When I decided to make the Camino for a month people would ask me, “Why attempt such a challenge?” I had no specific reason except, in a general way that there would be personal spiritual benefit for me and for my parish, in that this Camino might bear the fruit of a greater effort and fervor for the new evangelization; other than that I would be open to whatever blessing the Lord would bestow through Saint James.
The first day when we began the ascent of the Pyrenees I was somewhat apprehensive. That day was a day of a long and rugged crossing from Saint Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles. The descent was so steep that it was more precarious than the ascent, especially with the backpack. I was so pleased with myself that I accomplished that about which I had been apprehensive that my thoughts were far from spiritual.
On the descent my mind wandered to the days of Charlemagne’s paladin Roland and I imagined myself walking in the woods as a medieval pilgrim about to sight Roncesvalles, where Roland died in battle as a man of Christian bravery. The Song of Roland had so captured my imagination as a child that I was remembering elements of the narrative. That evening we had a beautiful Mass. When the lights dimmed and focused on the statue of the Virgin Mary we chanted the Salve Regina. I was thrilled and stunned by the beauty of it all. It was a wonderful day. I had accomplished a lot and was ready for the next day.
On the way to Pamplona I realized that the blisters on my inner heels were not healing as quickly as I wished but continued to compromise my pace, especially when walking over loose stones. About half-way there we stopped to take off our boots and I realized I had a problem. There was a gathering of pilgrims at the river and we engaged in conversation with a young Catholic man who had just finished nursing school. He had been in discernment about a vocation and still had an interest in discernment. He later caught up with me and said we were blister buddies. Both of us had a steady but slow pace because of the blisters. About an hour later I asked if he would attend to my blisters. We sat on the side of the road. I had some moleskin to share as well as toe pads which he needed. I was struck by this simple gesture that lead to a profound conversation that was a blessing from Saint James that I would not have received if I had not been given these blisters.
When we arrived in Pamplona I realized I should seek medical attention but my pride would not give in. In Pamplona we attended a Rosary service that included a litany and procession. I notice it was lead by young adults bearing candles and they were clearly young men with special needs. They were carrying the candles with such pride. I dedicated that Rosary for the development of our ministry to families of children and adults with special needs. The image of the young man bearing that candle with such devotion remained with me. My thoughts turned to the affirmation of the dignity of human life and the great gift given in mutual vulnerability.
On the way from Pamplona to Puente de Reina my pace was slow but steady and so I struck up a conversation with a British pilgrim who was struggling with blisters as well. I asked this pilgrim what was the reason to walk to Santiago. The response was intriguing. The pilgrim said although a child of the Protestant Reformation that prohibited such pilgrimages this was a rediscovery of pre-Reformation roots. There actually may be spiritual benefit to what had been suppressed by the Reformation as superstition. This early morning conversation inspired me to embrace the challenge and inevitable pain as an act of mortification.
As I began the ascent to Alto Perdon I resolved to make the day an act of penitential mortification. Although I do not understand how it works I will gladly embrace such an ancient practice for the love of Jesus with the intention for a greater outpouring of charity in the life of my parish and in my own soul as a pastor of the church.
So, a difficult ascent in recognition of my own sins against charity and they must be legion because of the pain of these blisters. And the descent was every bit as challenging. As I tried to be careful not to stumble because the blisters were compromising my balance my thoughts turned to our Lord who stumbled on his way to the cross out of love and charity for sinful creatures whom he loves.
When we arrived as Estella I was worn out from the intensity of the sun. That day I had dedicated to the flourishing of the new special needs ministry which is so vital to the affirmation of the dignity of human life. When we entered the pilgrim hostel I noticed a difference in that the receptionist was struggling to enter the passport numbers. I turned to the left and saw this posted: “Welcome to this hostel whose staff is composed of people with intellectual disabilities.” Each step of the Camino that day had been prayer dedicated to people with special needs and the conclusion of the day was to be received as a guest by people with special needs. This was very unexpected and emotional. I welled up from within and had to withhold tears that were ready to flow. Then I noticed posters around the reception area. I had dedicated a day of prayer for children and adults with special needs not knowing that at the end of the day they would be caring for me as a pilgrim on the way. A blessing from Saint James!
Later in the afternoon Tom and I went for a walk and met the young pilgrim nurse who two days earlier helped me with my blisters. He had great empathy because he had been compromised by blisters. He soaked my feet and attended to them with the care of Holy Thursday. The older German man and an Italian man were concerned as well. I persisted in my stubbornness because my pride was more wounded than my feet. Early in the morning Tom said he needed to go to the doctor and so I conceded. The doctor prescribed an antibiotic to fight the infection that had set in. That meant that we would lose a day but could catch it up on a bus. This was a blessing in that it gave us time to talk to the woman at the hostel about this European outreach to the disabled. As she spoke with such love, and shared videos, I felt waves of emotion overwhelm me because of the tenderness with which she embraces the disabled and welcomes them as full partners in life and not marginal but full participants. What an unexpected blessing from saint James!
Sometimes we get caught up in the myth that one has to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps that we forget the gospel of mutual vulnerability which calls us to pull together for the flourishing of our humanity, whose dignity flows from a God who became as vulnerable an infant for our sake. Once again my agenda to press on was impeded by blisters but they slowed me down because if not I would not have received this blessing from from Saint James.
The next day I met a Dutchman who began his walk from Holland to Santiago. I saw him at Mass that evening. He had the bunk next to me and when I removed my socks he asked what happened. After I told him he shared with me his story of being slowed down by a foot injury. Although it detained him a few days he said it has a blessing from Saint James. When I told him how happy I was I got over the mountain he added that Saint James had given me a blessing in those blisters as a reminder that humility is the heart of our humanity renewed in Christ.
That is a hard lesson because it was impeding me from doing what I want to do; but then maybe this is a lesson or another blessing from Saint James, that I let go and walk this Camino with an openness to what the Lord wants me to learn. Tom says every time he puts on his backpack he thinks of the gospel exhortation to “take up your cross and follow me.” The Dutch pilgrim spoke to me such a gospel truth, that even these blisters are a blessing from Saint James. I think I am almost ready to let it go so Saint James direct my every step to embrace him in Santiago.