Any sense of God’s call upon me to deal with something that I had been feeling the last two days or so, became dwarfed by the time I had reached the town of Hontanna. What had taken its place was a sense of doubt.
“What am I really doing out here.” Now I do not mean, by that question, that I was questioning why I had come to walk the Camino – that was a settled issue – but rather I was questioning my process in seeking God’s will out here on the meseta of northern Spain. I’m doing a lot of walking and a lot of thinking, but am I doing an equal amount of listening? How does one know they are truly doing God’s will? It’s a tricky question, where the solution to the puzzle, requires the sober filtration of your personal human habits and desires away from that inner inhabitation of the Holy Spirit; that quiet realm that enjoins God’s kingdom and your earthly reality.
In this time of hesitation, and I know not of any coincidence here, the Director of Ministries, Ginny Nolan, at my church, St. Peter the Apostle, came into my world through an email. It was an email of encouragement, and it was also an email of precaution. Her concern? That I might be giving too much to my blog, and not enough to myself and God. You know, I have never been shorted on God’s attention to my condition. For that I am most truly thankful. Thank you, Ginny, be being God’s instrument this day. Since I was to take a day off in Hontanna, I vowed to do some adjustments on this matter.
What came from that day off was my last post; one that I ended with a bit of verse that brought up the emotions of my doubt in a way that even surprised me. You know sometimes we are so wrapped up in our mission – so stoic – that we ignore the deeper feelings that rumble about inside. That’s never a good thing. In spilling it out of me, I do have to say I felt cleansed. Doubts and fears have a way of going away when confronted with the absolute truths of God – it’s a sanctuary. In one’s cry as being only human, I do believe that God will find a way to reassure; to bring peace and a sense of security. I slept well that night.
The next morning I prepared for the day with careful attention to my blisters and to my appetite. In the past – no preparation, no breakfast – just get on the Camino. I have vowed to be more observant and I was going to try to break the competitive habit of the “march”. Since all I had were a few band aids, they had to do for the day and beyond. Medical tape would be a great help, but farmacias (pharmacies) are far and few. Get it out of your mind, Reese.
Off I went – after a nice breakfast of tea, a croissant, and some strawberry jam – into the early dawn. The plan: to reach Itero de la Vega by early afternoon. I had little idea of the path and its condition, and in short time I found myself walking a path along the side of a ridge running east to west. It was a hard, dirt path that was complicated by the many rocks embedded in irregular, dried-mud pathway cut through the profuse growth of nettles, flowers and grasses. It really punished my blistered toes. And on top of the hard walk I soon heard the ‘click, click’ of my walking sticks on the hard ground. I checked; the metal points had worn through the rubber tips. I needed those rubber tips for the tough paths, and I had no replacements.
“That’s ok, Reese.” I reminded myself, and I meant it. Rubber tips for walking sticks just aren’t sitting around; even on the Camino. I’ve been on the Way long enough to know that when there is little you can do about something, there’s little point in festering on the matter.
The pathway eventually came down to a road, and the Camino followed that road on into Castrojeriz; passing the ruins of the convent at San Anton and flowing onto a side road that led us pilgrims through the center of town. I came to a small plaza that overlooked the rooftops of the town below and was confronted with two paths to take. One took a left turn and then a right along the Way of San Juan. The other went straight forward along the Way of San Esteban. Both paths would join together at the western end of town.
I had resolved to go left, but for some quiet reason, I went straight as my feet took on their task and within a couple of minutes I found myself at another plaza. It was still early, so few shops were open. I did see one café open, and then another shop came into view; El Peregrino. Walking up to its entry, I soon surmised that it was a pilgrim’s shop. Inside was a cornucopia of pilgrim essentials. I thought, and I asked.
“Do you have rubber tips for walking sticks?” The answer from the weather-worn and aged shop-keeper?
“Si.” He dug them out from a box below the counter, and I bought four. At that point my mind really ventured out there for the impossible. A quick look around focused my eyes on medical tape behind a pair of glass doors. My toes have been saved.
At this point I had a rather clear view of God’s surprising intervention into my pilgrim’s life; just when I needed Him the most, my humanity in the limbo of thumbs up or thumbs down, He was giving me not only what I needed for my physical well-being, but was tending to the slightly down-trodden spirit within me. Until you’re there, it’s so very hard to express the feeling you receive when God shows His love so graciously. I sensed this was a day in which God and I were going to walk this one out together.
