Monday, 22 June 2015


So I fill my pack. The buckles snap shut with a familiar click. The textures of clothing and folding metal; the rounded shape of the top pocket; the light press of the straps on my shoulders ; the weight of it; they are all so known and so redolent with the feel of senda under my shoes and the heat of the Spanish sun on my back.

I am longing to be there, where each step is a simultaneous welcome and farewell. To hear a dozen different languages everyday and have my English met with uncomprehending stares.  Where everything I encounter will be seen for the first and for the last time. Where I am surrounded with antiquities and walking with familiar strangers.

This time I wish to enter as fully as I can into the path. I have a deep sense of call to this journey. I don't know what it is going to mean but I know that it is something about endings and that will be significant.  So I don't intend to blog or tweet or facebook. It was difficult deciding whether or not to take a camera: in the end I decided I would ( a little waterproof Panasonic) but not so much as a way of making a record or sharing the experience as a way of helping me to look and see.  Unless you share DNA or office space with me you won't have contact details. My children will have them, as will Debbie, but for anybody else I will drop off the planet on July 5 and reappear virtually in August sometime and in early September in corporeal form.


This morning I assembled the gear I will be taking with me on the Camino del Norte in just under 2 weeks time.

My gear list is:

1 Osprey Talon 44 pack, with hydration bladder, pack liner and pack cover
1 pair Salomon Cosmic boots.
1 pair Teva sandals
3 pair socks
2 pairs lightweight hiking pants with zip off legs.
3 T shirts (1x merino, 2x polypropylene)
3 pairs underpants (polypropylene)
1 lightweight merino pullover
2 lightweight hiking shirts
Waterproof jacket (lightweight Marmot  Goretex )
Waterproof overtrousers
1 season sleeping bag (packs down REALLY small)
Oilskin hat
2 neck scarves
Large enamel mug
Folding cutlery set
Lightweight hiking towel
Cell phone and charger
Waterproof, shockproof camera and charger
Small notebook and pen
1 copy of Perazzoli and Whitson's The Northern Caminos
Various documents
Small medical kit to treat blisters, headaches and other ailments I might be prone to.

I also need a knife big enough to cut bread and sharp enough to slice tomatoes. Obviously these characteristics would lend themselves to my slaughtering the crew and flying the plane to Baghdad, so I'll need to buy that in Spain, probably at the same time and place when I get the large stick suitable for leaning on and scaring dogs - and also of course for jihads.

After getting all this stuff together, I set aside what I intend to wear on the plane and packed the rest.
So far, so good. Now for the moment of truth. I weighed it.
Darn! 120 grams over. I want it under 7kg so it can go as cabin baggage on planes. EasyJet who we will be using in Europe are particularly fussy about this.  I can easily solve the problem by wearing my raincoat on the plane  and putting the notebook in the pocket. Just the thing for a Spanish summer.

Monday, 15 June 2015

All you need is...

An early foray into Photoshop. Or in this case Paint Shop Pro. 
My trusty old Canon EOS 300D, my daughter Catherine's hand, a jigsaw puzzle overlay, a piece of clipart, . 

Human beings bond in a number of ways. We have all manner of instinctual drives inherited from our evolutionary past; we have needs (for intimacy, pleasure, friendship, affirmation and a thousand more besides) which we depend on other people to fulfil. We have hidden parts of ourselves which we project on others so that we can, in relationship with those others, work  out our inner conflicts by proxy. We have our inner cravings for power or esteem or security which we imagine that others can satisfy for us. 

Of course we usually don't, unless we are powerfully self aware, identify in ourselves these and all the other complicated  dynamics by which we are bound to others. Instead we feel that great, overwhelming sense of dependence on and attachment to, which we label "Love". This cocktail of emotions and feelings and, occasionally, thoughts we have for and about the other is concocted according to a variety of  recipes, depending on the individuals involved, and although our focus is compulsively on the beloved, actually, it is all about us. 

