While I delicately sipped coffee, stumbled blindly through French lessons, and leisurely window-shopped the streets of Paris this summer, Old Money Gal Number One (my wife) threw on a backpack and walked purposefully and relentlessly across southern France and the north of Spain.
She did the Camino de Santiago, the Way of St. James, a pilgrimage steeped in history and tradition. (Some of you may be familiar with the Camino, what it involves, and why people do it. If not, you can Google it and read volumes about it online.)
Covering 515 miles in 28 days, OMG-1 found challenge, adventure, solitude, camaraderie, and inspiration. I flew to Compostela, Spain, to meet her at journey’s end, and had a moment to share a drink with some of the wonderful pilgrims she met along the way. I admired their determination,, their stamina, and their joy. There was a lot of laughter, and a real sense of satisfaction among the small group that had bonded as they trekked, more or less together, through blistering heat and bone-chilling cold. (The geography of the trek is varied, to say the least.)
The ‘meseta’ will get your mind right.
The most memorable of this group was Sven. Having endured some tough times in his personal life recently, his children gave him the gift of the Camino. Near the end of the walk, Sven sat with my wife after dinner at one of the small albergues that host pilgrims as they pass through. As the sun lingered, just above the horizon. my wife commented to Sven that, in spite of the ‘tough times’ he said he’d gone through lately, he now seemed genuinely happy.
Sven smiled and recounted an experience he’d had just a few days before. He had finished a day’s walk from one small Spanish town to the next. As was his practice, he dropped off his backpack at the local accommodation, and searched for a church nearby.
He had entered, like so many days before on the Camino, lit a candle and knelt to pray near the altar. The same sadness and fatigue hung on his shoulders as he whispered a prayer, aching from the day’s long walk. The thought that crossed his mind, he recalled, was that he’d never felt so alone.
On this particular day, at this moment, however, Sven said he felt someone watching him from the side of the chapel. He slowly lifted his head and turned, squinting in the shadows. He told my wife about seeing a man, dressed in a white robe, a few yards away from him.
As Sven blinked to get a clearer look at the man, he heard a voice say to him, “Sven, you’re not walking alone. You’re never alone.” And then the image of the man vanished in the shadows. Since that time, Sven confided with a glowing smile and tears welling up in his eyes, “I walk in the light.”
My wife shared this story with me after I’d spent some time with Sven, the rock-solid, stable, and sensible Swede. His demeanor seemed typical of the people who bring us reliable, functional brands like Ikea and Volvo. He was the farthest thing from a religious fanatic. I doubt he would ever be considered to be psychologically unstable.
What he is, I can tell you, is happy. His faith has been renewed. He’s looking forward to the future. And to doing another Camino.
Good for you, Sven, and congratulations, darling. Well done.