Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Marathon as Pilgrimage

The rising sun lit up the back of the few clouds in the sky, casting a brilliantly illuminated orange-pink tinge around the lining of the dark morning clouds. The morning temperature (in the 40s, Fahrenheit-wise), felt brisk against my face as I walked outside, and the crowds were spilling out of the Washington, D.C. Pentagon Metro, where my friend Shawn and I found ourselves gawking at the mass of people joining us on but the latest pilgrimage-like trek. We were just two of the 22,000 runners who were going to chase our dreams of finishing the 32nd Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) this past weekend (Oct. 28, 2007). Shawn had dreams of actually doing quite well in the MCM, having figured out what possible times he could possibly finish each mile throughout the entire race, while I had the singular vision of simply finishing the marathon...just like simply finishing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela in Spain earlier in the month. While this was Shawn's second marathon, this was my third marathon, and from the previous experience I knew that there would be a wonderful mixture of running with so many people, sensing how well my body does in running such a long distance, prepared to push myself through any sense of hesitation when I ask myself, "What are you doing this for?" (usually mile 13), but always followed-up by an overwhelming sense of a "job well done" at the end of the race. While the blisters from this month's pilgrimage had almost healed totally, there was still a twinge of pain in my left hip when running, a reminder of what happened as I carried my back-pack while treading lightly on my left blistered and bruised heel.

Watching Shawn slip effortlessly into his stride within the first mile--a stride that was far faster than my stride--I was agog at the sheer size of the crowd of us runners, thousands of people beating the sidewalk pavement and road tarmac of the Washington, D.C. area's thoroughfare. The undulating crowd of onlookers was large and intoxicating, cheering everyone on the race, ringing cowbells, and holding up signs for various teams who were running together. There were teams of folks supporting autism research; running for a friend who had died in Iraq; running for the Fisher House, where many vets stay while going through rehabilitation. There were twenty or thirty Marines and volunteers passing out Gatorade and water every few miles, with other stations passing out oranges and gel packs. Now and then I would run by a Halloween reveler, with one young man dressed as one of the young women from the musical "Hairspray!", blue hair and 1960s poodle skirt.

Like the pilgrimages I've taken earlier in life, I found my stride, and stuck to it. After being jostled in very narrow passageways in some parts of the race, I stuck to my running stride. I also struck up a conversation with a new friend, Rick, from nearby Saxapahaw, North Carolina (48 years old and doing his third marathon)...just like a pilgrimage, it is the most wonderful experience when perfect strangers soon become old pals. Like the pilgrimage to Santiago, I watched with fascination as the shadow on the road's surface let me know what time it was, and which direction I was pointed throughout the race. And like the pilgrimages I've been on before, I felt the presence of God carefully, tenderly protecting me each step of the way.

My running time? Oh, well, a little bit over 5 hours. But I hit no wall, felt emotionally and physically great afterwards, just a tightness in the right upper thigh that was soon gone after walking around the fantastic William Turner exhibit at the National Gallery with friends Matt and Laura that very same afternoon. Maybe it was because of the runner's high that some people get after a race. As for Shawn, he did amazingly well, as he had really trained well for this race, and was looking forward to it. He too felt that runners' high.

The very concept of the marathon is an allusion to the ancient Greek Pheidippides, who ran 26-mi. (42-km) from Marathon to Athens to carry news of the Greek victory over the Persians in 490 B.C. Perhaps that is where marathons and pilgrimages meet: we have important messages to tell...and live!

Until the next marathon, "Bien Camino!"

Pilgrim peace,

Friday, October 26, 2007

Living Liminally!

I believe it was the Turners who first coined the phrase "liminal time," in which they talked about being in a time between time, when we are betwixt and between. Liminal, coming from the Latin word limen, means "threshold." Being in a liminal time means we are disconnected from our usual anchors, and we are receptive in liminal time to eternal truths that otherwise would elude us. Many pilgrims, and scholars of pilgrimage, point to the time of pilgrimage as such a time in which we are on the threshold of something new while leaving something old behind.

