May 14, 2013. Vega de Valcarce to Alto do Poio

With 21km ahead of us that included 2 steep mountain climbs, one an increase of nearly 2,400 feet, we were out the door and on our way by 7 a.m.. The 14th Century Castillo de Sarracin loomed above and to our left, a shadowy outline in the early morning twilight.

The first few kilometers tracked along the rural N-VI roadway, which thankfully had very little traffic at that hour.

We continued through the tiny village of Ruitelan which was nestled in the shadow of the towering flyover bridgework of the busy A-6 expressway.

Within an hour of our departure we had reached Herrerias (pop. 600). Leaving the roadway behind us, we began our climb to O Cebreiro. The mountains that surrounded us kept us in shadows for another hour.

The ascending path was rock-strewn. Footfalls of countless pilgrims over the centuries had worn the trail as if it had been intentionally dug.

As we climbed the views extended outward and we were treated to stunning vistas, clear skies, and perfect weather.

About a kilometer before O Cebreiro we encountered a heavily graffitied stone monument marking the frontier border between the autonomous regions of Castilla y Leon and Galicia.

More than just a line on a map, this demarcation also heralds the entry into a culturally distinct region. At times, Galicia looks and feels more like Ireland than Spain. Thick stews are popular, and as one nears the coast dishes of fish, shrimp, and octopus become favorites of the inhabitants, and certain Peregrinos (me!).

Farms are small and their unique stone granaries (“horreos:”) become commonplace.

A regional language, galego, is still spoken. As in other Celtic countries there is a concerted effort to preserve the ancient languages and other long-held traditions. With Santiago de Compostela as its capital, we know that we are entering the final stretch.

 At an elevation of 4,300 feet, O Cebreiro is a tiny hamlet located at one of the highest points of the Camino. Its fame derives from a miracle alleged to have occurred in an ancient church situated in the village.

Dating to the 9th Century, parts of Iglesia de Santa Maria Real (Church of St. Mary) comprise one of the oldest buildings, and the oldest church associated with the Camino de Santiago. The original church was largely destroyed in the early 19th Century but rebuilt on the original foundation between 1965 and 1971. Within the church is the original baptismal font.

Many believe that on a wintery day in the 14th Century a tired priest was saying Mass in this small church. A peasant from a nearby village, having hazarded the arduous climb to the church in a raging snowstorm, entered the church at the moment of the Eucharistic Consecration of the bread and wine.  The priest took exception to the peasant’s late arrival, berated him accordingly, and further criticized him for having risked his life to merely watch a perfunctory religious ceremony.  At that moment the bread and wine were said to have miraculously transformed to the actual flesh and blood of Christ.

The Eucharistic miracle of O Cebreiro was confirmed in 1487 by Pope Innocent VIII. The chalice, particles of the transformed bread and wine were placed in a reliquary that was donated by Queen Isabella. In addition to the baptismal font, the paten and chalice associated with the miracle have been preserved. The church also contains a statue of the Virgin Mary that dates to the 12th Century.

The importance of the miracle is such that the flag and coat of arms of Galicia include the image of the chalice and Eucharist.

At O Cebreiro we found ourselves literally above the clouds.

The village is not only a  literal and figurative “high-point” on the Camino, but it attracts flocks of non-Peregrino tourists. Virtually all accommodations here were booked.

We took time to wander through the hamlet, take some refreshments, and of course some pictures.

This “Palloza”, a design which dates to pre-Roman times, is located at O Cebreiro.  The image is courtesy of the internet.

As luck would have it, when we arrived at O Cebreiro a taxi pulled up in front of us. Exiting the cab was Patricia, a pilgrim from New York. Weeks earlier at Orisson Refuge she had made a tactless public comment when Christine arranged transport to avoid the very difficult climb over the Pyrenees Mountain pass to Roncesvalles. “Real pilgrims carry their packs and walk every step of the way.” Apparently her definition of a “real pilgrim” had changed over the course of the last 700km.

