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For three weeks last month, I stayed in a house right along the medieval pilgrimage route, Le Chemin de St. Jacques de Compostelle [better known to Americans by the Spanish name, El Camino de Santiago de Compostela].


The summer rush was long past, but through my open window I often heard the toc toc of a staff or pole that signaled another pilgrim was coming. Every day at least a half-dozen would walk by on their way to the western edge of Spain where the body of the apostle James was said to be found in the 9th century and a shrine was later built.


Almost finished with the day’s 12 mile stretch from Moissac to Auvillar, the pilgrims would pause for a drink or look at the map or use the public toilets, before hiking up a very steep incline to spend the night in the village.


The majority looked more like hikers than what I expected pilgrims to look like. Actually I don’t know what kind of outfit I thought they should wear, just not something that looked like it came straight from the REI catalog or whatever the European equivalent of high end outdoor clothing is.

Some came on a donkey or with a horse hauling their pack [though there are companies that will transport your bags for you from one stop to another.] Others were biking the 940 mile route from Le Puy, France to Santiago, Spain.

There are four main pilgrimage routes through France, but the Le Puy route is probably the most popular. In the summer, they say 40 to 50 pilgrims pass through every day. But many who make the pilgrimage start further south, on the French border for a 30 day walk to Santiago, though you only need to walk 100 kilometers or bike 200 kilometers to get the authentic ‘I hiked the Camino’ pilgrim’s certificate.


Most of the time, I just watched the parade from my window, an observer not a participant. But one Sunday I worshipped with pilgrims at the abbey in Moissac, a major stop on the route. I often biked along a nearby stretch through farmland and along the Canal du Midi, and I did walk along the chemin for 3 miles one day. I’d like to say I undertook that journey for deeply spiritual reasons, but the truth was I was going to have lunch at a well known restaurant in the neighboring village, and without a car or public transportation, the only way to get there was on foot. How medieval.

over the river and through the woods we went
a signpost along the way told us we were going in the right direction
almost there

the earthly goal

I wasn’t much different from a lot of people who do the pilgrimage for sport or culture or purely historical interest. Almost a quarter of a million people do this pilgrimage every year, but that’s half of what it was in the 11th century. Considering the population of Europe at the time, a half million is an impressive number, even more so when you realize that the Santiago pilgrimage was not the first, but the third most popular destination at the time, behind Rome and Jerusalem.

All those medieval pilgrims not only walked to Santiago de Compostelo, but without trains or cars or planes, they had to walk all the way home as well. It was an expensive and sometimes dangerous journey, taken as a penance or for spiritual guidance or growth. Over time it became well-organized, and a travel guide was written to help pilgrims know what routes to take, where to stay and what to avoid.

a typical medieval pilgrim in a blue robe, with a wide brimmed hat, a staff, and a scallop shell, the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage

I finally saw a ‘real’ pilgrim, while I was out biking one day, complete with his hat, staff, scallop shell painted with cross, and a three-inch crucifix hanging from his backpack. Like most pilgrims I met, it was easy to strike up a conversation with him. He had started in Geneva, and was staying in homes along the way, rather than hotels.

For those who follow Jesus, there’s no requirement to go on a pilgrimage [unlike Muslims for whom making the pilgrimage to Mecca is one of the five obligations, as 3 million did this week]. But there is something about the idea of pilgrimage that remains appealing . You have a clearly defined goal, a clearly defined path, you get rid of the burdens and boredoms of daily life, and travel simply, following in the foot steps of others who have gone before, often in the company of others who on the same journey. I think in some ways, Le Chemin de St. Jacques has become a horizontal Mount Everest–people do it because it’s there.


But the truth is whether I walk the chemin or whether I never leave home, I’ve become a pilgrim too. The word ‘pilgrim’ comes from the Latin peregrinus which means foreigner or stranger. I’m only passing through this world as I follow Jesus home.

My spiritual ancestors who walked on the road of faith knew that:
All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them. Hebrews 11:13-16

Our pilgrimage to heaven is a long road. At the start it can be exciting, but after awhile, the pack begins to chafe, boots begin to rub. The initial thrill disappears. We have to endure hard times and lonely moments. There are unwelcoming villages, sour hosts, and bad weather. We start to acquire things that weigh us down and make the journey harder: possessions, worries, concerns. As the life of faith become difficult, it’s easy to think about stopping or turning around. We can forget what is waiting at the end of the journey.

