The beginning of my Camino de Santiago was about having just a tiny spark of faith—and having someone there to fan that spark into a flame.
I was crying as I boarded the plane in Seattle. “Oh, is it your first trip to Paris?” the kindly flight attendant asked.
I just shook my head and wiped my eyes. I knew if I tried to talk I’d start sobbing. I couldn’t tell her that I knew I couldn’t walk the Camino. I had horribly painful shin splints that I caused myself by over training.
She patted me on the back sympathetically. When it was time for beverages she immediately brought me a plastic glass of champagne. God bless Air France. The entire flight I prayed—begged—for healing.
I was very fortunate that on the morning after I arrived in St. Jean Pied-de-Port I met Moritz, a 28 year-old German graduate student. He was sleeping in the same bunk room. As everyone packed up he politely pointed out that someone left their toiletries on the bathroom counter.
“Ooh, too bad for that poor sucker,” I thought to myself as I closed my pack and realized that I left my toiletries on the bathroom counter. He instantly became a saint to me. (They named a town after him!)
We were the last to leave because I was in pain and very slow and because Moritz just keep eating bowl after bowl of cereal. He spoke nearly perfect English. As we were strapping on our backpacks he said, “Yah, I am a little shobby.”
I looked at him and thought, “Shabby? You’re wearing one of those trendy Merino wool T-shirts.* You have on a really nice jacket and quick-dry hiking pants. There is nothing shabby about you.” So I said, “I don’t think so.”
Then he patted his round belly and said, “Ja, my belly here. I’m—how do you call?—shobby.”
Computing, computing, computing.
“Oh, chubby.” Right away I decided that anyone who is comfortable calling himself chubby and saved me from leaving my toiletries behind is someone with whom I wanted to walk. We started off together.
The very first day of the Camino Francés you have two choices: cross the Pyrenees by walking two hours to a small village where you spend the night and then continue the next day OR do it all in one day.
Considering how much pain I was in, of course I would spend the night in the small village. Except there were no beds left at the albergue there. But we stopped in the village and bought coffee. Moritz happily talked with other pilgrims while I frantically worried how I was going to cross the mountains with this swollen leg.
He came back from filling his water bottle with a big smile on his face. He handed me a card. “See? You do not have a worry now. There is a taxi! If you cannot walk properly then you can call them. But I know you can do it.”
“Oh, sure! Thanks so much.” Smiling and nodding I took the card although inwardly I was frowning and shaking my head. I knew—and I think he knew too—that there could be no taxi rescue. There are places on the Camino that are just rocky trails. Helicopter maybe, taxi no way. I knew that once I had left that village I was committed. It was cross the Pyrenees or bust. But I continued to finger the card in my pocket and pretend that I could always call this taxi.
We started out again. Pilgrims will tell you that there is something about walking the Camino that causes you to drop past all the superficial chatter and deep into a pool of conversation that is usually reserved for the closest of friends. Moritz and I plunged right past where do you live? and how many siblings? into talking about religion, death, spirituality, relationships.
He talked about his personal crisis over his parent’s divorce and how therapy helped him. I talked about questioning my life path. He spoke of being moved by the Catholic Mass. I spoke about crying when our choir sings. Of course there was the mundane: what kind of socks are you wearing? How many shirts did you bring? Are you carrying any food? And all the while he would see me wince and suggest that we slow down or perhaps “take a proper rest” so that we could “get over these beautiful mountains.”
The little spark of faith I had that I could do this started to grow. Nothing changed physically. I still took 200 mg. of ibuprofen every three hours and my shin was still swollen and red. But his faith in me was contagious and I started to think that yes, we would “get over these beautiful mountains” together.
It was only later that I realized how blessed we were to get a clear day. The very next day was completely foggy and Pilgrims reported they saw nothing but mist. Between discussing the importance of communication in relationships and pondering exactly how does the Holy Spirit work, we marveled at the beauty of the Pyrenees. Horses wandered the hills. Statues of the Virgin Mary appeared out of nowhere. Sheep dotted the hillside.
“I lift up my eyes to the mountains—where does my help come from?” asks the Psalmist. “My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.”
And sometimes that help comes in the form of a chubby graduate student who is not afraid to plunge into deep conversation or suggest a proper rest.
We walked into our destination Roncevalles together. We mingled with other pilgrims and I overheard Moritz saying about our climb, “I have to say I would not have made it without her.”
What? I would not have made it without him!
It turned out that he was struggling as well. He was out of shape, didn’t train and well—a little “shobby.” I had trained (yes, over trained) but was injured. We were the perfect pair.
I kept that taxi card and have it on my bathroom mirror. It reminds me that sometimes we need something like training wheels to get us started but at some point we need to commit. It also reminds me of how even if we have a just a tiny spark but are open, Spirit will provide what we need to make that spark a flame.
* Those Merino wool t-shirts? You really can sweat in them for days without any body odor. You do smell like a sheep but no human B.O.