Day 33: Santiago to Negreiro

I must have become a crazy person. That is the only apparent explanation for walking on from Santiago, right? I could be relaxing, sleeping in a fancy hotel with my own room, sleeping in each day with a siesta each afternoon.
Instead, I chose to walk on.

There is a somewhat popular pilgrim tradition of walking from Santiago to Finisterre, another 90 kilometres. This brings the total number of kilometres from St Jean to 900 (rounding up, but come on – I have walked so many extra kilometres around towns that I’ve stayed in. I know I’ve surpassed that 900 kilometre mark this summer!)
It was an interesting decision to make, walking on. Part of my logical brain was really pushing for that rest and ease, wondering why I would give that up just to walk more.
On the other hand, what’s 90 more kilometres once you’ve walked 800? It’s really not much! What’s three more days once you’ve walked 31? I could do anything for three days, I think. Suffer through anything, I think at less positive times!
It’s also a good motivation to actually make it ALL the way across a country on foot, not just MOST of the way.

Finally, I am learning to do hard things. As you know, this has been an important lesson for me this summer, and as I got closer to Santiago, a sense that I needed to keep going was growing within my spirit.
There’s something different about walking on when almost no one knows I’m doing it. No one is expecting it. No one is checking my blog for how many kilometres I’ve walked today. It would be easier to give up – easier to convince myself this part doesn’t matter, this is not necessary.
But I press on. It is intrinsically rewarding, this walk. Parts of it are rough and hard. There are long uphill sections to challenge.
I feel strong.
Physically, my body is so ready for this. Even after a day of rest (maybe particularly because of a day of rest which my body needed), I fall back into the rhythm of walking. It doesn’t take long until I’m not even thinking about how this is “extra”.
Mentally, I feel strong. It is empowering to know that I can choose to do a hard thing, and find joy in it.

It’s really not about the destination, but about the journey. So upon reaching my destination, I kept journeying on.

One of the key things for me when I actually return home (in less than a week as I write this, but it will be closer when I actually post and you read this!), will be to learn how to continue the journey in my “regular” life.
Again, I ask myself: now that I know I avoid hard things, what are the hard things God is asking me to tackle?
But having experienced my own growth, I don’t anticipate these with trepidation. Because I know that I can climb mountains, even if it takes baby steps. Slowly but surely, I will make it.

Day 31: Arrival!

Once again, I feel there are no words to really express what the past two days have been. But I want to write about them at least to remember them later.

I woke up earlier than I was hoping in the morning of day 31, but figured I might as well get started. Just out the door, I ran into a lovely Canadian couple. I haven’t met many other Canadians, so this was a nice treat. We walked together for quite a while. Eventually we parted ways when I stopped for a drink and a sello (a stamp for my credencial – you need to get two on your last day on the way into Santiago!). I was actually glad to walk the last 9 kilometres of the day by myself. (Another aside: the night before I had been joking with friends that our last day was only 20 kilometres. While walking those 20, I thought, 20 kilometres is still 20 kilometres. But I recovered quickly and really wasn’t tired! It isn’t much any more!)

The highest point of elevation of the day was Monte del Gozo – the Mount of Joy. For centuries, pilgrims have come over this hill to their first few of the cathedral, and they have been overwhelmed with joy. Probably not in small part for knowing that they’re about to arrive! I was thinking during this part about all the amazing things that have happened, the things I have seen, the experiences I’ve had, the wonderful people I’ve met, and above all the goodness of God I’ve known. Monte del Gozo was joy-filled, but the outward expression of that joy was a lot of tears running down my face.

From the outskirts of the city, it’s still about 4.5 km in to the cathedral. There was no rush, though, and I walked with such joy. I kind of expected to be able to see the cathedral the whole time through the city, but the narrow streets don’t allow for that. You wend your way along and don’t even need to look for signs because you just follow the hordes of pilgrims ahead at this point.