For me, the month of October is a month of liminality! Without much fore-planning for what would be happening in my life, I decided in July 2007 to go on pilgrimage to Santiago, wanting to finish the "trifecta" of Medieval European pilgrimages: Rome, Jerusalem, and Santiago de Compestela! I did not know at that time that I would also be moving out of the position as interim pastor of Ernest Myatt Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, and making way to be and live the School of the Pilgrim full-time...but that is exactly what happened! As one friend reminds me often, "Sometimes God does for us what we ourselves cannot do." Call this "God's timing!"

The month of October began with an extraordinarily powerful pilgrimage to Santiago de Compestela! I was reminded of the physicality of pilgrimage with blisters on both heels and three toes, carrying a 20 lb. back pack up and down hill. I remembered the connection of the pilgrim to the land, in awe of the misty mornings that would only allow a streak of Monet pink in the early morning horizon. I was thrust into the Medieval pilgrimage rituals as I watched the large incense burner, the botafumeiro, swinging across the transept of the Cathedral of St. James.

And in the middle of the month, I celebrated with great joy the work of God and God's people in a Presbyterian congregation called "Ernest Myatt Presbyterian Church." Though we have no saints in the Church per se, or name our churches after saints, the saints are spread liberally among the congregation of that Church. By November 1st, I will no longer be interim pastor at that church.

The month concludes with one more reminder of the liminal state of pilgrimage and pilgrim-life: I am running my third marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in Washington, D.C., on October 28th. The blisters have healed well on my heels, and new toe nails have conveniently replaced the old black and blue nails. Marathons are pilgrimages of a different sort, because there is no back pack (physical), but an opportunity to run (or trot) and remember and muse upon what the Spirit is doing in our world today among the pilgrims who follow the Pilgrim God.

All in all, living the pilgrim life is to live life liminally...forever more!

Bien camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Saturday, October 20, 2007

The Shadow Knows

While running 13 miles today, in preparation for next week's, um, "pilgrimage"--the Marine Corps Marathon (Oct. 28, 2007), I noticed my shadow. Instantly, I was reminded of the importance of shadows when I was on the pilgrimage, the camino, to Santiago. Jackie and I knew what time it was--or thereabouts--by the position of our shadows. Walking east to west, the sun moving from our south, we would simply look at the position of the shadow, and guess within an hour where we were in human time's hands.

The lessons of pilgrimage are plentiful, right where we live!

Bien camino!

Pilgrim peace,


Thursday, October 18, 2007

Wonder and Healing

Sue, one of my new Kiwi (New Zealander) friends, told me on the last day we were together in Santiago de Compestela, that I would use all that I learned and re-learned on pilgrimage as I came back into the business of daily life in North Carolina.

She was correct...of course.

The signs of being a pilgrim to Santiago are evident in many places of my life. For example, on the subway trip to the Madrid airport, a young Argentinian noticed my three pins stuck to a strap on my day pack: an arrow; the cross of St. James, and a scallop shell. "You're a pilgrim to Santiago, yes?" he inquired. "Si!" I said excitedly. In part-English, part-Spanish, we conversed about the pilgrimage, in which the young man he would rather ride the pilgrimage on bicycle rather than walk. I smiled, still feeling a tinge of "sensation" from my healing blisters.

I returned from the pilgrimage to preach and lead the church's Session meeting on Sunday; present the School of the Pilgrim to Waldensians on Monday; visit with church members on Tuesday; and run errands all over town (Chapel Hill and Carrboro) on Wed. What kept my grounded were the words, "One step at a time, one day at a time," which pilgrims use a lot, as do many others in our world. I was able to simply step into the next task, the next place, and do what I was expected to do.

This held true on pilgrimage as well: I learned to move one step at a time, without worrying (as much) as to what would happen in the next few miles down the road. This allowed me to enjoy the beauty of northern Spain, which is incredibly say the least.

Pilgrim lessons abound!

