The pilgrimage continues...
Paul and I now find ourselves in Paris, four or five days removed from the conclusion of our journey in Spain, sore and still experiencing some residual exhaustion as our bodies adjust to not walking 15 or 18 miles for 6 or 8 hours every single day. Holland was beautiful, but we (along with a friend made on the Camino who traveled with us to Holland and France as well) were amazed to find how much of a shock the ¨normal world¨ was after almost 35 days straight of nothing but walking, eating and drinking, then sleeping. Life, for a time, although it was physically demanding, was really quite simple; we woke up, walked, ate when we were tired, drank when we were thirsty, and then walked some more until we reached a destination we felt to be an adequate terminus for that particular day. Now, we're back to hotel reservations, expensive and exotic Parisian meals, moving around cities with flocks of tourists ... we, too have reverted from the dirty-yet-quietly-respected individuals in ¨pilgrim mode¨ while in Spain, now donning comfortable running shoes instead of mountain boots, blue jeans instead of zip-off 2-in-1 shorts as we wander aimlessly through bustling city streets.
It feels as if the Camino, finally, may have been overwhelmingly fulfilling, stiflingly rich, causing our return to the ¨outside¨ (particularly in the form of the booming world metropolises we've been visiting) a kind of trauma that is not easy to describe. After nearly a month straight of sharing hours and days of poured-out hearts and comfortable silences, doing nothing but getting to know ourselves, our fellow pilgrims, and Spain, there is a sense of ¨emptiness¨ that one receives upon returning to the realities of a life filled with jobs, cars, school, etc. It becomes difficult, at times, to imagine a return to a world that is not so simple, not so straightforward. Both Paul and I agree, resoundingly, that the experience has been a life-changing one. I can see why many, many pilgrims find themselves ¨addicted¨ to the Camino after their first walk. Right now, I think we're both too tired to think about another trip across Spain any time soon. Strangely, however, we both find ourselves periodically waking up in the morning, surpirsed and vaguely disappointed that we don't have a pilgrimage to a church in northwestern Spain to look forward to.
But I think, now, that therein lies the rub; you go to Spain and walk a Camino looking for an improved, enriched life thereafter, but then you actually finish and you're just looking for more Caminos, looking to avoid the life you were trying to enrich in the first place. I've been doing a lot of thinking about the ¨scallop shell¨ symbol carried by many pilgrims across Spain. There is as many interpretations of the scallop shell symbol, on the Camino, as there is of the ¨three stages¨ that the Camino can be broken into. In ancient times, the scallop shell did have some actual utility beyond its power as a symbol; oftentimes, pilgrims would walk the Camino than nothing more than a walking stick, a gourd for water, and a shell as an all-purpose instrument for cutting, scooping, and serving the food that they received along the way--food sometimes purchased and sometimes acquired through begging.
For me, however, the scallop shell has a different significance. On the blue-and-yellow tiles that periodically mark the Camino as you pass through towns along the way, the yellow shell if displayed ¨upside down;¨ that is, the bottom of the shell is on the top of the tile, and the yellow spokes of the shell radiate downwards like sunbeams. Ultimately, this manifestation of the shell appeared more like a sun than a shell--but what did the sun have to do with a pilgrimage? After having now thought things over a bit, I've come to reimagine the trajectory of the ¨sunbeams¨ of the scallop shell. As opposed to a clam shell, which contains circumcentric circles piled one on top of the other (created, presumably, as the clam gets bigger and bigger), the lines on a scallop shell intersect at one pivot point, at the point on the shell where the two halves connect. As opposed to any ordinary clam shell, all of the lines--all of the ¨paths¨--on the scallop shell share the same endpoint, despite the fact that each spoke of the shell is coming from a completely different direction. In other words, if you conceive of the yellow and blue tiles as a shell rather than the sun, you begin to receive a powerful impression of the nature of the Camino in its entirety. Every pilgrim has a different starting point, every pilgrim (even if they're walking next to you from France all the way to Santiago) is walking a very different Camino. All paths, however, be them starting in Portugal, Barcelona, Switzerland or Paris, all of them join and end in Santiago, at the doors of the cathedral.
I would imagine that a Christian interpretation of this imagery would state that, like with the Camino(s), all paths and all peoples find their end, eventually, with the Creator of those paths and those peoples. For me, though, I personally find the image reassuring. I went to Spain looking for answers to some big questions; some were answered, others were created, and others disappeared. I was concerned, before the pilgrimage, with what seemed like an overwhelming number of choices facing me right now, so many paths to choose from seemed to equate with so many mistakes to be made. One thing that I have realized for certain is that walking--most of the time--is better than standing still. The path chosen frequently does not matter; what matters is that you use what you have, take the chance, make a choice, and walk the walk, accepting the consequences as they arrive. After all, it now feels, we all are going to end up somewhere we belong. The trick, again, is to keep walking.