Holy hens

The henhouse

Before dinner in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, my friend Ingrid and I visited the Cathedral. In place of the usual gold and silver plated backdrop to the altar hung a large black cross. Words describing human suffering had been engraved on it: famine, terror, cancer, flood, fire, grief, pain and many others. I stood contemplating its awful beauty for many minutes.
Next we came on Santo Domingo’s tomb. We’d heard that after he was refused a place in the nearby monastery he became a hermit in a forest. Noticing the trouble pilgrims were having crossing the River Oja he built a bridge over it and continued the path on through the forest. Next he founded a hospital, a place for pilgrims to stay. When he died he was buried close to the path he’d built and the town of Santo Domingo de la Calzada grew around his tomb.
Not far from the tomb we heard a hen’s cackle. Above a door we saw a chicken coop. Chickens in a cathedral? We puzzled over the chickens on our way back to the albergue. One of the hospitaleros wasn’t busy so I asked him what on earth the rooster and hen were doing in the cathedral?
“Aaah, that is quite a story,” he said. “It happens that a few centuries ago a family of pilgrims stopped in the town for the night. The innkeeper’s daughter fell in love with the son but he failed to reciprocate. The angry girl planted some silver in his bag then accused him of theft. He was arrested and the mayor condemned him to hang. The parents continued sadly on their way, praying to Santo Domingo for his soul.
On their return they found him still alive. When cut down the son claimed that Santo Domingo had kept him alive by holding him up from below. They ran to the mayor to tell him of the miracle. Of course, the mayor laughed when they told him.
“He’s about as alive as these two roast chickens on my table,” he said. The two chickens immediately regained their feathers and beaks and ran squawking across the mayoral lap.”
The hospitalero took us out the back of the building and pointed to a very fancy henhouse.
“Every 2 weeks we change the chickens over so that they all get a turn at being holy hens.”

Miracle stories abound on the Camino. Many accrete around existing tales, and morph and change as the centuries pass and people’s understandings of the world evolve. We heard several versions of this one. Some concentrated more on the miracle of the son’s survival, others on the miracle of the resurrection of the chickens, the odd one on the mayor’s comeuppance. Privately, I wondered why the girl was never brought to justice.

Stand still

Apple blossom

Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here

We left for Moissac early in the morning, keen to find a cafe and some substantial food after a skeletal dinner the night before. When we lifted our eyes from the asphalt we saw pink and white apple blossom cascading down the hills. Many trees were espaliered or pruned to ease picking. Cereal and oilseed fields alternated with orchards, but we pushed on almost blind to the morning’s beauty.
The city streets of Moissac were noisy and confined after the ridges and occasional forest path of our morning. Replenished at last with a tuna baguette and cola we could pay closer attention to our surroundings. We visited the famous abbey cloisters and cathedral. A yellow motif painted on the walls of the church lightened the interior and highlighted the simple geometric stained glass windows. Above us the vaulted ceilings were covered in white and burgundy tiles, further adding to the luminosity of the space. The cloisters cooled and calmed us further. Many of the columns have been re-carved and while the fountain has been removed from the centre, the lawn is kept green and trimmed. A tiny figure in the museum drew me closer. Our lady of solitude knelt, eyes closed, gown folded across her chest, contained and serene. She seemed to be in a cocoon of peace and contemplation, reminding me to “stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here.” (from David Wagoner’s poem Lost)

Walking into Silence

Walking into silence

We are forever writing our inner commentaries on everything, commentaries that always reach the same practiced conclusions

In the beginning of my walks silence only broke through in patches. Although the forests and fields were free of human noise my own thoughts and worries still crowded in. Most of my thinking in the early stages was repetitive and circling back on itself. Richard Rohr captures this bind when he writes that “we are forever writing our inner commentaries on everything, commentaries that always reach the same practiced conclusions.”