The love which Jesus commands his disciples to have for one another; the love that is the very nature of God; the love which I have written of elsewhere, is a very different thing, although it is not necessarily incompatible with the attachment I have just been speaking of. Scott Peck uses a definition of love which seems accurate to me:  

The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing ones own or another's spiritual growth.

Spiritual growth means, in this instance, the development of potential. It is becoming formed in the image of God. It is becoming whole. When I love someone I willingly extend myself in order that this might happen. Now of course it is easier for me to do that reaching out to the other and exerting myself for their ultimate good if I am kindly disposed towards them, and I will be very kindly disposed towards them, well, most of the time, if I am emotionally attached to them. It will be easier, but it's not necessary. I can in fact work for the good of all manner of people, even those I don't much like and for whom I feel repugnance rather than attachment. (and repugnance usually has more to do with me than with them, but let's leave that one for another day.)

Working for someone's spiritual growth does not necessarily mean doing things they will particularly like. And of course we all have mixed motives;  in most relationships the extending yourself for the other gets hopelessly muddled up with the stuff I talked about in the first couple of paragraphs.  It's not easy to know whether I am extending myself for another's spiritual growth. Nor is it easy to tell if they are extending themselves for mine. We can tell by looking back over very lengthy relationships, and there is one point in all relationships where it is apparent, namely its end. All relationships end, one way or another, and at their ending a question can be asked: "What has been the effect of this relationship on the other?" Are they bigger, better, wholer people for having been in relationship with me? Have their life's possibilities opened and multiplied? Are they more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kindly, good, faithful, gentle and self controlled (Gal 5:22-23) for my knowing them? If this is true to any degree then it is likely that I have loved them. 
But correspondingly, I can ask "Are they smaller, diminished people for having been in relationship with me?" Have their life's possibilities closed and shattered? Is there less of the fruit of the spirit and more of the fruit's corresponding shadows (Gal 5:19) for my knowing them? If this is true to any degree then whatever it was that bound us together wasn't love.

And of course variations of these questions will accurately tell me whether or not the other has loved me. Careful analysis and fretting over their feelings and thoughts about me might illuminate the nature of their attachment to me, but the extent to which s/he has been instrumental in  my wholeness and growth is the extent to which s/he has loved me.

I have been very aware lately of those I love and those who love me. And I know that whatever there is  in me  that is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable; if there is any trace of anything excellent or praiseworthy (Phil.4:8) it is because of these people who have extended themselves for my spiritual growth. Who have, in other words, given me the gift of their love; that gift which is as enriching to give as it is to receive.

Thursday, 11 June 2015

An Intentional Pilgrimage

Immediately after the apostle James, the brother of John, was killed, his disciples placed his body in a stone boat that had no oars and no sail and no crew. Guided by Angels the vessel traveled to Tarshish,  that is, to the end of the world. There, in the place we would now name the North Western coast of Spain, the miraculous craft was met by two disciples who took the body and buried it. The resting place of the great apostle was forgotten until, in 813, a monk named Playo had a dream in which a star fell to earth and landed in  a certain field. When Playo went to the field he had dreamt of and dug there, he found the remains of the apostle. The timing was perfect. The Moorish conquest of the Iberian Peninsula was almost complete, but the discovery of these important relics emboldened the Asturian Christians. In a battle at Clavijo, which took place soon afterwards, James himself, mounted on a white horse, appeared before the Christians and led them to a glorious victory.

Or so the story goes.

