Saturday, 12 October 2019

'For the least of these...'

Cafés filling for breakfast; traffic on snooze for Saturday morning; the tap, tap of walking poles; modern buildings giving way to ancient; Galician bagpipes blasting out merrily; a crowd gathering excitedly; music amplified raucously; spires reaching for the heavens.  These were the sights and sounds as I walked into Santiago de Compostela around 9.15am on 5th October at the end of my pilgrimage on the Camino.  

These were not the only things that I saw and heard.  We remember things differently. You would have observed things that I do not, and vice versa.  We have selective memories and choose what to report and what to keep to ourselves.  There are things I have not yet reported, and I cannot keep to myself.  If I did, I would be as guilty as the priest and Levite who walked by on the other side, in Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan.  The heavily pregnant woman who knelt in silence in the middle of the path on the way to the Cathedral, a small pot in front of her.  The dishevelled man outside the entrance to the Cathedral, his eyes pleading, his begging bowl waiting.

It’s not my practice to give money to such as these.  They say it only exacerbates the problem.  The more who give, the more who beg.  Also, I don’t know their circumstances.  Are they genuinely in need?  Or are they there for easy pickings?  I avoid making eye contact.  I appear to ignore them.  Yet I hear the words of Jesus ringing in my ears, ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’  I cannot help all, but neither can I ignore all.  

My response through walking the Camino has been to invite sponsorship for Toybox, whose mission is ‘changing the world for Street Children’.  Toybox works in countries such as Bolivia and El Salvador, Nepal and Kenya.  Toybox exists to see:
·       A World with no Street Children
·       No child living on the streets
·       No child working on the streets
·       Every child safe from exploitation
·       Every child safe from traffickers

Toybox does everything it can to target those in genuine need.  I know this because one of the staff is a member of my church, and she makes regular visits to ensure that it is the case.

I’ve been hugely encouraged and amazed at the generosity of the many who have sponsored me.  All of this giving goes to Toybox.  At the time of writing, it looks like together we will have raised over £2000.  That’s awesome!  It’s not too late to add to that if you would like to.  Below, you’ll find details of how.  Thank you so much for your support of me on the Camino, for your giving, praying and encouraging.

-->We can’t help everyone in need, but we can help some.  And Jesus says, ‘Whatever you did for the least of these… you did for me.’

Please scroll down to my blog of 4 July 2019 for more details about how to support Toybox through my giving page or 
click on 

Tuesday, 8 October 2019

The Journey goes on...

I made it!  Exactly one month after leaving St Jean Pied de Pont, I arrived outside the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela having completed the Camino Frances.  

I had deliberately done extra miles on the previous day, so that I could arrive early on Saturday.  Every pilgrim that completes at least the last 115 kilometres from Sarria to Santiago qualifies for a Compostela.  To prove that you have done so, you must collect stamps in a ‘Credencial de Peregrino’: at least two per day from Sarria, and one per day before that.  These can be obtained at albergues, churches, bars, restaurants and shops and sometimes, wayside stalls.  On arrival in Santiago, it’s important to proceed as early as possible to the Pilgrim Office to book your place in the queue for a Compostela.  I arrived there around 9.30am and was 390 in the queue.  Thankfully, there is an online app by which you can check where the queue has got to so that you don’t have to stay there for hours!

I arrived alone outside the Cathedral, feeling quite emotional at the thought of the month-long journey and all that I had experienced.  I had hoped for a few moments of quiet reflection, but the square was filled with people, music and the beginnings of a basketball tournament on temporary courts.  There was a feeling of celebration, and I decided that I had better embrace the atmosphere.  Within moments, I was embraced by members of my Camino family who had arrived the previous day: Darius, Blathnaid, Sabine, Christian.  As the day went on, others arrived: Jess, Mack, Daniel, Mark, Theresia, Gill, Stephan and Annelie, Mauru, Bea, Katya, Daisy.  In fact, I was so caught up in catching up that I nearly missed my slot to obtain my Compostela.  I went running on sore feet down to the Pilgrim Office to find that the queue had reached 388.  Just a few moments later and I would have missed my slot and had to rejoin the queue from the back; a wait of some hours!

