Walking with God
Scripture: Luke 24:13-35, the Road to Emmaus.
[Following is the transcript of a homily delivered by Hannah Brents on July 23, 2017. No audio is available.]
I had quite the time trying to plan this talk. I was really excited about it but wasn’t quite sure what to share with you since I don’t feel like I’ve got this figured out either. So, if you’ll bear with me, I’d like to share with you a few stories from a recent trip I took to Spain.
I decided to go on the Camino De Santiago after I graduated from BU. I had a pretty tight timeline, but thought I could finish in the time I gave myself. Graduate: May 19/20; Family leaves May 21; Fly to Paris May 24; do stuff; walk some; fly back to Boston June 30; Fly to Memphis, pick up my car and drive it back to Boston July 1. I look back now and laugh at the way I planned this trip, which is because I didn’t plan it. At all. When I arrived at St. Jean Pied de Port in southern France and people asked where I was walking to the next day, I responded, “Not sure…what are the next towns?” It wasn’t exactly intentional, my lack of planning this trip. I just had so much going on prior to leaving that I didn’t have time to think about it and figured, in the back of my mind, it would all work out. And you know, the funny thing is, it did.
If you don’t know anything about the Camino, let me give you a brief overview. Basically, it is this ancient pilgrimage with many routes all ending at the cathedral in Santiago, Spain. The most popular route—the one I did—the Camino Frances, begins in southern France and extends to the coast of Spain. It is said to be 799 km or roughly 500 miles. Santiago means “Saint James” in Spanish and the route historically had relics throughout, which is what made it a “holy” pilgrimage. The Knights Templar formed to protect pilgrims as they traveled along the road towards Santiago. The novel, The Alchemist by Paolo Coehlo, revived the Camino and made it popular once again. You could say that by joining in this great adventure, I felt surrounded by “such a great cloud of witnesses” as the author of Hebrews says in 12:1.
Now, my Camino looked a lot different than the road that Martin Sheen or Shirley McClaine or St. Francis walked. And if any of you walk the Camino, chances are, yours will look much different than mine. But I’m beginning to learn the beauty in that. There are many cliche sayings which patterned our days. Some of them that took on a profound meaning for me was the salutation, “See you on the way;” “Buen Camino;” and “the Camino provides.” Whenever we passed someone on the trial we would say Buen Camino. When regular townspeople would see us walking by, they would yell, buen camino! This simple saying captured the essence of the Camino through its expression of solidarity. Pilgrims understood that it meant well wishes, but also if someone needs something, I will be there, I will do what I can to help. Injuries were common on the Camino. One day early on on a particularly crowded afternoon, I was walking with a guy from Mexico. He didn’t speak much English and my Spanish isn’t great, but we were getting along. He began to have a pain in his foot that grew worse and worse. I had been swept up in a crowd of people and by the time I realized he wasn’t behind me anymore I was long gone. So I decided to wait for a bit. I found a small tree where I could take shelter from the sun. Not long after, Sergio, my favorite Italian, walked up. Sergio and I had been crossing paths multiple times per day since the beginning of the Camino. I found out on this day that Sergio is a doctor and had stopped to examine Juan Carlos with translation help from Martino, another Italian. Juan Carlos would need to bus ahead, but this is the kind of spirit that characterizes the Camino.