In fact, people walk the pilgrimage to Santiago not because of this story, but they tell the story as a way of explaining the pilgrimage. For two thousand years before Christians walked the path, pagans did it to practice a rebirthing ceremony at the end of the world, which involved pilgrims burning their clothes and donning new ones - a practice which is still followed, at least vestigially, by those who make it all the way to the sea. So why then, really, do people undertake this costly, difficult journey? I don't know. And I don't think anyone else knows either. As the story began, so also began the cult of Santiago Matamoros (St. James the Moor Killer) and as people began to visit his relics, that of Santiago Peregrino (St. James the Pilgrim). In the 12th Century the Bishop of Santiago, Diego Gelmirez devoted huge energy to promoting the cause of St. James, and the pilgrimage to Santiago Compostela (Which may be a corruption of the Latin for St. James of the Star Field. Or perhaps St. James of the graveyard). He had huge success. At its height in the middle ages a half a million people a year traveled to Santiago Compostela to pray at the shrine of the saint. Over the centuries the pilgrimage fell into disuse, but in the last few years of the twentieth century it has seen a staggering revival, with well over 200,000 a year making the approximately 800 km  journey by foot, bicycle of horseback.

The pilgrimage isn't so much a route as a network of routes with several scores of tracks wending their way through every European  country, some from  as far away as Moscow or London. Within Spain there are six main routes, with several smaller tracks branching from them. The most popular route; the one Clemency and I have already walked, and the one many people know from the movie The Way is El Camino Frances, or the French Road,  which runs from St. Jean Pied de Port in France through Pamplona and Leon and Burgos. Longer and more difficult are El Camino de Madrid, which runs up the centre of the country from the Capital and the El Camino del Norte, The Northern Road, which runs along the coast, through the Basque Country and then through the ancient kingdoms of Asturia, Cantabria and Galicia, all of which are now autonomous regions, and all of which which only grudgingly accept their place in Federal Spain. .

 The crypt of Santiago cathedral, in which there is a silver coffin containing the saint is what the Celts would call a thin place: a place where the normal insulating layer between this world and whatever else there is, is torn. Or cracked. Or perhaps, more accurately, worn thin. And the whole path, all 120 - 900 km of all the 6 routes is a thin place - it isn't for nothing that many call it the Path of Miracles. And what makes it thin? Is it something to do with the way the universe is structured that in some parts of it,  the great silent secrets of the universe are more easily glimpsed? Or is it that the faithful tread of those millions of hopeful, prayerful feet over thousands of years leaves a sort of psychic footprint into which all those who follow must necessarily step? My Sabbatical will be about holy places. And as part of it I will enter this particular holy place as fully as I can, and I will also very deliberately go to perhaps the most unholy place on earth.

And so, in one months time I will be somewhere on the Camino Del Norte,  on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, not so much thinking about holy places as letting one of them speak to me and guide me as it sees fit.

Friday, 5 June 2015

An accidental pilgrimage

I have a new car. Not that you would have noticed because it is exactly the same make, model and colour as the old one. The crucial difference between old and new is the row of digits in the odometer, but there are a number of changes that Mr. Mazda has seen fit to implement over the last 3 years, mostly small, mostly cosmetic, which are probably only apparent if you have sat in the old one for 90,000 km. It is quieter, and has a newly designed gear lever, and a different font in the electronic read outs, for example. It  has a much improved stereo,  not that there was anything wrong with old one and there is a new and improved  navigation system.

So last night I was at a meeting in Riversdale, exactly 2 hours and 19 minutes from home. The navigation system ascertained that I wanted to go home and plotted a route for me. It wasn't the one I would have chosen, i.e. the one I could drive blindfolded, but one that headed off in what seemed to me to be entirely the wrong direction. But what the heck, it was only 9:00 pm, I wasn't going anywhere else, so I decided to follow where it led. And that was a way which, 24 hours ago, I didn't even know existed. It turns out that a maze of gravel roads runs in a line which roughly parallels state highway one, following small river valleys, carving around hills and through pine forests. It isn't in bad repair though it often gets down to a single lane. There are frequent large dayglo pink signs which say
It was dark. I was caught in the tension of wanting to get home as quickly as possible and knowing that taking corners too fast in gravel can be tricky, particularly if you don't know where the road is going after the corner. I only lost my footing once, and I got home only 7 minutes slower than I would have done via the more conventional route, which means that I had to concentrate very hard on the road and be very present to it. In other words, for about an hour, I found myself on pilgrimage.

