Week 2: Thin Spaces: Your Truest Sense of Self

 

Here’s a short video I made yesterday in the square. Happiness all around.

 

Twenty years ago I started the practice of spending several hours each New Year’s Day with my grandmother. With a tripod and video recorder in hand I’d ask her questions for hours — the kind of questions you often wonder about long after loved ones are gone. Together, in a sense, we were preserving history.

Well into our visit  one afternoon I asked her this simple question: “When was a time when you felt closest to God?”

She told a story about coming home from work one afternoon and working in her strawberry patch. “I was pulling weeds and picking berries and then there was just this feeling when I was overcome with peace — like a light came over me. I’d never felt it before and I’m not sure I’ve felt it since,” she said.

That was it. That was her story.

I’d expected something so much more colorful and wisdom-filled from this octogenarian I loved and respected so much. But that was it, and she was perfectly content with her reply.

Like so many in our agrarian family, granny sensed God’s presence when she was on her knees and her hands were in the dirt. She believed sincerely that we never owned the land. We were just God’s temporary caretakers.

My grandmother’s thin place was in the garden, and all these years later I identify with the simplicity of her answer. It need not be complicated.

***

 

This group came in yesterday just before noon. I never tire of watching the celebrations.

Going places usually gets something on my mind. This “thin place” notion has permeated so many thoughts since Dana and I arrived in Santiago de Compostela two weeks ago. I first read about it as an ancient Celtic belief mentioned in Father Kevin Codd’s book, To the Field of Stars where he elaborates on the ideas and beliefs of some that there is a thinner realm between earth and heaven in certain places.

I don’t necessarily believe in this idea as a physical property, but in a spiritual sense it’s undeniable. There are times and places when we feel closer to God than others.  How can this be, and what makes it so? After spending considerable time here in three out of the last four years, I know this is one such place, not because of where it is, but rather because of what it creates.

Watch someone as they conclude the final steps of a five hundred mile pilgrimage across some forty days. You will not see ego, pride, or braggadocio. Hugs and warm, lasting embraces replace high fives.

Much more evident is gratitude, humility, and tears of thanks. I get to watch this almost every day and it’s incredible.

It’s as if all guard comes down here. If but for the moment, we find the truest sense of self.

Watching I inevitably wonder, why can’t it be this way all the time?

I’m also focused on this idea of walking. So many places in the bible we find references to walking out our faith, or walking alongside God, or walking by faith, not by sight. It’s clear, especially in the new testament that walking was important to Jesus. Our life of learning and understanding more about God involves “walking” beside him. He does not pull, nor does he push, but He wants us to walk with Him. His invitation is, come along.

In a sense we’re on a pilgrimage to God’s kingdom. As we walk and listen I think we become more sensitive to God’s present reality in our lives. We’ll take detours, we’ll get lost at times, and we’ll learn from those missteps. But the goals is to just keep walking.

Where is your thin place?

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Spain Week 1: Getting Here and Getting Going

I’d love to have been closer for this photo, but the moment was just too personal and I didn’t want to infringe. Some things are more important that getting the story perfectly. But you can see why it was so powerful. This is the essence of pilgrimage. People sharing experiences together.

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.

All cleaned up after many years of restoration the cathedral is restored to her former glory.

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:

GETTING HERE

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.

Our goodbye selfie with the Walters. Somehow, Kathryn didn’t make it into this photo.

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.

OUR HOME

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.

OUR SURROUNDINGS

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

At the local old-town market. A foodie’s dream.

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.

Eager to prepare my first home made batch of pimientos de Padron. I may possibly consume a million of these while here.

WEATHER

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

I don’t know of a person alive who could’ve taken this fan out of my hands.

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,

My chorizo and seafood pasta dish from yesterday.

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.

OUR PURPOSE

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.

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Chapter 14 Excerpt: The Meseta – A Long Walk Across Nothing

 

“There is something else I am after out here in the wild. I am searching for an even more elusive prey … something that can only be found through the help of the wilderness. I am looking for my heart.” – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart

If the Pyrenees are where you test your body, and if Galicia is where you test your resolve, the Meseta is where you test your spirit on the Way of St. James. The mask comes off and you look yourself squarely in the mirror along the Meseta. You are completely exposed here both physically and emotionally. There’s nowhere to hide.

Beginning of the Meseta, just west of Castrojeriz.

The Meseta is to the Camino what miles ten through twenty are to the ancient marathon. It’s not as exciting as the beginning, or as dramatic as the end, but it’s there, and it must be done.

This geographic expanse is one, big, wide-open space. It’s the home of the Old Roman Road used 2000 years ago for transporting gold across the heart of the empire. Everything about it sounds so deceivingly romantic.

I cursed the Old Roman Road on a day that seemed it would never end. You don’t realize the importance of reference points until you’re in a place completely without them. It’s a place much more defined by the skyscape than the landscape. There’s an occasional tree every few miles, and the openness of the region means you bear the brunt of searing sun, howling wind, or whatever element Mother Nature offers up that day.

