Don't Give Up Before the Miracle!

Yellow arrows are the most common waymarks on the Camino. In addition to arrows there are yellow scallop shells on a blue background posted on road signs and on two foot tall cement posts. In larger towns and cities the municipality usually embeds metal scallop shells, or some other scallop design, in the pavement to help pilgrims find their way. Along with waymarks there is a lot of graffiti—on underpass walls, concrete pavement, road signs, trees, bus stops, etc. There are colorful renditions of "Buen Camino," as well as the regular graffiti art one finds anywhere in the world, political and otherwise Then there are the messages explicitly for and about pilgrims that have way of working into the soul. Two such messages have touched me.

About a week ago, scrawled on a board hanging from a tree, I saw the words, "Don't give up before the miracle!" We hadn't even made the halfway mark by then and I was feeling a bit discouraged. The sign itself was a miracle. A few days later, walking very slowly with a man in great pain from shin splints, I mentioned having seen the sign. He immediately said, "why I've already had my miracle," and proceeded to share a story about how his faith was restored by a simple conversation with a fellow pilgrim. Mentioning the sign to another Camino friend, she told me about her miracle, seeing a rainbow settle its arch over the path in front of her for more than half an hour.

The second piece of Camino graffiti I saw was on a cement cross saying, "Carry me to Santaigo." I thought, "now that's cute and took a photo of the cross. Just today I learned that a long-time Camino friend took the sign seriously and actually carried the 35 pound cross for half a kilometer. He said that after he put it down his whole body, backpack and all, felt so light that he was ready to dance down the road.

We leave Leon tomorrow morning, 13 days and 300 kilometers to Santiago de Compestela, and another 3 days and 70k to the northwest coast, Finisterre, the "end of the earth." Bodies, minds and Spirit are strong and ready for the miracles that await us.


Breaking Through or Breaking Down

imageComing down the steep hill on our second day into the town of Zubiri, I blew out my left knee. On our fourth day, leaving Pamplona, we climbed El Alto del Perdón (the height of forgiveness), with the beautiful iron statues of perigrinos (pilgrims) past. Climbing down the steep, rocky hill from El Alto, I protected my left knee with my right ankle—oh what a painful mistake! I thought I was so much stronger than I am. I had no idea that it would be this hard.

We are now on day 12, approaching the city of Burgos, just before the 200 kilometer-long, flat plain called "La Meseta." Today was my first ibuprofen-free day. For several mornings after I lost full use of my right ankle, I walked in acute pain. Going downhill was excruciating. Walking flat was challenging. Fortunately going uphill was easy, and quite a relief.

Some of you may remember that one of my motives for walking the Camino was to "learn how to walk with Minga." I tend to walk much faster than her, and, when we have walked together in our Cambridge lives, I must admit to a bit of impatience with our mutual pace. Well, now it is not my choice. My walking wings have been clipped. I hobble along to keep up with Minga's pace, especially downhill. I have taken to walking backwards on steep downhills, and so far have not fallen.

imageThe biggest and most surprising lesson for me is humility. I started the Camino thinking that hiking poles were for sissies. On the first day of acute pain, a father and daughter, whom we had met on the first day, passed us. They asked how we were doing. I told them about my ankle pain and that I would be purchasing hiking poles in the next big town. The father had cut his right hand slicing bread, severely enough that he could not hold a pole. He gave me one of his poles. Such an act of kindness! A literal God send. I did buy a set of poles, so now we have three poles between us. We hope to encounter the father/daughter team again, but they were traveling much faster than us.

As I walk, at times I am given to contemplate on the very big questions around participation in a pilgrimage for a Saint who was used as a war symbol in the Christian re-conquest of the Spanish peninsula from the Moors. James was called "Santiago Matamoros" (Saint James the Moor Slayer). Visions of the Saint, leading the Christian warriors on a blazing white horse, were seen on the battlefield. I pray that by walking, I can reclaim the apostle James, transforming his image from the warrior Saint back to the simple fisherman, a follower of Jesus, the prince of peace.

