This has been a walk like no other. Last time I walked the Frances it was packed, hot and sweaty. More of a party atmosphere than a religious undertaking, and that was fine by me.
I am not, nor have I ever been, a religious person. And there is good reason for that. Have you ever known anyone who flunked out of Lutheran confirmation classes – like Catholic catechism? Well, now you do. Yup! That’s me. I broke the minister at the age of 13, by refusing to stay silent, asking too many questions and not having enough faith. But I figured if I was pledging to believe something, they should do me the courtesy of explaining it in detail. Apparently, in our Lutheran church I was supposed to sit down and shut up. Something I have never been able to master. Sorry, Pastor Meier.
So we all agreed that I would not continue in my religious classes. The minister barely looked at me after that. I don’t remember him speaking directly to me ever again. After such a rejection, by a servant of God, no less, it was likely the beginnings of me never being a joiner. I have had people invite me to their church in the US. ‘All are welcome.’ But I usually decline. They have no idea who they’re dealing with. I broke a minister, as a child, for god sake. No church is gonna want that.
But on this Camino I am being surrounded by people who are very religious and happy to share it with me in unusual ways.
The other day after a Pilgrim meal, a woman slipped me a note written on a napkin. We had all been sharing our story and she felt compelled afterwards to share this with me.
I had to look it up on the internet because I haven’t read a bible in more than 40 years. Esther is a woman who has a difficult choice to make, to stand up to the king who is planning to eradicate all the Jews in his kingdom. She can remain silent or she can risk her own life speaking up, while recognizing that this is perhaps why she was born in the first place.
I am not doing anything in my life so remarkable, where the stakes are so high. Perhaps the food truck on the Camino inspired her. But it did give me something to think about on my next stretch walking alone. Why am I here?
I have had the privilege of walking with all sorts of people. From the spectrum of pauper to prince. One man I walked with for awhile is the retired CEO of a global company. One you would know instantly if I just showed you the logo. He retired in December and is already here walking to Santiago. We spent a few hours talking, as he regaled me with stories from a class he had taken in college. He had been required to read a book about Zen Buddhism and the stories were something like The 100 Most Important Zen Fables. Something like that. Of course they all had a lesson.
‘After 40 years you still remember those stories.’ I was amazed.
He laughed ‘Its been longer than that. But I never forgot them.’
‘Did you use them in your work?’ I asked. What a great leader he must have been with these lessons in his back pocket.
He frowned ‘I tried to.’ But then he stopped and looked directly at me. ‘You know what? No, I didn’t. Over the years it became more and more about money. Making Wall Street happy. Making short term decisions for the stock price. Shareholder value. But the values we had when I first started working there were gone by the time I left.’
I saw the pain this caused him. ‘Is that why you’re here? Walking?’
This pretty quiet guy looked exasperated. ‘I have no idea why I’m here or what I’m doing?’
I smiled. He was beating himself up. ‘You’re here, just walking. That’s enough. Great epiphanies or none.’ I shrugged ‘Are you enjoying it?’
He smiled. ‘Yeah. I am. My life is reduced to walking, eating, drinking and sleeping. I don’t have to make any decisions outside of those. People say this is hard, but it’s a relief.’
He hugged me at the next town. He was staying there and I was walking on. It made me think of the verse on the napkin the woman handed me. Perhaps my purpose for being here is just this. To listen in that one moment. A church isn’t always a building.
As I unpacked my pack this afternoon after reaching my destination I found the prayer card the old man gave me on the steep path yesterday. And I leave it with you here. Love is always the answer. It seems appropriate. Even for a religion flunky, like me.