The Meseta is where you understand that your mind isn’t quite set up to comprehend the enormity of distance. If it did, few of us would ever set out on such expeditions. Your mind just doesn’t compute what your feet or your soul will experience across 500 miles. It escapes imagination. Every day, you get out of bed, and you just keep walking.

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The Letter Every Man Should Get

The writing is done, the editing complete, just wrapping up a few details now, then it’s off to production on Tuesday.  We move from writing a book to creating one. Things are well on track for a week-of-Thanksgiving Pilgrim Strong release.

(This is purely by accident, but I just this moment realized how appropriate it is to release a book called Pilgrim Strong a few days before Thanksgiving. No one will ever believe it, but I swear, the idea never entered into the marketing plan. I’ll take the lucky break and run with it anyway.)

I wept many times yesterday applying some of the final finishing touches. So many memories, so many things learned. This has been a long walk, indeed, and in many ways everything about my life is somehow now relative to the experience of walking and telling the story.

Last week I made acquaintance with an author/speaker/entrepreneur who I’ll work with in securing book reviews later this year. I asked her to read the manuscript and offer a blurb if the story so compelled her.

One of the many comments she offered was regarding a short color sidebar story about a letter Dana wrote the night before my departure. She commented about the beautiful language Dana used and the depth of thought in her last sentence.

She’s so right. Not only was it an encouraging letter. It was magnified by her self sacrifice.

I don’t know what it’s like to live as a woman. But I have 51 years experience now at being a man, and am pretty good at it. Every man should know the peace and comfort that comes from a letter like this when it’s penned from the person he loves most in the world. I’m a lucky man.

Dear Steve,

There is a flood of emotions right now. I am so proud of you. Anxious. Excited. Curious. Every feeling you can imagine. You are sleeping now as you prepare to go.

Thank you for scheduling your trip around our anniversary. It was all so special.

I know you can hardly contain your excitement. Do me a favor as you walk. Enjoy. Smile. Laugh. Be amazed. You deserve this, darling. God is excited, too. He will enjoy this time with you.

Love,
Your basherte for eternity.
Dana

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Pilgrim Strong Book Update

With Annie O’Neil who wrote the foreword to Pilgrim Strong.

You should write a book they said. It’ll be easy, they said.

And truth is after 12 years as beat newspaper reporter, three years as a congressional press secretary, and working in my own publishing business another seven years, it made sense that writing a book would be easy. It’s just a long story, after all. Fifty thousand words or so instead of a few hundred.

That is SO not true.

Completing Pilgrim Strong during the last 18 months has been just as much a test of endurance and humility as walking 500 miles across the Way of St. James itself, the background experience on which the memoir is penned. Some moments were amazing. Other times, walking away altogether came to mind.

There are many books available about the Camino de Santiago experience. In some regards we’re not plowing new ground here and it’s everyone’s right to publish a book. But I wanted to write a good book, different from most others, and one that would occasionally make the reader think about his or her own life and their place in the world. Maybe we’ll achieve that. We’ll know soon enough.

A few updates on where everything stands. Every writer makes a decision early on to publish in a traditional sense (with an agent and a publishing company or some combination thereof), or to self publish. I explored both options in depth. Ultimately, I decided to self publish Pilgrim Strong because I knew marketing the book and managing the publishing process would be enjoyable. Plus, it would all be a great learning experience. Plus, I’m impatient.

  • About the publishing process: That means realizing the goal of book in hand, and more importantly book for sale in late October, requires managing deadlines among four people – me, an editor, cover designer, and interior layout designer. If you start at the end and work backwards, get an understanding of what everyone needs and how much time, build in several weeks for frustrating screw ups, you can actually pull it off. We are knee-deep in deadlines for everyone now, and all parties are actively working.
  • That includes me and it might surprise you to know at this point the copy is not 100 percent complete.  The “takeaway” for the reader suggested in the final chapter and epilogue is important and I wanted to take an extra long time thinking it through. It’s in my head, and in rough notes on paper soon complete.  There are several “takeaway” themes in the end including: understanding our need to join something bigger than ourselves, drilling down to our core and having peace when we find it, understanding the nature of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, and the joy and adventure we find when we take the initiative to go looking for our great identity. I told you this isn’t the typical camino book.
  • In the midst of production, the marketing campaign is under way. Truth is, the marketing began a long time ago, even before I made the first step on pilgrimage. It just worked out that way. People who know me know how much I love marketing, and truth is my greatest fear is the marketing strategies will surpass the actual book quality. It’s a fear that nags me every day.

Released just this week, an amazing story from the Way of St. James.