Pilgrim peace,


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Back Home in North Carolina

After a long day's journey from Madrid, leaving at 1 in the afternoon (Madrid time) and arriving in Raleigh-Durham airport near 8:00 P.M., I threw my back-pack in the back of the car (not a train or on my back), and knew that I was no longer on the Camino de Santiago. Yet I was still on pilgrimage! Over dinner, I regaled Dean with stories of my pilgrimage after he simply said, "So, what was the event on the pilgrimage that left the deepest impression?" After I replied that there wasn't one moment, but many small and significant moments, I couldn't stop talking. The same happened when my son Parker asked the same question.

The pilgrimage lives on in my memory...a memory of mind, body, and spirit, individually and collectively, with all those I have been pilgrim with over the last few weeks, months, and years.

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Friday, October 12, 2007

Made it to Madrid!

The last night in Santiago turned quickly into morning! A group of pilgrims hunted for a place to have coffee and some food for breakfast, which was a challenge since everything was closed because of the national holiday. In between two small shops was a small cafeteria near the Cathedral. We snuck in, a group of four, and had one last good meal together.

Morning soon led to one more Mass at the Cathedral. The larger-than-life incense burner was swung again, because it is a national holiday! I smelled of incense all day...could have been worse, since I also need a shower.

I got on the Madrid train from Santiago at 1:30, with two other pilgrims, Tracey and Laurie. We had a great time talking about the pilgrimage to Santiago, and its effect upon our lives. Many of us will now begin the work of actively remembering the act of being pilgrims of Santiago!

Made it to the hotel by 11:30, and I´m ready to grab a quick bite, and then head on to bed after soaking feet a little bit.

Tomorrow: North Carolina!

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Thursday, October 11, 2007

A Night in Santiago!

After watching the large incense burner, or botafumeiro, swing over the transept length of the Cathedral of St. James, wafting incense over all of us ¨dirty pilgrims,¨ I went to the train station to book my passage to Madrid...only to find out it was a full train!

Plan B! I´ve learned on this pilgrimage that life is full of options, including Plans B, C, D, E, and keep the alphabet flowing! So Plan B miraculously showed up and unveiled itself. I went to the Museum of Pilgrimage, and my friends Jackie and her partner Allen said, ¨Don´t worry, we have a room for you, all paid for!¨ That was easy! So I went with the flow, went back to the train station, got my ticket for tomorrow at 1 in the afternoon, and went back to the Cathedral for a 6 in the evening walking tour of the Cathedral roof top!

It was breathtaking: we walked through the dining-reception area for the cardinals and royalty, followed by literally climbing to the roof top and looking up close at the towers and bells of the Cathedral. The bottom of the Cathedral is Romanesque; the middle is Gothic, and the top portion is sheer Baroque! We traipsed over the length of the nave, followed by the transept length. We noted the ram with the cross at the top: they used the ram for sacrifice in ancient, biblical times, and they would burn the clothes of the pilgrims in view of the stone ram, burning not only the past, but also burning the clothes that carried the plague! Of course, those who were selling clothes in the squares and plazas made a killing!

After that, a stop for coffee, and then de-bunking at the new place for the night, followed by a wonderful pilgrim dinner at Casa Manolo near the Plaza Cervantes!

Tomorrow, I leave for Madrid, and probably won´t be able to blog until I get back to the States on Sat. evening! Thank you, again, for the prayers and support!

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Hotel of Kings!

This is the fun part of pilgrimage: the unexpected! I am writing this blog from the Hostal de los Reyes Catolicos! This is the oldest hotel int he world. Opened by Ferdinand and his Isabella in the 1500s for the sick pilgrims who would come into Santiago de Compestela, and run as a hospital (which is the root word for hotel) until the 1950s, in the 50s it was turned into a hotel. It claims to be the oldest, and longest running hotel in the world! While we (Sue, Jackie, and I, my Kiwi friends) had booked and moved into a room in a small pension with three beds, Jackie had always wanted to stay at this hotel. When she found out that there was a ¨pilgrim rate,¨ Jackie said, I´ll pay it! My treat! Sue and I were soon paying off the owner of the small pension, and we slept the night away in the grandest hotel of Spain! And it includes breakfast! Part of the pilgrim rate!

