A Day on El Camino

“The world will never starve for want of wonders; but only for want of wonder.” –GK Chesterton

Never have I understood these words more than while walking the ancient pilgrimage called El Camino. It will be different for each peregrino, but my two weeks along The Way quickly became a steady parade of reminders for “how rare and beautiful it is to even exist” (song). As always, the peace comes just in time.

During my college years, I’d fallen in love with learning more than ever before. I became swept up in gathering information and hypothesizing about the world we live in, but from time to time, there was also an inner voice bidding me to be silent… to just take everything in. Through the hustle-bustle of costs, benefits, projects, and papers, I had willingly brushed aside my childlike capability for wonder. After four semesters too long, I finally rediscovered my balance– a sort of necessary rhythm emerging between fervent knowledge acquirement and quiet awe. Luckily, this is also exactly the kind of thing that a walking pilgrimage engrains within you. 🙂

To commemorate the end of that life-chapter, I’ve decided to write-up the happenings of a typical day on El Camino. The narrative is simple– walk, talk, eat, sleep– and the fluidity of the days made them nearly as a dream (save the very real blisters and ever-pressing laundry needs). Buen camino!

__________

5:53 am: Waking up seven minutes before my alarm (courtesy of my heavy Polish bunk-neighbor thumping to the ground), I gather that half the room has already emptied out. The older couples like to hit the trail before the day heats up. I emerge from my cocoon sleep-sack, since it’s usually smart to follow the older and wiser. 😉

6:00 am: The rest of our group begins to awake, and we greet each other with a sleepy nod and smile while stumbling to brush our teeth in the dorm-style bathroom. Wow, my nose and shoulders got some serious sun yesterday… those pack straps are going to feel grrrrreat!

6:30 am: On our way, at last! The air is magnificently fresh in the morning, and our group decides to stop at the next town over (someone said its “only 4km away”) for the usual chocolate croissants and cafe con leche. The sleep-soreness is worked out of my body as I hit my stepping rhythm.

8:00 am: We step onto those narrow cobble-stone streets, just as the special Camino cafes begin to open– since the usual opening time for any business in Spain is actually around 10am… (what a life!). It is very common to find that the cafe and hostal owners were once Camino peregrinos themselves, who have decided to stay. This establishment is no exception, and while I wait in line for my espresso, I gaze at their grainy old Camino photos on the walls.

11:30 am: Since we’ve fallen behind a km or so, Favorite Pilgrim and I decide to rest for a hot minute, snacking on almonds and taking in the poppy-speckled wheat fields that cloak the sun-soaked hillsides. Turns out, nature’s fruitful offering is more effective at healing aching bodies than Advil 🙂

1:30 pm: We’ve arrived into our final town for the day! This hostal looks divine– a neat, clean little gift from God. We bring out our pilgrim passports to be stamped while eagerly looking at the peaceful wading pool and hammocks that grace our newest residence.

2:00 pm: The cool showers can wait just a little while longer while we trade our boots for a pair of breathable flip-flops and stumble into the neighboring cafe for lunch sandwiches. It feels so good to sit around, eating and drinking and sharing stories from the other peregrinos we met today along the way. (It has been said that the Camino is the world’s largest walking group therapy…haha).

4:00 pm: Laundry hooray! These words will come back to bite me one day, but I actually have a real love of doing laundry… it’s sooo soothing.

5:00 pm: Interspersed exploration, chatting with other peregrinos (the “so why are you walking the Camino” conversation starter is a tried and true favorite) and card games until…

7:00 pm: Mass time! We pilgrims join the local daily-Mass-goers for the sacred celebration, which always concludes with a special pilgrim blessing. This time, the twinkly-eyed priest demanded that each nationality sings a hymn in their native tongue. Forced performance is good for humility, and I’ll never forget the Italian couple whose (clearly) polished performance put us all to shame 😉

8:00 pm: Dinner (at last). Bring forth the three courses of salad, seafood, ice cream and unlimited vino! I take a moment to admire the bubbling, cross-border camaraderie. People can be so good.

