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The Ecstasy of Ultreya


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Reflections on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela

By Daniel McCarthy

“I walked through the Middle Ages this spring”. I now make my own this opening sentence of Paul Moses’ review of Kathryn Harrison’s new book THE ROAD TO SANTIAGO in the Feb. 16, 2004 edition of Commonweal. On April 4, 2004, Palm Sunday, I set out from St. Jean Pied dePort, a small town in southern France at the foot of the Pyrenees, the gateway to northwestern Spain. On this first day I walked fifteen miles up to the pass of Roncesvalles at 4500 ft. above sea level and collapsed into a bunk in the alberge of the monastery Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees. Alberges are the pilgrim hostels of the Way of Santiago, el Camino de Santiago. Roncesvalles is mentioned in the Chanson de Roland, the French epic poem, as the place where some time in the latter half of the eighth century Roland, commander of the besieged rear guard of Charlemagne’s army, made his famous and futile stand against the pursuing Moors.

The next day I continued on what would become a six weeks walk on el Camino de Santiago, the 1200 year old, 500 mile pilgrimage road to the shrine of the Apostle Saint James at Compostela, in Galicia, in the north west corner of Spain . The walk would take me down the southern slopes of the Pyrenees, up and down the foothills, through fields and ever present vineyards of the autonomous regions of Navarre and Rioja, across the magnificent plateaus and plains of Castile y Leon, and on through the luscious green oak and eucalyptus groves of Galicia, to arrive, on May 16, at the great pilgrim square in front of the magnificent Cathedral of Santiago.

During those six weeks, each day began for me at about 6:30AM as I awoke in the dark of some 37 different “alberges”, having shared a dormitory room of double or triple bunks beds with anywhere from 5 to 80 pilgrims. Alberges, the Bethlehem Inns of the Camino, ask a free will offering or charge four or five euros for a night’s lodging. In the alberges, early risers are expected to keep silence and keep the dormitory dark until all are awake, for me a palpable expression of the sensitivity and caring pilgrims seem instinctively to have for one another. Sun up in northern Spain in April and May progresses from about 7:45 to 7:15AM. Most alberges require that pilgrims be out by 8AM.

At about 3PM pilgrims begin arriving at the next alberge, having walked anywhere from six to twenty miles. The routine then is to shower, hoping there is hot water, and then wash the day’s clothes, if you were smart enough to bring just two or at most three changes, to have as light a backpack as possible to carry the 500 miles. Then in the courtyard of a 12th century monastery or twentieth century municipal school converted to an alberge, you will see pilgrims sitting around catching up on the day’s adventures with friends from previous stops, writing in journals, mending clothes or tending one another’s blisters. The sharing will then continue at a local bar over a meal from a Pilgrims Menu, accompanied generous bottles of wonderful wine, hopefully wine of Rioja, Spain’s premier wine growing region, the meal costing from six to eight euros ($7 to $9). Bed time for early risers like me was at about 9PM. Then once again the courtesies of the Camino take over. No lights are lit as soon as the first weary walkers retire, and a respectful silence is maintained. One learns early on not to leave unpacking until bed time and, for early risers, not leave packing up until dawn unless one is skilled at managing in the dark.

A frequent conversation opener on the Camino is “why are you making the pilgrimage?” or “why ultreya”, “ultreya” being a pilgrim cheer meaning “to the end!” or “go for it!”. In fact in Navarre and Rioja the hospitalero who welcomes walkers to the alberge and takes information, would ask the “why ultreya” question as a part of a survey being done by the regional government. Among the specific answers I heard were “I am thinking of breaking up with my girl friend and want to think about it” (lots of young people on the Camino), or from another, “to pray for healing for a family member” , or from a Lutheran Pastor who had recently retired and shortly thereafter had been divorced, “I need to clear my mind”. The desire for “clearing my mind” was a frequent answer.