Suddenly, a turn, and there was the cathedral! It was not yet the main entrance, but I took a moment to go down the steps toward the door and just be there. A little old nun came up to me and asked me in Spanish where I was from. I told her Canada. She asked if I was alone. I told her yes. She expressed wonder at my bravery and courage for being so far away from home on a pilgrimage. Then she told me how beautiful I was – radiant from inside. Of course, my response was more tears, but that was really how I was feeling. I don’t think anything could have taken away the huge smile from my face.

A final 100 metres or so took me through the last arch and into the square of the west entrance, the famous viewpoint of the cathedral. Arriving was strange. I didn’t feel like things were really finished. I have known along every point of this journey what to do next – walk to this place, rest for tomorrow, do my laundry, find some food… But now I had nothing left ahead of me. Arriving wasn’t the moment that I thought it would be. Later discussion with friends revealed similar experiences for them, and we hypothesized that it’s because the Camino really is about the journey, not the destination.

Soon friends came into the square, and then seemed to come from everywhere. This led to a celebratory attitude. We decided to go to the pilgrims’ office to get our final stamp and compostela, but the line was ridiculously long. Instead, we found a little bar with chairs out on the terrace along the route to the cathedral where we could have a celebratory drink and watch pilgrims arrive. Of course, we saw many more friends and acquaintances, which was very joyous.

Finally when we parted I made my way down to my hotel. A room to myself … ahhhhh!!!! After a siesta I made my way back to the cathedral and found a seat inside.
It was here that I finally had my sense of arrival. I just sat for quite some time in the presence of God, and it was beautiful.

A trip to the pilgrims’ office found me waiting in a shorter line than earlier, and I officially received my compostela, along with a special one I purchased that indicates my starting point and number of kilometres.

Evening mass was followed by dinner with a large group of friends. We stayed out until midnight, which is just totally unheard of in a pilgrim routine. But we had much to discuss and reminisce about and laugh over. It was a wonderful, wonderful evening.

This morning I found the Convento de San Fransisco – Saint Francis of Assisi. It is the 800th anniversary of his pilgrimage to Santiago. This convent is offering a special compostela this year only, in honour of the anniversary. It is a wondrous thing to think of all the pilgrims, the many well-known men and women of God, and the just as devoted but unknown, who have made this journey ahead of me.

And then came pilgrims’ mass at noon today. The church was packed with people. There was celebration and thanksgiving in the air. The priest who came to serve the Eucharist on the side where I was sitting with friends was a priest who we had met walking the Camino – how heartfelt to receive the Eucharist from a friend and fellow pilgrim!
And then! The botafumeiro. The botafumeiro might be the most famous part of the cathedral, apart from the actual relics of Saint James. It was originally used to spread incense throughout the cathedral to help with the smell of pilgrims.
We had chosen our seats carefully, and the botafumeiro swung high to the ceiling and right over our heads as it came down. It was, again, a moment without words.

And then. After the mass it was time to say goodbye to the first of our friends to head out. After lunch were more goodbyes, and I know more again will come this evening, even as we look forward to more friends arriving in the next day or two. Saying goodbye to people you have met under such unique circumstances, with no likelihood of seeing them again… Most goodbyes were just teary hugs with no words that can be spoken.

Pain and delight, fatigue and strength, loneliness and friendships, sorrow and joy. The Camino has been all these things at the same time. And more besides. It really needs to be experienced to be understood. And each person’s Camino experiences are the same and yet totally different.

Day 30: Melide to O Pedrouzo

Camino Countdown: 20 kilometres!!!

I am so tired. I feel like I have walked 780 kilometres. I need to rest. Another 30 or 33 kilometres done today – it’s hard to know for certain because none of the guidebooks agree, and even the kilometre marking posts are apparently inaccurate now. They were surveyed correctly when they were out in, but the Camino has been rerouted a little over the years. And I don’t know exactly where, or where they are finally correct. Thankfully the markers and my guidebook agree – 20 more kilometres!

My back has started to hurt just in the last two days. It doesn’t hurt when I walk, generally, although I’m careful with how I wear my backpack. I can sit and I can lie down, but I cannot stand. Standing is ridiculous.