Thankfully God didn’t intend for us to make the pilgrimage alone. In the company of our fellow travelers, our troubles are divided and our joys are doubled. We bear each others’ burdens and share our supplies. We remind each other of our destination as we put one weary foot after another, giving us the courage to keep on going, all the way to the end.
Happy are the people whose strength is in You, whose hearts are set on the pilgrims way…they go from strength to strength till each appears before God in Zion.
Psalm 84:4,6

After the Enchanted August wedding,** I headed back to Paris for my flight the next day. I spent less than 24 hours in the City of Lights, but the brief visit was delightful all the same.

A saint from Mali dropped off another passenger at her apartment in southeast Paris. Then he drove me and the wedding photographer** to an apartment in northeast Paris, before going to his own apartment in southwest Paris. It was a true labor of love on a Sunday afternoon when half of France was also returning home. Saint that he was, he wouldn’t take any money to help with gas and tolls.

The photographer and I dropped off our things and then took the metro to the Eiffel Tower to do a photo shoot with the groom’s youngest brother and his girlfriend. Sunset was around 8:45 and we didn’t have much time. We quickly found our way from the 19th arrondisement to the Champs de Mars.

It didn’t matter that there were more tourists than Parisians…

…or that we were tuckered out from the wedding celebration or that we had eaten both lunch and supper on the run. However, the groom’s brother was not just passing through and perhaps he found the experience less charming. He hadn’t put any food into his 6’9″ body since breakfast. He had gotten four hours of sleep the night before and he had to be at work at 7:30 the next morning. Hopefully, the enchantment of being with his girlfriend [who was leaving in a few days] made up for that.

The next day, on the plane from Paris to Boston, in one of those ‘life imitates art’ moments, I watched Midnight in Paris.** It’s a movie about a writer who visits Paris and finds himself returning to the 1920s where he meets now-famous writers and artists.

If you’ve read the book Hemingway wrote about that period, The Moveable Feast,** you’ve probably experienced a powerful regret that you didn’t get to live at that time and that place, sipping coffee at the Les Deux Magots** café in Saint Germain while hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. As Hemingway said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” It sounds so romantic, so beautiful, so delicious…

“As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”

Then again, maybe Hemingway waxed so eloquent about this meal because much of the time he didn’t have enough money to eat. And his living conditions were on the squalid side.

The squat toilets of the old apartment houses, one by the side of the stairs on each floor with the two cleated cement shoe-shaped elevations on each side of the aperture so a locataire would not slip, emptied into cesspools which were emptied by pumping into horse-drawn tank wagons at night. In the summer time, with all windows open, we would hear the pumping and the odor was very strong…

…It was either six or eight flights up to the top floor and it was very cold and I knew how much it would cost for a bundle of small twigs, three wire-wrapped packets of short, half-pencil length pieces of split pine to catch fire from the twigs, and then the bundle of half-dried lengths of hard wood that I must buy to make a fire that would warm the room. So I went to the far side of the street to look up at the roof in the rain and see if any chimneys were going, and how the smoke blew. There was no smoke and I thought about how the chimney would be cold and might not draw and of the room possibly filling with smoke, and the fuel wasted, and the money gone with it, and I walked on in the rain.

We have indoor plumbing and central heating, the right to vote** and the ability to travel to Paris in a day, and yet Hemingway’s descriptions still make us want to go back, proof that a great writer can make even poverty sound appealing.

And if you aren’t a great writer, but just a good one, you can write a blog post [helped by a digital camera that requires no talent to use]that makes people covet your life. I knew when I wrote about my Enchanted August experience, it might provoke readers to envy. [I know it would have provoked *me* to envy, if I hadn’t been there.] And spending an evening in Paris en route between Africa and the US is pretty nice too. In fact, there is much about my life which sounds–and is– appealing. Invariably in the States, when I meet someone new and tell them where I live, they say something like, “Oh that sounds so wonderful. I wish I could live there. How exciting.”

But long-time friends of ours have just come to the States for the first time, after a year in their home country in Africa where the electricity went off for hours every day, and bandits and sleepy drivers made traveling between cities unsafe, and public schools were very poor. Dolapo told me she couldn’t understand why anyone would want to ever leave America. At least half the people at our church would agree with her, and grab a chance to move to Europe or the States in a flash.

But as rich as my life is, whenever my friend Elizabeth blogs about Portland, I feel a little twinge.** Whenever I think about Austin going to high school in western Germany, right by France and Switzerland, I feel another twinge. In Midnight in Paris, when the writer meets Picasso’s mistress, he discovers she is pining to go back to the Belle Époque**. It is hard to be content with where we are. The grass always looks greener on the other side, even though it is the same God-created, God-graced grass. Chances are someone would like to trade places with you.

