25 March | The Fourth Wednesday of Lent: The Feast of the Annunciation
The hike up to see the statue of the Virgen d’Orisson (not pictured) took my breath away, literally! At an altitude of 1,095 meters (almost 4,000 feet) both the climb (I live at sea level) and the sight of her had my lungs working overtime. Reflecting upon this site prompted me to ponder the intersection of art and faith: the sculpting and painting processes, the care in correct positioning, the consideration for the multitudes of devoted Marian pilgrims. Surely, this artistic effort was an engineering of the heart.
This sacred moment with the site devoted to Mary and Jesus represented just one of a many that gave me the opportunity to reflect. In reality, the Camino offers 800 kilometers (500 miles) of thinking. For much of the day, every single day, for 40 days, thoughts of my previous failures and future hopes began to change my future path. And each time I saw a marker signifying someone’s death while hiking the Way made this journey and my future plans all the more real; I gained new wisdom with each memorial: life is precious because living brings uncertainty, fear, challenge, and even danger. Life is arduous.
Can I really do this?
I must have asked myself this question about a thousand times a day. For me, the answer was not if, but how I must attempt the Camino, my Camino, my life. And for me, the answer to the how is the Who. During the ascents and descents, the blisters and bruises, the questioning and confirming of my sanity, Jesus was there.
How can this be? (Luke 1:34).
In Luke’s gospel Mary asks the angel Gabriel how she (a virgin) could conceive a child. He replies, “the power of the most High shall overshadow you. And therefore also the Holy which shall be born of you shall be called the Son of God…because no word shall be impossible with God” (1:35; 37). And with Gabriel’s words, she knew both the how and the Who. As we celebrate the feast of the Annunciation, how can we think about the concept of Jesus with us, in us, today and throughout Lent?
Braelyn: Today’s Feast Day called me to pull together as many of the portrayals of Mary as I could find from my journey. Each depiction shows a different side of her. Out of all of them, however, I think the last one is the one that strikes me the most. When I came across the statue hidden behind stacks of extra chairs, my initial reaction was one of sadness, even anger. How could they stow her away so discourteously? But then I saw the authenticity of the situation.
In saying yes to God, Mary was allowing herself to be set apart from the rest of humanity (which she already was). She was placed behind a barrier only God could breach. The Holy Family was, in the earthly sense, hidden away. Mary would bear the Christ, who humbled himself to both the manger and the cross. Saying yes, though full of grace and glory in the heavenly realm, was no glory in the earthly sense. It even meant risking her life (the penalty for adultery) and her society (isolation), yet she did. She allowed herself to trust God anyway.
During our quarantine, I have struggled with my faith. I have grappled with questions I’ve never met before. Deep ones. Despite these difficulties, I take comfort in the reminder that Jesus faced them and is present now in them. And Mary is praying.
18 March | The Third Wednesday of Lent
One phrase unites all those who choose to hike the Camino de Santiago: I remember. Whether trekking down slick stone that seems more like run-off than trail or hearing the joyful sound of a hiker’s or cyclist’s salutation, “Buen Camino!” the Way of Saint James is wrapped in the gift of memory. These holy, storied places invite our senses to inhale O Cebreiro’s mountain air, gaze upon Michelangelo’s Crucifixion at the Cathedral of Santa Maria de la Redonda in Logroño, or stand on the edge of Finisterre’s ocean-side cliffs. The light, the air, the time, the hike—all of it opens our minds, our intellects, and our intentions.
When we weave ourselves into the rhythm of the Camino—we can experience an authentic creativity: in verse, in song, in image, in beauty. Through these forms we can tell our stories about God working in our lives. Just like Moses instructs the people of Israel, we, too, must never forget: “Take care and be earnestly on your guard not to forget the things which your own eyes have seen, nor let them slip from your memory as long as you live, but teach them to your children and to your children’s children” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
What kinds of memories can we create with family and friends this Lenten season we can pass on to the next generation?
(The artwork above is from my hotel room in Léon.)
As we spend our very unexpected Lent in quarantine, the Lord reminded me of my three June days in Léon, fittingly falling during the feast of Corpus Christi. I had to bus there due to a respiratory infection, and I ended up staying in a small (but quite nice) hotel room alone for those days. I ventured out only a few times, only for Mass, feast procession, and to tour the Cathedral museum. Looking back now, I should maybe not have gone out at all, but I would have hated to miss the beautiful city. Those three days were some of the most fervent times of prayer I’ve ever experienced. I felt myself using the suffering to lift up others in my life. I listened to talks by Alice Von Hildebrand and other Catholic speakers to enrich my mind. I wrote postcards and prayed my rosary, and took hot baths in a tiny tub, praying that the fever would subside. I thanked God for the American women who helped me book a hotel room in a city where there seemed to be no single beds.