The steep ascents and descents focused my mind on my feet and legs, and on the rock strewn or muddy path. Birds called me out of blindness to my surroundings whenever I threw myself down on my pack to rest. Exhaustion shattered my rationality. Silence won through in the end. The long daily walks worked like meditation for me, quieting my mind and allowing me to spiral down into silence and inner stillness.

Solitude and Loneliness

Pracitising solitude in Les Estrets

The dynamic of loneliness is resistance (something is wrong here), whereas the dynamic of solitude is acceptance

As I walked the first day from Le Puy-en-Velay in 2018, I remembered solitude. Sarah Bachelard makes a key distinction between solitude and loneliness: “The dynamic of loneliness is resistance (something is wrong here), whereas the dynamic of solitude is acceptance.” I embraced solitude but encountered loneliness at times on all my Caminos. In Sauges I was crushed with loneliness when my only room mate rejected my company outright. On the Camino Sanabres pain from ill-fitting boots made me scream aloud for comfort and help.

Not having any English-speaking company at all on many days in France edged me into loneliness. I walked alone nearly every day. Several days I met no other pilgrims. Two nights I was the only pilgrim in the gite, and on at least 5 nights I had a dormitory to myself. I had to consciously turn from resisting my solitary state to embracing my aloneness and becoming alive to the positive elements of my walk.

I learned to be more willing to be a stranger in a foreign place reliant on the kindness of locals. As stability within grew, an openness to whatever and whoever the day brought bred gratitude and banished the loneliness. I reflected, read and wrote reams in my journal. Walking and resting alone gave me time to reacquaint myself with my self. Solitude became my chosen state.

Gratitude

Crossing the Aubrac

It is through surprise our inner eyes are opened to the amazing fact that everything is gratuitous, given freely with no expected return.

I am grateful to have had the time and resources to walk across France and Spain. Every day on pilgrimage is a gift, not always appreciated at the time. Thousands, if not millions, of others have gone before me and many of them have smoothed the way for novices like me. Pilgrim associations have created maps and markings. Enterprising locals have opened their cafes, homes and hearts to passing pilgrims. I am continually surprised at their kindness to strangers. They must see so many people walking through their towns and villages, not all of them as grateful as I am for the provided amenities.
Openness and surprise are at the heart of gratefulness. When I pay attention to the environment around me and am open to experience, I am surprised and delighted at almost every turn. David Steindl-Rast writes that it is “through surprise our inner eyes are opened to the amazing fact that everything is gratuitous,” given freely with no expected return. We should take nothing for granted. The truth is that all we experience and have is pure gift. We are dependent on the earth, its fruitfulness, beauty and renewal, as well as on others, their hospitality, maps, and kindness. When we acknowledge and mindfully appreciate this we come alive.
As I walked across the Aubrac plateau I saw snow-capped mountains on the horizon. I stood and soaked in the view of craggy peaks while at my feet small white flowers struggled through the damp, recently frozen soil. I marveled at their slightness and persistence in the face of the still wintery days. How blessed I was to see these mountains, these star-faced flowers! Only in this place, on this clear-skied day were these sights possible. I was alive to this place and so grateful to be there as witness to these miracles.

Thin places

Cruz de Ferro

What the Celts call a thin place: a powerful place where the veil between heaven and earth thins

It wasn’t far through the fog from Foncebaden to the Cruz de Ferro on the Camino Frances in 2016. The remains of stone cottages littered the fields. At that altitude the grass was only just appearing after winter’s freeze. Cow bells interrupted the crunch of boots as I trudged up the rocky track.

The legendary cross appeared out of the gloom on its hillock of stones in a clearing in the forest at the peak of the mountain. Here pilgrims leave a symbol of whatever burdens them. The mound of stones and rocks, paper and fabric, inscribed and not, reaches high up the pole toward the iron cross. A sprinkling of pilgrims knelt, squatted or stood on the rise, reading messages, praying or leaving their own contribution of burdens and regrets. Others picked their way over the rocks, turning them over, reading the messages with reverence.

