In the last couple of months a new phrase has become part of High School vocabulary; that is ‘going on The Camino’. The Camino is an ancient pilgrimage route, traditionally 800km long, mostly through Spain and attributed to the apostle St.James. St James is said to be buried in Santiago de Compestela, following the tradition of the time which was to bury the disciples of Christ where they dedicated their time to missionary work. This year Mr. Morrissey, a Camino veteran, shared his expertise and enthusiasm for The Camino when he became ‘Tour Manager’ for the first venture of it’s kind from The High School. We took on the four day daunting challenge of walking 100k of the route, from Pamplona to Logrono, in Northern Spain. Miss Hickey was dubbed ‘Spiritual Director,’ Ms Kenny was ‘Tour Operations Manager’ and Mr Shanahan was a natural as self professed ‘Tour Dogsbody;’ he kept us all well focused with his oft repeated sentiment: ‘Shut up and walk!’.
Walking commenced between 6am and 7am each morning, with breakfast on route and, on average, a 6/7 hour trek to each day’s destination. As a group of 35 white skinned youths, our party certainly drew the attention of other pilgrims, who were willing to challenge the language barriers and chat/share their Camino and their life experiences. What other tour could provide such an expanse of cross cultural connection? Students chatted with a Texan business woman who took a break from work to walk all 100k, a Dutch shoemaker, a Belgian who started walking from his front door on April 8th, a couple of 83 years old, there were mother and daughter, father and son and father and daughter combinations from the four corners of the world. The Japanese were a lesson on covering up from the sun and there were even some Irish to be encountered on route. All offers of speed from the Austrians were declined. In fact numerous pilgrims made it their business to complement the students to us, the adult tour leaders. They were struck by their mannerliness, respect full natures, and even kept going by their signing… when the going got particularly sticky and dusty!
Each day was characterised by a spiritual task; having risen to the challenge of engaging with other pilgrims, what proved more challenging was ‘The Mindfulness Walk’ which necessitated a half hours silence. One student confessed that five minutes silence was beyond him and he had to rely on eating cherries to even manage that! Our spiritual connection with nature was greatly enhanced by the presence of Jimmie and Freda Dunne who joined our group and were able to identify and encourage the sampling of dill, cherries, peas in the pod and pointed out almond trees, olive groves, vines and fig trees. I wonder how many people spotted the crane in his very impressive nest at the top of the linen chimney on the way into Puente del Reine? Martha Harnett also joined us and she was, to quote one student “an example in persistence:” having arranged a taxi to deposit an injured student to a hostel on the hottest day, she returned in the taxi to the spot where they had been picked up and continued her trek. She certainly took the challenge of rising to the physical demands of the pilgrimage to heart, having been led right to the gates of temptation! (In the form of big wooden medieval castle style gates to a hostel/albergue, a cold shower and a bunk bed on which to lay your head!)
When it comes to spiritual endeavour high points and low points carry the same potential for self discovery and greater connection with all that is significant in life! Mind you, in the second before you lance a blister with a giant nappy pin it’s not that easy to be reflective or even contemplative about it! While one of the lads described the entire trip as “personal space to grow as a person,” other students spoke about the mixture of independence and freedom they experienced with the level of responsibility they had to take for themselves; being able to follow the route, find and check into the hostels/albergues, present their own passports and Camino credentials, seek out good value food that would sustain them, wash their walking clothes every evening… etc. We were challenged to see things from a whole new perspective… for instance one guy admitted he never saw the value of street benches before, but now he has a whole new appreciation for just sitting down!
The Camino puts a spotlight on laziness… where a 2km walk might be something we could moan about at home, in Spain 20/25km was the order of the day. There is no denying that rising to such a challenge engenders a confidence that with determination you can do whatever you want! When one student severed an 8ft limb from a tree, and paddled it like an oar for the second 50km of our trek (as a support for his aching knee), our group must have appeared somewhat biblical.. the Exodus with Mosses at the helm comes to mind!
The essential ingredients for surviving adversity became crystal clear: when renegade signs suggested the days destination was a mere 2.8km away, (the truth was closer to 6km) a lot of the group identified this as their most difficult period of the four days. To add insult to injury, it was on the longest and hottest day of walking. Having completed what definitely felt like more than 2.8km, the town of Salsa was only a gateway to salvation for buckled bones and blistered hooves in Torres del Rio.It was the intense and animated exploration of the deeper philosophical issues in life that made it possible to continue putting one foot in front of the other: the lads contemplated the dangers of dry shampoo and the benefits of argan oil… why some people (who own big cars!) drive through floods despite the best advice… whether it’s better to have five years left in your mortgage or a house fit for a king, that is a target for repossession! Surely any reader can understand why I believe The Camino nurtures true enlightenment when I tell you these young men were extolling the value of sleep and articulating a new appreciation for their mothers! In fact they challenged Mr Shanahan’s adage and suggested that ‘Shut up and go to sleep’ was a more accurate theme phrase for the trip.
The combined words of wisdom of the group run something like this: ‘It is not technology or electronic things you need when you hit a mental brick wall… even though every fibre of your being is telling you to stop when the next town appears to be miles away, it was the lads that kept you going.’ In these golden moments phrases were restyled and coined… such as “As the fly crows” or “You’re one weird child, but you are some craic!” “I can’t believe I came on a pilgrimage and nearly killed two people!” (a feat almost completed with only one packet of chewing gum; the secret weapon being generosity and the secret ingredient being kiwi-and it’s power to induce anticlimactic shock!) Pearls of wisdom such as these suggest that our pilgrim warriors weren’t heeding their own shared advice: “When you can’t think straight, hydrate!” The Camino is, nonetheless, notorious for providing what the pilgrim needs… and it did indeed provide something miraculous (or was it a mirage?) when in Torres del Rio the proud owner of the newly opened (that very day) spa hotel invited our group to sample the swimming pool and the hydrotherapy jacuzzi!! Suffice it to say our lads were more than happy to oblige!
The Camino is indeed a metaphor for life: on the final day’s prayer service/spiritual reflection students contemplated the fact that on our trek we carefully choose what was worthy baggage to carry and what we were free to discard; anything that was unhelpful or superfluous. Mr. Morrissey encouraged us to apply this learning to our lives on our return! We ritually deposited our painted stones, which we had carried from home as a symbol of the intention to which we were dedicating our personal pilgrimage. Their chosen resting place represented the sense of the presence of God throughout the four days: nestled in a tree one stone reflected how we were privileged to experience God in nature, those in higher vantage points spoke of God looking down on us and then those who could not choose a location within the time given represented those of us who are still engaged in the search for God… May the search continue and may we all be blessed by the fruits of the Spirit presented to us through the Camino!