Yesterday we walked around the Cathedral, after having gone to 12 o´clock Mass. We will go today again to Mass, in which they use this huge incense burner, in Spanish known as a "botafumeiro," that they originally used to delouse the pilgrims while also making them smell sweet to the noses of the clergy at that time. It is used only 20 times a year. We also walked around to the various chapels of the Cathedral, seeing the reliquary of St. James, touching the columns and statues that we are supposed to touch. Outside the Cathedral, in the middle of the plaza, is a shell cemented to the floor of the plaza, in which you are supposed to say, I have arrived! Did that last night as well.

We had a disappointing last pilgrim meal, after bounteous amounts at small villages along the way. But we had sheets, no bunks, and not much snoring...well, I didn´t hear myself.

Today: cover the parts of Santiago we haven´t seen after a good breakfast, and then going to 12 noon mass, and hunt for gifts for home, and at 10 tonight, the night train to Madrid. Tomorrow, Friday, is a national holiday, so I´d rather be in Madrid, seeing parts of the city I´ve not seen, than Santiago. Then I fly out Sat. at 1!

Again: thanks for your prayers and support! The feet are healing, though I can´t wait to show the remains of the blisters!

Pilgrim peace, and Bien Camino!


Santiago de Compestela! Made it!

I´m actually here, and made it to Mass at 12 noon today! Thank you all for your prayers that made this trip possible.

Long story short: Jackie (NZ) and I were heading on the 20 km a day schedule from Palas de Rei to Ribadiso to Arca to Santiago. Ribadiso, the lovely little Albergue, had no internet, so I blogged the next day on the way through Arzua, and we kept hiking onward to Arca for the night. It was 20km a day, or thereabouts.

We kept walking and talking, passing people by, feeling in our stride while walking, and we passed through Arca before we knew it! Dilemma: We could either turn back and find a place, or keep walking. We kept walking...30 km in one day! The most ever! But then it was only 10 km to Santiago the next day.

With aching feet, tired backs, and hungry stomachs, we made it to Lavacolla, outside of Santiago. We found a hotel! It had a big bath, in which I nursed my aching feet! And we had a bed to ourselves, which was great! No bunk beds! And a nearby restaurant-cafe! We hit it big time!

After a restful night sleep, cafe con leche guzzled, I put on my Chacos sandals (no boots today) and we strode into Santiago by 12 noon!

There was a Mass at 12 noon! The sanctuary in incredible, with more gold and silver than I have seen in a long time. We are to be blest by a large incense burner tomorrow at Mass, which they used to use to de-louse the pilgrims, and change the odor of the day!

Three of us found a quaint pension for the night, and tomorrow I´m catching the night train to Madrid!

Again, thank you for prayers and peaceful thoughts! I offer your prayers to blessed Jesus, the Pilgrim God as well!

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Ribadiso last night was fine

Sorry that this blog comes later than the rest. We hit Ribadiso, a lovely little Albergue by a running stream in one of the most picturesque settings we've come across so far on this pilgrimage. The inn is itself an award winning design, with rounded walls and large interior that houses up to 100 pilgrims. We chose to stay there after 27-28km walk, and we were ready to stop. It was the last night at a lovely, rural setting before we came to the close of the pilgrimage in the hustle and bustle of Santiago, and a group of us took the opportunity to rest our weary bones, dip our hot feet in cold water, and enjoy the quiet, natural, rustic beauty.

Yesterday´s pilgrimage was up and down, but we are slowly entering the count down to Santiago. Everyone is becoming nostalgic, suddenly seeing it all coming to an end. Tonight we will go to a city outside of Santiago, in which there will be a lot of reminiscing, I´m sure.

The day is sunny! Just had my caffe con leche, banana, toast, and all the blisters are bandaged. Can´t wait to go back to just walking in sandals!

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim blessing and peace, Brett

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Palais de Rei! Palace of Kings

28 KM today, and the walk was beautiful. The weather was the best ever: slightly overcast, with only a hint of sun at the end, perfect for walking.