During the rest of the day, I visited the tomb of St James inside the cathedral (currently closed for worship due to renovations), did a little shopping, found the Seminario Menor Albergue where I was staying for my last night, went to a Pilgrims’ Mass and enjoyed a quiet celebration meal with Theresia and Gill.  The next day, I was able to catch up again with a few friends, before taking up the kind offer of a lift to the airport from the afore-mentioned well-known comedian/comic actor who was on the same flight home as me.

What now?  After a month walking the Camino, it’s going to take a while to adapt to ‘normal’ life back at home.  I’m not really ready to leave behind the Camino, and I’ve realised that I don’t have to.  For me, the Camino is not so much about following the Way of St James as about following Jesus, who calls us all to follow him.  He said, ‘Yo soy el camino’ – ‘I am the Way’ (John 14v6).   I believe and hope and pray that walking the Camino will help me to follow Jesus better.  Whether or not I ever return to the Camino de Santiago (and I hope I do!), the Camino continues with Jesus wherever I am.

Buen Camino! 

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Laying down my burden

A few days ago I reached the high point of the Camino both literally and spiritually. I rose at 5.30am and left my albergue at 5.50 to begin the ascent to Cruz de Ferro with the aim of being there for sunrise, around 8.15am.  The first part of the walk was by starlight. In an area free of light pollution, I could easily make out the constellations and the Milky Way.  It was awesome and reminded me of the hymn, ‘How great thou art’.  After a short stop for coffee and tortilla, I continued my journey and reached my  first objective of the day just as day was dawning.

Cruz de Ferro is a small iron cross on top of a long wooden pole. It’s origins are steeped in mystery. The most interesting legend is that St James, whose Camino it is, was on mission in this part of Spain. He came across an altar being used in a pagan ritual of human sacrifice. In righteous anger, James grabbed a small stone from his pack and threw it at the altar, which shattered into a thousand pieces. James erected a large cross in its place in honour of the power of the almighty God.

Whatever you think of that story, Cruz de Ferro is a special place. It has become a custom to bring a small stone from home and to lay it down at the foot of the cross, as a sign that you are laying down a burden.  For many people, including me, it was an emotional thing to lay down our stones. There were hugs and tears, smiles and embraces as people shared in this cathartic experience.

Of course, we don’t have to go to a specific place to lay down burdens.  We can come to the foot of the cross wherever, whenever, however we are.  I was reminded of the words of Psalm 55v22: ‘Cast your burden on the Lord and he shall sustain you’.  1 Peter 5v7 is also helpful: ‘Cast all your anxiety on him for he cares for you.’

Having laid my stone and spent a few moments by Cruz de Ferro, I crossed the road, found a gap in the trees and marvelled at the spectacular sunrise. It was a reminder that the Lord does care for me, and a day that will live long in the memory.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

The Good Way

The Good Way

‘This is what the Lord says, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.”’ (Jeremiah 6:6)

Perhaps it is inevitable, but many Camino walkers are at a crossroads. There are those who travel between jobs, using the opportunity for time out to prepare for the next challenge. There are those who seek to discern their way ahead. There are some who seek closure on a relationship gone wrong or a way through the pain of bereavement.  I have spoken with one person who felt himself falling into temptation on the Camino and sought my counsel.

Some are people of Christian faith, some follow other faiths, some have no faith that they would own up to. Some would like to find faith. Camino walkers are a very diverse bunch!

As some readers will know, I met a famous British comic who is on the Camino. He even bought me a drink! I asked why he was walking the Camino, and his answer was that he has always wanted to do so. That may be the simple answer of many, but perhaps there are deeper reasons. Even on sabbatical leave, I find myself being a pastor. I hope that my listening and my words point people to see where the good way is and find rest for their souls.

In case you are wondering, I don’t consider myself to be at a crossroads, but I am finding rest: in the walking, in the interactions and friendships with others, in the stay at albergues each day. Tonight’s (Wednesday 25/9) albergue in Rabanal is a particular joy. It is run by the London based Confraternity of St James. I write these word sitting in a large orchard garden awaiting afternoon tea. God is good!

