One of the most common questions on the Camino is "Where are you from?" Because of my nomadic life, I have always had to read the question behind the question when this question is posed. It would be easy on the Camino for me to say "Tucson" I suppose. It is where I have lived for the 10 years and technically, it is still my community of assignment (for a few more weeks). But in reality, I left Tucson a year ago and haven't considered it my home since I finished my work at the Newman Center (although, in a very real way, Tucson will be a home to me in my heart forever.) So the answer is always complicated. Jerusalem and Salamanca have been good short-term homes for me during my sabbatical and Salamanca is still my home base here in Spain. And, of course I am gearing up for the move to Antioch in a few short weeks. Such is the life of itinerancy. Such is the life of the Dominican Friar. We move from community to community, none our possession, none our true home.
The Camino de Santiago has been a wonderful metaphor for this itinerancy. It has been a series of communities for me on a number of levels. As I have walked the Camino, I have visited, stayed with and prayed with 3 different Dominican Communities of the Spanish Province. I have also stayed in hostels and albergues run by various other orders, affording me a glimpse into their lives and the opportunity to pray with them. Even as I write this, I am the guest of a community of Benedictine Monks who have offered me hospitality and rest for an ailing foot. They have a rich life of prayer and service to pilgrims, and their hospitality is a gift beyond measure at the moment. I have been edified by the full church at their Masses and their daily office.
Beyond the literal movement from religious community to religious community and from town to town, the Camino offers a number of other rich lessons about itinerancy and community. The connection between my vow of poverty and itinerancy has never been more apparent than when I have to move day to day with everything I need on my back. And it is shocking and wonderfully freeing to know that the contents of a 45 liter backpack are enough; that 2 shirts, 2 pair of underwear, 2 pair of pants, 4 pair of socks, and my habit are plenty of clothing. The demand of simplicity and the desire to carry as little weight as possible on my back quickly teaches us lessons about dependence, interdependence, and simply doing without, that I hope all continue to affect my life when I return to the US, and especially as I prepare to move my things from one community to another.
And then there is the other experience of community that one encounters on the Camino: the communities that form as we walk. I was robbed or the experience of community in my first few days of walking in France. The experience of walking in solitude profited in its own way, but I am a communal creature and I found the lack of a pilgrim community defeating. Since St. Jean Pied de Port, the experience has been much more rich precisely because of the relationships that I have encountered on the way. From day one, the first night in Orisson, I have been a part of several communities of pilgrims. That first group formed around the communal meal and a dice game at Orisson. I walked with Chris, Sarah, Dave, Richard, and Susan for the first few days. Michelle joined us on day 2, and we made our way to through those hard first days, through blisters and rain and mud, but always with great humor, red wine, local beer and lots and lots of laughter. When I said goodbye to that group at Pamplona, there was the real sadness of goodbye to a community - one forged of common hardship and accomplishments. I am still in touch with them. Others have come and gone from that group and I still come across some of them (with great joy) here and there on the Camino, and they have a special place in my heart because we conquered the Pyranees together.
Since leaving them, I have formed other small communities with different individuals and small groups around shared meals, shared lodging, a shared washing machine, and, very often, around shared walking. There's Gary the Canadian and Dutch Ellen, who themselves formed a community early on and invited me in to share dinner with them. In one meal we formed a nice bond and I have walked with them sometimes since then. Then there was the Australian couple, Michael and Lisa, who were walking with the three Irish girlfriends. We walked together for a few miles over a couple of days. Michael and I bonded over a common interest in roller coasters and amusement parks(he's a coaster photographer). Texas Terry walked with me the last few kilometers into Logroño and took my mind off the heat of a very long day when the walking was still very hard. Keith, the evangelical minister and his young friend, Marcel were a community for me over a few days. Keith and I talked theology and the state of our churches. Tim the Oblate who is in a hurry to get to Santiago was my walking partner for one day. Enrico the Philosopher and Dominican aspirant from Germany was my community for a day. Lynne is an American from Colorado. We spent 2 days walking together and hanging in the same Albergues before she rented a bike in León and went on ahead. Irene the Spaniard, Monica from Denmark, Rhea from Germany. These are people who were part of my community for a few days. Sam and Katrin are Camino friends with whom I have shared miles and meals; and I keep running into Andy, Barbara, and Daniel, an unlikely threesome that have invited me to enjoy their company on occasion. Greg the guitarist from San Jose and I have formed community around singing and a common love for American folk music. Steve from Mobile, and Pepe and Buzz, have invited me to share meals with them along the way. In between times of walking alone (now a precious commodity and opportunity for prayer, reflection, contemplation), these little communal experiences, some deep and some momentary, provide rich conversation, commiseration, opportunities to unload, and conversation to take our minds off the difficulty of the task at hand. It is amazing how much more quickly the time and miles go by in the midst of good conversation. These small examples of community break up when one stops for lunch or a coffee break and the others decide to go on. There is no shame in needing the break and no foul in deciding to keep going. Sometimes the community breaks up over different lodging plans, or the decision of one party to take in a few extra kilometers. Perhaps we will see each other again, perhaps not. For the moment, we have enriched each other and shared the community of the Camino.
