Pilgrim Philosophy

October 21-26, 2019

The sun played peek-a-boo behind clouds this morning as we climbed 2,000 feet towards the town of O Cebreiro.

Andre, an Austrian in his twenties, fell into step beside us, remarking cheerfully on the beautiful weather. “All days are beautiful,” he declared. “There are no guarantees in this life. One must seize the moment.”

I looked thoughtfully at this young man, wondering what experiences had taught him this piece of wisdom. It didn’t seem polite to ask, though, and our conversation continued with much laughter and good cheer.

Almost before we realized it, our light hearted chatter brought us to O Cebreiro, a town full of tour buses and many, many people! Much to my delight, we were able to observe some men repairing a thatched roof.

First we watched them toss the bales of thatch up to the roof. When all had been thrown and caught, I couldn’t help but break into a cheer, clapping and calling, “Bravo!” The man on the roof looked startled, then grinned at me bashfully.

The man then carefully inserted the new thatch, using a wooden paddle to hammer and smooth the roof surface. Jay took two short videos of the process.

First, thatch was thrown.

Second, thatch was placed and smoothed.

After watching the thatcher, we walked inside the Iglesia Santa Maria de Real. A Gregorian chant played softly over hidden speakers, creating a meditative atmosphere that was rather disrupted by the sheer numbers of tourists walking through the sanctuary. Since I was one of the tourists, I couldn’t complain. Instead, I slowly walked the perimeter, contemplating a display of Bibles in numerous languages, a poem by a Franciscan brother, and a whole corner of votive candles. In this glowing corner, I found a bit of the peace the music was striving to create.

Peace, and a good bit of joy, often called us to stop and contemplate as we left O Cebreiro. Flowers, trees, mushrooms, they all echoed Andre’s message – “Live in the moment!”

Or, to quote an English pilgrim who passed us, “It’s a cracker of a day!”

I reflected how each person on the Camino brought his or her own life experiences and beliefs to be tested and refined. Listening to others and sharing our thoughts has become part of the joy of traveling near so many people. Conversation with a pilgrim, Isabel, sprang to mind. We had been discussing philosophy as seen on the trail.

“I agree it’s important to live in the moment and focus on being,” she told me. “But I’m much happier doing.”

I smiled at my new acquaintance. “What do you find yourself wishing you could do?”

Isabel looked at me wryly, and gave an impish, yet lovely, answer. “My soul longs to create art. I just need to find the medium that will allow it to design the beauty seen.”

Each day I am stopped in my tracks at the beauty there is to be seen. Purple blooms scattered along the roadside puzzled and charmed me. Didn’t crocus blooms announce Spring?

A passing pilgrim from Switzerland solved the mystery as she commented, “Isn’t the saffron pretty at this time of year?”

“Saffron?” I blurted. “Wait, these are the flowers that cost an arm and a leg to buy as a spice? Just growing by the roadside?”

“Yes,” the woman stooped to pick a blossom. “The spice is made from the stamen. It is harvested and dried.”

Another man stopped to see at what we were peering so intently. “Ah, saffron!” He smiled and nodded, moving on down the road.

That evening, a bit of research in Wikipedia confirmed that we were probably hiking past wild saffron, not the commercially grown blooms. Even so, these flowers had been used for four millennia! Truly, we live in a wondrous world!

Each day part of the Camino uses country lanes hidden beneath towering forests of oak, chestnut, pine, and recently, eucalyptus. Often Jay and I are alone on these paths.

One day, we met two women from California, amazingly walking our slow pace. The four of us began talking, and quickly discovered we were, perhaps, kindred spirits. Chris and Janet had recently lived through separate traumatic events, just as Jay and I had. Through the months, we had come to some conclusions which were strikingly similar. Janet summed it up for all of us when she said, “I now know the importance of seeking moments of joy every day.”

Indeed, joy jumped at us in many guises that day! From a deep russet carpet of pine needles to a silly fish shaped door handle, not to mention crossing a tiny stream, admiring a passion flower, and taking time for a hug – the day provided many memorable events.

Near the town of Samos, one antique display which brought a sense of wonder to Chris, Janet, me, and Jay showed headgear for oxen, made of dangling rabbit skins and fringes, worn to keep flies out of their eyes.

One evening, having dinner in the small town of Castromaior, we began talking to the two other patrons in the restaurant.

Juan, from Brazil, had broken his hike of the Camino into five stages, pausing often to savor his experiences. “The Camino has things to teach. It is important to take time to learn those lessons,” he explained.

I couldn’t help but think wryly of my own adventures. When it comes to life lessons, learning slowly means life just keeps giving me the same assignment, again and again!

Baxter, from South Carolina, had a different plan of action. He was hiking the Camino in thirty-three days, about two times faster than me and Jay. “The Camino is magical. It’s like no other place,” he told us. “I deeply value the time I’ve had to hold my friends and family in my mind, to think of the love that’s out there.”

Room for contemplation …
… and magic … and love.

After all, as one man from Houston told us over a pilgrim breakfast, “When I get home, I won’t remember the money spent, but I will remember the experiences from the Camino!”