It was early morning on the 8th day of my hiking the Camino de Santiago, and, as I approached a group of three ladies, I could tell they were speaking English. This wasn’t entirely unusual, as about a third of the pilgrims I encountered spoke my language, but I hadn’t understood anyone since dinner the night before.
As I closed the distance behind them, I realized they were Irish, speaking with quite a brogue. We introduced ourselves, with the typical small-talk, and they inquired as to whether or not I´d been to Ireland. Well of course these stories of Camille, my oldest daughter being a many time American Irish dance champion, with the resultant trips overseas, including Ireland came out. Soon we were discussing our friends Donica and Sheena (I never can get the Gaelic spelling of their names right, so I won´t even try), who own a B & B in Roosky, in Rosscommon.
As we chatted about such stuff, we walked through a typical small town in rural Spain, with the one beautiful village Church crumbling. Of course this then became a topic of discussion including the magnificent cathedrals throughout the place in much need of repair, and the consolation it brought to see at least a few of them being restored.
I made the passing remark that the churches in ruins were perhaps but a commentary of what has happened to Christianity throughout Europe and beyond. The Irish ladies, from a wonderful island that had provided perhaps more priests than any other part of the world, then commented that the church scandals had really damaged people´s faith, as well as any support of religion whatsoever, especially in Ireland.
The light-bulb, of course, then went on. I pointed out that throughout life, our leaders – our parents, elected officials, scout leaders, friends, mentors, and yes even our priests and ministers are in fact “waymarkers.” They serve to guide us, to point the proper direction, to guide the way. The problem is that all of these “waymarkers” are simply human beings, with all the weaknesses, frailties, and sinful tendencies that all of society, all of us have as humans – it is the “human condition.” Not to belittle the scandals, or any sin for that matter.
The Camino de Santiago is an assortment of routes that lead to the Cathedral of San-tiago (Spanish for St. James), where St. James the Greater, one of Jesus three closest companions was buried. Along these routings are markers to let the pilgrims (perigrinos) know that they, indeed, are on the right road. Most of the times the markers consist of a small, simple yellow arrow, painted on the street, curb or side of a building. This instills much confidence after hours of hiking that the weary traveler is traveling in the right direction. Outside the cities, towns, and villages the waymarkers are constructed of concrete, small pillars about three feet tall, with the symbol of the Camino attached as a ceramic tile to its side. These are strategically placed to greatly aid the perigrino by confraternity volunteers, and are greatly appreciated for the same reason. You come to expect these at regular intervals, every few miles, and start to feel lost and question your path when you haven’t seen one recently. Its rather easy to daydream, or get lost in thought, contemplation and prayer and miss an indicator which may have indicated a turn, for instance.
Most of the waymarkers along the road were in excellent condition, well maintained with fresh “clam-shell” icons, and a coat of paint. A few had a few cracks, but were generally in acceptable shape, and served the purpose of guiding us in the correct direction. However more than a few were in dis-repair, crumbling, and a couple in a sad pile of rubble on the ground.
And so the metaphor seemed obvious. Because our way-markers are also human, they can crumble, like we can, and often do. “Still,” Irish Eileen exclaimed, she’d “not be going back into a church anytime soon.”
“Fair enough, I replied, “but perhaps this gives us some thoughts to ponder. The fact that our way-markers crumble doesn´t stop our journey, only to throw our hands up and quit. Furthermore, we leave the paths ourselves, even when they’re well marked, by not paying close attention, or thinking we know a better way. “Eileen laughed and muttered under her breath, “Something tells me you’re no longer talking about Spain.”
“Of course I am, but not ONLY the Camino de Santiago, also the Camino de Life!” Just a few days ago, I left the marked path because someone from Germany told me there was a more direct way. I left what I had known and trusted because I had heard there was a better path. Soon I was on a cow path that lead to a stream, and I had to turnaround and look for a way back to ‘the way.’ That was an honest mistake, probably my misunderstanding. But some people even lead us astray intentionally, because they don’t even think there even exists a final destination, and to them, it’s all about today, having fun, screwing everyone along the way.”
“And sometimes those we trust the most, just let us down. Our parents fail in their marriages, or have addictions; our friends really aren’t; and those who we look up to just fail. Because they’re all humans, they’re screw ups like us.”
“Although I doubt he coined it, a famous Jesuit retreat-master named John Powell SJ, shared this advice:
You don’t leave Peter because of Judas!
“So you’re right, it’s not just about being here in Spain. It’s about being fully alive. Everywhere we turn, we’re told to enjoy the moment, you only live once – ‘It’s all about me!’ Well, it’s not ‘All about me!’
“An ‘All about me’ attitude creates a selfish, entitled mentality. This draws us away from the path, and gives those in power license to use people, and destroy lives. The President that cheats, the priest or teacher pedophile, the addicted spouse. Then the victims and observers, ironically, take their own ‘All about me’ attitude that they get to make their own rules, because someone they once trusted was frail, and human, and made mistakes, even horrible ones.”
“Of course we expect our leaders to have a higher standard. And when they look at themselves in the mirror, I´m sure many are disappointed in themselves. As I am many times. As we all are, if we´re being honest.”
“Anyway, I’ve gotten off the path lots of times, and now I really feel like I’m back on it. Look down, this road still leads to Santiago, there will be twists and turns along the road, with the need to have guidance when there is an obstacle. The Church and all she offers, the Word of God, the Sacrifice of the Mass, the social gathering strengthening and supporting each other. The fact that the markers sometimes crumble is irrelevant to the goal, the desired endpoint. It’s not just about “me,” it’s about “God and me,” and because of that, its about, “You and me.”
They smiled politely, and said they’d be stopping for some lunch now, realizing I wasn’t going to join in the bashing of the monster they had encountered. Not that we shouldn’t fight the monster, and we certainly must protect our children, but it’s important to have perspective, and realize that monster is everywhere, in some form. Judas isn’t always the dark sinister figure in the shadows, often he looks back in the mirror.
Those words were easy to say. When the rubber meets the road, it’s often a bit more difficult. My children have never been abused, or raped, or even taken advantage of.
But we’ve all been disappointed, and let down. Just a few days ago, someone that I’ve grown to love and trust, and help me discern lots of important decisions acted in a way that, at the time, felt hurtful. My human side reeled, and I felt indignant. Then I did my best to stand back and learn those lessons that life has been trying to teach me. These are still my friends, and have made decisions they thought were correct.
We all make decisions based on the information we have in front of us. Seldom do we intend to hurt our friends, and so, in turn, we should give that benefit of the doubt to those we’ve invested our trust in. Sometimes a course of events appears to turn in a direction that we hadn’t expected or wanted. With deeper consideration, we’ll likely find that we, in fact, are still on the path, or with simple adjustments can get back with an improved tool-set from this experience.
The direction of our Camino leads to ¨Santiago” Let’s not give up the journey because we sometimes get lost or are confused as to whether or not we´re on the right road. There is a right road, a correct path. It does exist, and we all do our best to stay on it. Buen Camino