10:00 pm: Fortunately, the hostal curfew doesn’t mean the merriment has to end. Here’s to the nights of bunk-jumping, story-sharing, and giggling ourselves to sleep! Before submitting to the exhaustion, I lift up my heart to the One who gave me feet, food, friends, and the beautiful Christian faith… and I pray for the chance to do it all again tomorrow 🙂

_________

If there is anything I’m taking with me from the pilgrimage, and if there is any reason that you should consider El Camino, it is this:

“If you become Christ’s you will stumble upon wonder upon wonder, and every one of them true.” — St. Brendan of Birr

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On Friends: Clive Staples vs. Ernest

“Is any pleasure on earth as great as a circle of Christian friends by a fire?” – C.S.Lewis

“Writing, at its best, is a lonely life. Organizations for writers palliate the writer’s loneliness but I doubt if they improve his writing. He grows in public stature as he sheds his loneliness and often his work deteriorates.” – Ernest Hemingway


The above lines reveal tension. Though incomplete, it is palpable enough to bear fruit upon contemplation. For the first author, friendship (particularly that of Christian friends) is an experience worthy of rhetorical awe and thanksgiving. The other argues that even if community can temporarily alleviate our islandhood, the best writer will refuse such pleasure for whole-hearted devotion to his work. There no difference in the object of reflection, and hardly one of context as both are prolific writers, so the true divide must come from the interior orientation of each. The second author sees himself and his work, while the first is most concerned with sharing a marvel. There is a difference of focus.

The question then remains: What is the best thing to focus on? The clearest way to answer this giant question is to put it into perspective– universal and inescapable perspective.  The answer arises from another question, the one that I firmly believe we will hear in the stillness of our last day: How much did you love? If loving is primarily accomplished through one’s writing and work, then very good! However, it is only as good as it is true. Every moment we get closer to the day when we can no longer comfortably deceive ourselves about how efficiently the scarcest resource has been spent.

Lewis has chosen the better part.

This is quite heavy, but I like to remind myself of this very, very often because I’m a natural Hemingway getting caught up in my books, and work, and solitude, and coffee, and melancholy stormy nights. But fortunately, with good friends and twinkly-eyed writers like Lewis, I usually come out on the other side, laughing at myself.

Alain de Botton on “The Art of Travel”

The first time I laid eyes upon The Art of TravelI immediately knew that I would adore it. Not only did its giver have an impeccable track record for book gifts, but travel, art, and beauty, all explained through the eyes of a witty English philosopher?* How much better could it get? If we could eat books, this would be my first course.

And now, precisely a year later, I have reopened the pages (to be welcomed by a small shower of Domincan sand) to once again meet the text for use in a short speech assignment. I’ve come to the sad realization that rarely do friends take my fervent book recommendations into serious consideration (God bless them when they do), and so the speech is a fun way to share my favorite portions. The chapters chosen were “On Curiosity,” “On the Country and the City,” and “On the Sublime.” Although my real presentation includes a notes-sheet packed with delicious verses, for simplicity’s sake I’ve included just one per chapter here, along with my Prezi:

I. On Curiosity

“Curiosity might be pictured as being made up of chains of small questions extending outwards, sometimes over huge distances, form a central hub composed of a few blunt, large questions. In childhood we ask, ‘Why is there good and evil?’ ‘How does nature work?’ ‘Why am I me?’ If circumstances and temperament allow, we then build on these questions during adulthood, our curiosity encompassing more and more of the world until at some point we may reach that elusive stage where we are bored by nothing. The blunt large questions become connected to smaller, apparently esoteric ones. We end up wondering about flies on the sides of mountains or about a particular fresco on the wall of a sixteenth-century palace.” (pg. 116)

II. On the Country and the City

“Of what moment is that when compared with what I trust is their destiny, to console the afflicted, to add sunshine to daylight by making the happy happier, to teach the young and the gracious of every age to see, to think and feel, and therefore to become more actively and securely virtuous; this is their office, which I trust they will faithfully perform long after we (that is, all that is mortal of us) are mouldered in our graves” –Wordsworth in a letter to Lady Beaumont after his poetry was initially described as “namby-pamby” and “a piece of babyish absurdity”

III. On the Sublime

“‘Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and answer thou me’…When divine wisdom eludes human understanding, the righteous, made aware of their limitations by the spectacle of sublime nature, must continue to trust in God’s plans for the universe” (pg. 171)

Surely there is nothing more enthusing than the prospect of traveling, not only to new places but with such playfully enlightened eyes.


 

*If you need any more reason to read the text, consider that there is a portion entitled “The Exoticism of Shitting Donkeys.”

Walt Whitman on Miracles

Oh God beyond all praising, we worship you today!