I paused. Fog swirled around the cross. Silence enveloped all who approached. This felt like an out of the ordinary place, what the Celts call a thin place: a powerful place where the veil between heaven and earth seems thinner. A place which exudes an energy or vibration that is palpable to those who stop and listen. An amalgam of the place itself, high on a mountain, the small ceremonies pilgrims perform there, and an openness to the otherworldly.

Some say the Camino itself is a thin place. Overhead the Milky Way presides over energy lines that point the way west to Santiago, but also to the coast, a threshold place sacred to the ancient Celtic peoples who once lived there. I stopped and dwelt in many sites along the Camino and felt the presence of the holy seeping through into the ordinary, but on the rocks at Finisterre where St James’ body is said to have come to shore in a stone boat, the earth felt particularly close to heaven.

Finisterre, Spain
The Aubrac, France

Effort and grace

A pilgrim’s resting place

Effort readies us for grace, as grace can never be planned for or willed to appear, only entered

Stillness is illuminated by movement. I discovered that the more strenuous the movement the greater the sensation of stillness when I paused. Pausing after walking, and especially after climbing, allowed me to truly see what was before me. Because time falls away on pilgrimage, I could linger over a cup of coffee or a field of wildflowers for an hour or more. If a stained glass window in a chapel took my eye I would sit and take in every luminous detail. Before I moved on I was fully centred and connected to my self and my surroundings again.
In his recent book Drinking from the river of light: the life of expression Mark Nepo links effort and grace when he writes that “effort readies us for grace, as grace can never be planned for or willed to appear, only entered” The surfer works hard paddling out to catch the wave but once on the wave he is carried to shore. Effort and skill lead to a moment of grace and joy when he simply rides the wave. So the kilometres I walked, the mountains I climbed, the mud I waded through led to a break-through of stillness and silence of mind, an unlooked-for grace of inner peace.

Stilled again

Yet sometimes it’s only through extended stillness or exhaustion that we finally stop and go clear like water. When stilled of all that stirs us, we can see what is life-giving.

The huge dorm behind the cathedral in Conques, France, was reminiscent of many of the Spanish albergues and monasteries on the Camino Frances. Many double bunks were stacked close together and there was little quiet or privacy. I was up late because I had attended the Cathedral service and been invited to read the lesson in English. Others read in French, Spanish and German. I was stirred up by the beauty of the service and elated by the feeling of community in the pilgrim congregation despite all our differences. I knew sleep would be a long time coming.
Snuggled in my sleeping bag I practised every trick I knew: deep breaths, body scan, muscle relaxation, mantra repetition. Whenever I managed to drift off to sleep the man in the bunk above would turn over with a heave of springs. The slightest rustle of plastic or clomp of boots snapped me awake. Sleep talk and snoring broke into my fractured dreams. Deep sleep was unachievable and light sleep impossible.
Next morning I dragged myself out of bed and set off down the hill. On the other side of the Pont Romain the muddy track rose steeply. The miasma of weariness and physical misery threatened to overwhelm me as I struggled up the slippery slope through the fog. The climb was endless. Then I heard a bell ring out and excited voices close by. Pilgrims were milling around a tiny chapel taking it in turns to pull the bell rope. In the old days the bell signalled that pilgrims had crossed the sometimes dangerous river and were safely on their way.
I stepped up to the rope as my tall French friend from a few days before finished a graceful sequence of notes. My first attempt was not so melodious. Then I realised that a little break between each firm pull let the bell peel clearly. In that little break I found stillness within. From that stillness, gratitude uncurled at the beauty of the sound I was making and at meeting this man again when I thought he was kilometres ahead. As I stepped back to give others a turn I looked back toward Conques. The town was hidden in the fog which filled the valley but above over the mountains the sky was clear. Weariness receded into the background and I found energy for the day’s walk.
A little further up the hill we stopped for a picnic across from a bigger chapel. It was not an attractive building. Undecided on whether it was worth an inspection, I lay on my pack and took a nap. After an orange and a few nuts and without thinking, I ventured in. Light streamed in through two stained glass windows on either side of the building. On one side a blue Christ’s outstretched arms were supported from above by a pair of hands and a circle of angels. Below, the fires of hell – or were they of earth? – burned bright. In the window opposite swirls of blue and indigo glass culminated in a radiating yellow and purple star. Stunned I sat and drank in the subtle gradations of light and colour suffusing the space. Once again surprise gave way to thankfulness – thanks that I entered the chapel, thanks for the beauty, thanks for the time and space to enjoy this artist’s creation.