Our destination for the day was 9km ahead, Alto do Poio. Although it is situated at nearly the same elevation as O Cebreiro, the path descends in the interim and then makes a wicked climb over the last 1km to the highest point on the Camino in Galicia (4,380 feet). At the top are two lodging options situated on opposite sides of a road, and little else.

After mentally flipping a coin we registered for the night at Hostal Santa Maria do Poio. It appeared a more comfortable option than the albergue across the way, plus activity outside of the albergue hinted at a full complement of customers.

Checked into our room we moved with beers in hand to outside tables bathed with warming sunlight from the still clear sky. A few minutes later we were joined by our Camino friend, Kris Ashton of Denver Colorado.

Back at O Cebreiro Kris heard that we had recently passed through. She put her walking shoes into “high gear”, hoping to catch us. By the time that she reached Alto do Poio she believed that she had lost us. Fortunately, she saw us just as we sat down across the way to enjoy our restful libations (aka beer!). She joined us for a rest and an adult beverage before continuing on another 3km to her intended destination for the night, Fonfria. We did not know it at the time, but this effectively began the final stretch of the journey into Santiago, the 3 of us sharing company, stories, and cementing a friendship that has endured now for over 8 years. One of the most valuable and enduring gifts of our 2013 Camino.

Peace Everyone. And of course, Buen Camino! Pete

 

In the very early hours of October 13, 2021, I received a text message from an Australian,  Dan Mullins. I was soon to learn that Dan is a well-regarded singer-songwriter and for nearly 20 years a top radio show producer based in Sydney.

Dan has been following my twice weekly “blogs” and asked if I would be willing to sit as a guest on his weekly show, “My Camino, the Podcast”. I agreed.

Friday evening, October 15th, 5:30 p.m. my time, and 9:30 a.m. Saturday his time, we engaged in a wide ranging one hour “chat”. I don’t think that one hour of my life has ever passed so quickly. The interview aired on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.

Regarding the interview, Dan wrote:

“Peter Schloss is compiling his Camino journals for his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They’ll come to know and love the spirit of adventure with which Peter and his wife Christine have lived their lives… You’re going to love this episode.”

Here is the link to our conversation on Dan’s podcast which opens first with Dan’s tribute to Phil Volker who passed away earlier in the week:

“My Camino, the Podcast”, interviewing Peter Schloss
Peace Everyone, and of course, Buen Camino! Pete

 

 

Over the course of the weeks that we walked the Camino in 2013 I kept notes which I  “wrote” one finger stroke at a time on my tiny iPod-touch. Some notes were lengthy essays, some just short memos, and others merely providing links to photographs taken that day. I shared these missives with friends and relatives by email and on Facebook. Fortunately, I archived these notes. They have proven to be a trove of long forgotten information, valuable in the creation of these detailed posts. The preceding post and what follows below are two of these essays. They are presented verbatim in order to provide further insight into my thoughts and our experiences.  

“What is a Peregrino.” Written May 14, 2013 at Alto do Poio, Spain.

On the Camino, we are confronted each day with carved and painted images of St. James, the original Peregrino.

Even though these are often stylized portrayals, if he walked the Camino today there would be no mistake that he is a Pilgrim. Here is a quick summary of his “qualifications”:

  1. Practical Shoes. St. James is usually shown wearing sturdy leather boots, shoes, or sandals. Modern Pilgrims are no different, if you discount the “Crocs” that are worn by some in the evening.
  2. A wide brimmed hat. This important piece of equipment protects the head and eyes from the sun’s assault, the discomfort of rain, and also provides warmth in the morning and evening. Modern Peregrinos usually wear hats. Check!
  3. A weatherproof cape. This simple ankle length woolen cloak sheds rain, is vented, and doubles as a sleeping blanket. Today, we separate these functions among a poncho, windbreaker, and sleeping bag. For those focused on an ultralight pack, St. James may have had the better idea.
  4. A hiking stick. Modern Pilgrims seem equally divided in preference between going “stickless”, using St. James’ classic single walking stick, and employing twin trekking poles. St. James didn’t have the chance to evaluate the latter option.
  5. A water vessel. If the images are to be believed, St. James carried a hollow gourd to transport his drinking water, a simple and eco-friendly solution. He might have smiled upon the modern Camelbak, but I think he would have been appalled by the throwaway plastic bottles that dot the Camino.