Today started out as a much more difficult day than I anticipated, based on how great yesterday was. I just feel really, really exhausted. My swift pace from yesterday was nowhere to be found. Despite the elevation diagram showing more or less flat elevation, we kept crossing rivers or streams, which meant big descents down to a bridge and then a steep climb up after. I was happy to drag myself to a café by noon and look at my map to see I only had 13 kilometres left. After the rest, those 13 kilometres flew by in no time.
Still, after a shower, rest time meant shivering under my sleeping bag, wondering why my body can’t warm up. Again, I’m so glad I only have 20 kilometres left to walk!

It’s a little surreal, reading my guidebook pages for tomorrow’s walk. What will I feel, actually arriving in Santiago? What will I do once I’m there? Good questions with no answers.

As for me right now, I’m going to try for a nap before dinner. Ah – siesta!

PS Update: nap. Mass. Now supper. Ahhhh.

Day 29: Gonzar to Melide

Camino Countdown: 50.5 kilometres!!!

I will begin by admitting that yesterday’s walk was a hard one. Sometimes I feel like my asthma has gotten worse, not better, which seems incredibly bizarre after walking for four weeks. I was reading last night about spiritual disciplines, and how Paul talks about self-control and “mortifying the flesh”. Yeah, I thought, I know how that feels. Just. Keep. Walking. Even when you don’t want to.

Today, by contrast, was a great day! I felt like I could have run all the way to Santiago. I didn’t run, because of the hills and the stones and it would be really dumb to end up with a broken ankle only 50 kilometres away, and I’m also wearing a twenty pound backpack… But I felt like I could have run.
Despite the heat and the 32 kilometres I covered, I was powering up and down hills and I was actually passing people. I am so used to being the one getting passed that it was really odd to be passing people now!

I passed two groups of school kids. I think they were in church-affiliated groups, because both groups had men with clerical collars, and all the adults had hats with a parish name on them. Besides the fact that they liked to walk beside their friends and were hard to pass, they were really cute. There were cries all around of Buen Camino!, even from the youngest.

There is an Italian trio I keep seeing. I saw them first in Foncebadón, and was at the same albergue as them yesterday. This morning they were delighted to meet me at a bar in Palas de Rei, and wanted to know where I was headed. They were happy to know it was the same place they were heading. One of the men accused me of running to best them…

As I said, it’s hard to find solitude on the way now, as there are so many more people. It’s also hard to keep track of the day, so I was astonished to look at my watch and realize that I have been walking for 29 days. Today was the beginning of week five. Wow! It’s also Sunday, which I didn’t realize. But I was glad to find some solitude in a little church and some time for prayer and meditation. (It was only later that I realized it was Sunday, which made me wonder what time the have mass. Probably the evening, though. Just so used to a morning service!)

Melide is famous for its pulpo dishes, which is octopus. Yes , octopus. I actually had pulpo already in Sarria and wasn’t delighted, but a German lady who is my roommate tonight told me you can get pulpo served in many different ways, so I think I’ll be going out to try a different variety tonight.

Finally, as I said in my countdown, I am 50.5 kilometres away from Santiago. I have now booked a hotel, since I know when I’ll be arriving. This is amazing, since it seems just a few short days ago that I had my first day hiking across the Pyrenees. I didn’t know how many days it would take to reach my destination, and couldn’t book anything. And now I’m so close…

Days 27 & 28: Fonfría – Sarria – Gonzar

Camino countdown: 82 kilometres to go!

The Camino is a study of contrasts. At some points, I can find no solitude, but am surrounded by people at all times. At other times, I see no one for hours.
I have friendships with people from around the world, with deep and meaningful conversations, and yet I know that almost all these friendships are very short term and will not last beyond the Camino.
I have never felt stronger, and yet I am exhausted. When I am walking, I feel as though I could keep walking forever. And then when I stop I don’t think I will be able to walk another day. Or, depending on the day or den on the time of day, when I am walking I want nothing more than to stop for the day, but after a short break and rest, I feel fine to walk on again.