Stilled again, I was reminded of Mark Nepo’s wise words: “Sometimes it’s only through extended stillness or exhaustion that we finally stop and go clear like water. When stilled of all that stirs us, we can see what is life-giving.”

The journal page

Le lac d’Oeuf

The journal is a place of discovery, of learning, of emotional relief and insight

On the second day of my Chemin from Le Puy en Velay I walked through an intoxicating sweet-scented pine forest and the bell calls of little birds to Le lac d’Oeuf. On a log overlooking the lake, more a wetland, I pulled out my journal and scribbled down my impressions and feelings. This journey I was determined to write as I went. So much happened in a Camino day that I forgot half of it by evening. In my fatigue memories, emotions and meetings blur into one or disappear with sleep.

I write with a pen and paper. Feelings flow directly from my heart down my arm and on to the page. Somehow getting things down on the page clarifies feelings and ideas. As the water in a disturbed pond slowly clears when the murk settles down to the bottom so I can see into my mind and heart with greater clarity.

On the journal page I can be completely myself. Stephanie Dowrick writes that “the journal is a place of discovery, of learning, of emotional relief and insight”. I know that in it I have no-one to please, no-one to compete with. I can be open and vulnerable. In doing so I cast off the personas I present to the world and find the self and the truth – for that day.

Journal writing helps me see what is familiar with new eyes. My powers of observation deepen. I see subtleties and changes more sharply and appreciate the apparently ordinary more fully.

My first Camino began in my journal. With an inkling of desire I wrote to discover if I was brave enough and strong enough to dare to do it. All the pros and cons poured onto the page. One day I would be sure I could walk 900km. The next I would hesitate and resile from the decision. Eventually I wrote myself into booking the air tickets and there was no way back.

Walking, listening, pausing

Pausing above Monistrol d’Allier

We practice presence so that we might cultivate our ability to really hear the voice of nature speaking to us

This morning my pre-ordered copy of Christine Valter-Paintner’s new book “Earth, Our Original Monastery” arrived on my Kindle. In the very first chapter she advises getting out in nature, “simply walking, listening, and pausing”. Of course I was immediately drawn in. On Camino this practice of being present so that “we might cultivate our ability to really hear the voice of nature speaking to us” is easier than at home, but still not as natural to we technology-focused moderns as you would hope or think. One day on the Via Podiensis I came across a French woman sitting on the grass staring out at the panorama of mountains and valleys. Beyond the cows grazing on spring pastures, the old open-cut mines carved out a niche for Decazeville. Steep-sided slurry mounds towered over the surrounding rolling hills. Trees burst into blossom along fence lines and creek banks. The scent of spring wafted up to us on the ridge. She greeted me with a single sweep of the hand and murmured, “C’est magnifique!” When I looked back from the other side of the valley an hour later, she was still there, drinking in every flower, tree and shepherd’s refuge.
Such stillness is illuminated by movement. I discovered that the more strenuous the movement the greater the sensation of stillness when I paused. Pausing after walking, and especially after climbing, allowed me to truly see what was before me. Because time falls away on pilgrimage, I could linger over a cup of coffee or a field of wildflowers for an hour or more. If a stained glass window in a chapel took my eye I would sit and take in every luminous detail. Before I moved on I was fully centred and connected to my self and my surroundings again.

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