As I sleepily sit in a white rental minivan with my dad at the helm, zooming through the streets of Paradise Valley back to the airport, nothing seems short of a miracle. A mere three days of family Easter vacation in this desert oasis have reminded me that first things come first, and a first thing is to grab the person closest to you and give them a hug.

For me, the second thing is to share the wonderful things that strike me in the things that I read. I love poetry because it attunes our minds to the melody of the everyday. It sings from the order of leathery airplane seat rows, juxtaposed to the reckless glory of dawn unable to be held back by a thin airplane pane, the extra squeeze in a brother’s hug before we depart to our respective terminals towards our respective homes, and the unexpectedly cheery grin of the flight attendant as he dispenses breakfast cookies, lemon waters, coffees, and the occasional cocktail (oh what a mystery at 6am.) As Alain de Botton declares in The Art of Travel (a jolly brilliant book on which I frequently bubble over with mirth by quoting passages to my poor traveling companions):

Journeys are the midwives of thought. Few places are more conducive to internal conversations than moving planes, ships, or trains. There is an almost quaint correlation between what is before our eyes and the thoughts we are able to have in our heads: large thoughts at times requiring large views, and new thoughts, new places (pg. 54.)

And believe me, with the mind of an economics major, I mean to grasp and share this point in all its practicality. We know we’ve found the truth when it changes something. It begins to make all things new. So what do these mini-miracles mean for the way we go about our everyday lives? It’s pretty simple: our concrete reactions. Life sweeps us up in a new dance each morning (I’m pretty sure this is the reason that music, rhythms, and poems resonate so soundly with us.) A real gem for your Easter morning:
Miracles
By: Walt Whitman

Why, who makes much of a miracle?

As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,

Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,

Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,

Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,

Or stand under trees in the woods,

Or talk by day with any one I love, or sleep in the bed at night with any one I love,

Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,

Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,

Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,

Or animals feeding in the fields,

Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,

Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,

Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;

These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles,

The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.

 

To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,

Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,

Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,

Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.

 

To me the sea is a continual miracle,

The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—the ships with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

No Mere Mortals: A November Reflection

It is during the month of November, which begins with All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day if you are familiar with the Roman Catholic feast days, that we remember our beloved departed. Though I have been so lucky as to never have experienced the passing of someone very near to me, there is one lesson that I always take away from these observances: love the people around you like there is no tomorrow. Because realistically, there may not be. If you hold it true that we are immortal souls housed in our mortal bodies (as I do), then there is a more profound occurrence than mere death in death and a more complex reality than mere life in life. In one of the truest, best and most beautiful passages that I have ever read, C.S. Lewis describes what a person who believes in eternity really sees when beholding the persons around him:

“It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or other of these destinations.

It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics.

There are no ordinary people.

You have never talked to a mere mortal.

Nations, cultures, arts, civilization—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat.

But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn.

We must play.

But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously—no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.”

Or, in everyday English: let’s run the thrilling race of life together, knowing full well that we are headed toward eternal joy and glory (and puppies as my little brother likes to remind me).

The Story of the Three Stonecutters

After running the Santiago Corre this morning, I rushed home and through a delightfully icy shower just in time to attend Domingo Misa in the serene ILAC chapel.  Those next tens of minutes, I toyed with the idea of retiring upstairs to my bed as the tired tenderness of my body, the gentle breeze that played with my hair, and the soothing sounds of La Palabra de Dios nearly lulled me to sleep. But, I am ever so glad that I somehow stayed strong during the homily, because I caught a neat little parable that has had me thinking ever since. It’s called the Story of the Three Stonecutters:

A man came across three stonecutters and asked them what they were doing. The first replied, “I am making a living.” The second kept on hammering while he said, “I am doing the best job of stonecutting in the entire county.” The third looked up with a visionary gleam in his eye and said, “I am building a cathedral.”