Similarly, the Camino provides expresses a simple trust in life, that we need not worry about our plans because the Camino provides. And the Camino provides simple things like wine and directions to deeper, unexpressed needs like answers or love. For example, the very first day in St. Jean, I embarked out on my own excited and ready to go. I had asked people I’d met at the albergue (hostel’s for pilgrims) if I should take a left or right out of the town. For some reason I didn’t feel like I’d gotten a clear answer. Low and behold, I got to the end of town and didn’t know which way to go. There were yellow arrows pointing in both directions. I tried to ask an older guy walking by which way I should go; he said in French that he didn’t speak English. But when I pointed to the seashell on my backpack indicating that I am a pilgrim, he pointed me towards the right. So off I went. Talking to the cows, the flowers, the horses, everything I saw. But I then I didn’t see any people ahead of or behind me, so I started to get nervous. And I’d told someone I’d meet them at the first town for a second coffee (a must on the Camino, if you ask me). I realized about 6 miles in—a little shy of halfway—that I took the bicycle route, not the typical walking route. At the time I flip flopped between complete wonder at the beauty of the walk and negative self-talk because I went the “wrong way.” Initially afterword I became defensive when people would say, “oh, you went the easy way,” because there was still nothing easy about it—there were 60 mph gusts of wind for heaven’s sake! So I would shoot back that I’d gone the alternate way or a different way, but not the easy way. Towards the end of my walk, though, my perspective of this experience began to transform. My asthma made uphills really difficult and it ended up being the only day I got to walk alone (something which I thought I would get to do the entire Camino). In this way, we would say that the Camino provides. It provided exactly what I needed before I knew it when I didn’t even want it.
The Camino also provides friends along the way. Some friends stayed with you for the entire walk, some friends you met and never saw again, some people you met and wished you never saw again… But regardless of friend status, whenever you parted ways with a pilgrim, you said, See you on the way. Sometimes you did and sometimes you didn’t. But this saying became an acknowledgment of the shared space and time and life with each other. It expressed trust in life that our stories have now joined and I hope to see you on the way, but even if I don’t I believe that our paths will cross again one day.
There are some natural consequences that occur when you walk 14-17 miles every day for a month. Blisters. (I’m sorry in advance for this story) My walking partner, Paolo and I had split off from our larger group because we needed to make it to Santiago a day before them, so we had not expected to see them again until the end. I loved the group we split up from. We were a crazy bunch—a Mexican, Brazilian, Irish, Italian, American guys and Austrian and American girls. We walked together for 3 weeks straight, which in Camino time is a really long time. Without media or phones to distract us, we learned our habits and quirks. Like, at the end of the walk when the sun is really hot and the kilometers stretch on endlessly, Pepe, Marcello, Paolo, and I are going to put music in and go on cruise control. Anna wants to get up before dawn and power walk to our end destination; she will be there waiting for us at the town line drinking sangria and telling us where there are open beds. If we stop for a break, even in the dead heat of the day, Pepe and Marcello are drinking a cold cana, or draft beer; Paolo walks ahead or drops behind anytime the conversation turns too serious; Jess and Zach look like nervous walkers; the Ohio guys are devout Catholics; and I, apparently, have a funny walk. Put us all together and we are loud! We used to tell people would wanted to meet up later to listen and they would be able to find us. One time in a tiny town, Anna was staying at a different albergue but walked over to ours because she heard us all the way from hers! So, I was very sad to have parted ways with them.
On this day, we were walking to Sarria and the 100 km marker. One of my blisters became infected and took me 4 hours to walk 10 km (which by that point is reallyyyyyy slow). I was in a lot of pain and my shoes were ripping a part. So when we got to Sarria we stopped to buy duct tape for my shoes and the pharmacy for my feet. I had mini surgery on my blister before we could keep walking. Then, the moment that we walked out of the pharmacy Paolo said, “look who it is.” Pepe was standing 20 yards from us. I yelled to him, he yelled to the Marcello, and I hobbled over for hugs. As hard as we had tried to part ways from the group (about 3 times at that point) our paths kept crossing. The Camino surely provides!
It was absolutely phenomenal. And I could tell story after story about how this trip changed my life and how I’m still processing it. The thing that has been the most difficult upon returning back to the States has been my anxiety. I didn’t feel anxiety or worry on the Camino because I knew what each day held—wake up between 5-6 am, walk 8 hours , do laundry, siesta, dinner, sleep. Since I’ve been back, though, I feel little stressors pile up then one tiny one sends me into a mini meltdown. And I think back, longingly for the days of the Camino when I lived worry free.
