On and Off the Camino del Norte in Guernica, Spain

In January of 1937, the Republican government, then mired in the Spanish Civil War against the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, commissioned renowned Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, to paint a large mural to be displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Picasso, who had left Spain in 1934 and not returned, had toiled with different ideas […]

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Living or Just Breathing?

On May 26, my stepdad turned 85.  He never exercises, lights 40 Marlboro’s every day, and knocks down a dozen Cutty Sarks each night.  He is alive, but is that a life?  On the same day, I was about 345,000 steps into my journey and…

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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 lets 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.

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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 placeZazpi 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 timeSo 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 placeOff 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-GasteizThe train station at Vitoria-GasteizFirst stage of cheese productionJesus’s hutSnack timeSome cleaning requiredJesus’s cheese before and after cleaningRobin and ZazpiZazpi, Robin and the herdVery peacefulAlong the Camino IgnacianoAgurainHomeward bound to Santiago

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Hotter than July

Now it’s July. The priest is gone for now, the fields are cut and dried-out. Mornings and dusks are splendid, but the daytime in between is spectacularly hot — I cannot walk across the patio in bare feet without screaming.I love July. It is long and hot and full of swallows. Friends ask me to come and visit, friends like Laurie up in O Cebreiro. We drove all around a hidden valley of Galicia, we shared champagne with pilgrims for Canada Day (Laurie is from Canada), we shopped for antiques in Sarria, we stayed up late and solved the world’s problems and discussed our respective projects and literary efforts. I weeded the labyrinth… how many people can say they did that? On the way out of town we heard a big racket, and this little guy came tumbling out of a ruined basement and into the street. I took him home. Paddy calls him Leonard. I call him Inky. He’s a pistol of a kitten. Days later, I took a train to a little town called A Rua, and met up with another Laurie (this one from Illinois) who was striding her way across Spain from Girona. She was taking the Camino Invierno for the last bit, and you know I really love that trail… so I went with her, all the way to Chantada. The hikes were quite long — about 28 km per day. The afternoons got very hot very quickly. I was surprised at how well it went for me. No blisters, no sunburn, just a nice righteous tiredness at the end of each day. I enjoyed myself out there. But when the day came I was supposed to climb over a mountain right in the middle of a 32 km. stretch, with temperatures expected to reach 98 F… I said “Time to get the bus back to Monforte and the train back to Sahagun!” The last couple of summers have taught me good lessons about hiking in high heat. I am simply too blonde to withstand it.The workers are still beavering away in our house, but they are “finish carpenters.” I see that word “finish” and my heart goes pitty-pat! We only need to get the water-heater hooked up down there, and the kitchen units installed… Meantime, Paddy and I are moving 16 tons of dust-laden junk into some sort of logical storage. We got the big chest freezer rolled across the patio and into the newly-finished storage room today, just in time for the first drops of rain in a month! There’s still a bunch of stuff left to shift out there, but we go easy on ourselves. Paddy is having asthma symptoms these days, likely outcomes of the dust and the kitten. I don’t drive him too hard. Not usually!Yesterday I had a bit of fun: Me and my friend Maria de la Valle and her little daughter Luka went to the little playground (aka “el plantillo”) and built a little playhouse out of scrap lumber, sticks, and greenery. It’s a simply tripod with sticks tied-together with clothesline and a grid of lighter lumber lashed on and covered in branches and leaves. I used a couple of left-behind pilgrim staffs to give it some color. We did a fine job. I hope to help build more little natural shelters around here as the children arrive for their summer breaks. Everybody loves a playhouse, and building one can involve the parents, too! On Sunday the Texas Guitar Quartet is playing here in Moratinos, and accompanying the Sunday Mass — part of the Camino Arts guitar series. Afterward we’re hosting a Big Feed over at our house, two kinds of paella, salad, melon, and drinks, out on the newly-cleaned-up patio. We hope for some live music out there, a wonderful summertime treat when it happens. I just hope it’s not too infernally HOT… because the inside of the house is still in a dusty disorder, too.We have pilgrims, now and then. Last night, quite late, three lovely young French sisters bicycled up the driveway right at sundown. The albergue was closed, they’d come all the way from Hornillos (80 kilometers in a day!) They were hungry and grubby. Fed, showered, laundered, and batted-about by Leonard, they slept like stones in the salon, and slipped away at 6 a.m. today.Things are going well at San Anton. One of the scheduled hospitaleros had to excuse himself due to a family crisis, but two others stepped right up to fill the gap — one of them is driving all the way from Germany! I wrote up a “first three months” report on what’s gone on so far. It’s a rewarding project. Everyone is sleeping happily on the fat new mattresses, the Animal Rescue from Burgos came and took away the baby owl, and the Milky Way puts on a quietly spectacular show almost every night up there between the ruined arches.In between all this are long quiet days of just us. They are the most beautiful of all.With August comes our second Meseta Mass priest, here for three whole weeks. I am striving to get a “What Is A Bodega?” sign erected over at the Castillo before the fiesta — anyone out there have graphic design skills they can contribute? The remodeling will (please God) finally be finished, and Ollie will come back to help me put everything away.  

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At Home In Nature, Visiting Cathedral Provincial Park

For years, I had passed the Cathedral Provincial Park and Cathedral Lakes Lodge signs on the Crowsnest Highway (Highway 3) in southern British Columbia, Canada and wondered what it was like in the remote area close to the United States border. I had seen photos and heard so much about the unique rock formations, rugged mountains, peaceful lakes, […]

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Mornings

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. JamesFr. Joe at his post

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