Yet as I struggle to break through the pain, I am humbled and broken with the awareness that I have a whole lot of inward work to do. Walking in pain, I have come face-to-face with my petty, limited, judgemental self. I walk—perhaps like all of us, even all creation—in deep need of forgiveness and the unconditional love of God.

On Leaving

Camino SculptureWe had planned to leave Cambridge on Monday morning, soon after I finished a conference call that could not be rescheduled. After a whirlwind pack up and clean, we finally left the house at 4:45pm. We arrived very late that night at Minga's parents home on Maryland's Eastern Shore, where we will leave our car and come and go from Baltimore-Washington International, Thurgood Marshall Airport. A couple of days later, I noticed that I had left all my collard shirts and a sport coat hanging in our bedroom closet. The good news is that on our way to Spain this coming Thursday, we have a six hour layover in Boston, of all places!

Oh the details, the minutiae, the endless cleaning, and all the STUFF. A major blessing of this trip is the opportunity to literally touch everything we own. We touch, we consider, we decide to keep or to throw. We shed. 25 boxes of books left the house. Lots of trash and several big, blue recycle bins on rollers, overfull with old paper, file folders and all sorts recyclable junk, were rolled up to the curb and taken away. If you had come by the house during our leave-taking, it was very likely that you would go home with one or another of the treasures we just could not keep. And THANK YOU to everyone who came by and helped us clear out.

This will be our third sabbatical since 1998—a third life reset. Emerging themes for this year of travel together in ministry are pilgrimage, peace and reconciliation, and recommitment to one another.

One profound experience of sabbatical is allowing myself to be stripped away. In addition to all the organizing, shedding and leaving stuff behind, I find that I am also leaving a big part of who I am. My identity is so embedded in context—my roles, my friends, my surroundings. As I go away from the outward facts of my like, away from much of what lets me know who I am, I turn inward. I am stripped down to what is at my core. The experience is challenging, even terrifying. Yet it is also enormously freeing. I can find and explore parts of myself that have yet to surface.I can let myself be shaped by new surroundings, by new people. I can be more attentive to the easily missed, small, tender wonders of life.  And I can clear out the stuff of my heart, the clutter of my life, so as to be more open to God's promptings.

To walk on the Camino de Santiago, Minga and I have obtained an official credential from American Pilgrims on the Camino. This credential, or passport, allows us to stay at hostels run especially for pilgrims. After each overnight stay, our passports will be stamped by the people who run the hostel.  When we reach Santiago de Compostela, we go to the Oficina de Acogida de Peregrinos (the Pilgrims Welcome Office) where we will present our credentials and be asked "Why did you walk the Camino?" Upon a satisfactory answer, we will receive a "Compostela," a document that certifies our pilgrimage.

I have left my life in Cambridge. I am carrying a very small fraction of my worldly possessions. And I am walking with the questions, small and large.

Living in a Bubble

Click photos to enlarge

As I contemplated what my Christian Peacemaker Teams delegation tour would be, I hoped that we would be exposed to a full range of the human experience in Israel-Palestine—and indeed we have. We’ve heard from Israelis spanning the whole political spectrum, including:

  • the mother of one of our neighbors from back home;
  • a religious settler in the Hebron district;
  • a self-described Buddhist anarchist activist with the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition;
  • a tour guide at Yad Vashem, the Israeli holocaust memorial museum, who documents stories of families evicted from Palestinian villages;
  • an activist who when younger had refused military service and is now supporting the Bedouin population who, as nomads, are being pushed off of their ancestral lands into smaller and smaller areas;
  • and several of the Women in Black, who stand each Friday afternoon holding a simple sign that says “end the occupation.”

And we’ve heard Palestinians tell their stories, including people from:

  • the Palestinian Christian group Sabeel;
  • the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights ("Badil" = "Alternative" in Arabic), based in Bethlehem;
  • the Lajee (Refugee) Center;
  • the Bethlehem House of Bread Independent Pentecostal Church
  • the Aida Refugee Camp in Bethlehem;
  • the Hebron Rehabilitation Committee;
  • and several Hebron families who live adjacent to the five Israeli settlements.