I had an experience last week where my phone broke. To give you a little context, this was the fourth iPhone in 3 years that’s broken with the same irreparable hardware malfunction. It also broke in the middle of the day during my first week at a new job/career where I need my GPS on my phone to get to clients. Needless to say, it was an emotional break for me. I called my dad to see if I was under warranty and I describe how I’m probably not going to get an iPhone again. He says, “Hannah, the rest of us all have iphone’s. It’s not the phone. You don’t need to stress about it; you’ll just have to get a new phone.” So I obviously called my boyfriend to complain about my dad (who also agrees with my dad, but I’m letting that one go), and he says, “At night on the Camino, did you think, ‘gosh I wish I didn’t have to wake up at 6 am, and I wish I didn’t have to walk 30 km, and I wish I didn’t have to do my laundry later’?” I didn’t remember saying that. So he reminded me that I didn’t need to do that now and worry about future things when there were things I could take care of right now. So off I went to Apple to buy a new phone. I force my way into a late day appointment because I look like a literal mess, soaked from the thunderstorm. As I’m ending the session with the specialist, I sighed and said, “well that was stressful.” To which he replied, “it didn’t have to be, you made it that way.”
Okay okay, I get it! Enough already!
After feeling completely worn out by the transitions and new beginnings and broken phones and feedback, I did what any girl should do and called Carrie Merz to see if I could come over. We sat on her porch watching the storm and processing through all of this. Like, what does it mean to really live in the mentality of “I’ll see you on the way” or “the Camino provides”? And I think what it means for me, right now at least, is the commitment to living in the present and trusting in life. I lived worry free on the Camino because I wasn’t concerned with what would happen the next day. I knew I would walk to where I needed to be and find a bed to sleep on, and on the especially hard days, our saying was, “this can happen because I will do it.” Openness allowed me to completely invest in the moment, in the friendships, in the experience.
This is why I love the Emmaus story. The Camino allowed me to read this story in a whole new light. I read it and think of Pepe or Paolo or Anna joining the group just like Jesus joins this one.
Two guys decided to walk from Jerusalem to Emmaus. They left at 4 pm. It was a 7 mile walk. As they’re walking along, someone joins their group. The new guy asks what they’re talking about. They can’t believe it. “Haven’t you heard? Who are you?”
“About who they killed in Jerusalem this weekend?”
“Surely you’ve heard about the guy Jesus. Where have you been?”
“Tell me about it. What’s going on?”
So they walk and talk for some miles, sharing the recent gossip or current event. When they’d gotten to Emmaus, probably 2-3 hours later around dinner time, the two guys stopped to have dinner and to find a bed for the night. The new guy motioned, “hey, it was great to meet y’all, but I’m probably going to keep walking. Feeling good.” The two guys urged him to stay, “Nah man, come on. It’s getting dark soon. Stay here.” “Thanks, but I think I’m going to keep going. I got a late start today.” “You can’t get much further without any light. Stay here tonight and start early tomorrow. Let’s finish the conversation.” “Oh alright.” So they found a bed and sat down for dinner. And it wasn’t until they broke bread together did they realize that it was Jesus who they were with all along.
I think that's a large part of what the Camino taught me is how simple life is and how joyful and free of worry it can be when lived accordingly. Because I've realized since coming back how hard it is to maintain this simplicity mindset. When I read the Emmaus story, it reminds me of how easy it is to get swept up in drama, even important drama (like the death of Jesus), and not even realize the people in our midst. It wasn't until they sat together for a meal, and presumably let the drama subside for a minute, did the 2 guys realize it was Jesus. So my call to action is a call to simplicity; a call to reject the temptation to be caught up in or attached to the drama in life; a call to realize the people and surroundings in our midst, and in so doing come to a deeper understanding of ourselves.