Why I Walk

Pilgrim X is a nickname Claire and I gave a muscle-bound, chain-smoking hiker that we met on our Camino in 2009. She walked quickly, rarely stopped for lunch, and trekked ahead of the group with an angry, fevered gait of someone being chased.

The last time we crossed her path, our current Camino family had gathered around an outdoor patio, walking back and forth throughout the night to the local bodega for refills on homemade wine.

Stories fueled by the beauty of the night came pouring out, the impending “gates-lock-at-10pm” hour still a few hours away. In a small town like Azofra, there isn’t much to do after 6 hours of hiking but eat, drink and exchange stories.

“She’s gotten so boring!” Pilgrim X suddenly yelled, half-laughing and half through controlled tears. Her face filled with rage as she stared into her glass and the group went silent. She’d given her daughter up for adoption when she was young, and 18 years later, located her just before the Camino.  “She’s a typical, boring person with nothing interesting about her. She’d be interesting if she grew up with me.”

A hiker reached out for her hand. I felt guilty for having judged her without realizing what she was battling with.  She didn’t need or want advice. She just needed to be heard. The next day she walked ahead of us, flying past us an onto a different Camino rhythm.

****

A few months ago, I mentioned to a friend that I was considering walking another Camino. I followed up with my usual addendum, “It’s been a Catholic pilgrimage since the 9th century, but people walk it now for all kinds of reasons, spiritual or not.”

I say this not as an excuse, or to discount those of the Catholic faith, but rather to ensure the conversation is as open as possible. There are a lot of understandable assumptions made about those who Ben and I called “Christian-ists” (those who claim to be Christian but do not actually act that way — and to differentiate them from the many Christians that do), and I want to make it clear I have no agenda in our conversation.

Why would someone walk a 500-mile pilgrimage twice if they don’t believe in the religion that has maintained it for nearly the past millennia-and-change? I say maintained because the Camino is said to have pagan origins before King Alfonso II built a chapel on what is believed to be St. James’ gravesite. Originally the Via Finisterre, pilgrims traveled to the “land’s end” in search of the setting sun for rebirth.

Back to the conversation. My friend then said, “Oh, that makes more sense! I was confused. I didn’t think you were super religious.”

I was actually relieved. I always assumed people thought this but didn’t say anything in fear of offending me. It took years to convince my very open-minded, Joseph-Campbell-studying husband that the Camino was not filled with the fake Catholics in our small American towns that made us feel guilty for our imperfections. If he felt that way, I can only imagine the resentment and discomfort that understandably comes up for others that deal with the same connection.

I am a practicing Buddhist.

That means I meditate, study Buddhism and practice the teachings and philosophies of the Buddha. I believe in rebirth, escaping Samsara, the whole nine yards. I’m still confused about aliens and other planets, but that’s another post entirely.

I am also a practicing Buddhist who was raised Catholic.

The same month a group of catty and hurtful “Catholic” mothers guilted my family about my lack of CCD attendance (while my mother was going through chemotherapy), the priest of our church sat me down and said that spending after afternoon talking about my spiritual beliefs and helping him sweep up the church would suffice. It was the first time a leader in the church gave me the permission to have my own ideas, see the stories of the Bible as a metaphor and actually take a moment to reflect on my own. From then on, I knew how to separate the “Christian-ists” from the Christians, even if my actual beliefs made me neither.

I am a practicing Buddhist who was raised Catholic and walked 2 Catholic pilgrimages.

At one of the hardest psychological times of life, I fell upon a five-week walk across Northern Spain. I went back two summers ago after realizing that I was one of the thousands that had become addicted to this mysteriously powerful road.

At the end of my first day of my 2017 hike, I was distraught with the idea that I wouldn’t make it another step. The trek over the Pyrenees Mountains hit my body much harder than it did in 2009. I’d have to go home after the first day, years of saving and planning down the drain.

In need of some hope, and honestly just a place to cry in peace, I hobbled into the pilgrim mass after dinner in the small town of Roncesvalles. Pilgrim masses on the Camino often clearly state that they are for everyone that needs a break, not just Catholics. When the congregation was told to stand, we all reached out our hands, braced ourselves on the pew in front of us, and balanced onto shaking, swollen and possibly injured legs. Some didn’t make it up. Others like me stayed leaning.

I looked around. I get to walk with all of you. You’re my people this time. I get to hear your stories. I wondered where Pilgrim X was now and hoped (prayed? meditated on?) that she had found some peace.

The mass ended with the priest announcing the blessing in every language represented in the room based on the sign-in sheet at the hostel.

I am a practicing Buddhist that sings in a local Catholic choir.

I love me some classical music and choir nerdery. Singing in midnight mass this year is one of the most powerful Christmas memories I’ve made up until this point in my life. But the decades of infuriating news and horrific crimes committed in the church weigh on my mind every time I walk into mass each Sunday. I am torn in two directions. I see a room of pilgrims looking for hope after a long day over the Pyrenees and I look to the priest for some sign of penance. I cringe each time the church illegally combines politics with mass, disrespecting my role as a woman in their eyes. I am torn by the dissonance of the peace it brings me and what it represents.

And yet, I am a practicing Buddhist that was raised Catholic, that sings in a Catholic choir, walked two Catholic pilgrimages and now has two more on the horizon in the fall of 2019 and 2020.

Why? Here’s the deal. I don’t believe that Jesus rose from the dead, but I do respect how the story gets some people to put one foot in front of the other. I don’t believe in transubstantiation, but I feel like a more peaceful and hopeful person when I participate in mass. I don’t believe that St. James is actually buried in Santiago de Compostela, but my life was completely shifted by the road the story maintained.

On the combined 70 days on my two Caminos so far, I’ve heard hundreds of stories from people all over the world while walking through fields and woods and climbing mountains and descending steep, slippery cliffs. I spent three hours with a group of six people from around the world, hosted by a man from Poland who had walked 12 Camino in his lifetime. He filled the table with food and then pitched a tent outside to save money.

I’ve sat in stone churches built in the 12th century in the same spot where someone else hundreds of years ago sat just like I did. I try to soak in their stories and I try to leave mine. I came home from my first Camino with a clearer memory of my own childhood story. I started writing publicly for the first time because of it.

I leave the Camino like a girl walking out of the library with a bounty of books. I am changed from all the stories I find there and I come home with less judgment about the stories that other people hold onto to get themselves through the day.

I go for the freedom to feel inspired by stories even if I don’t believe them to be literal. I go for all the stories I’ll get to tell my family and all those who wish they could go but aren’t able. I go because other people’s stories — alive or not — change who I am.

I know I don’t owe anyone an explanation. I don’t even own myself one. But if this explanation helps other people open their ears to other’s stories or seek out new ones on similar journeys, well then I’m glad I wrote this rambling blog post.

So that’s why I keep going back. Thanks for reading.

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