A road, and please be patient while I state the absolutely bleedin' obvious, is a path between where you are now and where you want to be. Few roads take the straightest and most direct route. They must conform themselves to the geography, human and physical which lies between their starting and their ending which means they curve and rise and fall and climb and dip. They form because a number of people follow them, then they become fixed in place and are entities in their own right.

Halfway to Dunedin last night I realised that I was, to all intents and purposes, lost, although the GPS didn't think so. It gave me a path. The only way to get home was to trust that the path would take me there. That is, my only participation in my destination was it's presence in the path I was on. And here is the heart of pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage is about following a path to a sacred destination. The destination is of course symbolic, a metaphor for the spiritual and intellectual goals which we are pursuing in "real" life. The Pilgrim path symbolises  the life journey we are on from where we began, through where we are now (mentally, spiritually, emotionally, physically) to the place we want to be. And, as with any road the pilgrim journey and our inner journey both are shaped by the geography (cultural, personal, physical)  through which they are passing. Further, the great goals of our "real" life: happiness, union with God or whatever they may be are not actually real yet; they are anticipated, and we are pursuing them but we don't yet have them (otherwise why would we be pursuing them?) and the only reality our great goals have are  the limited, anticipatory way they are present in the path we are walking at this moment. The path is the place of tension between our origins and our goals; between that which we have left behind and that which is anticipated but not yet real. We give ourselves to the path; and to the extent that we manage to be present to the path we are also present to who we are and where we are going, as these things are expressed in the path NOW. We do this symbolically in pilgrimage, but in a strange, sacramental way, as we pursue the metaphorical goal of the pilgrim journey somehow our "real" life goals get worked out.

Pilgrimage is not tourism. It is not good healthy exercise. It is not sightseeing. It is not meeting lots of really interesting people.  It is not enjoying an exotic cuisine and culture, although at times it bountifully encompasses all those things. Pilgrimage is a spiritual practice, which encourages, for a few weeks, living in the moment. It is a practice in which engaging with a very real path makes some quite abstract realities - our origins and our destination - very present and puts these realities into close and sometimes painful tension.

Last night I drove through the dark, under a full moon and the cloudy remnants of a rainstorm. I was present - to the road; to my safe, warm, frugal, comfortable car; to myself. The goal of Glenfinnan place became a sort of sacrament and I was aware of the larger path in which this small path through the hills of Otago was held.  I was slow home. I was greatly blessed.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Beginning again

In exactly five weeks time we will be in Barcelona. The hotel is booked, though bookings for the train for the journey to Irun won't open for a week of two yet. Five weeks tomorrow we'll be on that train heading North to the coastal route of the Camino Santiago. It'll be hot but I hope not too crowded, at least until we join up with the Camino Frances at Arzua, which is about 40 km from Santiago. We should be doing that about 4 or 5 weeks after we start. Sometime in the next week or two we'll need to go through our Camino gear and see what needs replacing.

After walking the Path of Miracles we'll be doing a few other things, including a pilgrimage to Auschwitz. I've looked at the best ways of getting to Krakow and we're trying to figure out how to fit all we hope to do into the time available. In the next day or two we'll have a schedule, will have decided between train and EasyJet for getting about in Europe, and will have made the necessary communications with the people we're hoping to visit. All that is the easy part.

The tricky bit is that five weeks out our fitness levels are nowhere near where they need to be. What with one thing and another there hasn't been a lot of time for taking long walks. But I'm not stressing unduly about that. Our GP assures us that Clemency's sternum will be OK in time, and although she won't be doing a lot of long walks in the next month I think her residual fitness will be up to the task.  This time around we have a good deal of flexibility in terms of time and we'll be taking it pretty easy on the opening stages. I hope.

Clemency and I sat last night, each with our devices on our laps companionably looking at hotels and train timetables and scanning the Internet for cheap internal airfares. And, after all that has been going on for us, individually and together, finally allowing ourselves to look forward and to be excited by this next great adventure.