I left Villafranca del Bierzo alone. For a couple of days I had been walking with an American guy my age. He had already walked the Camino once and knew where all the turns were. So it was easy to walk with him because—once again—I did not have to pay attention. I’ll admit to being lazy about this.
He was very nice, very kind and very, very quiet. His silence was noisy and bothersome. I realized later it was the voice in my head screaming, “Say something!” which made his silence unbearable to me.
So when Quiet Man said he was staying behind to meet a friend, I was only too happy to go off by myself. Except for one thing: O’Cebreiro.
The Marrow of O’Cebreiro
It is the biggest climb of the Camino, a steeper and longer climb than crossing the Pyrenees. The challenge with the Pyrenees is that you have to do that on your very first day and most people just aren’t ready for it. But O’Cebreiro is simply a relentless eighteen mile ascent. In some places the path is rocky, in others it is just dirt. But it is always up.
When I worked with cancer patients who were freaking out, I often asked them, “Can you think of a time in your life that was similar to this?” They always came up with something and then I’d ask, “What got you through that?” It’s helpful to remember how you coped before because it will remind you how you can cope again.
So I asked myself this same question. When have I been in a situation that was a similar to climbing a steep mountain alone in a foreign country? I couldn’t come up with an answer.
The closest I came was running a marathon but I was running with my sister and we were surrounded by hundreds of people. Or there was receiving chemotherapy but again—lots of support. Except those sleepless nights.
You know what that’s like: even though you may be sleeping right next to someone you feel totally alone in the dark. In the dark all those scary questions come up. Am I going to die from this? What if it comes back? Oh, yeah, I remember those nights. So what helped me get through that?
On those dark lonely nights I invited Jesus to come and sit on the side of my bed and stroke my forehead. Yep, college educated liberal lefty invited Jesus to tuck me in. “Just hang around until I fall asleep,” I said. He did. And I did. Then I got up the next morning and did what needed to be done.
After a couple of hours my thighs were shrieking for mercy, begging me to stop. My mind yearned to be back on the meseta and its endless flat plains. My heart however was filled with joy. As hard as it was, the walk through the forest was luscious. I felt the vibrating energy of nature, the cool air over my skin, the smell of trees and leaves and fertile forest soil. A casserole of scents and sounds and colors.
Every now and then I caught a glimpse through the trees, got a brief glance of over what I was climbing. I saw no other Pilgrims. I snacked on nuts as I walked. I never took off my pack and sat down because I knew getting up would necessitate another Resurrection miracle.
When Two Wounds Meet
Then there was my conversation with Jesus. I wanted to know why it was so hard for me to walk with Quiet Man. At one point I even asked Quiet Man if he had a hearing problem. (!) No, he did not. It wasn’t as if I was chattering away all day either. I just wanted to make a connection. Walking in silence with Moritz was easy and comfortable like wearing bedroom slippers. We felt connected in the silence. But it wasn’t like that with Quiet Man. It was an awkward stony silence full of hard pointy places and jagged edges.
He told me he was married but his wife was too busy to come with him. I asked to see a picture of her. He took a long time scrolling through photos on his phone. Here is my observation about that: a) you’ve got so many photos of that person that it’s hard to choose, or b) you have almost none.
And here’s my opinion about b): you don’t take photos of people you don’t want to remember. Have you ever noticed that? (Maybe it’s just me.) So here he was looking for a photo and he couldn’t find one because he didn’t have very many. Finally he found one and showed me. I realized right away that his wife was in no shape to walk the Camino even if she wanted to. Maybe I was picking up his pain in the silence.
I’m sure you know that when you invite Jesus to accompany you he will, and that means he will intrude on your thoughts. So what I heard was, “Yes, that was his own pain and in a cosmic misunderstanding you took his silence to mean that he was ignoring you because that is your wound.”
As usual, Jesus was right. My heart gasped. I don’t know why these kinds of realizations don’t come in the moment right when I need them. I was not unkind to Quiet Man, but internally I was impatient and annoyed. I’m pretty sure you didn’t need to be a mind-reader to pick up that.
Pay Per View
Even though I’d been walking for hours, it felt quite sudden when I reached the top. I stood breathless. Literally—I could hardly breath as I was now at over 4,000 feet. For the first time that day I took off my pack and sat—right down on the dirt.
First, I thanked Jesus. Then I drank water while my eyes ate up the view. After so many hours of walking enclosed by woodlands, my eyes were hungry for distance, for sky, for clouds. Before me was a feast. The valley below looked like an enormous bowl of greens: spinach, kale, celery, broccoli. Far, far, far beyond the valley were baskets of dark blue mountains, pitchers of clear blue sky and clots of creamy white clouds. I sat for long time until I was satisfied and gratified. I didn’t get up until my heart was full and my leg was numb.
This is the thing: there is no majestic view without the climb. We can’t gain a new perspective without climbing the mountain of our opinions, attitudes and judgments; without walking through our beliefs; without pressing on through our prejudice and intolerance. It’s arduous. It’s exhausting. It’s the only way.