Gifts & Reflections

The following address was delivered at the Confraternity’s AGM on 18th January 2003, and was published in Bulletin 81 (March 2003). You may quote reasonable extracts without permission, though we would appreciate an acknowledgement. For more substantial use, please contact the Secretary.

Gifts and Reflections: an offering to the Confraternity of Saint James on its 20th Anniversary, at its AGM on 18 January 2003

Laurie Dennett (retiring Chairman)

I have called this talk “Gifts and Reflections” because that is the title that sprang to mind, quite spontaneously, when Marion rang me one morning in early December and told me I had precisely half an hour to think one up before the AGM papers went to the printer! But I think – on reflection! – that, rather like those attempts at spelling a word when you realise you had it right the first time, “Gifts and Reflections” is as good a summary as any of what I want to say in this, my last presentation as Chairman, but I hope not my last before a Confraternity audience.

The difficulty, of course, has been in knowing where to begin – and so I am approaching “the beginning” in a round-about way, by means of a little imaginative exercise. I invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourselves on your favourite stretch of the Camino Francés.- it could be the vine country of Navarra, some Galician mountain pasture, or even that long, oak-lined stretch of road into Rabanal. It’s a cool but sunny day in the month of November. In the distance, there is a group of five pilgrims – or perhaps it would be more accurate to say, “four plus one”, because one lags behind, struggling with an immense and weighty rucksack. As they approach us, we can see that they are of different ages and races, and that hand gestures and a lot of laughter are making up for the lack of a common language. I will tell you a little about them. A step or two ahead of the others, like a shepherd leading his flock, comes a Spanish pilgrim (a policeman, as he told me one evening over a glass of wine). His all-weather clothing and the rhythmic swing of his baston suggest an experienced walker. Slightly behind him comes a younger man, a Brazilian, fit and tanned, but perhaps more at home on the beach than in keeping a weather eye out for yellow arrows. The diminutive young woman walking next to him hails from Quebec; she set out from Le Puy on her 21st birthday, feeling the need to know what being on her own was like after growing up in a commune. Then comes an impressive figure: a black pilgrim, six feet four inches tall, wearing a long coat that almost sweeps the ground. He emigrated from West Africa to France, and now he is a fisherman in the port of Marseilles. His rucksack seems to weigh nothing at all, and he frequently turns around to check the progress of the fifth pilgrim, a hundred yards to the rear – a Japanese, who even without his burden would not reach the chest of his companion. It would appear that he has brought with him all the utensils of his trade as a chef in Kyoto, on the other side of the world.

Five pilgrims – four men and a woman – from five continents:and six countries: Spain, Brazil, Canada, the Cameroons via France, and Japan. Their ages range from 21 to 50, and on the face of it, they have nothing in common except the fact of being pilgrims, and of having set out on the Camino alone. Somewhere between Roncesvalles and Estella, each one met up with one or more of the others. By now they give the impression of having known one another all their lives.

Why have I asked you to indulge in this exercise and summon up the persons of these five pilgrims? Very simply, because since I had the good fortune to coincide with them in Estella in November of the year 2000, and to observe them day after day all the way to Galicia, I have thought about them a great deal, always with gratitude, for in a sense they refreshed my own appreciation of the Camino.To me they were five living examples of what we so frequently call “the spirit of the Camino” – which is no more and no less than the second of the New Commandments of the Gospels put into practice as fraternal charity. I recall the generous and spontaneous way in which each of them cared for the wellbeing of the others, and their contagious delight in one another’s company that overcame any obstacles of communication. Some beautiful images remain in my mind: the Spanish policeman bandaging the blistered feet of the Japanese, the tall African carrying the chef’s heavy rucksack along with his own; the five trying to decide what to buy for the supper they would prepare and eat together in the refugios, with the trilingual Quebecker translating for everyone.

My five pilgrims were very aware that they had each received something very special through having – seemingly coincidentally – found one another. I asked them what they would do when they reached Santiago. They had given a great deal of thought to this, and the answer was, “walk to Finisterre, each alone, to relive their original experience…and once there, walk back again together, to rediscover the happiness of companionship again, for a few last days before making their separate journeys home”. I could hardly bear to think of them separating, but they seemed more philosophical: there is the internet, after all! I saw them last in O Cebreiro, as I was staying on over Christmas and they were carrying on. Watching them set off down the cobbled street in the rain, I reflected not only on what a gift their meeting had been for each of them, but what a gift my encounter with them had been for me. They had reaffirmed the essence of the Camino and brought the reasons for being involved with it back into sharp focus. Some weeks later, by which time they must all have been back in their own countries, I reached Santiago myself and found a note from them, left for me on the notice board in the Pilgrim Office. It was signed “Pilgrims, forever”, and so perhaps they will be back.