Two Vignettes
Minga and I had lunch with the mother of one of our Cambridge neighbors who from her childhood had dreamed of living in Israel. She was finally able to move permanently to Jerusalem 11 years ago, taking up her 5th career as a tour guide. Living most of her American life in Washington DC, she keeps current with the liberal Haaretz newspaper and the International Herald Tribune. At times her US culture spoke more loudly than her Jewish identity. But when I asked how she and many Israeli people like her support the policies that have so disproportionally disrupted life for the Palestinian people, she responded, “because we have to, we have no other choice.” I am so perplexed with how people all over the world, as individuals and among small communities, are so often generous and loving. But, when faced with the “other,” particularly those with whom we have little or no contact, that love and generosity easily turns to fear and even hate. That warm, openhearted people translate that fear and hatred into total, unthinking support of brutal governmental policies, all for the sake of so-called “security.” I experienced this most directly in 1982 when I and five other young adult Quakers rode our bicycles on a peace pilgrimage across the United States during Ronald Regan’s nuclear arms build up and saber rattling with the Soviet Union. The contrast between the US military machine and all those people who took us into their homes and hearts, even when they disagreed with our politics, was astounding and still gives me hope.

The second vignette occurred on our first day in Hebron. Our delegation joined a tour of the Israeli-only section of the old city with a group of 30 college-aged Jews, mostly from the US, who were participating in an orientation session before beginning year-long internships at various locations throughout Israel. The tour was led by a member of Breaking the Silence, a group of former Israeli Defense Force soldiers who tell their personal stories of how the continuing military occupation of the West Bank dehumanizes both Palestinians and Israelis and can never bring peace to the region. At the junction of what had been Hebron’s main street and large wholesale market, but is now a ghost town on what is called a “sterile” Israeli-only road, one of the Israeli leaders of the orientation group challenged the Breaking the Silence tour guide. We stood there for nearly 45 minutes listening to these two very articulate Jewish young men speak passionately from very different directions about how to bring peace to the land. I did not hear anything particularly new from either of these men, but I am sure that more conversations of this type, especially among Israeli Jews is critical. I was also pleased that the orientation program included such a controversial tour for these young people, who will certainly be part of shaping whatever change the future brings.

The Bubble
It is my experience that Israelis mostly live in a bubble. The Israeli standard of living appears to be equal to or even better than the US. By and large the Israeli Jewish community is unaware of the day-to-day hardship of life in the occupied Palestinian Territories and goes on with life in nearly complete isolation from the non-Jewish population. In order to preserve a Jewish state, there must be a Jewish majority. At present, combining the peoples of Israel proper with the West Bank, the Jewish population is about equal to the non-Jewish, mostly Arab Palestinian, population. If there were now one state made up of Israel and the West Bank, there would be no Jewish majority. Israel needs more cheap land to settle its growing population.

The Ongoing “Nakba”
Palestinians speak of the 1948 formation of the state of Israel as the “Nakba,” the catastrophe. The key has become the symbol of the “right of return” for the Palestinian families who are still being forced out of their homes in what the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights calls the ongoing Nakba. In 1948 the Palestinian families believed they would be returning in a few weeks or months, so as they left they took the key to their homes with them. The religious Jewish settler told us that the Palestinians weren’t really forced out, they left willingly because their leaders told them, “don’t worry, we will forcibly drive the Jews out of your homes and push them into the sea. After that you can return.”

I am struck over and over again by how we become so embedded in our own reality that we see what we want to see and then create narratives to justify what we think is true.

Arrived In Jerusalem

Along with UN General Secretary, Ban Ki-Moon, and US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, Minga and I arrived at the airport in Tel Aviv only 3 hours later than expected. Earlier this morning, we sat on the ground at the Charles de Gaualle airport in Paris, likely waiting for these dignitaries and their entourages to enter the country.

After much prepping on what we were and were not to say to the people at the passport control, we said hello and thank you, but heard not a word from the passport official, only a smile. We are staying at a hostel just inside the old city, near the Damascus Gate. We had a quiet dinner with three other people in our group, and now to bed, adjusting to the time difference and getting ready for 5 days here in Jerusalem. Good night, all.