Leaving Castrojeriz for Itero de la Vega, led me across farmland and onto a raised path on top of an old, stone wall. That led to a wooden bridge and a ridge beyond. As my mind prepared for the climb, I thought of my non-existent provisions for the day. I enjoy my daily apple during the mid-morning, as well a few cookies later on in the walk, and I had not shopped for either the day before in Hontanna. “Well, I did have water.”
The path up the side of the ridge was one of the steepest and longest I had seen to this writing. I was also prepared for it. Not only have I become much more accustomed to Spain’s landscape, but I now had God right there with me every step of the way. I don’t know how long it took for the ascent; for me it was the perseverance of just one footfall in front of the last. Lean in, and make a pole-plant with each step to carry the weight of the pack. That’s how it’s done. In time, there came the top of the ridge, and quite a few pilgrims were taking a break; both out of exhaustion and to take in the spectacular view back to the east. I did likewise, drank from my water bottle, and stripped down to my t-shirt as the weather had become decidedly warm and sunny. Amongst the several pilgrims taking a break, I saw a German woman munching away on a big, juicy apple. Now I’m really scolding myself for not preparing for this day better.
The flat meseta soon began a steep descent down the other side of the ridge, and I enjoyed watching a few bicyclists speed down in wild abandonment. At the bottom, as I prepared to push on across the rolling farmland path, my eye caught sight of a marker of a different sort. This was a small monument; Manuel Picasso Lopez, born 1964, died 2008. Really, I don’t know why I was struck with such a conviction. That’s just how God works sometimes, but I recognized this is where I was to leave ‘the Cross’.
Now, ‘the Cross’ is a small, cypress cross. During this past spring, I had asked if a deacon at my church, Deacon David Nolan, who has a deep passion for working with wood, if he would make me a cross to take and leave on the Camino. David had ingeniously constructed it from cypress – durability – and made it of two pieces that were dimensioned so carefully, that when pressed together into the form of a cross, they would make for a tight union between the two pieces. I have a feeling this degree of attention, introspection, and care to details is a big part of David’s personality. For those who know him, am I right?
In short order, I removed my pack and opened it. I took out the two parts, pressed them together securely, and wedged the cross between a few rocks; leaning against the beautiful bronze plaque that commemorated Manuel Picasso Lopez. For whatever reason, and for how ever this man led his life, I knew God had a purpose for the cross being set there. I packed up and moved on along the straight path towards another rise and beyond. That ‘beyond’ went on for some time, and I found myself at one point reciting Psalm 23. You know, in a long day of walking, I have found my mind short on concentration sometimes, and I stumbled a bit on reciting this psalm. Ok, so make fun of me.
When I reached the rise, and in the middle of nowhere, I came across a small rest stop. To my left, a few pilgrims taking advantage of the picnic tables on a grassy area. To my right, there came into view a man sitting at a small, rustic table. On the table was a bowl of apples. He accepted donativos (donations) only. I took an apple, gave my donation, and walked on knowing that God had in but a few hours whisked away all of my doubts, and had replaced them with faith. This was the third time God had intervened to help me this day, and He was not finished just yet.
My blisters? He provided a remote, pilgrim’s hospital a kilometer or two from the outskirts of Itero de la Vega. I did not take advantage of the facility as the blister’s seemed to have improved quite miraculously, even on this rough trail, but His provision was well noted.
Itero de la Vega finally came into view, it grew closer, and I soon arrived at the Hostel Fitero, where I was able to find a good dinner that evening, and a comfortable bed for the night. With my laundry done and hung up to dry, I came to the hostel’s Comedor (dining room) and ordered my pasta, pork loin with potatoes, and ice cream dessert. Feeling a need to read a bit during my meal – and I use my laptop for this purpose – I opened a book by Stephanie Dowrick, Forgiveness and Other Acts of Love. (I would recommend this book to anyone.) I began to read from where I had left off earlier. Not far in, Ms. Dowrick used Psalm 22 to note the obvious suffering of spirit that David was experiencing at the time of the psalm’s composition. Her attention soon after turned to Psalm 23, and I’ll let her finish this post.
“In the next psalm, the twenty-third, David describes a quite different internal state. ‘The Lord is my Shepherd,’ he cries out in a thrill of recognition, trust, love and relief. Far now, emotionally, from ‘the dust of death’, he is able to say with fabulous relief: ‘I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.’ David has not, however, forgotten how it was in the unending darkness of despair for he goes on: ‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. ‘Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.’ And now comes David’s great cry of hope that he has endured all that he will be asked to endure. Again, we can so easily see ourselves when he says, touching wood, his fingers crossed. ‘Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.’”
Love and God Bless – Reese