I did not expect to learn anything about suffering when I started Camino. I mean, okay, I should have thought about it a bit more. Really, the longest I have hiked is like maybe 7 hours in the Berg, and yet it was actually my idea to do a 25km hike every day for a month all across Spain. David suggested doing just like two weeks or something, because he’s actually hiked for long distances, but I naively said we should do all or nothing.
This mix (25km per day + a person who hasn’t really hiked + hiking boots that were not completely broken in+ one foot that is 1/2 a size bigger than the other) resulted in pain for the first half of the hike. First it was bruised toes, then I threw out my knee from over-compensating and then I got blisters.
I’ve never lived with chronic physical pain before. I’ve read stories about people who live with chronic pain and shudder and wonder how they do it. Now that I’ve experienced a tiny sliver I still wonder how they do it. When you’re in pain, it’s like there’s this green fog that just covers everything in pea soup, and it’s basically impossible to say kind things, or be patient, or notice other people. David’s pain coping strategy was counting. Our friend Tom (of Secret Life of Walter Mitty fame) told me on the third day, “Yeah, I was in a lot of pain yesterday, but then it just made me angry. And so I decided to get angry back at the pain, and then I could keep going.” My coping strategy was singing. For some reason, I discovered if I channeled all my internal energy that wanted to scream (or swear– but David told me that the pope would make me walk backwards and redo every mile I swore) and channeled it into singing, I could keep walking.
I was once told by a music major friend that singing and crying are just a shade apart. I think I understand that now. I also think I have a new appreciation for the history of African American spirituals. Because when you’re in pain, and you can’t get rid of it but can only keep going forward, the perfect song isn’t one that’s a happy pop song (that just mocks your current pain) but if the song is too mournful, you’d just sit down and give up. Spirituals walk that tightrope of suffering and hope, and I think that’s why they’ve lasted. Because walking through this world is always a tightrope walk between suffering and hope.
We quickly learned there are pilgrims and then there are pilgrims. Like life, your level of comfort on the Camino is greatly impacted by your amount of money. The recently retired holiday-makers could stop for a couple hours when it was raining and sip coffee and hot chocolate in bars until it stopped. We had to find a bus stop, or a tree, or an overhang, or just gut it out. We were structuring our walking days around the cheapest places to stay (the donation based or municipal hostels), but when the rich people got tired, they could afford to stay in whichever private albergue was closest.
I tried not to be bitter. But, yeah, I was bitter.
We met Arturo during the final push towards Leon. The stretch before Leon is several days of flat, tedious wheat fields. It was green, we can’t complain that much, in summer it’s brown. But we experienced our first real rainy days on the meseda, and we’d been going for almost two weeks, and David was starting to get blisters. We arrived at the small albergue and Arturo, a portly Castillian met us at the door, excited to see us. There was only one other couple in the entire albergue and they were Korean. Their English was minimal, and they didn’t know any Spanish. But Arturo was so thrilled to finally have people staying with him (he even went out and picked flowers to decorate the sparse surroundings) that we all sat down and talked for two hours. David was appointed chief translator, and had to interpret Arturo’s Spanish into English for me and English/sign-language for the Koreans. Arturo was very upset at the Koreans when we arrived, because the wife had sent her bag ahead in a taxi.
“No!” he kept saying, “No, no no! Tell them, David, tell them it’s not good for the pilgrim to send the bag ahead. The bag is part of the pilgrim. Yes, it’s difficult, but it’s good to suffer. Tell her it is good to suffer.”
David apologetically tried to mime and explain in English to the couple, with Arturo hovering over his shoulder and nodding emphatically.
“I have done many Caminos, and in my first Camino, I had injured my foot and I sent my bag ahead for one kilometer. When I picked it up again, I thought, “No, this is bad, I should not have sent my bag ahead. I should take a taxi back and re-walk that kilometer with my pack.” But I did not. I was too proud. And I regretted it the whole time.” He shook his head sadly. “You need your bag. It is part of you. When you get to the end, and you take off your bag, it’s just aaahhh!” Arturo mimed taking off his pack and the feeling of release he felt. Arturo was an artist, and he sketched a picture of Christ. “It’s like the cross that Christ carried,” Arturo said. “You need this burden for this journey.”
In my protestant worldview, I don’t have a concept of doing penance. I don’t think somehow I’ll earn heavenly points if I purposefully go through physical suffering. I’m working for a community development organization that’s committed to alleviating human suffering. There’s enough suffering in the world already…why willingly add to it?
But then I think of the way we numb suffering, through money, through tv series, through pain-killers, through air-conditioners, through faster cars and quicker internet. Of course we wouldn’t dream of walking 35 minutes to the store in the heat when we can drive. We don’t have to experience loneliness, because we can log-in to Facebook on our phones. We don’t have to feel cold, or feel vulnerable, or feel hungry. But when we do that, we let comfort completely dictate our life-choices.
Who is more free? The person who is trapped by ensuring comfort, or the person who has the strength to experience a bit of suffering? The person who has to stop walking when it starts to rain, or the person who is able to just shrug and keep going? The person who has to stop at a nice albergue, or a person who can walk until sunset and is content to sleep under a tree?
And then, I think about Jesus, and how he freely suffered. He wasn’t forced into it. He willingly picked up his humanity, like we willingly picked up our backpacks, and he trudged through life with us.
He freely died an excruciating death.
Ah, but the thing that’s different about Jesus is that he suffered in order to redeem even suffering. Suffering is no longer an arbitrary part of being human, it’s redeemed into something that can be used to make us more like Jesus. It goes from something we need to fear, and craft our lives in order to avoid, and instead becomes a tool to make us better.
As a Christ follower, I don’t have to be afraid of suffering: of physical suffering or even the emotional suffering of being alone. Not because with Jesus I’ll have magic that makes my life more comfortable, but because I have the confidence that everything, even suffering, can be used by God for something good. When I’m faced with choices, I’m not forced to always choose the most comfortable. I’m free to choose anything, because I’m unafraid.
Not only that, but I know that there’s a weight of glory coming that will make the backpack I carry now feel like nothing.
David’s 3-part blog series where he talks a little bit about Camino and his experience of it can be found here.