Sermon on the Monte de Gozo


waves of voices
washing over me
still the morning
shone golden
through the trees

“Wait for me!” yelled the chubby teenage boy with the lopsided backpack, careening down the trail past me as his friends laughed from farther ahead. Directly before me, two young women, maybe 18 years old, worked a sultry, languid sashay, hips rolling in short shorts, tiny tight tummies bared in belly shirts, sparkle laces in one’s tennis shoes, rainbow laces in the other’s, nodding seriously to the pulsing of their earbuds. They carried the tiniest backpacks I had seen yet, scarcely more than a beach towel string bag.

Proud Spanish women marched next to their men, in wedge-heeled faux athletic shoes and perfect nails, one assumed both fingers and toes, wildly-patterned cropped running pants ending at the knees, busting out of sleeveless running tops, not a teased hair out of place. The men wore snug sport shorts and silky T-shirts and gold chains, with new running shoes for the walk. Again with the tiny backpacks – where did everyone get these? With the same small scallop shell painted with the Sword of Santiago, and a miniature gourd tied beside it?

It was a bit of a shock as I finally joined the Camino Frances. So many more people. So much yelling to each other down the trail. So much hairspray.

“The scenery here is not very interesting,” I heard one man remark to his friend, as one of their female companions added, “I’ve lost the high of a few days ago.” A long weekend, they’re hiking. People’s attention spans were very short. These holiday pilgrims, the “tourigrinos” on the 100 km mini-Camino, tended to stick to the direct route of the paved roads; they did not want to take the detours of the dirt paths.

“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down.”

— Matthew 5:1

So I fled to the dirt paths. I focused on the sound of boot and gravel, breathing easier. The twittering of birds felt like a secret signal that I had located my path again. I found an abundant crop of blackberries, untouched, and laughed at the luxury of having them all to myself.
I ate the plumpest, ripest ones, eating berries, alone, in the quiet, until I was full, and content.

I knew blackberries would carry this meaning for a long time: sweet, quiet morning time to myself, along a dirt road. The ones that get the most sun become the sweetest, by the way.

I was so overwhelmed by the new energy and new reality that I didn’t follow any grand thoughts or hear any new songs or come up with any stories. By noon, I stopped to find a bed in Arzua, to have time to prepare for my last day of Camino as it had been – about moving toward Santiago, about the walking, about mulling the significance. Because tomorrow, I walked; and the day after tomorrow, I would arrive in Santiago.

Suddenly, it felt like it had come so fast. In truth, it was just over five weeks. I counted it up: exactly 40 days. I would arrive in Santiago having trekked for 40 days. Like all the great tests and thresholds in world religions, 40 days to deeply experience something, to cross over. Odd coincidence, yet somehow reassuring.

But of course not an odd coincidence at all. If I’d learned anything, it was to trust the Camino. And now, in Arzua, if the Camino wanted my wanderings in the wilderness to include hot showers and a bed at night, I was not going to complain for a minute.

That thought struck me, scrubbing my clothes at the laundry sink. I had received everything I needed, every day, without fear and without demand. I remembered a story from childhood, when my grandma would send me for a week of summer Bible School to the white clapboard church that was the center of her world. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reminded his disciples that the birds of the air are fed, and the lilies of the field are clothed in beauty. Reduced to myself and my pack, each day was “sufficient unto the day.”

Yet, in the midst of the mobs that started following him, even Jesus retreated from a crowd sometimes. Some days, he took just a chosen few of his followers with him, discussing his experience with those trusted friends.

“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltness be restored?”

— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:13

My friends were far ahead, probably already in Santiago, or beyond; how I longed to talk to them.
I had sought Cordula’s experienced, sharp mind to give me sound advice to see me through. I missed Joanna’s warmth and enthusiastic greetings that elicited an unselfconscious grin from me in return. No one could shake me awake from conventional thinking like Felix. And I wanted to walk and talk beside Christoph again, hear his thoughts about the self, inner growth, and the challenges to his ideas that he was finding as he met others.

Christoph had the mind of a scientist. His speech was linear, words well-chosen, simplified to reflect each step on which he based his thinking. Erudite and thoughtful, a conversation with Christoph was a journey through questions both basic and profound, one leading to the next, a mental Camino seeking way marks to assure the path.

Christoph also had the soul of a mystic, and at times, it seemed to trouble him. This scientific man had a recurring dream that he struggled to understand – or maybe to accept. I remembered him describing it to me: standing on an ice-covered lake, unable to take a step because the ice was beginning to crack, about to give way underneath him, and he did not know what he would find below if he fell through. He found the dream unsettling, somewhat unnerving; it seemed to me that the dream frightened him, not as an image in his day-to-day waking life, but in its persistence, calling to him.