Yesterday’s walk was a very steep descent out of the mountains, finishing what was started the day before. Then, at Triacastela, there was an option. The northern route was 6 kilometres shorter but over a very big and steep hill. The southern route was mostly flat, but added 6 kilometres to the day. I almost took the southern route by accident, but correctly found he northern route after a little map checking and searching. Just before I arrived in Sarria, I met up with some of the Korean boys I used to see daily. They’ve been a day ahead of me since coming out of Burgos, where they walked in three days what I did in four. It was fun to catch up with them, and they were very impressed! I had intended to stay in the old city, but found a new albergue just before the river and old city walls, and was content to find a bed to rest in for an hour before continuing with my day. It turned out that I was the only person to book into that albergue, so it was a little like having a private room without the cost!
After a rest and shower, I went out to explore the city. I met up with friends old and new at every turn. I tried some pulpo a la galega, or octopus. Not the worst thing I’ve ever eaten, but I didn’t love it. Then went with friends to a little Italian place and sat in the courtyard enjoying sangria and tapas. We ended up staying there for hours, and as more and more people came, we kept pulling chairs over and expanding our table. It was one of those experiences that will be treasured my whole life.

This morning there was a notable change on the Camino: people. They’re EVERYWHERE. As I said, I’m used to having some moments – if not hours – of solitude, and being surrounded by people the whole morning was a little disconcerting. I ran into Vicky and we walked together for just a few minutes, and decided we would let it add to our sense of excitement instead of being frustrated or angry. The reason there are so many people is that Sarria is just before the 100 kilometre mark. If you want a compostela, you need to walk at least the last 100 kilometres. You can pick out the new pilgrims easily by their white and clean clothing, their unscuffed, not dusty shoes or boots, and once you arrive in an albergue, by their excessive limping. Ah, yes, that first day feeling. To get away a little bit, I walked on past the most popular stopping point, and am staying at Gonzar tonight. I also got the pleasure of walking alone in the afternoon after leaving the crowds behind.
It’s also interesting to see how many people, and particularly new pilgrims, are using the backpack transfer service. That is a very popular thing from her to Santiago. I am so used to the weight of my backpack while walking that it would feel odd not to have it. It can be hard not to feel superior or judgmental when passing people who aren’t carrying their belongings. But I try to remind myself that everyone gets to choose their own way on the Camino.
Ah, the supper bell rings. Time to go for tonight!

Day 26: Trabadelo to Fonfría, or Climb Every Mountain

I have asked before, but I ask again: what are YOU doing this summer vacation? Because I am literally CLIMBING MOUNTAINS over here!!!

Today’s walk: up. Up, up, up, up. The steepest hills imaginable. Then suddenly O’Cebreiro in Galicia. The mist was swirling around and the town was so mystical looking, with lovely Celtic music playing everywhere and people all excited.
I had walked for about two hours with a group of people: Trevor and his dad, Greg; Vicky, the American social work professor; and Maribel, a Spanish woman. Maribel deserves mention, because she cheered us on through those first hours. She entertained us, she corralled us when cars were approaching on the road (she was particularly concerned that Trevor and I kept walking in the road – and about four cars passed in those two hours!), and she gave us all nicknames. She couldn’t say Trevor, so he became Tom. I somehow became Bébé, which I think was more a reflection of my name than character traits (here’s hoping!). Greg was Papa, which just made us laugh every time.
Just before the really steep ascents started, we ran into our Australian friends in a lovely reunion. Once the steep climbing began, I slowed way down and everyone else went on ahead. Vicky stayed with me, though. I told her she could stay with me as long as she promised to go on when she got tired of waiting. But she said it wasn’t safe to leave me alone with my asthma, and I was grateful for her company. She was a cheerleader all the way.
After our first ridiculously steep climb into La Faba, we gratefully sank into seats at a bar and pulled out our guidebooks. Oh – we had gone from 700 to 900 metres of elevation – wow!
And we had to go up to 1300 metres. Oh.

