On our second day of walking, our 9 year old said, ‘I think this is ultimate joy’. He went on to explain what he meant. ‘Ultimate joy’ was when something was really challenging, but you wanted to do it, and then you managed it. He compared it to the way his teacher from last year, Mr Daniel, inspired his class and made him really want to do well.
The boys and I were doing a mini-pilgrimage, alongside my husband who is doing a much longer one. Our bit of the Camino Frances to Santiago de Compestela was 1/16 of what most of our fellow walkers were planning to do, and we were walking alongside them near the start of their 500 mile journey. So my perception of what walking the Camino is like is limited, but I have to say, there is nothing I would rather do now than go back and walk the rest. It really is as hard and as wonderful as everyone who has walked it says that it is.
Our first day was clouded (metaphorically and literally) by the early morning realization that our youngest had lost his raincoat the day before and that heavy rain was predicted. We knew we had to get an early start in order to make it to our hostel in the evening and we couldn’t wait for the shops in Pamplona to open. We had to just set off, in the semi-darkness, hoping that we would find a way to make it possible.
Our backpacks felt particularly heavy as we trudged up the hill out of town. Every time we stopped for a rest, an elderly Austrian woman, who never seemed to stop her slow steady pace, passed us by with a smile. Soon the rain started and we swapped our raincoats so that only my husband was without one, getting very cold and wet. Both of us said later that, at this point, it wasn’t clear that we were going to be able to make it.
It was a couple of miles after this that we met our first angel. In a tiny roadside shop selling coffee (hooray!) and chocolate and plastic ponchos a lovely, caring woman in her early 30s, chatted and cheered us up, letting us take up her entire shop space, huddled inside, dripping all over her floor. She fitted my husband with a poncho, and then, realizing that his arms were still uncovered, spent a considerable amount of care cutting and tying plastic bags on his arms so that they would be protected from the rain. I don’t feel like I can express what this meant to us. Meeting our level of despair and need, her caring made it possible for us to go on. Our hearts were warmed by her kindness.
It rained for most of the day, but we never doubted that we could do it after that. Our legs were like jelly by the time we reached Puente de la Reina and hung up some of our wet things to dry in our warm and dry hostel. That night, enjoying a warm ‘pilgrim’s menu’ in a local restaurant, we laughed about the day and enjoyed being together. We slept very well in our bunk beds that night.
Knowing a bit more what to expect the next day, and that the route of the Camino was very clearly marked and that our fellow walkers, from many parts of the world, were friendly and encouraging, we set off with a bit more confidence. Already, people we had met earlier, we greeted like friends. I shared some of our dried mango with a woman from Ecuador who was doing the whole Camino on her own. Our younger son befriended a young Korean woman and our eldest tried out a few French phrases with a French couple and greeted some Hungarians in their native language.
This day was hard too, from a walking point of view, but the smiles of others helped us all along and the landscape was beautiful and changing, at some points our way taking us along Medieval cobbled streets, then through fields and among trees. Even when it took us alongside a motorway, we passed a fence where pilgrims seemed to have woven twigs and grass between the wires to form crosses, making what might not have been particularly inspiring, mysterious and thought-provoking.
By the time we reached the town of Estella, we were all comparing our personal ‘battery levels’. Most of us were at 2% or less. Then we discovered that the convent we had arranged to stay in was at the top of a steep hill, overlooking the town. It was one of those parenting moments when you barely have the strength to get yourself to where you need to be, let alone the energy to cajole the kids along, too, but somehow we managed it.
We were met at the door of the Monasterio San Benito http://www.monasteriosanbenitoestella.com by a tiny and elderly Sister Esperanza, who showed us to our rooms and took away our boots and waterproof trousers to wash and dry, showing straightaway her community’s commitment to welcome all guests as if they were receiving Christ. We joined the 12 nuns in their evening prayer, which I could partly follow and included Psalm 122 which begins ‘ I rejoiced when I heard them say, let us go to the house of the Lord…’ and which somehow felt perfect for that moment.
In that chapel and at a few points walking during the day, I had felt deep, unexplainable joy. Maximum joy. It was tinged with sadness, knowing that the boys and I were going to leave the next day and that my husband, Philip, would be continuing on his own without us, but it was joy, nonetheless. Sister Esperanza got up early the next morning so that we could have breakfast before we caught our bus back to Pamplona, and, seeing our tears as she served us, said that the way of the cross involves both suffering and gladness. Giving things up for the sake of Jesus is the way to become more like him. And the way to maximum joy.