These are the essentials for a Peregrino, then and now. The modern Pilgrim may stress over packs, socks, GPS, cell phones and Wi-Fi, but St. James might have seen such items as more a distraction rather than an aid to his journey. I admit that on these matters I often fell to the temptations of the “just in case” dark side.

A few days ago I was presented with another view of who is a Peregrino. During evening Vespers at a monastery, a Monk delivered a brief, but powerful message. He cautioned us to be mindful that Christ walked the Camino. He added that Jesus was disguised as a Pilgrim, and that Our Lord was careful not to announce His identity. I accepted the Monk’s admonition as a homilist’s metaphor. However, the message has been working on me as I find myself thinking as I pass Pilgrims on the Camino, “What if she…, or he…?”

I find that his words have caused me to be a bit more sincere and thoughtful when I say “Buen Camino”, perhaps a little kinder, maybe a little less inclined to judge, exercising more patience.

That Monk and the “disguised Peregrino” that he dedicates his life to serve are indeed intriguing.

Peace Everyone. Have Fun, Do Good, and Be Safe! And of course, Buen Camino! Pete

 

Over the course of the weeks that we walked the Camino in 2013 I kept notes which I  “wrote” one finger stroke at a time on my tiny iPod-touch. Some notes were lengthy essays, some just short memos, and others merely providing links to photographs taken that day. I shared these missives with friends and relatives by email and on Facebook. Fortunately, I archived these notes. They have proven to be a trove of long forgotten information, valuable in the creation of these detailed posts. What follows below and in the next post are two of these essays. They are presented verbatim in order to provide further insight into my thoughts and our experiences.  

“What is a Camino.” Written May 13, 2013 at Vega de Calcarce, Spain.

We have encountered some “interesting” notions of what constitutes a Camino, both from people on and off “The Way”. Officially, to earn a Compostela in Santiago, one must have walked or ridden by horseback the last 100km (60 miles) or bicycled the last 200km as a continuous journey. Those are the “rules”, plain and simple.

Nevertheless, we have encountered some “unofficial” takes on what constitutes a Camino. There was a young lady who zipped past me, hellbent on covering over 800km to Santiago in 20 days. In her mind there were grades of Pilgrims and Caminos, based upon speed. She even had a book, “Hiking the Camino in 20 Days”, and she was aiming to be among the fastest.

There was a couple that we encountered who had determined that “Real Pilgrims” carried their packs each and every step of The Way. (Note: There are services that transport your pack from place to place for from 5 to 7 euros a day). Their definition changed when one of them found it physically necessary to use the service.

Another pilgrim declared the journey must be 800km, and “unbroken”, even though it is common for Pilgrims to complete a Camino in increments over a series of years. That Peregrino also changed his view of a Camino when injury forced a hiatus.

Finally, there are those who decry the use of any alternative transportation in the course of the journey. I wondered if this disqualifies the use of elevators.

For most who are on the Camino, or who have completed a Camino, the understanding is that each Peregrino’s Camino is their own. Those who spend time and energy evaluating the journeys of other Pilgrims, miss the opportunity to appreciate their own journey.

The “original Peregrino” was St. James the Apostle, for whom Santiago is named, and in whose footsteps we follow. He traveled The Way to spread The Word. Is it possible that he spent an extra day here and there to deliver his message? Or that he accepted the occasional offer of a ride in an oxcart from a kind farmer or merchant?

We have had the good fortune to become friends with a fellow Pilgrim who is so comfortable with her Camino that it means more to her to enjoy the gifts of friendship along The Way than to focus upon reaching Santiago de Compostela and “earning a piece of paper”. Those are her words.

In life, as on the Camino, wouldn’t it be a blessing if each person focused on achieving their own best Journey, rather than policing and critiquing the Journeys of others?