Liturgy has provided some communal experiences too. As a priest, I have often celebrated or concelebrated pilgrim Masses in various stopping points on the Camino. I have shared unique community with the various priests who have welcomed me to their sacristies and sanctuaries and allowed me to share their celebrations. But it has also given me opportunity to connect with some other pilgrims. At Carrion de la Conde, the pastor invited me to help with the individual blessing of pilgrims at the Mass. It was, by far, the most meaningful such blessing I have experienced on the Camino, both as priest and as Pilgrim. Many of the people I blessed have seen me in subsequent stops or on the Way and shared with me how meaningful it was for them. Then one young American couple that I blessed in Carrion, later shared with me that they have had to walk a shorter Camino because they found put just before they left that she is expecting their first child. They asked me to bless them and that was a poignant powerful moment of community. Community that comes out of my priesthood is a reality in my life and it is interesting how that has been typified on the Camino too. The confessions I have heard, the communion and blessings I have given, the stories I have listened to. These are Camino community too.
One special moment of community also started with those blessings in Carrion. Last night I ran into another man, Alberto from Northern Italy, who had received the pilgrims blessing from my hands. He too has stopped in Rabanal for a couple of days of rest. Earlier in the day I noticed him consulting with a few people about blisters he had "treated" earlier in the Camino. Each of these people were eternally grateful for whatever he had done for their feet. Later, noticing that I was limping, he asked what was wrong with my foot. We had a long conversation and then he went into action. First he brought a basin of cold water and told me to soak the foot, While I did that, he prepared a basin of hot water and told me to alternate between the two. He then brought salt water for me to soak in. He shared ointment and stretch bandage and rather specific instructions for how to proceed on the Camino. It turns out that he is a mountain manager at a ski resort and knows a lot about foot care and foot injury. I was profuse in thanking him. He told me that he had been greatly blessed by what I did (a priest giving him a blessing) and it was the least he could do to return the blessing. "You are needed on the Camino," he told me, "we have to get you back out there..."
This foot issue has been the occasion of much community. Matt, the American doctor examined it, advised me, shared some codiene, and encouraged me to stay off the foot for a few days. Bonnie, who has had her share of foot issues and who has been walking near me since St. Jean Pied de Port, introduced me to Mike, who is driving a van on the Camino as a support vehicle for a group of American students who are walking. Mike welcomed the company and offered to let me ride the rest of the way to Santiago if that's what it took to get me there. I don't ask for or accept help easily. I am very independent and don't much like having to depend on others. That part of community has always been challenging for me. Once again, the Camino provides the lesson in microcosm.
Bosco and Helen are the Camino Community that keeps popping up in my Camino life. They are a couple from New Zealand who are married 36 years. They have traveled extensively and we find lots and lots to talk about when we walk together. We have often said goodbye to each other thinking that our different itineraries would cause us to go our separate ways; but somehow we keep finding our way back to each other. So we have stopped saying goodbye. We have shared life stories and Camino expectations, we have prayed together, eaten together, walked and rested together. The one time that I had an "albergue crisis," I was walking with them and a young American woman name Minnie. We arrived in Terradillos de los Templarios after all the albergues were full. The hospitalero at one Albergue called ahead for 10 kilometers and found that all possibilities were "completo." So that night, Helen, Bosco, Minnie, a Brazilian couple (Wellington and Vivian) and I slept on mats on the crowded floor of the common room at that albergue. It was a great experience of community! I was afraid I had really lost Bosco and Helen after Leon, not having seen them for four days. I ran into Minnie yesterday and she too had not seen them. So it was a pleasant surprised that that little community was reunited yesterday in Rabanal, where Helen and Bosco are also spending a little retreat time with the Benedictines.
Community is one of the pillars of Dominican life. It is one of the reasons I am a Dominican. I share a special bond of community with my Dominican brothers, especially with my classmates and those with whom I have ministered over the years. Community is an important part of the way I understand the Christian life and the way I practice ministry. How many times have students and parishioners heard me say "Community is the canvas on which the rest of the Christian life is painted?" Community is simply an important part of my life. How grateful I am for the friendships that are still part of my life from all the many phases of life, places I have lived, jobs and ministries I have had, and both momentary and long-term communities of which I have been a part. Itinerant life does not preclude relationship, and in many ways, itinerancy has demanded the formation of community even as I have move from place to place.