I had first read about the Pilgrimage to Santiago while a student at Our Lady of Providence, the minor seminary of the Diocese of Providence. Father Henry Robitaille talked about the hero, Roland, and the saga of his vain attempt to call the emperor Charlemagne back at Roncesvalles to rescue the rear guard from ambush by the Moors. Our history professor, Msgr John Cox, lead us through readings about the Christian reconquest of Spain and especially the role of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and the influence of the famous pilgrimage in all of this. And since then I have encountered articles about the 1200 year old pilgrimage road in National Geographic and in other journals. At the end of her sophomore year at Bates College in 2001 my daughter, Kirstin, asked if she could take a one month Spanish course that involved a bicycle trip across northern Spain, some sort of religious route, she said. Couldn’t be the Camino, says I. And indeed it was and indeed Kirstin had a mountain top experience, literally, educationally and emotionally. So when retirement gave me the unbelievably generous gift of unlimited time to travel, I began to dream about the Camino.

At the beginning of walking I would answer the “why Ultreya” question with one of the categories of the survey, “for religious or spiritual reasons”. But I am not a devotee of St James in particular, and the very imaginative legend of the “translation” of James’ body after his martyrdom in Jerusalem, to north western Spain in an unmanned stone boat runs afoul of the scientific brain washing I have undergone as an ABD survivor of a doctoral program. And while I recognize my need of forgiveness, the promise of a plenary indulgence would hardly move me to undertake such a trek.

So the “why Ultreya” question was hovering there in the back of my mind throughout these first days of pilgrimage. As I walked across a farm field high in the foothills of the Pyrenees in Navarre, with not another pilgrim in sight, I heard the clear cry “coo coo, coo coo,” and I wondered if someone were commenting on my motives for walking.

But I was soon enthralled by this ancient and rich culture in which I was immersed. I felt that my entire seminary education prepared me to appreciate this medieval Christianity that is so wonderfully preserved in northern Spain, the last region of Europe to emerge from the middle ages. I wandered through a least 6 great twelfth century cathedrals, including those of Pamplona, Burgos and Leon, and the rich museums attached to each. In the museum of the Cathedral of Astorga I saw a letter dated in the third century, from Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, addressed to the Christians of Astruria, the present day Astroga, warning them not to follow the lead of some of their bishops who had taken part in offering sacrifices to the Gods of their Roman conquerors. Cyprian was later martyred.

I attended Holy Week liturgies in twelfth century parish churches in the medieval towns Los Arcos and Logrono. I toured monasteries long since become museums and monasteries still housing communities of monks. I sang vespers with Benedictine brothers in two of these monasteries. I stood beside the immense walls of castles built by the Knights Templar to protect pilgrims, the Templars having come to Spain after the Moors retook Jerusalem in the era of the crusades. I stayed in an alberge located in a twelfth century convent that is believed to have been founded by St Claire and has been continuously inhabited by an order of her nuns ever since.

I walked on roads and bridges built by the Romans. I stood in the field where Charlemagne defeated the Moors in the eighth century and walked through a field out side of Leon where the Roman seventh legion defeated the Astrurians in their last futile attempt to drive out these imperial invaders.

But as the Camino went on I noticed that more and more people, myself included, preferred to walk alone. One morning as I approached a small town on the plains of Castile I came upon this sign in Spanish, French and English at the entrance of the village of Villares, still hundreds of miles and weeks away from Santiago:

Pilgrim, we, the men and women of the villages of Villares, welcome you and offer you our hospitality. May our well wishing accompany you along the way and may you always remember your journey through our land where you trod lost in thought, far from your destination.

I was stunned! I felt the sign and “the men and women of Villares” had read my soul. Indeed I was lost in thought. I was aware that the walking itself had become the focus of my Camino. Seeing monuments no longer drew me. The rhythm of my pace, the crunch of my boots and staff on the gravel of the Camino, the creaking of my backpack straps on my shoulder, these had become mantras as I slipped into a walking meditation. I became aware of that most constant companion and support of my walk, the earth I stood on, the earth that bore me along, the earth of spectacular variety and beauty, my mother earth. And I felt the presence of her off spring, the far off Peaks of Europe, visible everyday to the north, like older brothers watching over me; and of the happily skipping mountain streams that became raging water ways in the foot hills and wide rivers in the valleys, my delightful lively companions, sister rivers. And then in the evening, tired but wonderfully relaxed and replenish emotionally, I would sit down with fellow walkers to the daily communion of bread and wine and local food, telling and hearing stories of el camino, the way.

