I'll go with you, I told my friend Lola over dinner when she mentioned her desire to do El Camino. Struggling with recurring cancer, Lola was courageous and confident about taking on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. My hometown priest used to talk about El Camino during Catechism class. Your sins will be pardoned when you arrive at the Santiago Cathedral, he used to say. As a child, I questioned whatever the clergy said, earning their accusations of being a Doubting Thomas. Even though I did not believe the sin absolution story, the idea of walking El Camino intrigued me. But I did not know why. Did I have a secret sin that needed forgiveness?
Years before my dinner with Lola, my best childhood friend Nayda invited me to do El Camino. The pilgrimage was to be in honor of our sisterhood. I loved the idea--spending time with my sister-friend always brought me joy. But, as life happened, Nayda became home-bound taking care of her ill mother. I can't do El Camino right now, she said. So, when Lola mentioned her wish to do the Way of St. James, I jumped at the idea.
After my dinner with Lola, we made tentative plans. Time passed. Then, early last year I had an urgent desire to visit Santiago de Compostela. When i mentioned it to Lola, she said that she could not travel during that time. Instead of frustration, I found determination. My instincts told me to go. I still did not know why.
It finally happened during the fall. As a substitute for a sister-friend, my husband Fred agreed to be my pilgrim partner. We arrived at Santiago, after visiting several towns in the Galician country. However, before I go on, I have a confession to make. I did not walk the Way of St. James. After reading Paulo Coelho's The Pilgrimage, I decided to do El Camino my way. That is, I opted to make the path. This meant that we only walked the last steps leading to the Santiago Cathedral. This pilgrimage was more ethereal than physical, more spiritual than religious, more personal than sacred.
This is how it happened. Fred and I went early to the cathedral to attend the pilgrims' mass. Back home, our friends Sara and Al recommended this strategy before we left. You can secure seats if you go early, they said. Witnessing the arrival of the pilgrims during the misty morning rain was energizing. I scrutinized the faces of the waves of multicultural humanity. A glowing aura emanated from the pilgrims' fatigued bodies. As i enjoyed the caminantes' radiance, I questioned my decision to not walk the complete Camino. Music, hymns, and joy filled the grand cathedral. My spirit expanded as I listened to the priest's welcoming words in the pilgrims' native tongues.
Sadly, my reverie was broken when the priest delivered the sermon. Shamelessly, he admonished the parishioners about the responsibility to financially support the cathedral. A familiar tune jumped into my head. My intense ambivalence with the Church played in 3D and IMax. In spite of this, and to my surprise, I stayed throughout the whole religious service. Instead of serenity, the peace ritual at the end of the mass brought consternation.
After the mass, we exited the cathedral and found a beautiful sunny day. As we walked Santiago's ancient streets, Antonio Machado's poem, Caminante, danced in my head: Caminante no hay camino, se hace camino al andar (Traveler, there is no road, you make your path as you walk). It was then that I realized why I went to Santiago. I did not need absolution for my sins. Rather, I needed to absolve. I began by forgiving the Church.
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