So, up and up and up again. A stop at the next village. Up and up and up, and into Galicia! And then the top! As I said, what a lovely village, and so ethereal in the mist! I was going to take a selfie standing in front of the valley so you could get a sense of how high we had climbed, but first went to see a statue. By the time I got back, the mist had swirled into the valley. My selfie is me with a wall of white behind.
After a lunch stop and a quick look around the tourist shops, Vicky and I hiked on. The path went down out of O’Cebreiro and then back up. And then up and down and up and down… Until finally up to the highest point in Galicia. And then we got to walk 3 more kilometres to our destination, all downhill. Hip hip hooray!

Ten hours of walking today. 30.7 kilometres. I would estimate 75% uphill.
What a day!

Day 25: Ponferrada to Trabadelo

It’s funny how much of life really depends on perspective.
I just did my laundry by hand yet again, and commented that I will be so appreciative to be back home and be able to do my laundry with a machine. I often mentally complain about laundry because I have to go all the way downstairs in my apartment building and hope there are free washers and driers and pay.
Hand washing laundry is a good perspective check.

Today’s walk was 30 kilometres, and in some pretty hot weather. I kind of figured I’d be walking through really hot weather, but it’s been surprising the number of cold days we’ve had. Weather seems to be either quite hot or quite cold. Perspective-wise, it could always be worse weather. It could be pouring! (Kind of expecting that as I cross mountains tomorrow into Galicia!)

30 kilometres used to be daunting. It was really hard as recently as day 18, walking a long time in the hot sun. But my body continues to adjust and grow stronger. My calves and quads are quite sore from yesterday’s descent, but the muscle pain gives rise to prayers of thanks that we’re not descending like that today.

And the mountains. Today’s walk was all in the valley of the El Bierzo region. We started almost at one end of the valley and walked and walked toward the other end. Huge mountains towered on all sides. Behind were the mountains from yesterday, and ahead lie the mountains for tomorrow.
I had a great moment, climbing a hill and finally seeing a significant town around lunch. It was finally clear just which mountains we were going to climb tomorrow. I had a moment of laughter at seeing them. A sense of expectation for what lies beyond (Galicia and Santiago!). A sense of joy a how far I’ve come and how much I’ve learned. A sense of peace about climbing them tomorrow. Jesus, you’ve got lots of opportunities to teach me to do hard things, I thought.

I had lunch in the village at the end of the valley. Then I pushed onward another 8 kilometres, because I’d rather do the majority of the climbing tomorrow at the beginning of the day, not end. Leaving Villafranca (named so, btw, because Franks came to live there after originally coming through on the Camino!), we left the valley proper and started through the pass between mountains. We took some really winding roads along a river with the hills and cliffs rising up and towering over us on both sides. Really beautiful scenery. It reminded me of parts of New Brunswick, except more deciduous trees here than coniferous.

I walked from Villafranca to this village, Trabadelo, with an American woman. She kept the pace quite quick, but I appreciated that because it was so hot and meant we’d arrive sooner. And the company are the walk in the heat of the day much more enjoyable. It’s funny how Camino conversations can be very meaningful and very personal so quickly. I just met this woman today, but she knows about a lot of my hopes and dreams for the future! There is also a freedom in sharing things with someone you may never see again.
There is a Camino expression, that if you walk the Camino with lifelong friends, it may break up your friendship. But you may also find lifelong friends on the Camino. I am grateful to am the people that I have met and all the things I have learned from them. Relationships are unique here, and I will miss that a little when back at home.

Well, time for a little siesta. I deserve one after 30 kilometres, and it will help prepare me for tomorrow’s mountain climbing, right?!

Day 24: Foncebadón to Ponferrada

“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes…”

I cannot write better words to describe this morning’s walk, so I will borrow these words, which have long been favourites of mine.

My day began with a hike up to the iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro. I had purposely left later than I normally would have because I wanted to avoid the crowds. So I was disappointed when I approached the cross and discovered a loud group of people who were really taking their time climbing the rock pile and taking pictures. But eventually they left, and the rest of us waiting took our turns climbing and praying and picture taking. At my turn, I climbed up the pile of rocks surrounding the cross. I lay my burden down at the foot of the cross, and turned to face my photographer. Just then, the sun burst over the mountains at the horizon, bathing everything in its gentle golden light. I could not have timed that better myself! It was an amazing moment.