One reason why the example of these pilgrims made such an impact, I think, is because it recalled my own first pilgrimage to Santiago, when life itself was less complicated and the Camino less so still. Perhaps walking out of season as I and my five pilgrims did two years ago, is now the only way to ensure a peaceful pilgrimage. Things were very different in the Confraternity’s early days. Fewer than 1000 pilgrims a year made their way to the shrine of Saint James during the early1980’s, nearly all of them along the Camino Francés. Walking in May 1986, I had reached Castrojeríz before I met my first two of them! There were perhaps a quarter of the number of today’s refugios in existance then, which made for natural or obligatory etapas, some of them exceedingly long. Above all, one’s pilgrimage was enriched by very frequent contact with local people, whose spontaneous interest and kindness made a deep impression, and with a dozen or so amazing people scattered along the length of the Camino who had dedicated their lives to assisting pilgrims. In a recent talk at the Federation Conference out in Spain I called this unofficial support network, collectively, “the fifth pillar” of the Camino (the other four being Local Governments, the Associations of Amigos, the Church and the Voluntary Wardens), and I think it no exagerration to say that generations of local people, living along the Camino and extending hospitality to pilgrims as the natural expression of devout religious beliefs and their own open and generous characters, played a major part in keeping the pilgrimage alive, especially between the 1850’s when the monastic foundations were despoiled, and the 1980’s when the Associations came into being, and Local Governments began to view the Camino as a motor of economic development.

They, again, were “the spirit of the Camino” in action, and they exemplified that spirit to some of us and to countless others, and in doing so aroused in many of us “the desire to give something back”, to serve other pilgrims as we had been served. The Confraternity, only 200 strong when we sent our famous letter to the Spanish Federation in the spring of 1988, grew to meet the challenge of restoring a ruin to create a pilgrims’ refuge and provide a restorative oasis on a particularly gruelling stretch of the route. In this we enjoyed the help of many others, for whom we retain an abiding affection, especially our friends from the Association of Amigos del Camino de El Bierzo, but much of the planning and the major fundraising came from the Confraternity, in a sustained campaign that drew us all closer together in a common endeavour. But has Refugio Gaucelmo been our gift to the Camino, or the Camino’s to us? I often comment out in Spain that the soul of the Confraternity was forged in Rabanal, and that in seeking to give, we have, quite unwittingly, unloosed upon ourselves a shower of blessings of every kind. In particular, I would recall here, on this celebratory anniversary, the welcome we have always been given by the people of Rabanal, and the appreciation shown to the Confraternity by the Most Reverend and Excellent Bishop of Astorga, Don Camilo Lorenzo Iglesias, and his predecessor, Don Antonio Briva Mirabent. We have had our momentary difficulties, of course, but that is to be expected in the nature of what we have attempted, and the process of learning, and improving what we can offer to pilgrims, in collaboration with our friends from El Bierzo and our Benedictine neighbours, is itself a positive experience that has enriched all our lives, at the same time as it has drawn the best from us. We continue to believe that the warm welcome, the clean and peaceful environment, the sense of being in their own home, create the conditions for pilgrims to gain the most from the companionship of others. Especially, we hope they will find, in the beautiful services available in the Church a few paces away, a renewal of faith and a deeper understanding of the love and sacrifice implied by pilgrimage itself. We sometimes smile at hearing the refuge referred to as “the English one”, because we know that it is probably the only truly international one on the entire Camino, in which wardens from 16 different countries, including England and Spain, have welcomed more than 67,000 pilgrims since 1991. With surprise and quiet joy, the Confraternity has assumed a modest place, as one stone among the many, in the “fifth pillar”, There can be no greater gift than this, and rather like one definition of happiness – that it happens while you are thinking about something else – that gift is the unexpected by-product of a great deal of self-giving on the part of many people.

The Camino, and with it the Confraternity, changed very quickly with the promotion of the Holy Year 1993. In retrospect even the most problematical changes have contained their element of good. The torrent of publicity that has produced the massification so often complained of by all the “pillars” – and by pilgrims themselves – has moved many people to make the pilgrimage who 20 years ago would never have dreamed of doing so, and helped to swell our membership to the present figure of over 2000. Internet sites – the Confraternity’s among them – inform and inspire not only a new generation of pilgrims, but pilgrims from backgrounds once untouched and unreached by this kind of knowledge. My five pilgrims were cases in point: one thing they had in common was having explored the subject of the pilgrimage on the Internet. And where else, if not on the Camino, could five such very different people ever meet, and over a few weeks come to know one another on a basis at once so disinterested and so intimate? (I cannot think of anywhere else, and if any of you can, I would be interested to know what it is.) Similarly, the millions spent on Camino infrastructure – over-abundant and intrusive signing, for instance – is often castigated (and often rightly), yet without the many new refugios that have been built to cater for pilgrims on foot and bicycle that have shortened the distances between stops, the Camino would have remained the preserve of only the strongest walkers and those with unlimited time. Any ideas about “inclusivity” we in the Confraternity may have rest solidly on the provision of facilities during the past ten years. The same may be said about recommendations to try alternative routes to the Camino Francés. It is only fairly recently that most of these have become sufficiently viable to suggest.

