I was awake at about 6 a.m., and while it was still dark I crossed the yard to the dining room, where breakfast for me consisted of a humble banana and coffee. Deborah, (Walking for love of God) was up early too and already tucking into a big bowl of fresh fruit, while a man I didn’t know kept a watchful eye on a small stove as he heated milk for his cereal. Observing the importance they had given their breakfast, I wished I too had planned ahead for the nourishment my journey required. Not just in terms of something more substantial to eat, though that was part of it, it was more about the sacredness of their morning ritual. It symbolised to me, patience, self care and apparent ease with themselves. In contrast, I couldn’t wait to be off.
Packed and ready to go, I waited impatiently outside for daylight to appear so I could be reunited with the yellow arrows that would lead me out of town – and to greater ease, I hoped. However, I soon realised that I could not get away from what I was feeling inside and I knew it was going to be a repeat of the day before. The Camino I was experiencing was not the one I had imagined. I had misjudged it completely. Before leaving home, I thought I would love walking in expectation that I would get lost in the peace and beauty of it all. How wrong I was!
During the morning I crossed paths with Sue and Manoel for the first time, while they had met a couple of days earlier in St Jean. Sue, a South African in her early fifties, had begun the Camino with her father, but they had separated soon afterwards to walk at a pace that suited them individually. Manoel, a sixty-something Brazilian, fell into step behind, while Sue and I talked, Sue every so often relaying to him the substance of our conversation and throwing in the few words of Portuguese he had been teaching her.
After a while I walked on ahead of them as I found it challenging to be around people for any real length of time. The pain I was carrying inside felt like a dead weight and made it difficult for me to speak and connect with others. It was as though we were orbiting different planets and what I really wanted was to scream and lash out at the world I felt locked within, but instead of screaming I remained silent.
My utter disbelief at how awful my experience felt didn’t get any easier to accept as the hours rolled by. In fact, it was further compounded by the struggle between my need for rest and my desire to run for the hills as I faced the challenge presented by the first opportunity to stop for coffee. Facing people I knew was difficult. I couldn’t say how I was feeling, so I knew I would have to pretend I was fine and I found that incredibly hard.
At a busy outdoor tavern an array of brightly coloured rucksacks stood lined up against the wall while their owners sat at the many outdoor tables, chatting and having fun. I noticed the chatty young South African woman with her Dutch companion from the previous day, and while I stood at the bar waiting for my coffee, I scanned the environment for other seating possibilities. Seeing no alternative, I steeled myself to go and join the faces I recognised and although I tried to participate in conversation it was a huge effort for me. Then as soon as I finished my coffee, I fled. I had to get away to recommence my walk; I had to be alone. When I was with others, it amplified the painful depth of my disconnection from the world, and although I felt compelled to be alone, I also felt the pain and isolation of aloneness. I felt as though I was a small island adrift from the mainland, without the means to return home but I also know that even if I had been sent a life raft, I would not have taken it.
Another, less crowded, opportunity to stop presented itself about an hour from Pamplona. There I was joined by Christian, a young German man I had met at the outdoor tavern earlier. As we talked he became the first person to ask why I was doing the Camino. On hearing his question, initially I felt stumped. While it sounds like a small, simple question, it’s actually quite big and I didn’t know whether I wanted to answer it sincerely or say something general that would deflect him. I was aware that a sincere response would feel exposing for me but I decided to take the risk. In hindsight I see that answering sincerely was more for my benefit than for his. As I began to find the words, tears came. ‘I’ve come to meet, and be alone with, myself,’ I said. In response, Christian wondered if that was not something I could do at home and I said ‘not in the way I want to experience it’. Actually I had come in the hope of experiencing a deep encounter with my soul. I wanted to be close to God, although I didn’t say so. I noticed my reluctance to name God and soul. Even on the Camino, where I might have assumed pilgrims were accepting and open about their spirituality, I felt vulnerable and reluctant to reveal mine.
When I arrived in Pamplona in the blazing heat of the early afternoon, I found myself standing outside a homely and inviting two-storey stone house that advertised itself as an albergue and I decided to check it out. Inside it looked and felt just like a family home, and once the preliminaries were completed, I was shown to my bunk in one of the upstairs rooms. It was a complete contrast to the night before – more like staying in a bed and breakfast, where breakfast was offered for an extra €2.50. I found a little more of myself there, as the hospitaleros, two German men in their fifties, offered a more caring experience, in contrast with the no care experience of the previous night.
In the evening, I was partly filling time and partly hoping to have a spiritual encounter that would connect me with God and myself so I joined a small local community for rosary in the Cathedral. Just when I though the rosary had reached an uneventful conclusion, I noticed the congregation joining the priest to walk in procession around the large, almost empty, church, while they were accompanied by what sounded like a choir of angels. Immediately, I felt moved to join them but I hesitated, telling myself I didn’t know where they were going! However, I felt drawn as if by magnet to the procession, and I put aside any reticence I felt about my spirit being so visible. While I walked slowly around the church, something within me melted as I sank deeper into connection. Then when I came into line with the choir I stopped to digest the experience fully, taking in the ordinariness of the group of men in front of me. As they sang, they channelled pure love and I felt transported to another world. The one I had inhabited earlier in the day had dissolved into a puddle.
To witness the coming together of the local community to honour their connection with God, with themselves and each other touched me deeply. It was the apparent ease with which they took their place in honour of their God that affected me most, and I realised my struggle lay in the tension between my longing to satisfy the needs of my soul and my resistance to its fulfilment.
Despite the uplifting experience in the Cathedral, once I returned to the albergue, I noticed myself withdraw. I didn’t have it in me to go and join the group in the garden for a drink, even though I had regained more of myself that day. As I lay down on my bunk I could hear laughter downstairs, and I wished I had a buddy to make my experience easier. I seemed to need someone to open the door for me, so most of the time I felt as if I was on the outside looking in, wanting what others had while I stayed in the shadows.