On Camino II: In Holy Week

Daily life: You awaken at about 6 a.m., often in a room with many other pilgrims in bunks, some of whom snore, some of whom smell, some of whom are restless through the night, washing your face, repacking your things. You have to be out the door by 8. You get breakfast nearby: a coffee, a roll, a piece of fruit for the road. Then you walk. After a couple of hours, you enter a village. There is a “bar” open that offers a second coffee, maybe a chocolate pastry, a Spanish tortilla; you hear someone call it “second breakfast” and you both laugh that hobbits are as well known to Europeans as to you. You walk some more, taking off a layer or two, changing your stocking cap for a wide-brimmed one, putting on sunscreen. Another village, another bit of food. You never feel hungry, although you aren’t eating that much more than usual (probably less). There are fuentes (water fountains) in the center of many villages. You tend to your feet, changing socks midday, remembering how important they are (and, since it is the holy week, how Jesus washed them). At some point you know you are done. You find an albergue, a pilgrim hostel with a bed. You take a shower, wash underwear and socks, and after a rest have a proper meal.

But before the meal, you go to a pilgrim mass. They aren’t available in every stopping place. There are churches everywhere. Some of them are open for visitors to gawk and take photos and maybe kneel in prayer. Others are simply locked. But more often than not, there is a church with a mass at, say, 7:30 p.m., which is 19,30h as the locals reckon it.

I have been to several now. Always in Spanish, I can understand only a bit. For instance, when the priest reads the Gospel, I can pick up that this time it is from John. I listen for words that clue me in, and maybe I guess where in the gospel the reading is from.

I like these priests. They are very different, one from another. Some rush (which I do not like; it moves my comprehension from minimal down to zero). Some are earnest and convey that this is serious. Some are human in revealing ways; one had hardly a voice.

On the eve of Palm Sunday, a few of us peregrinos were at the 20,00h mass in Santo Domingo, in a rather full church. N. from Brooklyn, whose Spanish is much better than mine, said the priest welcomed and prayed for pilgrims both at the beginning and the end of the mass. There was also, I deduced, an urn near the altar; it seemed a man had recently died, and this service was the occasion for his ashes to be placed somewhere in the church (at the end, a layman carried the urn out in front of the priest). There was no blessing of the palms or other local greens, but the gospel had something to do with Jesus’ death (it was not the passion gospel, though).

At communion I went forward for a blessing, crossing my arms and saying “Peregrino, padre.” At the end, we were walking around, in awe of the architecture and the various altars, statues, and paintings tucked throughout this smallish cathedral, when someone told us to go to a particular side room where an assisting priest stamped our pilgrim “credential.” We looked some more, and found ourselves meeting the celebrant, returning, still in his red chasubule. S. from Germany said to him one word: chicken. The priest laughed all over. He said no one knows any word of English but then he will say “chicken.” He was jolly and welcoming. He led us through a crowd to a side and there, in a high up coop we had passed but not noticed, were a hen and a cock. “They are sleeping,” the priest said. But as we watched one of them started walking around.

A pilgrim can miss many things. I miss singing All glory laud and honor. I miss holding a palm. I miss my own bed. And so forth. But there is so much to enjoy! Who would ever have imagined: Palm Sunday eve, pilgrims, a committal of ashes, a church hundreds of years old, and a chicken? One cannot help but be thankful for these churches and these priests, for these centuries, for the chickens—and of course for the God who holds it all in his hands.

On the Camino: April Fools

A plane flight, a train ride, a local bus, and finally a bus that connected the two places once a day, and I was there: Roncesvalles, Spain, at an alberque (pilgrim hostel, this one dating to the Middle Ages) with I guess another hundred or so fellow pilgrims on the Way of Saint James. It was cold and rainy. By supper it was snowing. By morning there had been sufficient snow, and the temperature had stayed below freezing long enough, that there were a few inches of the heavy white stuff everywhere.

It was Friday, April 1, and you know what I thought God was saying.

It does snow in the mountains, of course. But how ironic, and how unusual even to the locals, to have snow at this time of year. It snowed on and off all day. The world was black and white. My eyeglasses, which have transitional lenses, were dark even though the sun did not shine. I walked alone, then in company, then alone. Up and down hill, through villages and countryside, past horse farms and children playing, under branches that dropped their loads on our heads, trying to avoid (since the temperature was close to freezing) the rivulets of water making puddles and mud pits along the way: we walked and talked.

The first or second or third question was always: Why are you walking the Camino?

There was E. from Italy. Her son walked the Camino in 2015. Although I guessed what she would answer, I asked how he is now. She said he died in 2020, of cancer, in his 20s. So she was walking where he had walked, walking in some sense with him. 

There was B. from Germany. She had been in an airplane crash in the late ‘90s. Her husband was killed, she went though years of recovery. Now married with a teenaged son, she was walking to sort things out.

There was H. from Germany. Her partner of many years had announced, just in February, that she was leaving her for someone else. She was walking in tears, in grief.

There was S. from Germany. He had just finished a master’s degree in theology. We enjoyed a couple of days walking together. He has a new job awaiting him after the Camino, but also has things to sort out with God.

And then there was V. from Texas. He always says he’s from Texas, rather than the U.S. or calling himself a “norte americano,” but one hospitalier (the friendly man responsible for the church-related albergue in Estella) said he thought the U.S. was a great country, because it understands the importance of being a nation rather than separate parts. V. may start saying he’s from the U.S., lest he give encouragement to separatism. Why is he walking? He gives different answers: because his wife died close to ten years ago, because he is wondering what God wants from him in the rest of his life, because he wants to learn to trust God even when he does not know where he will spend the night. Mostly, though, it is about friendship. He is learning both to make friends and to turn them over to God. And to do that, he thinks, is at once the simplest and yet the hardest thing in life—harder, in fact, than dealing with sore shoulders and feet blisters.

On the other hand, he thinks that to get a glass of Spanish wine for about two dollars makes everything easier.


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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."