Pilgrim’s Progress, part 4: Beginnings and endings

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An 18th Century statue of Saint James at the fabulous Chapelle de Saint Nicolas in Harambeltz, just a day’s walk from Saint-Jean.

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.

Candles for Notre Dame at the cathedral in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

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.

*This part of my way is over, but the travel advice is not. Keep in touch for tips on packing, regional descriptions, history and more pictures!

3 thoughts on “Pilgrim’s Progress, part 4: Beginnings and endings

    jose said:
    July 3, 2015 at 4:26 am

    Dear Lainie
    you made the walk and finished even without your bag. This is wonderful. This allows you to really live the Compostella walk and to understand why we do it. I think that the difficulties allow us to be more open and as you say to see what we had not seen when everything is going well. I can feel in harmony with what you said. I walked 3 times and the 3 times it was different but each time wonderful human and deep experience of live. I hope we will see you again on the walk and you can share your kindness. Thank you for sharing your experience in your blog so personal and we can feel you in the blog. You said in your blog: compostella we do it with our feet and with our hearth. jose


    sarahstrasburg said:
    July 3, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Lainie, I have to tell you I love seeing your posts when they land in my inbox. My heart broke for you when your bag was taken, and I rejoiced at all the kindness you received afterward. Your writing is excellent and so are the stories you choose to tell. Suppose you will meet up with family in Germany soon. Hope you are well.

    Sending some sunshine,




      LM responded:
      August 10, 2015 at 8:45 pm

      Dear Sarah, a big, warm hello, hugs, kisses and thank you! to you. It means so much to have had you there with me in spirit on the trek. I am eagerly looking forward to hearing your stories of Scandinavia!!! Blessings on the adventure.


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