And yet – I would be less than honest if I did not acknowledge that such exhuberant promotion has brought its perturbing aspects. Most of them, I think, derive from altered attitudes and expectations, although the pressure of numbers is responsible for the competitiveness and lack of consideration that sets pilgrim alarm clocks to 4am, to be sure of getting a bed at the next night’s stop! I will confess to a flicker of disillusion when – from my frequent vantage point behind the bar in the Hospederia in O Cebreiro – I overhear pilgrims whose “credenciales” I have just stamped planning the next day’s journey by bus, or grumbling because the refugio or the route did not, in the grumbler’s opinion, live up to what the guidebook or the website had promised. One veteran hospitalera comments wryly on the same kind of experience: “Before”, she writes, “when July 25th fell on a Sunday, there was a Compostellan Holy Year. Now there are “Jacobeos”, more terrible than Al Mansur himself”. In 1999 there were “pilgrims” who (and I quote) “before saying buenos dias, ask whether there is a washing machine, dryer, television (they have to see the Cup Match) microwave, internet or fax”.

Yet our response to this kind of thing, I think, cannot be one of more than momentary disappointment. The spirit of the Camino continues its transforming magic, turning tourists into pilgrims, as it has done these many centuries. The Confraternity has sought – and will always seek, I hope – to be true to the spirit in which it was conceived. Great increases in numbers, changing attitudes and the demands of external bureaucracy have all been met with a consistent determination to keep the focus of attention where it ought to be – on providing for pilgrims, as individuals and with as great a degree of personal attention as possible. In a decade we have gone from a compact organisation in which virtually everyone knew everyone else, and was personally involved and committed, to one numbering well over 2000, a fair proportion of whom live overseas. We have had to learn and to strive to keep our outreach a personal one, – and again, I pay tribute to Marion in this – making choices that foster contact and involvement, without sacrificing the efficiency needed to fulfil our aims and obligations. We have tried, not only to do good things, but also to do them in a good and satisfying way, a way consistent with what it is that we are encouraging other people to do! As a personal observation, looking back over my 17 years on the Main Committee, may I say that the Confraternity enjoys a singular harmony: it has never been beset by cliques or factions, split by feuds or divided into camps. Within its ranks are represented a host of distinctions and differences, yet we have always been able to summon forth the unifying principle, the common aim, which has drawn our particular contribution from each of us and our best from all of us. That is “the spirit of the Camino” at work, and it is a great gift.

Our task, as individual pilgrims who have experienced the Camino, as members of this collective pilgrim body called the Confraternity, and of the wider jacobean community, is to participate, with others who share and treasure that experience, in ensuring that it survives for others. There are obviously limits, imposed by our geography and by our status as a foreign association, to what we can do regarding the defence of the Camino as a physical entity, unless we are asked by the local association – as we have been, on several occasions – to bring our influence to bear. The precious human interchanges, of which we all no doubt have our own memories, are perhaps easier to protect, because we can respond to them individually by expressing our gratitude directly, and witness to them individually, by going and doing likewise – for someone else, somewhere else – to transform the world around us moment by moment into a replica of our beloved Camino.

We all know that the pilgrimage to Santiago does not end there. Rather, as I have written elsewhere, “if the journey meant anything, it meant that the last steps into Santiago were the first steps of another journey”. I know, as you do, that this insight comes to us a good while before we ever reach Santiago. It comes when we have ceased to worry about whether we will manage to cross the meseta, whether the long day between Rabanal and Ponferrada will finish us off, whether the ascent from Vega de Valcarce to the gateway of Galicia will bring on tendonitis or blisters or worse. This insight comes – another unexpected and unlooked-for gift – when we have finally achieved the last of the daunting physical challenges, and we know, because there are no more major obstacles between us and Compostela, that with the grace of God and the wind at our backs we are going to make it. It dawns upon us that in less than a week we will be there: we will pass through the Portico de la Gloria, we will offer our prayers of sorrow and thanks and petition, we will hug Saint James…. and then, this transforming insight whispers, “we will go home”.

