"When a man's passions bewilder him, he should put on black clothes and travel to a place where he is not known." --Talmud
In Roncesvalles I prayed for the first time since childhood. I wasn't very good at it. I felt self-conscious and embarrassed. The words and ritual gestures had grown rusty with disuse and, it must be said, disbelief. I made the effort nevertheless, imitating others as they crossed themselves and genuflected in front of the altar. In part, it was a matter of wanting to be polite and not look out of place. But I also recalled the Catholic apologist C.S. Lewis once saying that faith is an act of will as well as belief. You sometimes have to act as if you believe because faith, like morality, takes discipline and habituation. Besides, I was in a Spanish church as a pilgrim, and it seemed to me that if I was to be a genuine pilgrim, then I needed to take part in the traditional practices of pilgrimage regardless of my skepticism. So, despite feeling awkward, I chose a pew, knelt on the stone floor and spoke the long unsaid words: "Lord, hear my prayer."
I prayed for everyone I could think of: my son and my wife, my mother and my dead father, my brother and sisters, and my friends past and present. But then I started to imagine all the things that might go wrong on my walk, how I could get lost or sick or not find a place to sleep. And that reminded me of stories I'd read about pilgrims suffering broken legs, being knocked into ditches by passing cars, and even being attacked by dogs. I imagined a pack of dogs surrounding me in some remote village and wondered about other ways I might die until I realized I wasn't praying anymore.
I started over, praying it wouldn't rain too much and my legs would be strong and I wouldn't get too many blisters or suffer a heart attack. But then I started to think about whether someone or something actually heard my prayers, or whether I was just mumbling to myself, and if that was the case, then what was the point of praying? And that got me pondering my lack of faith and trying to remember when I had had any and why it had disappeared. But I'd had that debate with myself for years. I turned away from this train of thought as some lines from T.S. Eliot came to mind: "You are here to kneel / Where prayer has been valid." That encouraged me to pray again, only I couldn't think of anything more to pray for. I remained kneeling, with my arms on the back of the pew in front of me, until my knees hurt too much and my leg muscles started to cramp. Finally, I sat back in the pew, trying to ignore my wet, muddy clothes and my fatigue and anxiety, and let my thoughts drift as I waited for the Mass to begin.
It was my first day as a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago. During the next four to five weeks, I planned to walk nearly 800 kilometers -- 500 miles -- across northern Spain to the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela. The route crosses the Pyrenees, the green valleys of Navarre and Rioja, the plains of Castile and León, and the lush alpine mountains of Galicia until eventually it reaches Santiago, where according to tradition the bones of St. James the Apostle are encased in a silver reliquary.
My walk would take me from the last week of March to the end of April. It would prove to be one of the hardest things I've ever done, physically at least. But it was also one of the most satisfying travel experiences of my life. I saw beautiful country, ate splendid meals, and became part of a living history. Best of all, I enjoyed periods of solitude that allowed me to recall places, people and events I hadn't thought of for decades. And along the way there were a few psychic experiences that I've never forgotten.
Of course all of this was unknown to me as I tried to pray in Roncesvalles. This two-street hamlet, with its 12th-century Augustinian monastery and a collegiate church, is the pilgrims' gateway into Spain. My effort at prayer, inadequate though it might have been, was also a gesture of gratitude for my having made it through the first day.
An hour earlier I'd been stumbling along a snow-covered mountain path uncertain about where I was and fearful that I was suffering the early stages of hypothermia. I'd walked for nearly 10 hours, enduring rain, snow and wind as I trekked the 26 kilometers over the mountains between Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port and Roncesvalles. By the time I reached the Spanish village in the early evening, I was wet, cold, exhausted, aching and not a little shell-shocked. The sight of the monastery's slate-blue roof was a huge relief. It seemed a good idea to offer thanks to whatever powers might be.
The dull gong of a bell announcing Mass pulled me from my reverie. Four priests in white gowns and purple vestments entered the church to perform the Stations of the Cross. This first Mass in Roncesvalles was special. It certainly had much to do with my sense of relief at having made it through the day. But also I hadn't been in a church in a long time. I was entranced by the priests as they stood in a semicircle behind the altar chanting the liturgy, by the glow of the gold-plated goblets, and by the play of light on the Virgin of Roncesvalles, a thirteenth-century silver-clad wooden statue of Mary holding the infant Christ. Maybe I was lightheaded, but the Child's face seemed almost gleeful while the Virgin had a faraway look.
An old woman next to me in the pew tugged at my sleeve. The Mass had ended, and worshipers were approaching the altar. The woman gestured for me to do the same. At first I didn't understand. Then I realized the priests were offering a blessing to the pilgrims who'd arrived that day.
"¿Por los peregrinos?" I asked.
"Sí, sí, una bendición por los peregrinos," she replied.
When my turn came I tried to put on a solemnly humble face worthy of a blessing. The priest ignored my bedraggled appearance, smiled and blessed me the same way he did the neater pilgrims. Then he stepped back and led us in the Pilgrims' Blessing.
"May the Lord direct your steps with His approval and be your inseparable companion on the entire Camino."
"May the Virgin Mary grant you her maternal protection, defend you in all dangers of soul and body, and may you arrive safely at the end of your pilgrimage under her mantle."
With my soul supposedly in good hands I hobbled outside into the rain and returned to the Hostal Casa Sabina where I'd earlier taken a room. The needs of the body were paramount now. I wanted a hot shower, a wholesome meal and a warm bed. In the room I exchanged my wet clothes for dryer ones, draping everything that was wet -- socks, underwear, pants, shirt -- on the radiator or on chairs that I dragged as close to the radiator as possible. As I soon learned, this was the standard routine for pilgrims. At the end of a day's walking you hang your clothes -- inevitably wet from either rain or sweat -- to dry overnight. It didn't always work. Many times my clothes were still damp in the morning. Not all pilgrim hostels, or refugios, have heat, or washers and dryers, but fortunately most of them have decent showers. My biggest concern, though, was my boots. Trying to keep them dry proved almost impossible.
I was famished after that first day's hike. I took my first meal in Spain in the white-walled dining room of the Casa Sabina, with its sword-and-shield ornaments and paintings of knights on horseback decorating the walls. I sat at a table by one of the windows that looked out on the road through town. I was the only customer and had the young waitress all to myself. I ordered the menu del día: a thick potato soup, baked trout in lemon with vegetables, and a bottle of vino de la casa. The soup arrived in a big silver tureen, which I emptied. The trout was so fresh that the flesh peeled away from the bones with a turn of the fork. The wine gradually took care of my lingering shivers...
As I drank my way through the bottle of wine, I knew I was being deliberately contrarian, waxing cynical as a salve to my waning enthusiasm. But I was bone-weary tired. My feet and legs ached, and truth be told, I was nervous about my own capacities. If each day's walking for the next month was going to be a repetition of this first day, well, I wasn't sure I'd be walking very far. To have such defeatist thoughts at the beginning of my journey was depressing. It seemed that not only was I physically unprepared for the rigors of pilgrimage, I wasn't psychologically prepared, either. But that notion merely made the question of why I was on a pilgrimage more imperative.
I gazed around the dining room at the stalwart knights and thought back to six months earlier when a philosopher friend had mentioned the Camino de Santiago in conversation. I had been moaning and groaning about the need to get away and wanting a respite from the breakneck pace of my journalistic life.
"Have you ever thought of a pilgrimage?" he asked.
I shook my head. "I'm not particularly religious."
"We're all religious," he said. "Anybody who asks themselves what it's all about, whether there's some meaning to their lives, is thinking religiously."
I didn't argue the point. "Why a pilgrimage?"