Peace Everyone. Have Fun, Do Good, and Be Safe! And of course, Buen Camino! Pete

 

 

Note: Portions of this post have been variously penned by me in 2013, 2016, and 2018. The continuation of Part 32, “Destinations are Fixed, it is The Spirit that Moves” appears within this chapter, ***.

I have heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Perhaps it is the same for one who sees that the horizon of life is limited by the approaching shores of mortality. My thoughts here expressed are not intended to change anyone’s mind about their own theology, or lack of theology. Indeed, it is precisely my intention not to convert anyone to any system of beliefs, but rather to encourage a pause for mindful contemplation of the beliefs already held. I have found that I better know my own mind when I listen to the thoughts of others. An obvious example of this is the visceral revulsion that I feel when I hear certain doctrines of coercive conversion that are preached in some quarters by those who claim to exclusively know the mind of God. As an example, “god” as expressed by the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas, is a bigot. It is not difficult for me to understand my own mind when I listen to that “theology of  hatred”.

A closer question arises when the thoughts of others are not a clear affront to my own. When the beliefs of others provide me with a moment to pause and consider my own beliefs it is a gift, an “ah ha” moment. Perhaps there is a small shift in my world view, or maybe I grow more comfortable in my beliefs, having had an opportunity to mindfully inventory them.

I was raised Catholic, however from the earliest days of my Catholic grade school education I found it difficult to understand how certain doctrines could be those created by a loving God. I accept that Catholicism is a man-created structure that seeks to understand God. It is a “language” that may assist in communicating our efforts to know God. However, as a child I could not understand how God would punish whole segments of humanity with damnation for not being Christian when the opportunities for being Christian did not universally exist. I wondered if God really was offended when I accidentally ate a “Chicken in a Biskit” cracker one Friday afternoon during Lent. What really did happen to all of those folks who had been hanging out in the waiting room called “Limbo” when it ceased to be in the lexicon of Catholicism. I choose Catholicism for my examples because it may be less offensive to others if I question the tenets of my own faith tradition.

Dogma is not a trivial thing. There was a time in the history of the Catholic Church that the failure to follow the dictates of dogma might have earned a person a turn on the rack, or worse. The same can be said for many religions. The same can even be said today for such transgressions as the drawing of a cartoon caricature of a long dead Arab man.

Sacramental Confession is an offering of the Catholic Church. My Lebanese grandmother went to confession weekly as many Catholics of her time did and some still do. I often wondered what that wonderful lady could have done each week that compelled her to stuff her prodigious frame into a tiny closet-like space and then struggle to bend her arthritic knees to begin her act of contrition. In Catholic grade school we had weekly confession. Once when I told my teacher that I didn’t have anything to confess, she reminded me that over the past week I had probably fought with my brother and disobeyed my parents. For many years of my childhood, fighting with my brother and disobeying my parents became standard sins of choice to “confess”, whether warranted or not.

I stopped the practice of Confession when I reached high school. However, there were two occasions that I chose to return to the confessional. They were both memorable and stand as an affirmation that there really is a voice of God. It is just up to me to listen.

In 1972 I travelled overseas for the summer as a part of a group of 22 students studying ancient history. I visited St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome and concluded that as a Catholic to not go to Confession and receive Communion there would be like going to Hawaii and not visiting the beach. The confessional booths each indicated the languages spoken by the priest within, primary language was in bold letters and any secondary languages were declared in smaller case. I found a priest who spoke English, but only as a language secondary to his native German. He sounded very old and I feared that I may have made a mistake, but I continued with the prescribed litany. When I came to the point of saying that it had been years since my last confession he stopped me and addressed me in a thickly accented conversational tone. He asked me why I chose to go to confession. We spoke for nearly an hour through the wood and cloth screen that separated us. I remained kneeling on the hard wooden kneeler throughout, but without discomfort. The distillation of his message to me was that he believed that I was a good person, a person of conscience. He said that I should be more guided by what I honestly believed in my heart to be right, and less by Church “rules”. I emerged from the booth with a “penance” to always do my best and listen to my conscience. I opened the door of the confessional to a line of little old ladies. Their expressions of near horror hinted at their belief that I must be some kind of an ax murderer, having been in the confessional booth for so long.

