big Cathedral of Santiago Apostle itself to discuss how we can better welcome pilgrims to the great shrine.   

It is an interesting project, a lofty dream. I do not know what part someone like me might play in it, living as I do in isolation, 350 kilometers distant. But I love to see history happening, and Santiago de Compostela is lovely in the spring.

It´s my turn to be the one going this time.
I need to get out of this house for a couple of days!

Sunday, 7 April 2013


Gone are the sweet, silent days of just us two.

The trail is full of pilgrims, many of them chatting in the unique American rhythms I can hear from a distance. They are bundled-up. It is cold out there, spring is very late. But the air is changed somehow. It is charged.

Suddenly the schedule has marks on it. 

I spent a bit of last week in Madrid with a tax lawyer. Our tax situation is scary. When a country finds itself in deep financial doodoo, it´s the foreign residents (all of us are millionaires) who are first handed a shovel. I will not bore you with details of this fiscal proctology, but will warn you that your turn is probably coming. (I tell myself, over and over: "Romanesque churches. Prehistoric cave paintings, Roman mosaics. Flamenco. Tempranillo, Albariño, dove songs in white sunlight. And free health care.") 
Tomorrow David and Malin will come down from their mountain home, and all of us will swing into Spring-cleaning, painting, and repairing parts of the Peaceable. Big, dusty jobs are too much for just Paddy and me, and work is hard to come by for able-bodied young people. It is a win-win situation, long as nobody else shows up and wants to stay.   

Bruno came back from his long winter in Italy last week, and Michael, his partner, told him he leaving the business.

So Bruno is back on his own again, and the work is just too much for one man alone. He came to church this morning looking pale. He was praying for Providence, he said: he has to go back to Italy for three days next week, and unless someone could be found keep the albergue going, he would have to close up shop during these important early days.

Enter Elan, an enthusiastic young hospitalero from Chicago. He walked the camino last year, and now  wants to learn all about running albergues. He came down from France to help us with the chores and to hear our windy yarns of camino life.  I only picked him up in Sahagún yesterday afternoon. Just in time for Bruno. Elan said he´ll be glad to keep the albergue open ...Win-win again!    

I´ve planted lettuces and spinach in the garden, and netted them against the hungry birds. Nothing has germinated yet. The two stubby sweet potatoes I brought from Boston have made dozens of little "slips" that are ready to go into the ground... if the ground ever warms up enough to plant them! The animals spend their evenings lounging in front of the fire as if it was January. On my birthday the sky spat snow.

I am going to an ambitious conference in Santiago de Compostela in a couple of weeks. I had hoped to walk there from Lugo, a little less than a week, a little more than 100 kilometers, over a backwoods path. The hiking part of the plan is looking more and more remote -- so many things are happening here, what with the tax forms due at the end of the month, and plumbing backup somewhere under the hallway floor, and Bruno and Elan in need as well. I traded my mostly-waterproof standby Timberland boots to a pilgrim a while back, and do not relish the idea of Galician cart-paths in my leaky old dog-gnawed Vasques. And it´s still freakin´ COLD out there. 

Even if all the news isn´t joyful, Moratinos is the center of the universe these days. People come here from hundreds of miles away to paint walls and re-hang chicken-house doors. If I go out hiking in the woods, I might miss some of the win-winning that´s going on.

Maybe I will take the train to Santiago. I can always walk back if I want. That is how lucky I am.