Bob Kunzinger

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NONFICTION

Offer It Up

Walking the Camino de Santiago, the roughly five-hundred-mile pilgrim trail from France through Spain to pay homage at the tomb of the apostle St James the Greater, is a psychological and physical challenge for the strongest of minds and healthiest of bodies. On the one hand, the patience, pacing, and contemplation necessary to walk day in and day out for a month were more common traits in the 12th century, making them mental roadblocks for the average American used to a 21st century momentum. It takes several days at least to accept that every single step must be considered and carried out consciously instead of habitually.

More obvious, however, and perhaps most underestimated is the physical challenge. Most of us are not used to walking more than thirty minutes a day. On the Camino, pilgrims average more than fifteen miles a day. The problem is not the heart or muscles so much, since they tend grow stronger and adjust as the days pass, but the feet, which tend to grow more calloused and damaged. Every guidebook warns of blisters and cuts and bruises. Not one of those books, however, overestimated the damaging effects walking steep slopes can have on the toes. It was the physical effects of this pilgrimage, in fact, that made the route popular during the middle ages for priests to assign as penance. Certainly it wasn’t the blisters they hoped the prospective penitent to obtain, but the graces of God for the act. The time it takes, it was determined, should be enough to shed the evil ways of the past and to physically as well as spiritually strengthen their “being.” Some went, then, seeking absolution, some seeking meaning, and some seeking truth and to pay homage to the apostle. But all of them went not knowing what they were about to do to their poor feet.

The Way of St James is the third most visited pilgrim site in the Christian world behind Rome and the Holy Land. Tens of thousands of people every year walk “The Way” from various starting points throughout Europe to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, Spain, traditional resting place of the apostle and friend of Jesus.

My son and I started at the most common origin point, St Jean Pied du Port in France, and traveled what is called “the Frances Camino” named after its country of origin. We spent just over a month meeting other pilgrims and visiting churches often more than a thousand years old.

The first day out of St Jean, we crossed the Pyrenees– a distance of just over twenty miles. That night I took my shoes off to the sight of predictable blisters between toes and on my heel. I observed fellow pilgrims pricking the blisters open and draining them, washing the wounds with water, and letting them air-dry. I watched my son already doing the same and walking about as if nothing was wrong.

“How can you do that?” I asked, unable or unwilling to stand up.

“I don’t know,” my twenty-one-year-old responded. “The guidebook said to get used to it.”

So I got used to it. Night after night, week after week, I played with my feet. We never complained, but simply pointed out to each other we were aware of our own conditions. The worse they felt, the more acute our awareness. “Boy I have feet today,” I would say if the blisters acted up or the Advil hadn’t yet kicked in. A good day was when we were not conscious of the cuts until we took off our socks at night. To mention a body part while walking was to somehow gently complain. “I have calves today,” one of us might announce, particularly on rocky paths through old creek beds. At some point I took off my shoes and socks to see huge blood blisters beneath the nails on my middle toes caused by my feet jamming against the front of my shoes on miles of down-hill treks.

Finally, we arrived at the small village of Samos with its ancient Benedictine Monastery. It was a short hike from our last stop, so we ended the day early, around lunch, to be able to rest our feet and tour the grounds. At mass that night, which happened to be a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the ordination of Fr. Michael Isidoro, I could rest my feet and my mind and focus on the moment at hand as I enjoyed doing at medieval chapels along paths walked by St Francis of Assisi, Queen Isabel of Spain, and countless saints. I was able to accept the burdens of the bunions by reminding myself that others more fragile than I met the challenge, and by convincing myself that if it came without cost, if it really were so easy to cruise the Camino, it would hardly be worth doing at all. I gave thanks for getting us this far, and thanks to the good father saying mass, a man who surely has seen more bruises in his fifty years as a priest than I had in a few weeks in Spain that I should so wearily worry about it. So after communion I promised myself and God to not mention or complain about the problems with my feet anymore but instead welcome them as my cross to bear. This is what I must carry on the Camino, I decided, suddenly feeling empowered by my acceptance of the pain. I did not yet know if I would be able to be strong enough to handle this charge, particularly since we still had hundreds of miles to go. But at that moment I knew I had to do this, to “offer it up” as my mother would say when I was young and hurt myself. It was easier then, though. That dictate always came after the fall, not while I was staring at the oncoming pain. But “offer it up” I would, literally, deciding to say a prayer each time the urge to complain or even think about my aching feet arose.

This concept seemed so obvious. The very idea to offer up in sacrifice our pleasures through denial or our pain through acceptance is very Christ-like and is meant to bring us closer to Him. Of course this made sense.

But something happened: from the moment we left the village of Samos my feet didn’t hurt anymore. I had the normal aches from walking, and I had blisters and bleeding cuts under nails, but none of them bothered me like they had before Samos, before my decree. At least not for quite some time. We walked just as far, the trails as trying as ever, but save a few days where we pushed ourselves further than we should have, it seemed that my offering was accepted after all.

*

We made it all the way to Santiago and beyond to Finisterra, and then we took a train back to Pamplona where we celebrated our completion of the Camino with dinner at a café followed by mass at the Church of St Saturnin, where pilgrims have gone for a thousand years. And it was only then I realized I took the easy way out by offering up physical pain. I realized that I usually say prayers to ease the suffering of my feet, or my back, or a bad flu all the while soaking or resting or medicating myself anyway to move through instead of rising above. But how often, I wondered, do I pray for an ease to emotional suffering, to spiritual wounds. Shouldn’t the real sacrifice we offer up be the result of going without the frivolous things we want, by practicing humility, by resisting greed and gluttony? How often do we “offer up” a single prayer to ease the discomfort of a blistered soul?

So, we walked about St Saturnin, the church consecrated during the 12th century in the name of the Paton Saint of Navarra, where Bishop Saturnin, or Cernin, baptized the first Christians in Pamplona, including St Fermin, whose name and spirit are celebrated every July during the Festival of St Fermin, also known as the Running of the Bulls. It is, in fact, the bells of St Saturnin which ring every morning during the festival to begin the runs. We were done for the day, but we decided to tour the Cathedral which dates back to the origins of the pilgrimage itself. At some point we went our own way about the Cathedral and I came to a small chapel. I stood alone looking for a place to light my last candle of the trip, to give thanks at last for seeing me through, with the Samos mass and my feet clearly on my mind, when a I saw a small, dark alcove.

I peered in to see a wooden, life-like crucifix carved by Juan Bazcardo in the 17th century. Christ’s head, His hair and crown of thorns, hangs with more realism than any crucifix I have seen, and His torso and legs leave the impression of both His submission to the suffering and His triumph in being humanity’s salvation. For decades I have studied and taught art and sculpture but never found the one example of both the physical features and the spiritual context, yet here it was.

Then I saw His feet. The thick, iron nail which had been driven through His arches and onto the cross, the blood, the excruciating pain captured by this artist four hundred years ago would not let me turn away. I thought of Samos, of the Pyrenees, of the blood blisters and the nightly tending at albergues across Spain, and I understood that I had not, in fact, any pain to offer up after all. And I cried. It is all too easy, I thought. And there at the foot of the Cross, my pilgrimage began.


Bob Kunzinger’s work has appeared in many publications, including St. Anthony Messenger, the Washington Post, Kestrel, Southern Humanities Review, and more, and several pieces have been noted by Best American Essays. He is the author of nine collections, including the critically acclaimed Penance: Walking with the Infant, an “Inside the Vatican” recommendation. He lives and works in Virginia. 


Photo credit: “580 Camino de Santiago” by Greyframe, via Flickr.com.


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