I resonated with Christoph, this logical mind and soulful heart, one always trying to lead the other, those binary stars circling each other with a fierce gravity. But unlike Christoph, I had slowly abandoned assurance of my path, at least allegiance to having any assurance. The sure path hadn’t ever really materialized in my life.  Ever since I sold my house and quit my job, I had stopped making sense, and I let it amplify on the Camino into a fantastic feedback loop. I was intentionally flying blind now, taking alternate routes leading who-knew-where, stopping by choice and gut instinct instead of by logical mileage tallies or descriptions in the guidebook. I was feeling my way.

I looked forward to Santiago, even as I stalled the journey’s bittersweet end. It had been the destination for millions of pilgrims for over a thousand years, and I planned to go to the Pilgrim’s Mass at the cathedral, and get my compostela, touch the statue of Saint James. But Santiago, for me, was just a way mark.

My ultimate destination was to Finisterre, and then Muxia, with a very different energy, a feminine energy, a goddess buried in Christian stories, and I wanted to free her energy in my life. I planned to go to the end of the world, and beyond.

“You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.”

— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:14

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At first, I didn’t know what to make of it all. Bikes with bells zipped past, ding! ding! One biker blew his whistle like a traffic cop on wheels, and the entourage of bicyclists began shouting a rowdy cheer in time with his silver whistle’s shrieks. Then, applauded by the walkers who were laughing together, they rode away singing.

I found myself cheering, too. Seventeen-year-old me turned, delighted, exclaiming to me, See? It’s a party! This Life! Come on!

Young men in homemade kilts, their tartan red with life, answered with gusto when their leader hollered incoherently, raising his trekking pole over his head: “Charge!”

“Gaahh! Go! Now! Go!” they roared, voices overstepping each other’s, running their irreverence full-tilt down the Camino with Mercury’s winged feet.

I went from annoyed one day to laughing out loud the next. A mother and father were bringing their tiny children, probably one and three years old, the tiny one in a backpack with butterfly wings on the back, the older one in a stroller, occasionally hopping out to hike the path like the rest of us, her father’s collapsible trekking pole exactly the right height when closed up tight.

Families with older children biked by. Groups of white-haired old couples, friends, walked the Way together, slowly, familiarly. One boy walking with his father carried a short skateboard under his arm, just waiting for smooth sailing.

Music played everywhere – arias, techno, rap. Young church groups sang harmonies in Polish and Spanish. Cows still mooed. Cars honked. Campers honked louder.

I hummed what a guy was playing on his ukelele, long after I passed him by. It was fun, happy people all together walking in the heat toward Santiago. I saw that the 100 km trek allowed many people to participate who would not have been able to make the long pilgrimage from the border, or from the coast. People shared fruit with each other; some nibbled careful bites, with their teeth carving shocked or goofy faces into their apples and pears, which they left on milestones, to the amusement of the rest of us.

All was crazy and hilarious until the arrows split – and most people went to Pedrouzo, where I had originally thought I might go. But it was early, and I was excited, so I just kept going, this last stretch of Camino an opportunity to walk well and strong, carried by the wave of good will and anticipation all the way to Monte de Gozo, 34.5 km. Tired feet and a little too much sun, but no more the worse for wear, my route was often shady, with dirt paths most of the way.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:7-8

I remembered to stop at Labacolla and wash in the stream, purifying myself as the medieval pilgrims used to do. It translated to “wash scrotum,” a ridiculous name for a holy river on the approach to a holy city. I settled for dunking my shirt and washing my hair, my face, and my arms and armpits. The rest waited for a shower. A soothing, hot shower, and the rose-scented soap I had bought at a market.

Refreshed body and soul, I went to sleep early in the enormous barracks environment of Monte de Gozo, which had room for ten times the number of peregrinos who arrived. All were welcome. Tomorrow was Sunday, the day of my arrival. I dozed off, remembering a song my grandma taught me when I was small enough to ride in a backpack with butterfly wings or take my first steps forward to find my own way:

this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
this little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

hide it under a bushel, NO – I’m gonna let it shine
hide it under a bushel, NO! – I’m gonna let it shine
let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

— Harry Dixon Loes,”This Little Light of Mine,” American folk song


“Nor do men light a lamp and put it under a bushel, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. Let your light so shine before men….”

— Jesus, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5:15-16