  • It’s been a privilege to work with, and receive support from respected professionals in the publishing industry, and in the “pilgrim community.” Pilgrim Strong has testimonial endorsements from Patrick Gray and Justin

    Paul Stutzman’s Hiking Through

    Skeesuck, authors of the just-released I’ll Push You; Andrew Suzuki, documentary producer of Beyond the Way and Don’t Stop Walking; Paul Stutzman, author of Hiking Through; Kurt Koontz, author of A Million Steps; and David and Anna Dintaman Landis, co-authors of A Village to Village Guide to Hiking the Camino de Santiago.
  • It was a great thrill that my friend Annie O’Neil agreed to write the foreword. Annie is an author and documentary film maker. She directed and produced Phil’s Camino and co-produced Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Her book is Everyday Camino with Annie.
  • Beth Jusino, pilgrim friend, writer, editor, and publishing professional has provided invaluable advice along the way, and without her willingness to act as a sounding board it wouldn’t have been pretty. Among other works, Beth is the author of The Author’s Guide to Marketing. She is currently publishing her own camino memoir. Beth’s giftedness promises it will be one of the very best in its genre.
  • Promotional trailers are currently in production. The first is scheduled for release on July 4. These are actually fun to imagine and create with the help of my friend Raney Rogers.
  • The cover is scheduled for completion next week. Still thinking about the best way to execute the big reveal, (understanding this is a bigger deal to me than anyone else, ha).

That’s a general recap of where things stand at the moment and with some luck Pilgrim Strong will be available on pre-sale in late October and for direct purchase the week of Thanksgiving.

As mentioned above, the awareness campaign begins now. There are lots of ways you can become a part of the group that helps spread the word from now until November. Drop me a line if you’re interested!

Buen camino for now.

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Chapter 31 – Home

“Travel does not exist without home. If we never return to the place we started, we would just be wandering, lost. Home is a reflecting surface, a place to measure our growth and enrich us after being infused with the outside world.” ~ Josh Gates

Few experiences will bring a person to a full knowledge of their senses as traveling alone. Maneuvering a far-away land will heighten your awareness at every level. It’s the thing I’ve learned over time that brings me most alive. It’s not so much the getting away from things as it is the freshness of new, uncharted experience. Traveling alone builds confidence, character, and offers a perspective on the world that is achieved no other way. Comfort zone boundaries are demolished and necessarily overcome when you have no idea what to do next, and no other choice than to figure it out. But there is nothing that stirs the blood as standing at the helm of your destiny.

Solo travel can also have a life-changing effect on how a person thinks about home.

After a walking a million and a half steps across Spain it was comforting and exhilarating thinking about the familiarity of home, but I was petrified of the conversations surely ahead in future social situations.

Somewhere over the ten-hour North Atlantic flight home it occurred to me. People are inevitably going to ask you to talk about this. And most of them are going to say, ‘Well, how was it, and what was it like?’ As surely as the sun rises, people would ask that question just as if it had been a long weekend vacation on the beach. I feared my any given trigger reaction to the empty questions.

All of a sudden there was a keen awareness of an inadequate fragility that goes with returning home after a hallowed and humbling experience that has changed you in ways too early to understand. Never speaking of it again would have been perfectly fine. That’s how it felt at the time, anyway.

***

Wheels down in Memphis concluded a remarkable seven-week odyssey. As the reverse engines roared I exhaled deeply blowing out what seemed every emotion God ever made.

Stepping out from the aisle seat on Row 10, I reached to the overhead bin and strapped on my backpack a final time. A text from Dana brought a wide smile. I’m here! The Delta captain stood at the cockpit’s entrance as passengers deplaned. I thanked him and shook his hand for the safe trip home.

The C concourse for arriving flights at Memphis International Airport is simple and uncomplicated with the feel of a regional terminal. From the furthest arrival gate it’s no more than a five-minute walk past security to the point where friends and family await weary travelers. At the last left turn there’s a final thoroughfare short enough you can see past the TSA checkpoint and make out faces in the eager crowd. Home always happens when I see my wife’s face there.

Just before the turn my hands went automatically to their familiar spot on the backpack straps and a sequence of images from the last seven weeks raced vividly through my mind. It was incredible what had happened really, and the fragility came full-bore.

Fifty yards down the concourse she was smiling the purest most familiar smile I know. It easily came to mind what a blessing she’d been and how much I loved every single thing about her. Reaching around her neck I began crying unexpectedly and couldn’t let go. It was so hard, I remember choking out and holding her tight. It was just so far, and so hard but I didn’t quit. The embrace must have lasted a minute as travelers walked politely around us. Home can be anywhere for me as long as Dana’s there.

At home, a long hot steamy shower with fresh smelling soap and a soft towel was a momentary rejuvenation from three consecutive days of non-stop travel, but short-lived from a desire for sleep in my own bed. For the next twelve hours things went black.

We avoided people for days and Dana kept me well insulated from the outside world, aware of my desire to stay clear of people and conversation. Eventually visitors came. “We want to hear all about it,” they said. The predictable sweeping nature of the question made me ill.

“You’ll have to ask some more specific questions,” Dana jumped in. “I don’t think he really knows how to answer the big open-ended questions yet.” She saved me.

The truth is that most people ask these questions only for the sake of polite social chit chat. It’s required decorum, and the only thing we know. They really don’t care, and it’s not really their fault because they could never understand. Some have labeled it the Seinfeld Effect. You’re telling a story answering someone’s question about one of the most unique experiences of a lifetime, and in five minutes, they’re staring off into space, completely uninterested, wondering which Seinfeld rerun will air next. This happened countless times and it’s one of several reasons the story of pilgrimage is so personal and private.

In some ways I was completely prepared for what came next. In others, I’m still figuring it out today.