And here, the pilgrim – I, or you – experiences with the eyes of the heart the contrast between the simple and harmonious way of life of the Camino, and the hurry, complication and excess of the lives he or she – or we – left behind, and are going back to. To see that contrast is already to begin the inner, and sometimes painful, process of transformation: that process of re-evaluating and choice and discarding through which we allow ourselves to be conformed by and to the spirit of the Camino. I have long thought that this insight, this questioning about how one is going to assimilate the pilgrimage into the life one is going back to – or rather, since one comes to understand that one must rephrase the question, how one is going to transform the life one is going back to into a fair copy of the pilgrimage – comes, like a cool breeze on the cheek, when the pilgrim can finally rest after the gruelling climb up to the tiny but very significant halt of O Cebreiro. This is not, of course, a new insight; I think that Don Elias Valiña, (may he rest in peace), whom all of you will have heard of, understood O Cebreiro in that way, and of course there are legions of pilgrims who will attest to it, too. And although I cannot prove it, I would be surprised if the importance of O Cebreiro in the spiritual geography of the Camino was not something that was understood a very long time ago. It has seemed to me, blessed as I have been to spend considerable time there every year since 1989, that it is for this reason a truly holy place, quite in addition to its wonderful Santo Milagro, for another “holy miracle” takes place every time a pilgrim understands that he or she is called to live as one for the rest of their earthly life.

It is in this context that I want to set a reference to yet another gift – lost in the mists of time, and yet as present to us as O Cebreiro – which Don Elias used to call “the soul of Galicia” – is present to us. It was in 836, according to the great historian of the Benedictine Order, Father Yepes, that the first Benedictines constructed a simple church in a hamlet where the Roman road between Astorga and Compostela bisected the lowest pass in the mountains running north-east to south-west. News of the discovery of St James’s tomb had been circulating (depending on one’s dates) for barely twenty years. There may have been pilgrims, even at this early date, though the first recorded ones would not appear for another century. Still, documentary evidence and archaeological remains bear out Father Yepes, and it would appear that the French Benedictines from the community founded by St Gerald of Aurillac, who took up residence in O Cebreiro at the invitation of King Alfonso VI in 1072, were taking over an existing monastery, not establishing a new one. They came to attend to the pilgrims by then making their way in large numbers to the shrine of St James.They stayed – a handful of monks and every now and then a novice from France or nearer to hand in Spain – through the centuries when pilgrims passed by in their tens of thousands, and the later ones when there were hardly any, through war and famine, and the terrible mountain winters, decade after decade, century after century. They sustained pilgrims, and the pilgrimage itself, until the confiscation of Church property of 1835, and even then, the last two monks did not abandon O Cebreiro until 1858. All told, there was a religious community of some kind there, with a specific mission to pilgrims, for more than a thousand years. Is it too obvious to suggest that the hospitality extended to pilgrims by what I have called “the fifth pillar” owes much to the living example of this community and the many others like it, that together made it possible for pilgrims to reach Santiago in past centuries?

Now, I have found it strange, considering the priority we all place on hospitality to and for pilgrims, to see that the community based in O Cebreiro has seemingly been forgotten, except by Don Elias himself, who wrote movingly about it in his doctoral thesis, and tellingly named the Hospedería after St Gerald of Aurillac. I have been so astonished by this historical amnesia, in fact, that I am trying to make a modest attempt to rectify it. I have written to the Most Excellent and Reverend Bishop of Lugo, asking to be allowed to commemorate the monks of O Cebreiro, probably with an explanatory text engraved on a bronze plaque and placed either in the Church or the Hospedería. Assuming that he accepts this proposal, the gift you have so kindly collected for me will be put towards it. In the context of the Camino, I see this as a gesture of elementary justice and gratitude, but it will also restore to the people of a beloved place a little of their own history, and give glory to God in acknowledging a thousand years of caring for pilgrims in His name.

With that, I approach the end of this probably over-long talk. It remains for me only to thank you, yet again, for your confidence and collaboration during the past eight years. I in turn have every confidence in the future of the Confraternity. It has been a privilege to be able to give back a little of the much that I have received. I am aware of owing it so much – far more, in fact, than I could ever put into words. May St James protect and favour it, and all of you – and all pilgrims, who – from wherever they set out – find the Road together.

To read Laurie’s 1997 reflections on the spirit of the pilgrimage, click here.

Laurie also gave an extensive survey of the history of the Camino at a gathering of pilgrims in Toronto in May 2005: “2000 Years of the Camino de Santiago: Where did it come from? Where is it going?”

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