Then came the descent. Actually, not right away. First, there was about a four kilometre stroll along the top of the mountain. On either side the mountain fell away into deep, deep valleys, and then rose again to mountains which towered even higher than the one we had climbed. The walk was a difficult one, as the ground was rocky and uneven, so I couldn’t look around as I walked. But the view was so breathtaking that I had to stop frequently, just to look around in wonder. The experience really is not something I can put into words. I stopped taking pictures after a while, because they just could not do justice to the experience.

Then came the descent. And what a descent it was. The Cruz de Ferro is at 1505 metres elevation. Molinaseca, where I stopped for lunch, is about 600 metres above sea level. This was easily the steepest hill I have ever descended. A lot of the really steep descents were on the mountain rock or loose rock, both of which can be treacherous underfoot. (Also, just before I reached the iron cross this morning, I heard someone trip behind me. I turned around just in time to see someone face plant. I ran back to help him, but there was not much I could do besides give him a hand up and pick up his walking stick. It scared me, though, and I kept thinking of it and stepping down very carefully.)

By lunchtime I had made it down to Molinaseca. As my knees were ready for a rest and my stomach was ready for food, I found a restaurant and sank into a chair for half an hour. It’s amazing what a rest can do, though; when I left for Ponferrada, my knees were back to normal.

And then Ponferrada. I think it’s probably a very nice city, but the Camino seems to go last every abandoned building there is in the city. Ponferrada means iron bridge, and the bridge was reinforced with iron as early as the 11th century. So I was looking forward to this bridge… which turned out to be the least special bridge we have crossed. It was built in 1997, making it significantly younger than me. I have crossed medieval bridges and Roman bridges galore, so that was rather insignificant.

I’m staying out in the suburbs, so technically I’m in Compostilla, not Ponferrada. I learned another lesson on my way out: always follow the arrows. Even if there are pilgrims with a map, who definitely look like they know what they’re doing, just follow the arrows. With my 2 km detour today, I figure I walked about 31 kilometres. Tomorrow I hope to walk another 24 to 28, depending on how the day goes, because the day after that is the climb up O’Cebreiro. That walk in my guidebook is supposed to be 31 kilometres with an ascent of 800 metres, mostly in the last ten kilometres. So I’m hoping to shorten than day by walking more today and tomorrow. But at any rate, it’s not as high as the mountain I climbed yesterday and today, and not as much ascent as my first day of walking!

Ursula’s Story

Tonight I had the pleasure of meeting Ursula at dinner. Ursula lives in Germany. She has been to Canada before, and would like to move there for a while, so we started out with some common ground.
During dinner we spoke of many things. But it was a story Ursula shared after dinner that touched my heart. I asked her for permission to share it with you here. Ursula said that she has been walking for weeks, but now is ready to share this story.

This is Ursula’s seventh time (!) walking the Camino. She says the Camino keeps calling her, and God teaches her new things each times. One of the reasons she loves the Camino is that her job has a lot of stress. Ursula works as a trauma responder, helping families who have been in an accident or lost a loved one. She is also a chaplain, meeting and praying with people in the hospital. For twenty-two years she has prayed for people in their joys and in their sorrows. She kept track of all these stories, all these people, in lots for work. They were kept under lock and key in the hospital. These notebooks represented the best times and worst times of people’s lives – babies born, parents dying, cancer, inoperable diseases, hope for recovery, miraculous healing, terminal illnesses.
Ursula is now taking a sabbatical, and she is not sure where she is going to be returning. She said that’s up to her boss and The Boss. She was sent off with a farewell party attended by the local police and firefighters, former patients, people she has counselled and comforted and prayed for.
Then she took her notebooks, those logs of twenty-two years of chaplaincy. She burned them in a fireplace. Some of the ashes she put into the Rhine. Some of the ashes she brought to Lourdes, a place recognized for healing. And some she has carried with her on this seventh Camino she is making.
Tomorrow we reach the highest point of all the Camino. The iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro, has seen countless pilgrims pass by, placing a small rock or token that represents different things to each pilgrim. There, at the cross, Ursula will pour out the last of the ashes of the people she has prayed for and worked with. Her Camino ends tomorrow. But her journey towards what God is leading her to next has only begun.

