St. Paul's parishioner, Ann Coffaro, went on an an amazing pilgrimage journey. We are excited to share the story of this transformative spiritual experience! And make sure to join us Sunday, September 17 between the 8:45 and 10:45 services in the back of the Undercroft, when Ann will present an Adult Education Forum about her experience.
On April 24th of this year, I flew to St. Jean Pied de Port, France and began my pilgrimage walk on the Camino Frances. The Camino Frances, also known as the French Way or the Way of St. James, is a 500-mile journey that begins at the base of the Pyrenees in France and extends northwest across Spain to Santiago de Compostela, Spain. It continues to be an important Christian pilgrimage route with over 260,000 pilgrims walking the way each year. The Apostle St. James, Santiago, son of Zebedee, spent time teaching in Spain and legend has it, was later buried near the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela. The journey crosses 3 mountain ranges and the “Meseta”, a treeless plains type region, and goes through many tiny villages and several larger cities including Pamplona, Burgos, and Leon, Spain. I gave myself 40 days to walk the Camino and I finished my journey in 34, taking 2 rest days and carrying my 20-pound pack. I walked solo but had the support of my loving family from Pittsburgh, NYC, and Medellin, Colombia. It was an amazing and transformative experience for me and I hope to share a small piece of what made my pilgrimage so special with you.
The Camino had been on my walking bucket list for some time. I enjoy walking, hiking and the out-of-doors. I have been practicing “walking meditation” for the last few years. Last fall I visited our daughter in the UK and we spent a week hiking the South West Coast Path in Cornwall. Along the way I met a brother and two sisters that hike together each year as their way to stay connected. As hikers do, we talked about previous and future hikes and I mentioned my desire to someday walk the Camino. The siblings spoke about how much they enjoyed walking the Camino and what the experience meant to them. Each had walked it twice and one sib was preparing to walk in Spring of ’17. I knew then it was time for me to walk The Way.
One of my reasons to walk the Camino was to have fresh eyes to the world around me. I wanted to reflect on relationships in my life and to contemplate ways to deepen my connections with those I love, those I meet in daily life, and those who want to connect with me. I wanted to strengthen my connection with the outdoors - my favorite sanctuary - and my connection with my body and mind. I wanted to take the time to pause, step back and absorb the good around me rather than rushing through my life. I actively pursued these goals while walking the Camino. I read many books in the 40 days of my journey but one of my favorites was a book of daily devotions by Mark Nepo called The Book of Awakening. He writes, “we may speak different languages and live very different lives, but when that deep water swells to the surface, it pulls us to each other.” Each evening I read devotions and pieces of other books by authors including Melody Beattie, Eckhart Tolle, the Bible and others to have some “brain juice” while walking the next day.
My typical day began early, usually between 5:30 and 6am. I would walk for about 6 or 7 hours, around 15 to 18 miles a day. I might walk solo for much of the day or I might walk with someone I met along the way. One day I walked with Doris, an amazing 74-year-old from California. She spent the last 10 years of her life caring for her mom until she passed away and was thrilled to be in Spain and having an adventure. The first day of the Camino, the hardest day according to many, took me 7 ½ hours to walk: six hours of ascent up the Pyrenees and 1 hour down to the converted Monastery where I stayed. It took Doris 12 hours. Twelve hours. She walked the last hour in darkness using only a flashlight. She was an inspiration to me I adored spending time with her. I met others along the way that shaped my journey. I walked with two women from Canada for a few days and walked with a man from Germany that worked for Bayer. I met a couple from Portland and an attorney from Pittsburgh and spent time with them. I had a foot issue about 8 days into my walk and without going into gory detail I will say that I was in constant pain for several days. One morning was particularly difficult. I knew that each step of the next 7 hours was going to be painful and I tried to focus on being right in the moment and not looking ahead at the hours of pain to come. As I left my Albergue, I met a woman from Finland and began walking with her. She told me about her life and it was a sad, tragic story of lost love. It was the power of that brief connection that literally saved me that day as I realized the smallness of my physical discomfort compared to her pain.
During a typical day, I would arrive at the Albergue in the early afternoon. An Albergue is a pilgrim dorm with bunk beds. It is space shared with pilgrims of different genders and ages without privacy. Men and women share not only the bunk room but often the bathroom and it is small. I had not planned on staying in Albergues until the 3 siblings I met in the UK insisted that I give it a try. I am so thankful I challenged myself to stay in these pilgrim dorms. It was a wonderful example of the pilgrim life. Men and women were so respectful of each other and the situation. I interspersed my time in these dorms with an occasional stay in a habitacion or a pension which allowed me a private room for a night. It was a humbling experience to stay in the Albergues and my best advice for those trying it is to invest in the best earplugs possible.
It was often hard to determine if an Albergue was going to be a “good one”. I had a tip from a friend who walked the Camino about several Albergues and during one of my days of walking I came across one of her suggested “good ones”. From the road, this Albergue looked like a cross between a double wide trailer and a small prison. It was set far from the road and as I looked down the long path I thought I was either going to have an amazing experience or get murdered in my sleep. Fortunately for me it was the former. This Albergue was in Sanbol, a location that called itself a village, but that consisted of literally nothing but this Albergue. The Albergue was beautifully restored on the inside with stone walls and housed only 14 pilgrims. That day was an extraordinarily hot day on the Meseta and this Albergue had a rare grove of trees, a natural spring to wash clothes and beautiful hot sun to dry them quickly. Without Wi-Fi, the 14 of us had conversation, laughter, sharing of injuries, and much wine. The hospitalero prepared homemade paella for us and we shared a lovely communal meal. It was my favorite Albergue and such a complete surprise. It refreshed me and made me ready to walk the next day. Many days were like this…. walking long distances, shower, wash clothes, meet new friends or read a book. They were simple days that allowed me time to converse, reflect, pray, laugh, read and walk. I loved the rhythm of life on the Camino.
I have loved telling you a bit about my pilgrimage on the Camino Frances. I urge each of you to consider a pilgrimage, whatever that might mean for you. Each person walking the Camino does it differently. Not everyone carries a pack and stays in Albergues. Some pilgrims walk for 2 weeks and then return the next year to walk. All and anything is perfectly acceptable. Mostly I urge you to consider taking time for yourself. A nice hunk of time to restore your body and soul. I love our American culture but we don’t allow for much time away from our work lives. So many other cultures allow many weeks away each year and having time away is valuable for so many reasons. If you are considering the Camino call or email me. I would love to talk. I will make you look at my pictures. I will close with how each pilgrim greets each other and say to you, Buen Camino my St. Paul’s friends.
Fondly, Ann Coffaro