So I guess I should not be surprised that community would be one of the lenses through which I would come to view the Camino. Nor am I surprised by the lessons about community that the Camino is teaching me. It is the itinerant life in microcosm. And, as in my life, I am so thankful for those who have made up my little Camino Communities, and I look forward to the blessings of communities to come.
Some of you may have grown weary of all the images of medieval and Baroque art I have been posting from the Camino. Thanks to my Dominican Confreres who run the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora del Camino near Leon, I can provide some more modern images.
The half way point of the Camino is an excellent time for reflection anew on what I am doing here. I have met so many amazing people in the last 4 weeks. Yes, I have been at this for 4 weeks today. Each of those people had a motivation for walking the Camino. Some have reflected on it and are able to express their motives succinctly. Others, when asked, ramble around until they land on something. Some aren't able to express it at all. Some reasons are profound (self-seeking, God-seeking, spiritual searching), others (forgive the judgment) are less so (seemed like fun, had nothing better to do, challenging). Because I am Priest and because I am readily identifiable as a priest, lots of people talk to me about their motivations. I have met an incredible array of life stories and they are, each of them, sacred and have been given to me as a sacred trust, so I will not go into details. But I have been surprised by the depth of grief and loss I have encountered on this road: people who are walking away from broken or ended relationships, people who are grieving lost loved ones, people who have experienced devastating life changes. Perhaps they walk away from the pain and grief and are walking toward a hopeful and brighter future as they carve away the kilometers.
There are others who are experiencing changes that are less grief-filled, but nonetheless involve profound changes: retirement, change of job, new stages in life. Again, these people are walking away from the past and toward the future.
I love the couples walking together. Older couples in their winter years, walking out of deep conviction and remarkable care for each other. Middle aged couples who simply enjoy the adventure of being together. Even young couples still getting to know each other and walking toward an unknown future together. There are even those who I wonder if their relationship can survive the pressures of life together on the Camino.
I marvel at those people who just "woke up one day and decided to walk 500 miles. " And there are a lot of them. They too are probably walking away from some things and toward others. Even if it is not clear to them.
Me? I have talked about the life-long dream that is being fulfilled by this exercise. But of course, there are other levels to consider. There is a part of me that sees this as part of a continous journey of snap hearts towards better health. From my first profound weight loss nearly a decade ago, to better awareness of healthy eating, to a discovery of the enjoyment of physical exercise, I am seeing that I will end this pilgrimages in the best shape of my adult life. I am walking toward health.
The spirituality of the pilgrimage is a walking toward prayer and away from the distractions that keep me from prayer. I still have a lot of alone times on the Camino. Those have become great moments of prayer.
And then there are the vocational realities. This Camino is part of this inter-assignment sabbatical. This has been a year of walking away from Tucson and the remarkable 10 years that made me love that place, that community, those people. It is a year of grieving and letting go.
But it has also been a time of learning and formation for the future; preparation for new realities down the road. I know now that I am headed to an entirely new ministry, new community, new people, new challenges. As I head down the second half of the Camino, I am walking toward the end of my Sabbatical and the new wonders that await me in Antioch, CA.
There is an earlier post on this blog entitled "There Ain't Room Enough In This Town..." I just realized that the text of that post never got uploaded to the blog, only the title. I have lost the original text, but it said something like: "When I wander into these small towns wearing my habit and backpack, I stand out a little. The towns folk openly and unabashedly stare. I imagine myself like the outlaw coming into the desert town in those old Westerns. Everybody looks out his window at the stranger who has slowed up and in anticipation of the coming confrontation."
Rewriting this has given me another opportunity to reflect on the wearing of my habit on the Camino. A few days ago, at a coffee stop, a man asked me, in a rather condescending tone, "Do you WALK in that... 'outfit'?" It took him a couple of seconds to come up with the word 'outfit.' And I think he realized he had crossed a boundary with the question. My friends were amused as I sarcastically responded "No I just change into it for coffee stops..." I then explained that I was a Dominicahasn priest and that the 'outfit' is the habit of my Order.
I have met with lots of different responses to the habit. Most often, people simply ask me if it is hot walking in it (It is.). I am also asked if it is hard to keep clean (It is.). I really appreciate the kind of question that a young Spaniard asked me on Monday: "So what's your story?" I prefer that question because it makes the discussion about a person, nor about an object - the Camino us about people.
For the record, I made the personal commitment to wear my habit on the Camino, because I consider this a Spiritual Exercise and I tend to wear my habit for Spiritual exercises. Also, my walking the Camino is the last part of an amazing year of reconnecting through formation and education with my Dominican identity. I have been blessed to live this year with Dominicans all over the world in different international situations. That has given me an amazing reaffirmation of my Dominican vocation and the love I have for this Order.