The gift of pilgrimage, the el camino, came at the end of the evening, when the table included five Canadians--Mary Ellen, Dale, Peggy, and Al--plus a wonderful woman who read scripture earlier in the week from Canada, and the Kiwis--Jackie and Sue--and Lee from England. The conversation was alive around the table as we talked about Canada, the States, sex (all part of the camino, especially around certain farm animals on the way, OH MY), and the effects of being pilgrims for this time. There was never a lull in the conversation as each person wanted and had their say. Incredible that we all found 0urselves in a bond of friendship, heart to heart, soul to soul, that kept us all engaged. The miracle? We have only met each other throughout the pilgrimage.

Panic has set in as we realize there are three days left of this fantastic pilgrimage.

Bien camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Portomarin...More than half way there...

Today I crossed the proverbial ¨half way¨mark from Ponferrada to Santiago. Reached it around 12 noon here, and said a prayer, that the heels will have blisters healed, and all our prayer requests answered!

The scenery today was one small Spanish village after another. Rocky to walk, but beautiful to look at and behold. Cows, dogs, cats, chicken greet us around the corners, along with their ¨gifts¨of waste! What a smell!

We are all excited about reaching Santiago! Four more days. Those who began the trek earlier, in France especially, can´t believe it. They are starting to dance down the way, while I still trudge, though my step is quicker.

I am learning to live in the unexpected of life. The gifts of friendship, of hospitality, of great food and delicious coffee (et leche) continue to pop up unexpectedly, but just in the nick of time. Meeting people along the way and close bonding with them is also the unexpected gift. Some people in the villages are use to seeing our kind, while others smile and simply say ¨Bien Camino¨.

Off to a pilgrim meal: salad, trout, and flan, with as much red wine as you want for 8 euros ($1.40 is equal to a euro).

Bien camino!

Pilgrim blessing, Brett

Friday, October 5, 2007

Monastery at Samos

The day´s highlight was going to the Benedictine Monastery at Samos. It was a longer walk to Sarria, but well worth it. I was greeted by a Benedictine monk who gladly pronounced me not obltate but ¨oblato¨, smiled and hugged me, brother to brother...hermanos! Beautiful monastery and a very old community.

The blisters are better...thanks for the prayers. Walked in marvelous countryside with patchwork quilt farms on the hillsides. Loved looking at the beauty of northern Spain.

I am reminded that the body needs time to remember that it is on pilgrimage, and that I am being re-memeber, re-connected with God´s followers as pilgrims. The lessons of pilgrimage and Chrisitan daily life are flooding over me, e.g., remembering that life is one step at a time, and be where your feet are planted. I am expecting down hills around every corner after going up hill all the time, and only greeted with more uphill. But I smile, and trudge on, one step at a time.

To Portomarin tomorrow, and Santiago by Wednesday!

Bien camino!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Thursday, October 4, 2007

The First Three Days Are Over

The first three days have drawn to a close, and I am into the pilgrimage. The first two were full of pain because of the blisters, and my body getting used to walking the distance and carrying a back pack that is heavier than what I usually carry in life. Having made the mountain top Cebriero, and getting a great pilgrim dinner (white and red wine), and talking to some new friends this morning after watching a night of great soccer with Real Madrid, I decided to walk the entire way.

Jackie is a co-sojourner from New Zealand. She and I walked down the mountain top of Cebriero, and recounted for me how her body had to get used to the walk, as did mine. How quick I forgot the first pilgrimage I was on, in which my body ached the first two or three days, and that it wasn´t until day three that all seemed to go better!

That would be the lesson: pilgrimage begins with the foot, but it begins with re-learning the steps of the pilgrim as if I have never been on pilgrimage before. The true spirit of pilgrimage, with mindbodyspirit working together, comes on day three. And it came today without fail.

I am spending the night in Tricastelos, and tomorrow Sarria. The town is quaint and beautiful. The morning began with a walk in the mist over mountain ranges, with the sun breaking through the mist and showing us the beauty of northern Spain. Villages and farms were the way through for pilgrims, and I stepped in the residue of the presence of lots of cows, meeting cows coming down the way, and being greeted with home made crepes by a farming wife. The weather has been glorious, showing us the green mountain side of Spain, with farm life well intact. The small chapels and walls reach back to the Roman and Moroccan influence, with walls built by Romans during their occupation of this land.