***The second occasion occurred in 2013 while Christine and I were walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain. We had arrived in Rabanal, which is the site of a German Benedictine Monastery. The monks presented an evening service for the Peregrinos (Pilgrims) in a cave-like chapel that was over 700 years old. The chants and prayers offered by candlelight were moving. At the conclusion, one of the four monks addressed the assembly of perhaps 25 pilgrims and indicated that one monk would remain should anyone wish to visit. Christine and I exited the church but not before I turned and saw the monk seated on an ancient wooden bench in prayerful repose. It was apparent that he would be alone in his contemplations.

Christine knows me well, so when I hesitated in the courtyard outside of the church she said to me, “You want to go back, don’t you.” It was more a statement than a question. I returned to the church and entered the dark and now silent interior. As I approached the monk he made no acknowledgement of my presence other than to slightly move his hand and indicate that I should sit at his side. I became uncomfortable with the silence and returning to the roots of my childhood I began, “Bless me Father…”. He again made a gesture that halted my words. There was the slightest hint of a smile and then this aged monk, a German monk, asked me what I did in life. I replied that I was an attorney and that I mediated divorces, seeking to assist people with resolution of the questions that they faced concerning their relationship, property, and the care of their children. He sat silent for a time and then slowly nodded, looked deeply into my eyes and said, “That is very important work… very difficult work.” He then asked me why I had started with words of confession. I felt the presence of that other old German priest from 41 years earlier. It was as if that priest, certainly long dead, had returned from the grave to ask how I was doing with the penance that he had issued to me.

We spoke for another 30 minutes during which time the monk encouraged me to listen to my heart and to be thus guided. He urged that “rules and rituals” of religion are secondary to following an honest conscience. At our parting he asked if I wished absolution which is the customary conclusion of Confession. I accepted but knew that with absolution there is typically a penance. He placed his hands upon my head and said that for my penance I must conduct myself in life as if God is always at my side, watching… that I must treat each pilgrim that I encounter on the Camino as if they were Christ in disguise.

I believe that miracles exist now and always have, it is just that our capacity to see them has dimmed. Is it a mere coincidence that on the two occasions that I returned to a faith practice from my childhood I received the same message, the same affirmation, and the same “penance” from priests from the same country? Calling this a coincidence would not change the reality of what occurred. It would however be closing my ears to the voice of the Spirit.

As rich in meaning to me as these two events were, it does not escape my notice that these men did not focus upon the rules and rituals that some might cling to as the path to God. I believe that when we place the rules above the search for a relationship with the Creator that we create a “god” in our image and likeness. We were imbued by creation with free will and a questing spirit. If that is the gift from our Creator then religion runs contrary to that gift when people seek to coercively convert others to their particular definition of “god”. The voice of the Creator as heard upon the wind by the First People is the same voice that was heard by Moses in a burning bush, and by those who gathered in an upper room breaking bread and drinking wine on a Passover night two thousand years ago. It is the voice of Christ, the Buddha, Vishnu, Mohamad, the words of Mormon, but only when the words advance the search for our humanity and are not misapplied for the subjugation of others. The challenge is to be mindfully aware of the difference between what we do in pursuit of a relationship with the Creator and what we do in the pursuit of mere earthborn advantage.

One of my grandchildren once asked me if magic is real. I replied that “magic” is whatever we know to be real but do not understand. I gave examples of magnetism and gravity as things that are real but not really understood. The quest for that knowledge continues and someday may be grasped in a way that renders them no longer “magical”.

If I change the focus of my grandchild’s question from magic to Spiritual and answer the question for myself, then Spirituality is what I know from experience yet do not understand. The quest continues because faith is a journey, not a destination.

Peace Everyone. Pete Schloss
PS. As I noted in the previous post, “It is often said that the Camino presents itself to the Pilgrim as three distinct experiences: first as a physical challenge, next as an emotional encounter, and finally as a spiritual awakening.” My Camino had become Spiritual.