Thursday, 19 September 2019

Hospitality on the Camino

Hospitality on the Camino

Most pilgrims on the Camino stay each night in Albergues. A night’s stay will rarely cost more than 10 Euros, usually between 5-8 Euros in a shared dormitory and sometimes they are donativos i.e. you pay what you can afford. They range from modern purpose-built hostels to obscure side-street rundown dwellings to historic monasteries to ancient chapels.

One such was Ermita de San Nicolas that I stayed in a few nights ago. This was a small 13th Century building, restored and run by the Italian Confraternity of St James. At one end of the single room were the 8 beds , with a further 4 on a mezzanine floor. In the middle was the long table around which we pilgrims ate our meals. At the far end was a small open chapel. The building had no electricity, so both dinner and breakfast were by candlelight.  Before dinner, we were invited to have our feet washed as a re-enactment of  Christ washing the disciples’ feet. We prayed the Lord’s Prayer together in our own languages. Dressed in a kind of knights’ tabard, with scallop shops hanging over the front, one of the hospitaleros washed one foot, while the next one dried and kissed it! Each one of us had a prayer prayed over us that we would safely reach Santiago. Then we were served dinner – simple fare but lovingly shared.  We sang a few impromptu songs, mainly in Italian. We were taken outside to see the stars, spectacular in an area of little light pollution. It was a truly special evening as we conversed together in our various languages. In the morning breakfast was served, there was another rendition of the Lord’s prayer, a further prayer for our journey and hugs for each of us as we went on our way.

It leaves me asking, how does my hospitality match up? Will I open up my home to all-comers, especially to those in particular need? Do I bless people as they set out and continue on life’s journey?

It’s food for thought  from a very special night at a very special place.

Thursday, 12 September 2019

After 8 Days on the Camino

After 8 days walking in which I’ve covered 154 miles, a routine has developed. I get up around 6am and onto the Camino by 6.30-7, with my head torch on. At the earliest opportunity, I stop for breakfast including strong coffee. There will be at least one more stop for lunch. By 2pm I hope to have found a bed for the night. If an albergue is full, I move on.  Once settled in, I shower, change and then wash my walking clothes. Hopefully, they’ll dry in time for the next day!

Sometimes, I walk alone and other times I chat to others. Conversations can become deep very quickly. Although not all pilgrims will journey to Santiago, we have a common direction – east to west - and many of us have a common destination.  On my first day, one woman shared that she was hoping to reconnect with God after suffering abuse in an outwardly respectable Christian marriage, and losing faith.  Yesterday, an American pilgrim told me how he found faith. He was searching for meaning in life.  He saw an ad in a newspaper lying on the ground. It asked, ‘Who is God?’ He rang the telephone number and his faith journey began.

Of course, I share my story too.  I also speak of Toybox, seeking to improve the lot of street children around the world.

At the time of writing, I am staying in a lovely village albergue. The owners are Brazilian, and have connections to the writer, Paolo Coelho. In a short while I will enjoy a shared meal with other pilgrims. It’s smelling delicious!

Please keep praying for me. My feet are blister-free, but my left ankle and right knee have today become a little swollen.  It would be good to experience healing!

Saturday, 7 September 2019

A Postcard from the Camino

Postcards from the Camino

Here I am! There’s been much planning, training and waiting, but finally I am walking the Camino de Santiago from St Jean Pied de Port to Santiago del Compostela.

Day 1 was easier than I expected.  About 16 miles up over foothills of the Pyrenees, joining many other pilgrims. I walked on my own and I walked with others. I had many conversations along the way, some superficial but some quite deep as we shared why we are walking the Camino.

Two particular things stand out. At dinner in the Albergue at Roncesvalles, I was telling Steve, a retired US forces captain, that I am raising money for Toybox by walking. When he heard about the plight of street children with no birth certificate, he spontaneously and quietly slipped me 20 Euros. Such generosity! After dinner, I joined many other pilgrims for Mass in the church. We were blessed by a 30th Anniversary performance of an excellent local choir. Such harmony!

Today (Day2) has been a long day – 23 miles walked. The Camino is very busy and many hostels are ‘Complet’ i.e. full. I am blessed to be staying at a ‘Donativo’, a hostel where you pay or not, as you are able. At dinner, we were 20 people around the table, made up of about 10 nationalities.

I aim to send a few more of these ‘postcards’ as I journey.

Buen Camino!