The day I climbed O’Cebreiro I arrived into the town of the same name around four o’clock: much too early for dinner but way too late to find a bed in an albergue. I was exhausted and hungry. Very hungry. I can go all day without eating but not after climbing a mountain like O’Cebriero. I was starting to have thoughts like, “I can always sleep in my backpack.” I needed food—badly.
Fortunately café owners in O’Cebrerio (population: 50) are used to Pilgrims and their round-the-clock hunger. I stumbled into a dark and empty café and to my delight saw a Pilgrim menu on the table. I was so happy to sit and so happy to remember that I had just entered Galicia which meant a whole different Pilgrim menu. First course: Caldo Gallego: ham bone broth, Spanish chorizo, white beans and greens—a soup so good I wanted to bathe in it. A soup so divine I could imagine Spanish priests using it to baptize babies.
After I paid my bill, the server asked where I was staying. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders—who knows? She cocked her head then motioned for me to follow her. I didn’t realize that this café was actually part of a hotel. She took me down a long hall and showed me a room which she ended up giving me for just a little more than the price of an albergue. I took a hot shower and climbed into bed even though it was only 8:00 p.m. That is when Spanish towns just start waking up for the evening. I didn’t care. I went to bed.
I had just drifted off when I heard a loud, shrill voice talking about “buen camino.” I got out of bed and peeked through the shutters. Right across the street from me was a bustling café, their outdoor tables filled with Pilgrims.
The voice belonged to a woman who was spilling her glass of wine as she gestured with it. “At first I was ‘buen camino’ing everyone I saw. And it was just like, buen camino—whatever!” Everyone laughed.
I did not find it funny. Let me explain.
From the first moment you set foot on the Camino you will hear the greeting, “Buen camino!” It’s said by people coming toward you; by people you are passing, by people who are passing you. It is not something you would say in a large Spanish city or really anywhere far from the Camino. It is not said when you are standing still like, “How do you do? Pleased to meet you.” It is said as you moving—either when you are leaving or when someone is leaving you. Sometimes it is said in a group of Pilgrims as a toast. We all raise our glasses, look at one another and say, “Buen camino!” Other times it’s like saying grace: you look at your plate, raise your fork and say, “Buen camino.”
It literally means, “good path,” or “good way,” but it is so much more than that. I think it is more of a blessing than a greeting. It recognizes a pilgrim, a seeker. It acknowledges both the presence of grace and the fact of uncertainty. It’s a way of saying, “May you find your best self on this journey.” It should be said enthusiastically and sincerely. And this is exactly why I was so annoyed with the woman I heard talking outside my window. She made it sound cheap, insincere and meaningless.
In spite of her shrieking, moments after I climbed back in bed I fell asleep. Because I went to bed so early, I woke up early: five o’clock. I got up, packed up my now dry clothes and made myself a cup of instant coffee with hot tap water. Right. But better than nothing.
Walking in the dark was much harder than the steep ascent of the day before. At least climbing O’Cebreiro I knew exactly where I was going: up. But now I wasn’t so sure. I started out confidently with my flashlight, but after an hour I started to worry. Why were there no other Pilgrims, no yellow arrows? I took off my pack and dug out my map. Did I miss an arrow? If only it were light, I would know if I was going in the right direction.
But it was too cold to sit and wait for the sunrise and I couldn’t bear to turn back. I would just have to go forth in the dark and trust. And this is when I started saying, “Buen Camino,” to myself. Buen Camino—“May I find my way. May I find my best self. May God help me.”
This is where we find ourselves in this pandemic. We are trying to find the way. Is there a treatment? Will there be a vaccine? It feels as if we are walking in the dark. We want to dig our maps and see if we on the correct path. We find ourselves waiting for the Light to come. And yet, we are asked to keep going—not literally—but in the sense of not losing hope, not being paralyzed by fear . It turned out that morning that I was on the right path, but I was uncertain for many miles. So I just kept blessing myself.
There are so many stories of people blessing other people—buying groceries, walking dogs, making phone calls. This is the time to bless ourselves, to look in the mirror, make eye contact with ourselves and say sincerely, “Buen camino.”
There is nothing arrogant or egotistical about it. It is simply recognizing that we all carry the loving power of Spirit within us. We are so unused to recognizing and taking responsibility for a power that we all have, that of blessing ourselves. How many times have we blessed our friends and family with a meal. Do we not eat it ourselves? Of course we do!
Nobody is ever the same after a long, hard journey. I was not the same after the Camino de Santiago. We will not be the same after COVID-19. We will have learned way more than we wanted about technology and hand sanitizer. We will have learned new ways to be alone and new ways to be together—for weeks on end. I hope that we will have learned not only how to bless one another, but how to bless ourselves.
Photo by Moritz Deschamps
We will see that even though it feels like we are walking in the dark, there are always glimmers of hope and that grace and uncertainty walk hand-in-hand.