Maneuvering their way methodically through the crowd of Sunday morning tourists the three young women emerged from the descending tunnel just as every bell in the city launched a frenzied peal proclaiming high noon. Commanding all attention, the bells overwhelmed every other noise in the plaza, including the bagpipes that always seem oddly out of place, yet inevitably evoke emotions consistent with something so powerful and deep as the conclusion of this journey.
Walking sticks in hand, clickety-clacking along the ancient cobblestones, the trio made the last of more than a million purposeful steps across the better part of forty days. Six hours prior and ten miles eastward they’d set out early but there was no beating the heat this day. Noontime temperatures already pushed three digits and heavy streams of sweat ran down their dusty legs as gravity pulled tiny rivers of mud into their long-ago sweat-filled, worn-out shoes. The threesome remained close making their way respectfully through the bustling crowd and came to a point that obviously seemed suitable. In unison, they turned their bodies and eyes eastward and upward now bringing into full view the place they’d walked toward a month. Newly restored and refurbished, the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela is breathtaking against the deep blue August sky. For the moment, each was lost in her own private thoughts.
Just as they were soaking it all in, one of the peregrinas made an independent step forward raising her hands wide toward the heavens as if to receive this long-anticipated moment into her spirit. In a crowd of hundreds, she is alone in a private state of thanks — immersed in gratitude. Following suit, her compañeras step alongside as they clasp hands skyward celebrating as family.
Together, they have walked across a country on a footpath known to seekers for more than a millennia. Maybe it was nothing more than a long walk. But it’s just as possible they may never be the same. Only time will tell.
Nevertheless, together, they have arrived.
After four days traveling Dana and I had already spent two recovery days on the ground shaking an unusually difficult bout of jet lag. We decided to fight the fog of flying forward in time and pretty much losing an entire night by taking a bus to the cathedral plaza — the familiar place that defines Santiago de Compostela. It was there where we witnessed the scene described above. I was already caught unwittingly off guard by the emotions returning to the site where the Way of St. James concludes. This place, and what it means, has become an unexpectedly important part of my life over the last three years. There was two years of book writing most recently followed by nearly fifty presentations from Potomac, MD to San Francisco. It seems I’ve lived “The Way” for a long time now.
God works in mysterious ways. This pilgrimage experience continues bringing personal and important revelations about the things I consider most important. And it has blessed me with an incredible network of family and deep and meaningful friendships across the world. It’s a big deal for a kid who grew up in a cotton patch in the middle of rural Arkansas.
So I know exactly how these women felt as they concluded their long pilgrimage. What they may or may not know is the truth found in that cliché notion that their real pilgrimage begins at the end. I hate that cliché. But I now know that it’s real and that it has the potential to shape us in wonderful ways.
Here’s a recap of our experience so far:
Saving more than a thousand dollars on air fare, Dana and I bypassed our home airport at Memphis International and made the six-hour drive to Dallas-Fort Worth for our departure point. The total ten hours from Dallas to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Madrid was about as flawless as international travel comes. Still, we were three hundred miles from Santiago de Compostela, our home base for the next three months.
I’d not pre-booked any travel beyond Madrid in the event of delayed connections or airport problems. Too many reservations can quickly become a falling house of cards with the slightest glitch in this type of travel. The other side of it is that you never know the scenarios that await.
After catching the airport commuter train to Chamartin Station, the man at the ticket counter explained that every train to Santiago for the next four days was fully booked. August is vacation season in Spain and everyone is squeezing in their last bit of free time before school starts. The bus lines were also fully booked. I’ve learned these moments are not resolved with panic.
After a few back-and-forth texts with our hosts, Nate and Faith Walters, we discovered a ride share program in Spain that works much like Airbnb. They call it Bla-Bla Car! After a few hours weighing all the options (which amounted to one) we booked three seats (one for each of us and one for our luggage) with Humberto who was headed from Madrid to Santiago the following day at noon. By 7 p.m. that night, we’d arrived at Nate and Faith’s, exhausted, but at home base for the next eighty-nine days. As noted earlier, we remained in a travel fog for the next thirty-six hours.
The final puzzle piece that made this trip possible was the opportunity to house sit for Nate and Faith as they are on an extended trip back to the US. So our responsibilities include both caring for their house and serving at the faith-based, non-profit they founded, Terra Nova Pilgrim House, just a few blocks off the cathedral square.