As to people's reactions: it's a mixed bag. The habit definitely inspires conversation. For many people, it immediately identifies me as a religious. I get the occasional "wow, how refreshing to see a religious walkingsee the Camino in a habit!" For some, they simply don't know what to think (there's a lot of crazy people out here on the Camino). For some, it is a definite wall that makes them uncomfortable. For these people, it makes me less approachable. When I am aware of that, I can disarm the situation and be inviting in other ways. There is a noticeable (almost immediate) negative reaction by a particular segment if the population walking: middle-aged American women. I don't really know what to do with that unless they engage me in conversation (One lady from Berkeley went out of her way to explain to me that all these Virgin Marys in Spain are really fertility goddesses and that she loved sitting in the presence of the feminine energy.)
There are a couple of practical reasons to wear the habit: it is an excellent sun shield and makes me very easy to find in a crowd. Today while I was walking along a deserted road in the Castilian countryside, an approaching bus stopped, an attractive blond lady got off the bus walked up and gave me a big hug and said "You're Greg's friend!" Of the hundreds of pilgrims that bus passed this morning, the tour guide of my friends group knew I was me because I am wearing my habit. Many people say things like "I saw you about a kilometer ahead of me. You were easy to spot in the crowd."
Full dusclosure: knowing I was going to have to wash the habit by hand, and it would need to dry quickly, I actually had one made (thanks Kim Breen) of very thin poly-cotton fabric FOR THE CAMINO. And I still hate washing it by hand. So, when I can I spend the money to have it machine washed and dried. It is more wrinkled every day than I would typically wear it. But you do what you can. All in all, I am glad to represent. I am a Dominican. I am walking the Camino in the same way that Our Holy Father Dominic walked wherever he went. There is no real evidence he ever made the pilgrimage to Santiago, but we know he walked all over northern Spain' and I am very blessed to be walking in those footsteps AS A DOMINICAN.
My very favorite response to the Habit was from my Dominican brother in Burgos when I arrived at the Convent: "¡Fijate! ¡Andas en el habito! ¡Que testimonio!" He gets it. And I pray for the grace to be that walking testimony.
Follow the yellow arrow.
Follow the yellow arrow.
Follow, O follow, O follow, O follow,
Follow the yellow arrow.
We're off to Santiago - de Compostela....
The second time I saw the movie "The Way," the scene in which Tom, Sarah, and Joost meet Jack (the blocked writer) reminded me of the scene in the Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy meets the Scarecrow. Inevitably, every time I have seen the movie since (probably more than 20 times), the Oz metaphor has extended: Tom is Dorothy, Joost is the Cowardly Lion, and Sarah the Tin Man. It is not a perfect metaphor, but like the Oz quest story, our travelers find no wizard or magic in Santiago; only the realization that what they had been seeking was inside them all along. Like Dorothy and her fellow travelers, this improbable community of pilgrims became so focused on the mythical destination, that they failed to notice the transformations happening along the yellow-bricked road itself.Now it is I who am on the Camino, making my way, little by little, to Oz. From the time I crossed into Spain, I have been singing "Follow the yellow arrow..." and that ubiquitous arrow has become the constant reminder to me that there is no wizard in Santiago de Compostela. In fact, if you listen to the post-modernist skeptics, there are not even relics of one of Jesus' Apostles in Santiago. (For the record, I am not one of those skeptics. I believe that there is a real possibility that Santiago's relics are there, but that is another post for another time.) Regardless, there is no magic in Santiago de Compostela. Yes, for millions of pilgrims over the years, Santiago has been a destination. But in one sense, it is just that: a destination; a plot on the map. The yellow arrows, like Dorothy ' s yellow bricks, are a constant reminder to keep moving forward torward that destination. But to do so cognizant that there is no man behind the curtain and that the miracles are happening, not in Santiago, but on the road marked with yellow arrows.
My pilgrim's hat is decorated with pins and "campaign ribbons" from various pilgrimages that have made up my time in Spain. Two of them have yellow arrows and say "El Camino es la meta." ("The Camino IS the goal.") The yellow arrows do not so much point to a destination as remind us that each day, as we walk, as we make our WAY (CAMINO), we have reached that day's destination. Each day, we, like Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion, are to discover in ourselves and on the Way, that which is inside...
Last night, at Mass in Zubiri, the priest read the Gospel from John 14 in which Thomas asks Jesus to show them the Way, to which Jesus responded "YO SOY El Camino... Nadie va al Padre, sino por mí."
Tonight when I heard the same Gospel again at Mass here in Pamplona, I checked to find out that the priest yesterday read today's Gospel.
So, by some coincidence, I have, in the midst of my Camino, heard Jesus say "YO SOY EL CAMINO..."
Think he's trying to tell me something?
The Pilgrim Priest
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a priest of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus in the Western USA. From April 20 - June 1, 2015 he walked from Lourdes, France to Santiago de Compostella, Spain. This page contains observations, images and reflections from the Way of St. James.