Countless yellow arrows pointing the way to Santiago de Compostela have guided me 930 kilometres through Spain last weeks. I must have walked more than a million steps, spinning the globe under my feet to pass by sea, forests and plains, mountains and strangers-turned-friends. What a journey it has been!
W.F. Hermans and his book “Nooit meer slapen” come to mind in which he marvels about the strength of our bodies. About the miracle of a knee joint taking blow after blow without breaking, whereas metal or steel would have surrendered to fatigue long ago. My knees did not break, they grew stronger and took me all the way here, to Santiago and finally to its public library where I sit now looking at the empty word document in front of me.
I’ve learned so much during this Camino and had so many experiences worth sharing that I’ve often thought about how to write them down. It is small stories based in personal experience that can fill some of the gaps caused by the absence of a big story in our post-ideological society. I’d like to pay my share. A modern fairytale à la the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho would certainly be the most elegant way, if only I would have his writing skills..
Today I share an experience with you that I feel has become symbolic for what the Camino taught me. Other small stories will follow suit in the coming weeks.
“The greatest thing you´ll ever learn..”
One moment on the Camino impacted me profoundly. It taught me the most important lesson of this journey and as so often with the great lessons in life, it´s a very simple truth. Recognized by billions, possibly by all of us, but often snowed under by the trivialities of life.
In between Burgos and Leon, surrounded by the soaring hot plains of the Meseta, lies a little town with a church which size is typically out of proportion. I could already see it in the distance as I approached through all encompassing fields of gold. Tired from the walk and the midday heat (40 degrees Celcius!) I was delighted to find a parochial albergue just next to the church. Run by a group of friendly nuns in white robes, this simple shelter offers everything a tired pilgrim can wish for (say a shower, bed, communal kitchen and heaps of friendliness). I was given a bed in the dormitory and after a quick rinse surrendered to a deep siesta.
It was music that woke me. Three clear and sincere voices supported by a guitar climbed the stairs in harmony to reach my ears. Not some ´happy-clappy-Jesus-song´ but a beautiful ballad, eluding all my rational protection mechanisms and hitting me right in the heart. Part of me wanted to turn away, hide for this merciless music, but I knew I wanted to hear it. I got up, walked through the now empty dormitory and climbed down the stairs to find a group of about 30 pilgrims surrounding the singing nuns. Everyone listened attentively. The only other sound was produced by a one year old boy driving his toy car back and forth in semicircles between the strong legs of his father. The nuns saw me join and one of them welcomed me with a smile and a twinkle in her eyes.
“Why do you walk the Camino to Santiago?” the nuns asked everyone. I answered, “I walk the Camino to better learn to truly give and truly receive”. In retrospect, this musical intermezzo with fellow pilgrims helped me accomplish exactly that.
In a way, it is nothing out of the ordinary and at the same time this little gathering was so special that it moved me deeply. When the nuns finished singing, they asked if someone wanted to share a song with the group. After some hesitation, a fragile guy volunteered and sang with growing confidence -eyes closed and head swinging from side to side. Our genuine applause afterwards turned his humble face in a big beaming smile. We sang a little more and then a woman with a ukulele performed a Bob Marley song, incredibly laid back but equally intense.
It must have been a combination of things, the beautiful and sincere music shortcutting my rational control, being away from home and business as usual, and most importantly the genuine openness of the other people. Everyone present seemed stripped of all irrelevant disguise or defence. Predispositions stemming from things like race, social class or professional roles were absent and I felt so incredibly related and embraced, so touched that tears ran down my face for the entire hour.
My tears did not remain unnoticed by the nuns and in their ultimate wisdom, they decided it wise to push me to share a song with the group a cappella. Embarrassed by the state I was in and having lost my voice because of it, I didn’t follow their logic and thought singing a song in front of 30 people was the last thing I needed. Accordingly I said no when they asked and I said no the second and third time. To make up for my refusal I did accept the drums coming my way and searched deep within for all rhythmical skill I could muster.
The nuns turned out to be very persistent though and didn’t let me get away. The oldest of the three turned to me and asked me one final time. Was it the way she looked at me? Or maybe because I got used to the idea, anyway I surrendered and I sang (originally by Nat King Cole, but beautifully performed by Peter Cincotti):
There was a boy
A very strange enchanted boy.
They say he wandered very far, very far,
Over land and sea.
A little shy
And sad of eye,
But very wise, was he…
And then one day,
A magic day he passed my way,
And while we spoke of many things
Fools and kings,
This he said to me:
“The greatest thing
You´ll ever learn
Is just to love
And be loved
Only afterwards I realised how well this song (“Nature boy”) fitted the situation, the Camino and my personal journey. If there is one thing I’ve learned during this walk, it is that we can’t do it alone. That I can’t do it alone, to live I mean.
True connection with people is probably the most important condition for us to be happy. Loneliness is something I am too familiar with, and I think it might be the biggest problem of our modern societies. I don’t mean a loneliness in the sense of being literally alone, but one caused by shallow connections, our inability to reach out, truly connect.
Thanks to the insistence of the nuns I finally gave in. I let me be embraced by the group and sang a song for everyone in one of my most vulnerable moments. One of the most connected and beautiful moments in my life.