It’s a nice, four-level home with all the modern conveniences, an outdoor patio, a great kitchen where I’m already re-learning how to cook, and a nice backyard garden.
Together, we experienced a four-day transition as Nate, Faith and their four children departed for Washington just yesterday. They were all so gracious. It’s not easy having guests in your home as you’re preparing that many people for a six-month trip across an ocean. They must have walked out the door yesterday with a dozen suitcases.
We’re a fifteen minute walk from a local mall and super mercado, and just twenty minutes off the Way of St. James as you enter the east side of town. I can throw a rock
to the local bus stop and busses run every thirty minutes all over town. Public transportation in Europe is great once you learn it. We’re looking at possibilities for all kinds of long-weekend side trips. Dublin is even a possibility.
There is a training school for circus performers two doors down from us. Interesting, yes.
Just as we arrived European news agencies disseminated warnings of all-time record heat in the forecast. We’re talking 118 degrees Fahrenheit in some remote areas. We approached 100 on three consecutive days. Because this rarely happens it’s just not
practical for families to invest in air conditioning here. You open the windows and turn on the fans. Our finding a large fan at the mall was a divine miracle last Saturday. Practically every shelf in town was bare. Best €25 spent in a long time. Last Sunday, I took five cold showers.
It’s 68 degrees as I write at 11 a.m. now and a lovely breeze flows through our large open windows. Sweet relief.
Our sleep patterns here are complicated so far. Not only was there the adjustment of time, but at this latitude in this season our sunset doesn’t happen until around 10:45 p.m. Because I’m an early-to-bed, early-to-rise kind of guy it’s totally thrown me off from what we’re accustomed to in the lower southern latitudes. We are going to bed around 11 p.m. and getting up between 8 and 9 a.m. I haven’t slept that late since college. At least it’s pretty consistent with Spanish culture.
COOKING AND FOOD
Yesterday, we ventured to the old-town outdoor market. It’s a place that will make a foodie downright giddy. I’ve never seen better produce than what’s available in the Spanish markets. Combine that with the local cheeses (Galicia is famous for its cheese), locally produced wines (I’m determined to learn more about wine while here), fresh seafood and meats (chorizo everywhere), and baguettes for €.35 each, and I could easily gain fifty pounds in three months. This whole volunteer experience may require another long walk!
After yesterday’s market trip I prepared our first comida — (late afternoon lunch,
typically the biggest meal of the day here). It was a nice chorizo and seafood pasta with a tomato, pepper, zucchini sauce.
I’ve discovered some low-alcoholic fruit ciders here that are refreshingly delicious. A cold San Miguel or Estrella Galicia beer is nostalgic of “second breakfast” on the Way. I also love an occasional cold sangria here, and cerveza de limon, a drink that is half beer, half intensified sparkling lemon juice. So refreshing. We’ll attempt a homemade papa tortilla soon.
Not to overlook the very most important part of this experience ahead.
Beyond everything, Dana and I have come here to serve and to listen. There is something inside my spirit telling me that listening will be the foundation of our service. The more I contemplate Jesus’ commission for disciples to take the gospel news to the ends of the earth, the more I think it’s about listening in the modern day. Historically, our delivery method has been talking. Telling people this and that. Inviting them to come into our circle as if we are somehow different and set aside. We just don’t sit still and listen enough. “Come into our group, affiliate with us, and you will be okay,” we say. “You are there, but we are here. Come here.” I think it is time we listen rather than be so determined to recite the four spiritual laws to someone and expect a miraculous change in someone’s life in fifteen minutes. As Rick Warren says, for Christians, “we have a lot to unlearn.”
I want to embrace people. We are all the same kind of different.
Beyond this, I have come here with personal expectation.
Over the years this has become one of a handful of places where I believe I better hear God’s direction for my own life. Maybe I imagine that, or maybe it is true, but it doesn’t really matter as long as I believe it. I’ve come here with the expectation that God will clearly show what comes next. Ideas abound. Clarity is needed. Maybe it is another book. Maybe it is a new mission, altogether. If you pray, I ask that you might pray for Dana and me as we sort through what’s next. I’m personally praying each night that God will make me receptive to the place where He leads. I want to have an open heart and an open spirit. So we covet your prayers in that regard.
Tomorrow, we’ll receive our first mission and vision training at Pilgrim House and go through full orientation. Our work schedule begins on Saturday.
Until next week, buen camino.