Feet are better. Spirits are better. It is fun watching those who began their journey at the head waters of the pilgrimage drawing close to Santiago...their excitement is palpable.

Bien Camino! Good way! Or Good Pilgrimage! This is the greeting throughout the days.

Bien Camino!

Pilgrim blessing, Brett

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Moving Onward to Sarria!

Change of plans on the pilgrimage. Last night I had a great evening with Bela from Budapest, who happened to share my room at the Alburgue (pilgrim inn). Bottoms of his feet are all blistered. After talking to him, and people knowledgeable about the el camino de Santiago, I´ve decided to take a bus today from Villa Franca to Sarria, which will get me within 100 km to Santiago. Why? Physically, I won´t be able to enjoy the camino AND be on pilgrimage. It is more up hill than I knew, and I think it is more important to spend time with people, seeing the sights, and enjoying Spain than barnstorming the el camino. If I kept up the pace I was at, it would be barnstorming Spain and not seeing the sights and talking to the people...and all the action is on the way when sitting for coffee, over dinner at night.

I met the couple of women who saved my feet, which are better today. I had a great conversation and walk with two women from France and the Netherlands, who happened to be at a small bodega on the side of the camino in the middle of an apple and fig orchard, with tomatoes as big as your fist being cut up, with fresh cheese slices. This is the camino! And the conversation between English, Spanish, French, and German at the bodega was great.

In order to be a true pilgrim of Santiago, or a ¨schnell pilger¨in German-fast pilgrim, you have to walk the last 100 km. That´s what I am doing!

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Pilgrimage Blisters

What a long and tiring day! I took the night train to Ponferrada, which deposited me at the train station in Ponferrada at 4 in the morning! I wrote in my journal, prayed the prayers of Benedict, and at 6 trudged up a long hill to the Albergue (the nicer of the pilgrimage inns). 50 people sleep in one room, in cots, and as I walked in, they were all coming down to fix breakfasts quickly in order to be out on the road. I watched with mouth wide open, taking in the commotion, finally asking around 8:30 if I could get my first stamp of my credential (you have to have the stamps and have walked 100KM to be a true pilgrim), and I was soon on my way.

My left heel had been bothering me with my walking shoes, so I had popped the blister in Madrid, and thought I´d taken care of it. On the train ride up to Ponferrada, the right heel also started to feel hot. By the time I finished a good stretch of the road, my left heel was bleeding through the mole skin, and they both hurt as I walked. I ducked into the Farmacia, got bandaids that were more adhesive, and put on Vaseline ointment...and my Chacos (sandals). That worked for a mile or two until the bandaids now kept slipping off. New friends gave me another protection, and they´ve held up better, though the strap in the back of the shoe brings it down over time.

The rest of the body is feeling fine! Spirit is good! Your prayers, friends and family, matter. So, um, pray for healing!

Finally: the weather is fine, the scenery beautiful (wine growing area and lots of little and old villages), and the camraderie is starting to happen. I am becoming one of ¨those pilgrims.¨

Pilgrim peace, Brett

Monday, October 1, 2007

Guernica and Spanish Pilgrimage

I spent today in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which houses an impressive display of contemporary art, from Dali to Picasso, Miro to a wonderful new artist I had not known, Paula Rego. The highlight was seeing Picasso´s Guernica, capturing the horrors of war in graphic, black, white, and grey detail. I am reminded that this land of Spain is a land of pilgrimage, in which the people have seen great art and beauty in music, but have witnessed the horrors of war close up. It is a land of religious mysteries, and a land of iconic beauty. To see the religious art of the Prado, followed by the art capturing the wars and questions of this modern age shows how fascinating the people are who have lived here throughout the centuries.

I am also reminded that this is not only a very Catholic country, but Madrid is an incredibly metropolitan city, with a breadth of people from all countries. In attire, customs, and food, there is much to experience of the world.

I am off to Ponferrada tonight, catching the 10:10 P.M. train, arriving at 4 in the morning. Pilgrimage has begun!

Thank you for your prayers, friends!

Pilgrim peace, Brett