Day 23: Murias de Rechibald to Foncebadón – Reflections

There is a moment that sometimes occurs in the morning: I lie in bed, not wanting to get up and start walking. I would rather do anything than walk another day.
When I get out of bed, this feeling is gone. It does not last, and it won’t return until the next morning.

There is another moment that occurs occasionally throughout the day, depending on the difficulty of the day’s walk, the weather, the amount of sleep I’ve had. I round a corner and see a long hill stretching up before me. Or I wipe away the sweat that is yet again trickling into my eyes. Or I pull out my map from my pocket and see that I still have ten kilometres to walk before finding a place to stay for the night, but I’m exhausted and want to stop NOW. God, I think, why am I here? Why did you call me to this journey? What am I supposed to be learning?

The thing is, I do know why I’m here. At least one reason. And I’ve known since day 2.

I don’t like to do hard things.

Somewhere along the way in life, my prayers became requests for God to take every hardship out of my life. My yoke is easy, and my burden is light, Jesus says. But he also says unless a seed falls to the ground and dies, it does not produce new life. At some point in time my theology has become less I am crucified with Christ and more being a Christian should mean an easy life.

I don’t think I would ever have put that into words if you had asked me what following Jesus is all about. But my mindset was revealed through my circumstances. Every hill I climbed was a challenge to me. Every step I took some days. Every lonely moment.

I wrote before leaving for Spain that a long walk is like a physical diagnostic, revealing what bad habits I’ve picked up in my gait and posture but don’t notice over the short term. I said that I hoped that my pilgrimage would be a spiritual diagnostic, revealing what spiritual bad habits I had picked up.

I’ve written a little bit about how each new hill, each new turn in the road, each new challenge has become an opportunity to check my attitude and learn. I wish I could say that the road was easy and that I was a star student. There is a certain irony in the fact that I began writing this reflection one morning at breakfast and all the words about doing hard things flowed out easily. Then I had a long hard day of walking in terrible heat, and pretty much lost perspective on why I’m here and what I’m learning. (Melodramatically posting on Facebook that you’re ready to die is not exactly a sign of personal growth!)

I have stopped looking forward to “easy days”, as I know each day will hold some kind of challenge. And with each hill, each stony path, each time I want to sit down and quit for the day, I pray Jesus, teach me to do hard things.

The last week of walking has been quite flat. Yesterday we started climbing hills again. As we crested one hill, we could see mountains soaring skyward ahead of us. And when I checked my attitude to see if there was any discouragement, any resentment, I am happy to say that my main reaction was Mountains? Meh. I’ve done them before and I can do them again. Jesus, help me learn to do hard things.

I consider it no accident that the book I bought on my ereader just before coming, the book I have been reading in some of my relaxation time, was NT Wright’s After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. I read about and reflected on how the life of Christian character and virtue is formed by the myriad small decisions we make in the “easy” parts of our lives. And then when the moments come where we are under pressure, we do the right thing with ease because it’s not a decision that is being made in that moment, it’s a decision that has been made and rehearsed again and again in those easier moments. This ties in to what I have been learning personally that is hard to express clearly in words.

Some thinking and reflecting still remains on this topic. What are the hard things in my walk with Jesus that I have been avoiding but need to face?
Who have I not forgiven that needs to be forgiven?
Who have I hurt, and need to ask for forgiveness?
What specific habits of virtue do I begin to add to my life to grow to be more like Jesus?
How do I learn more to die to self each day, each moment?

The best part, of course, is that I don’t do this on my own or under my own strength. I do it only through Christ, who strengthens me. In every hard moment along the Camino, from physical pain, exhaustion, hunger, to homesickness, loneliness, fear, my Good Shepherd always walks with me.

Tomorrow I will cross the highest point of altitude along the Camino. At the iron cross I will place a stone I have carried with me along my whole journey. I will lay my burdens at the foot of the cross, giving up again my desire to do things the easy way and asking Jesus to teach me to do hard things.