El Camino: The Sacred Path
What is pilgrimage? Wikipedia, our new god of definition, defines it as: a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance.
What is pilgrimage? Is it leaving the world behind or is it carrying it on your back? Is it both?
Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a land called Venice Beach, on my mutual birthday with one of my closest friends we took a pilgrimage to Los Angeles and found our way to tattoos. Mine, on my wrist, reads: Every Journey is a Pilgrimage.
Is it coincidence that almost 10 years later I might find myself headed for the Camino de Santiago, a trek I will walk alongside that same friend – a friend who I have spent the better part of a decade living physically apart from, but somehow spiritually connected to?
El Camino. The Sacred Road. What does that mean to me? What does that mean to you?
The Camino de Santiago is a trek that begins, most popularly, in France and finds its way through the mountains of Spain into a town called Santiago. This happens to be the hometown for many generations of my same friend who I walked the camino de venice beach almost 10 years ago with, and got inked with the message of the same name. Every Journey is a Pilgrimage.
For most Santiago is the end of the pilgrimage. For me it ends in Avila. Avila is 8 hours from santiago and 2 hours from Madrid. It just so happens on my pilgrimage i am heading from Santiago to Madrid and almost by chance I fell upon the geographical understanding that Avila is smack-dab between the two. Why do I care? Because, for me, pilgrimage ends in Avila.
Although I tell this story many times when I speak and so many who know me might know this already my naming, the birth of my identity begins and ends in Avila. For those of you who don’t know my story, let me explain.
Once Upon A Time: Beginnings
Once upon a time, the story as I know it, began in an orphanage in Bogota, Colombia. There were nuns, of the grey order, that ran the orphanage and they decided to call me Teresa. Now, the naming system in the orphanage at that time was uber Dickensian, which, for those of you that never read Oliver Twist meant that each baby was named in order based on the alphabet.
But I came in, born on October 15, 1979. October 15th is the Saints day of Teresa of Avila and so they decided I would have to be named Teresa, nothing else would do.
Then, my adoptive parents arrived in Bogota, a month later, and the nuns presented them with their baby, telling my parents their baby’s name and the reason for the naming. My parents were a bit shocked and replied that they had considered naming their baby Teresa [it was one of their three name choices], because as devout Catholics they had spent the last 7 years, through miscarriages, and sadness, praying for a baby in the pews of their home church in New Jersey – Teresa of Avila Catholic Church.
And so, I have said, my name insinuated my calling. I always said I couldn’t have averted the mystic path – after being named twice for Teresa of Avila.
So my pilgrimage will end in Avila – the origin of my naming, and the birthplace of the Teresa who would one day be called Saint in the Catholic Church. Because she became, later in life than you might imagine, my patron saint, my soul mother, and the only lineage I could trace in the fingerprint of my own life.
So, my pilgrimage will end in Avila – because it is my sacred birthplace. Beyond race. Beyond culture. Beyond time. This doesn’t negate those other roots – it only amplifies my story – because unlike many, I have no family tree. I am, as I call myself as of late, a genetic stump. After years of searching for my birthmother I found nothing. No roots, no specific origin other than being clearly mostly indigenous and somewhat Spanish. After years of trying I cannot have children. No branches on the tree. No specific end point beyond my own life [at least to date – if I adopt this might change]. A physiological dead end – having chronic illness which inhibited birth and continues to erode physical functioning by the day, by the week, by the month, by the year. In all physical senses I am a stump. Spiritually, my story takes root. And so I follow the root back home – and my pilgrimage ends in Avila.
Once Upon A Time: Unintentional Pilgrims
Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and other lesser known, lesser popular persons, contemporarily, although no less relevant in the lifeline of the human story, once upon a time, a very short time ago, traveled on pilgrimage to find themselves. I get it. We lose ourselves in the world; we find ourselves on pilgrimage. We were always there. Hidden under the garments of our life – sometimes a poorly proportioned suit or an ill-fitted dress, we are there, underneath the mire, underneath the tread of our own labored shoes, and our own labored feet.
We are here. In our lives. We just so often get distracted by the mania of our lives we miss ourselves and the nuances of us. Sometimes, we don’t see ourselves at all or lose ourselves in the midst of unhealthy relationship and discombobulated identity. Sometimes we lose ourselves on our way to find ourselves – and we don’t even see it happening, because it happens as subtly as a shallow breath. Sometimes, we are on the road to our ecstasy and we lose track on the way to something more tangible but so much less satisfactory.
Let us never underestimate the power of pilgrimage. Let us never underestimate the power of the banal to distract us from our calling. Let us never forget that we can get so entangled in the unhealthy of the unhealthy that we forget what is possible in a lifetime – in a single, solitary life experience.
What if we walked. Pilgrimage at it’s core is about walking our way from one place to another – literally, and in that process, also, we find ourselves doing it metaphorically. It is the Hero’s Journey. We walk our way into our truth, our calling, our hope, our dreams and in the walking we might just find the courage to manifest them.
I love the walking of travel. This might be, for me, the first time I literally walk my way into being but, possibly, also the most urgent time of life to do so. I find myself at stake – my credibility, my authenticity, my integrity, my truth. I find myself, these days, bumping up against these existential questions and frustrated by how fast the world carries them away like a fast moving tide and has me focused on the immaterial impermanence of the present. To put it bluntly, I find myself spending most of my life not in the space of calling but in the space of, compulsively, gorging on the fatty meal of someone else’s bullshit sandwich. And that is not a tasty meal.
Maybe on the camino, on the pilgrim’s trail we walk our way to courage, to fortitude, to authenticity. Maybe on the camino we let ourselves let go of the material world – and it’s own concerns with self-gratification- and find ourselves in a more authentic state. The camino strips us bare – the road wherever we find it, is the road of truth. One day we have to be who we were intended to be. One day we have to move out from the shadows of imperfect impermanence.
One day we have to stand up to the cancerous dimensions of our life and excise them – intentionally. And some days, we actually get to do that in our own lives.
It takes courage. It takes bravery. It takes the fortitude of caminos – of pilgrimage. We are all called to find the pilgrimage in our own life. If our lives are not serving the best of us, the best of the world, we have to find the best path towards that truth and that goodness. Sometimes we have to say no, what I have called in therapy the necessary no, to find the essential yes.
What is the necessary no, today, that you have not voiced? What is the necessary yes that you have not, yet, given voice? Who are you stripped bare of all falsehoods told to you by yourself or others? Who are you when there is nothing left of you but your truth? Who are you when nothing matters more than doing the right thing? Who are you when the pilgrimage is the story of your life?
What if the pilgrimage is the calling to all of us? What if what little fraction of happiness we may carry today is only a small portion of what we were meant to see and be?
What if? What if? What if? What if today is your calling onto the Camino?
What if today is your Pilgrimage day? What would you differently if you were called to a sacred road of freedom? What would you do differently if nothing else mattered but truth? What would you do if the Camino came calling? I will tell you the fullness of what it means to me…when I return.
Seek your pilgrim’s path today – because tomorrow is always too late.