Before departing for Spain, I was definitely not the most religious person — in the group or among my own family members. I was inspired to go on this trip, mainly just to see Spain and be able to graduate with a study abroad trip under my belt. After reading the books assigned for the medieval pilgrimage class taught by our Professor, David Sheffler, I quickly started to become more aware of my devotion. It felt as if something was calling me to come back to the church. I was baptized Catholic as a teenager and went to church with my father, step mother and siblings in high school, but never really found my inspiration to go during that time.
Once arriving in Spain, we were able to see, hear, and feel some of the most beautiful buildings and churches in the world. While staying in Roncesvalles, a class member arranged a spontaneous private tour of the Real Colegiata de Santa María, museum and cemetery at ten o'clock in the evening. It was amazing — walking into such magnificence and beauty touched my heart. Once the tour ended, the Padre, or father of the church, asked us to come to mass the next day, which we gladly accepted. At first I was a little worried due to the language barrier, but after sitting through it and hearing all the different languages being spoken and understanding some of what was being said, a strong feeling came over me. The Padre called us up to bless us on our journey on the Camino and I just felt so connected again. It was an amazing feeling.
We have not even started walking the Camino yet and I am already starting to change just by seeing old churches and meeting new people. After only a few days, the trip has moved me in ways I had not expected.
I was walking down the sunburnt streets of Puente la Reina, a town located along the Camino, with a few of my fellow pilgrims. I have been collecting postcards for my cousins, Charlie and Jackson, so when I saw a shop with a few of them hanging outside I decided to “cough up” the 50 cents to buy it. While waiting for the shopkeeper to finish with another customer, I noticed a stack of shells out of the corner of my eye. The scallop shell has been a simple of the Camino de Santiago since the first pilgrims made their way across the mighty Pyrenees. Being the romantic that I am, I decided to buy one to place on the back of my backpack. Since the bags were located in the bowels of José’s bus I had no choice but to put my purchases in shirt's front pocket.
After Puente la Reina, our merry band packed into the bus and rode through the hills 'till we reached Ayegui, home of the Monasterio de Santa María and the legendary Fountain of Wine. While walking down from the Monastery to the fountain, Michael and I were talking about how it was a shame neither of us had a cup to use for the wine. Somehow or another it was brought up that pilgrims sometimes use the scallop shells tied to their bags. I remembered I still had mine in my front pocket. It was a weird moment for me — it almost seemed like I had been tempted to buy the “nicknack” for the sacred fountain. It was just one of those things I suppose you just had to have been there to feel the almost essence of it all. So Dr. Sheffler, Michael, and I drank from the Fountain of Wine in the true pilgrims’ fashion — shell and all!
The Pyrenees mountains are verdant greens accumulating on grey and yellow rock faces. The emerald tips of far off peaks comprise of the lush amount of foliage. Ahead is the steady incline of the path. Each of my steps are a cautious advance forward against the uneven fragments of rock and collected mud of the trail. There’s a stream ahead, washing under the remnants of a man made bridge. Its body is a cobbled mess of local rocks and plaster. To my left, and past the small bridge, the stream opens up and falls down to a ravine that would mean certain death if I lose my footing.
I eventually wander from out of the canopy of collected trees to a clearing. The path expands out to an even incline. Browned by constant use, a path cuts through green fields. Along it, a small wooden fence runs between me and the church in the distance. It’s barely an impediment, as the gate is left unlocked and swings open with a slight touch. The church’s angular roof and nearby cross both stretch out to the grey clouds, growing larger as I come closer.
The wind picks up, rushing through the yellowing tips of long, green grass. My attention is drawn towards the direction the wind is blowing. Resting on top and elevated above on a hill, a large slab of square stone catches my gaze. It stands tall, golden in the fires of the setting sun’s rays. The rock itself is ablaze with heatless fire cast from the gaps between the clouds. Etched in the stone are the words:
778 - 1967
It’s photogenic gold, but all I can do is watch, in agonizing eternity, the moment quickly slip away. Some moments are too rare to capture, and the context is lost behind the shutter of a camera.
There I was, just a few days ago climbing the Pyrenees mountains with the group. The wind was fierce, the temperature frigid, and the mountain itself a bit frightening. Yet I pressed on, determined to reach the summit. I reminded myself that this was no different than the Appalachians I climbed years ago. I was wrong. These were very different animals. We were so high up that we could literally touch the clouds.
The winds howled on and on while the clouds created a dense barrier of fog so that at times was impossible to see ten feet in front of you. Despite these obstacles I continued forward. I felt like the Marvel comic book character Doctor Strange traversing the Himalayas to reach the Ancient One. Though more realistically, it was an itty bitty taste of what it’s like for the men and women who hike Mt. Everest. Finally I reached the summit, or at least the highest point we could go that was public property. I sat down on one of the rocky ledges, got into my traditional Indian-style sitting position, closed my eyes and drifted off into a few brief moments of meditation. Once I had finished, I rejoined the group and headed back down the mountain.