And so the question “why Ultreya” faded away. Instead of asking “why” I was content simply to BE and to walk. I had never experienced anything close to what some mystics call ecstasy, but think I may have tasted hints of it during those days of walking. Trodding along in a state of self forgetfulness, when I would reach the crest of a hill and see great plains stretching out in front of me to what appeared to be the very curvature of the earth, an involuntary groan or sob would escape my lips. I felt for a moment or two that no boundary was between me and this beauty. It was all one! And I understood what dancing meant to Zorba. I wished I could do an ecstatic dance there on that hill top.

On May 16th I reached Santiago. In my tour of this wonderful old city I came upon an exposition of art treasures of the Camino, entitled Luces de Peregrinacion, Santiago Luz De Europa. At the entrance a large sign quoted Goethe as saying that “Europe was born pilgrimaging to Santiago”. And, I thought, I have experienced that! During the six weeks of walking I met people from at least 20 different countries, including all the countries of Western Europe, all with lively opinions about the birthing of the new Europe in the European Union. And it seemed that most were able to take part in the conversation with a wonderfully calm openness and spirit of collaboration born, I believe, of the day’s walking meditation.

In an article in the same edition of Commonweal cited above, which I read after returning home, David Loxterkamp, a physician who practices in Maine, called his experience of the Camino “a walking monastery”. Goethe and Loxtercamp helped me to answer “why Camino” and to name my experience. For me what I now know I was seeking and what, to some extent, I found was a walking monastery which lifted me to a new level of daily peace and contemplation.

As I look back now through the diary I kept and as I reflect on this extraordinary experience of an itinerant life, I believe I found these elements of a monastic life while walking the Camino:

Simplicity of life: The pilgrim posses only what she an carry on her back and the less the better. Starting out with a 30 lb pack, I soon jettisoned extra sneakers, books, shirts and many other non essentials. At that point I recalled Jesus’ admonition to the 70 He sent forth in Luke, 10, not to carry purse, bag or (extra ?) sandals, advice meant to bear witness to their trust in the Kingdom of God to provide, but also very practical advice for an itinerant way of life. And it dawned on me that a wonderful analogy for Jesus’ way of life with His disciples would be that of a “walking monastery”. John Dominic Crossan makes the asceticism of itinerant life a key to understanding life with Jesus in Palestine, calling the early Jesus movement “wandering or itinerant charismatics … practicing an ethical radicalism”. Crossan situates this practice directly at the core of the essential social justice mission of the Jesus movement where in the “systemically evil situation of injustice and oppression (of the Roman occupation of Palestine) only the destitute are structurally innocent” (JESUS AT 2000, M. Borg, pp 42 – 43). Assuming an itinerant way of life becomes, of necessity, an ascetical life.

Silence for prayer and reflection: This I found in the long walks of five to seven hours daily, free of all the noise makers of the twenty first century. I saw very few walkers with ear phones, most accompanied only by the rhythm of walking and the mantras I mentioned above. I met a group of French pilgrims who began the day’s walk singing a pilgrim hymn, before settling into the day’s silence.

Immersion in nature: leading to a taste of St. Francis's contemplative romance with a Mothering God, with “brother mountain, sister stream”, with roots in Creation Spirituality.

Physical exertion: I suspect one of the reasons St. Benedict required work of his brothers was that the sense of physical well being that comes at the end of a day’s exertion in labor is a help to the peaceful state of mind which facilitates the “lifting of mind and heart to God”. The walking provides this element of monastic life for the pilgrim.

Daily sharing with brothers and sisters: Ecce quam bonum et quam jucundum habitare fratres (et sorores) in Unum. The daily caring for and sharing with fellow pilgrims, summed up in the daily partaking in the bread and wine of the pilgrim’s meal, provide the opportunity for the day’s meditation to result in charity, the final stage in a life of prayer.

And so at home in Rhode Island, reflecting on this grace filled experience, it dawns on me that the answer to “why Camino", or “why Ultreya” is to experience the contemplative life of the walking monastery and, even if I may make so bold as to say, to experience occasional hints of ecstasy. One commentator on the Camino has said that a pilgrimage should be considered a success if the pilgrim meets herself on the way. For me the high points were when I lost myself.

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