Now, during this unprecedented time of exile, I find myself also remembering the parts of myself I encountered during the Camino, and I don’t particularly like it. I find myself grappling with self-righteousness, anger, resentment, fear, and the wish to run away from those dear to me. I see my heart hardening in an ironic twist, as people I’ve prayed for (because their faith or mindset differs from mine) exhibiting much more genuine faith than I can muster. I’m faced with my utter ability to control things, and I quarantine myself in an altogether different way. All I can do during this season is to ask for those who have faith to pray for me. Those who I journeyed the Camino with me know I need it.
11 March | The Second Wednesday of Lent
Heavily leaning on my trekking poles and my husband’s arm, I barely made it to mid-day chapel Mass at the León Cathedral in Spain. Once seated, my debilitating shin splints made it impossible for me to lower my legs on the wooden kneelers. After my first 25 days hiking the Camino, I wholly felt the physical suffering the Way offers her pilgrims. And I was not alone. I met many other peregrinas who endured a myriad of maladies: torn tendons and tight muscles; throbbing neck and knee pain, bone fractures and fissures; blisters and sun/windburns—all of which now seem to be rites of passage.
Providentially, before hiking the Way we planned to stay an extra day in León; we thought it would be good to take a rest day. By the time we arrived, not only did I need rest, but I also needed a miraculous healing. And God delivered! Just at the right time, God positioned a Finnish nurse, a Spanish pharmacist, and my American massage therapist to instruct me how to alleviate my pain! Within 48 hours (just in time to head back on the road), I was healed! And perhaps even more providentially, a couple of days later we met two high school boys—one of whom could barely walk due to his shin splints. It was my turn to help—to teach and to serve.
Today’s Gospel reading depicts Jesus teaching His disciples about serving and His true nature as the ultimate Servant: “Whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your servant. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20: 27-28). Lent is a good time to reflect on how we serve others through our acts of almsgiving. What are some ways we can continue serving others, even after Lent is over?
Braelyn: I made this sketch during one of the most physically excruciating portions of my Camino. The orange was a gift from a fellow pilgrim when I was in too much pain to walk. I never realized I would need to take a taxi or a bus to make my deadline, but my knees told me otherwise. I have been blessed with good health and few injuries, and tend to be incredibly unwilling to ask for help. The experience addressed both areas of weakness. A fellow pilgrim, a doctor, assessed my swollen tendons; this was a lesson in trust. Who's to say if people are telling the truth about who they are or if they have good intentions? Two hospitalideros allowed me to stay two nights in their Albergue (in exchange, I helped out by checking in English-speaking guests). Another pilgrim brought me ice from a nearby restaurant when the hostel didn't have a freezer. Many people back home prayed for me. It is humbling to see people from all over the world experiencing the same aches, pains, and delivering the same compassion. This small bit of suffering re-emphasized the physical suffering of our Lord, who willingly took on flesh intended for pain.
The Camino’s extraordinary landscape gifts pilgrims with unforgettable sights and sounds. The French Pyrenees offered me soaring peaks, stunning slopes, and perfect plateaus while the less mountainous regions enveloped me in bright white and red poppies, sunflower fields, and seamlessly symmetrical vineyards. The occasional bark from a village dog or moo from a grazing cow briefly brought me back to reality. Crossing the physical Camino taught me to better appreciate God’s perfect creation—the slow sway of His grassy fields, the fresh falling of His morning mist, even the speedy darting of His tiny field mice crisscrossing my path ahead. The special silence of walking through forests full of ferny flora took me into God’s thin space—that sacred sphere where the Lord meets us in tangible ways.
And in this thin sacred place, God revealed to me two realities: His perfection and my imperfection. The Camino prompted me to reconcile the choices I had been making in my life that didn’t always respond to God’s perfect will. With a repentant heart, I reflected upon the times I intentionally walked (or even ran) away from Him, much like Jonah in today’s readings. And yet, God “redirected” the prophet for a grander, more salvific purpose in Nineveh: “At the judgment the men of Nineveh will arise with this generation and condemn it, because at the preaching of Jonah they repented, and there is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32).
Yes, there is something greater than Jonah, or you, or me, or the Camino here—it is God. Lent is a perfect time to not just think about God, but to be intentional about repenting and growing closer to Him. Today is a good time to reflect upon (and maybe adjust) our Lenten plans as we look forward to the weeks to come.
(Note from Braelyn) What you don't see in these photos: people dressing blisters, helping others with their sore joints and muscles, speaking hard truths to one another in love, and listening to one another's harrowing struggles. You don't smell the sweat or taste the tears. You can't feel the fear of failure or the feeling of awe and relief each time you make it to the day's destination. You can't hear the solitude of an open field while walking alone or the multi-sensory bustle of multi-lingual crowds while walking in a group. You can't feel the loneliness. You can't feel the annoyance.
What I hope you do see are truth, goodness, and beauty, and the mysterious ways in which those things appear in the strangest of places. Because you also don't hear the laughter or taste the third cup of café con leche shared with a friend that day. You can't hear the dozens of exchanges of "Buen Camino" or the singing of hymns.
About this Blog
The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrimage through Spain, ending at the spot said to contain the relics of Saint James the Apostle. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims travel this route each year.