There are three kinds of people in this world…We all know those first-stonecutter-types, indeed we ourselves default to that short-sightedness from time to time (especially on dreary mornings.) His is the short-term perspective; the inability to raise one’s eyes above the present momentary exchange of work for pay. In fact, its safe to say that such a narrow view breeds complaints, and therefore chokes out most daily cheer or any true sense of fulfillment. But, take the second stonecutter– his perspective is attractively furnished with a strong sense of individualism. He has high aspirations, abundant passion, and finds the purpose of his work in cultivating his talents to be the best. The limits of his imagination are the limits of mankind’s imagination; they are sky-high and greatness-bound. The driven individualist clearly will find happiness as he propels himself toward glory, but what of fulfillment? I think some of us already know the answer to this by years of trial and error. Again, with the third stonecutter, the audience is able to picture the very scene and perhaps draw parallels with individuals we have crossed paths with as he answers with a “visionary gleam in his eye.” We know something is exceptional here.  His response reveals the mindset of one who believes that a grander mission is always unfolding, grander even than his own solid successes. Not only is he making a living for himself, not only does the stone before him become more beautiful with every chip that flies from his hammer, but he is here, this very day, to play his role in a tremendous feat. He is building a cathedral. Here thrives purpose, happiness, and fulfillment. I am fond of the interpretation of the final stonecutter given by Drew Faust, the president of Harvard University:

The third stonecutter embraces a broader vision. Interesting, I think, that the parable has him building a cathedral—not a castle or a railway station or a skyscraper. Testimony in part, of course, to the antiquity of the tale. But revealing in other ways as well. The very menial work of stonecutting becomes part of a far larger undertaking, a spiritual as well as a physical construction. This project aspires to the heavens, transcending the earthbound—and indeed transcending the timebound as well, for cathedrals are built not in months or even years, but over centuries. A lifetime of work may make only a small contribution to a structure that unites past and future, connects humans across generations and joins their efforts to purposes they see as far larger than themselves.

Through such a simple parable, we are reminded of the big picture which always overarches our daily handful of time-currency. The purpose behind our everyday tasks is threefold: to make a living, to be great, and to serve a higher good. Our God-given task is to remember all three. I was asked the question “what is your dream job?” thrice this week in various interviews. Though as of right now I am not yet able to articulate exactly what I want to do as a career, although I do have a few conditions in accord with my general talents and desires, I am sure of how I want to do it. I want to always be aware of the sublime masterpiece that we are a part of; I want to go about my everyday with the vision of the third stonecutter.

6: Greatest Love

I had the decency to read Thoreau’s Walden this summer, while stationed in a canvas hammock under a great white oak and a swamp ash. As you might imagine, the literary experience was narrated by the rush of the bending, breezed pondweed and buzzing dragonflies. God, nature, commerce, technology, time, people, conversation, labor, etc. were all fair game, but I must say that I especially loved his eloquent familiarity with solitude. My busy, tired brain was justly reminded of the enrichment in quiet and isolation. Having been familiar with that, it seems fitting that we study his words on the polar opposite (or is it?), the bond of friends:

Friendship

By: Henry David Thoreau

I think awhile of Love, and while I think,
Love is to me a world,
Sole meat and sweetest drink,
And close connecting link
Tween heaven and earth.

I only know it is, not how or why,
My greatest happiness;
However hard I try,
Not if I were to die,
Can I explain.

I fain would ask my friend how it can be,
But when the time arrives,
Then Love is more lovely
Than anything to me,
And so I’m dumb.

For if the truth were known, Love cannot speak,
But only thinks and does;
Though surely out ’twill leak
Without the help of Greek,
Or any tongue.

A man may love the truth and practise it,
Beauty he may admire,
And goodness not omit,
As much as may befit
To reverence.

But only when these three together meet,
As they always incline,
And make one soul the seat,
And favorite retreat,
Of loveliness;

When under kindred shape, like loves and hates
And a kindred nature,
Proclaim us to be mates,
Exposed to equal fates
Eternally;

And each may other help, and service do,
Drawing Love’s bands more tight,
Service he ne’er shall rue
While one and one make two,
And two are one;

In such case only doth man fully prove
Fully as man can do,
What power there is in Love
His inmost soul to move
Resistlessly.

______

Two sturdy oaks I mean, which side by side,
Withstand the winter’s storm,
And spite of wind and tide,
Grow up the meadow’s pride,
For both are strong

Above they barely touch, but undermined
Down to their deepest source,
Admiring you shall find
Their roots are intertwined
Insep’rably.

I would claim that the only thing more magnificent than nature is man himself. Hopefully you enjoyed that gem of a poem, happy Monday!

4: Remember This

My most profuse apologies, as I failed to post a poem yesterday!  It was a Friday, though, so I hope we all were occupied with our revelry and full-fledged living. To make up for it, one of my absolute favorites by one of my absolute favorites:

Death, be not proud
By: John Donne
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.