The Saint James Way is like a river with tributaries springing up all throughout Europe and running together here and there before finally joining completely at Santiago and dumping into the ocean at Finisterre. I indulge in this metaphor because on the Way you feel it: You are a droplet belonging to a much bigger body.
We flow the same direction at only slightly different speeds. Though we might never meet some of the people traveling parallel, we feel a bond for the larger whole. When we sit down to dinner together, we relax. When we cry in front of each other, we don’t look away.
This is probably because our needs are real and shared. One woman told me how she was crying quietly by herself in a beautiful old church because she didn’t understand the French schedule and had found nothing to eat all day. (Churches are more dependably open than restaurants and shops in rural France.) Someone noticed her tears, and though she hardly knew enough words to explain her need, she soon had a full meal of snacks from other pilgrims’ packs. A pilgrim priest, Father Patrick, who spoke only French and smiled a lot, walked with her to her gîte.
I told her that I, too, had cried in front of others, and that also had to do with lack of food.
Another pilgrim told me told me he’d also cried and almost quit after the first several hundred kilometers. Maybe that is the testing point. “The Way is not always so nice,” he said. “Sometimes it punches you down and kicks you in the face.”
Yet sometimes in our points of weakness we find ourselves carried by the flow. After my bag was stolen, the story became a legend of our stream, and people started looking out for the American with the big hat. After one jolly dinner at which I never mentioned the pack, several women offered me their own clothing. Another time a man stopped and opened his pack during a downpour to outfit me with a poncho. One woman checked to make sure I had the money to get home. Hostel owners were unfailingly generous, but that was true before losing the pack. To me, though, the most amazing of all the French kindnesses was that not one person ever said I should have known better.
Because of this general magnanimity, I felt like I’d washed up on dry land when I arrived finally in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and shared a hostel with tourists and newly beginning pilgrims. They bragged, flirted and refused to loan me a phone charger in ways that contrasted so strongly with encounters I’d had before, with the people who’d helped me take off my shoes and bandaged my blisters. I had to remind myself these newcomers were not so different. They were just at a different stage in the journey. They might not yet have lost and gained everything. They might not yet have cried in front of someone who didn’t look away.
That last night in Saint Jean, though, I found a few old/new friends and went to the cathedral for a special evening mass. Father Patrick, the pilgrim priest, was another person who sent out ripples of stories during our season of the Way. He was traveling from Le Puy to Santiago and holding mass at every stop, delivering messages that were simple but memorable, as one pilgrim explained. Once, for example, Father Patrick had spoken about the Lord’s Prayer, saying it contained everything needed in any prayer, but you had to think about the meaning of the words – and you had to listen.
They might have also said that, though he was young, he had three completely different sets of smile wrinkles: one set over his forehead for the surprised and amused smile, a second on either side of the mouth for expressed mirth, and a third branching out from the eyes for the smile that was most tender and kind.
Though we traveled parallel for many days, Father Patrick and I didn’t cross paths till that last day of my journey. There, like a gift, he preached a message about Jesus calming storms. “Do not worry,” he said. “God is with you.” We closed with a spontaneous group prayer and gorgeous a cappella in the great stone cathedral.
The next morning, my fellow pilgrims began the brutal ascent into the Pyrenees, and I got on a train heading back toward Paris.