For me, part of the problem is that, ideally, I’d like to be God. I wish I was able to enjoy everywhere, all the time. Instead, I’m only a creature, not the Creator, and I’m limited to one place and one time. Even though I live a wonderful life, I still wish I could live in several other places right now. I’d like to live in Chiang Mai and Concord, for starters, where I could see Sam and Jeff and Lucy and Clara every day. And I’d like to live in Paris and Portland [both in Oregon and in Maine, thank you very much], San Diego, Berlin [Germany and New Hampshire], the Alps [French, Swiss and Italian], Oxford, and Carvoiero, Portugal.**

Another part of the problem is that at a distance, whether of time or geography, most lives look tempting. The idea of Paris in the 20s sounds great. But if you actually experienced the hunger, the stench of raw sewage, the blue frozen fingers and the pain of rejected manuscripts, you might not enjoy it so much. Even post-millennial life in the US which sounds so attractive to my church friends, with all the choice and opportunity and freedom, has its drawbacks. You can develop a frightening myopia on the rest of the world, and the tendency to believe that any problem can be solved with either money or personal freedom.

When I think of the saints I know, I’m struck how they all share the quality of contentment. Their life with God is so deep and rich, their worldly situation doesn’t much matter to them. Most of them have volunteered to live a life serving others, which can also can sound appealing– at a distance. Up close, they work long hours, often don’t get enough sleep, give up personal freedom, don’t have much opportunity to eat gourmet meals, or to visit with family. But rooted in God’s love and centered in His Spirit, they are both content and filled with joy [even in the midst of suffering from which they are not exempt].

I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances.
I know what it is to be in need,
and I know what it is to have plenty.
I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation,
whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.

Phillipians 4:11-13

**Links and notes
**** Enchanted August

**David Blair is an amazingly gifted photographer as you can see from his engagement photos of the bride and groom, and his photos of another couple in Paris.

**Midnight in Paris

**A moveable feast is a holy day whose date is not fixed to a particular day of the calendar year, like Easter.

**A magot [pronounced mago] is not the French word for maggot, but for a figurine. In this case, the two magots are a pair of Chinese porcelain figurines that grace the café.

**French women did not get the right to vote until 1945.

**One of Elizabeth’s posts about Portland, and life

**The Belle Epoque period last from the late 19th century to World War I.

**Carvoiero is a little Portugese fishing village with beautiful cliffs that remind me of La Jolla.

What can you see through the branches of your life?

God the artist

July 16, 2011 — Leave a comment

“God and other artists are always a little obscure.” Oscar Wilde


Gibraltar at Sunset **

**not a Monet, just a photo I took while crossing the Straits

Three hours north of San Francisco, there’s a place I hope my cruise ship docks someday: Glass Beach in Fort Bragg, California [not to be confused with the army base by the same name which is in North Carolina.]

A hundred years ago, before the US had litterbug campaigns, street cleaners, and public trash cans, residents threw their garbage off the ocean cliffs. [Perhaps that’s where Arlo Guthrie got the idea.**] Everything got pitched over and landed in what became known as “The Dumps”. In the late 60s, the area was closed and cleanup was done. But by then, the beach itself had become covered with beach glass.


The beach is now part of MacKerricher State Park and it’s forbidden to collect the beach glass. Another case of trash turning into treasure.

**Arlo Guthrie wrote about his trash dumping exploits in the epic song “Alice’s Restaurant”:“Now it all started two Thanksgivings ago…when my friend and I went up to visit Alice at the restaurant, but Alice doesn’t live in the restaurant, she lives in the church nearby the restaurant…Havin’ all that room, seein’ as how they took out all the pews, they decided that they didn’t have to take out their garbage for a long time.

We got up there, we found all the garbage in there, and we decided it’d be
a friendly gesture for us to take the garbage down to the city dump. So
we took the half a ton of garbage put it in the back of a red VW
microbus, took shovels and rakes and implements of destruction and headed
on toward the city dump.

Well we got there and there was a big sign and a chain across across the
dump saying, “Closed on Thanksgiving.” And we had never heard of a dump
closed on Thanksgiving before, and with tears in our eyes we drove off
into the sunset looking for another place to put the garbage.

We didn’t find one. Until we came to a side road, and off the side of the
side road there was another fifteen foot cliff and at the bottom of the
cliff there was another pile of garbage. And we decided that one big pile
is better than two little piles, and rather than bring that one up we
decided to throw our’s down.”