Everything feels wrong in the hermitage. Apart from the donkeys. They remain the same, with their usual routine and their daily needs, but above all they contribute their sane equine stoicism. They are very calm, centered animals: just what you need in a hermitage. But apart from them, everything else has felt wrong for a while. In fact it feels so wrong that I just wanted to hold onto the horribleness of it all and not go away, not take the break that I had planned, not do anything except stand still, quite stuck, and admire the wrongness of it all, becoming more despondent.
I wrote the last episode of Postcards from the Camino (link) in July to coincide with the feast of Saint James, and then I took a planned writing break for the summer, with the idea of returning in the autumn with a short series of live posts from the Camino in France and northern Spain. Just for a couple of weeks. The Covid pandemic has reduced the hostel accommodation on the popular routes to about 30%, meaning that pilgrim occupancy is competitive – and near impossible – in a Compostela Holy Year.
Those plans fell through for these reasons and I told the donkey-sitters not to come. I would not be going anywhere. I would simply stay here and wallow in the negative space I’d got into. Maybe it was reflecting some of the unholy muddle that the Church seems to have got into: an endless downward spiral of accusations, tribal divisions, blame, and anger.
In my case it is partly an absence of effective spiritual direction. Maybe it is time to change spiritual director? But it is not just that: it would be wrong to simply put the blame on a busy priest who has no experience of directing a solitary, and is running two rural parishes that were merged into one; plus addressing the urgent pastoral needs of a mostly elderly flock during the Covid pandemic, which turned one village community into a cordoned-off plague zone. No, it’s my responsibility to get proper spiritual direction, not his to provide a rare pastoral need on the fringe of his parish, for which he has no training or experience. He sees the solitary life as a kind of spiritual self-indulgence, so there is an obvious mismatch, or maybe he is right. How do I know? That’s why we need discernment of spirits by a competent director.
My present state is also the result of a lack of self-discipline which leads to accidie and cynicism; but I have to admit – difficult though this is – that the negativity has also been driven by the perverse desire to prolong it and see just how awful I could allow it to become! Have I turned the culture wars inward and allowed them to play out within myself? For a long while I had genuinely worked hard – with varying success – to stop playing a part in the culture wars that divide the Church; but now I seem to have taken some of that hate and loathing and turned it into an internal battle. The well-worn language of spiritual warfare could come into play here, and I could talk about the need to call upon angelic help to repel Satan’s attacks, etc., but I personally do not find that language helpful. The spiritual realities are always the same and they never change from one age to another, but the language used to describe spiritual warfare in the 17th century is not the language that works for me today. We need to find appropriate words for our experience and own the language we use, particularly when it can help to de-dramatize a spiritual problem.
One of the great discoveries for me, since I turned away from the path of the ‘isolated conscience’ is Laudato Si’ – the encyclical written by Pope Francis in 2016 – and I find his language straightforward, non-technical, and well suited to a Catholic pilgrim like myself, untrained in theological concepts and who struggled so much with philosophy in my one year of seminary training that my only successes were on the pool table in the Pontifical Beda College bar.
The very title and opening words of the encyclical appeal to me because they are in the Umbrian dialect of Saint Francis, the saint whose inspiration has most guided my Christian journey. “Laudato Si’, mi’ Signore” – “Praise be to you, my Lord” – the opening words of the saint’s remarkable Canticle of the Creatures (or the Canticle of Brother Sun, in its alternative title that I prefer), come from the first known non-Latin poem in Italy. In the introduction to the encyclical, Pope Francis reminds us of the encyclical of his predecessor John XXIII, Pacem in Terris, addressed to all Catholics and facing up to the crisis of nuclear confrontation, before introducing our present global crises – as they were in 2015 before Covid added to our woes.
In his introduction to Laudato Si’, Pope Francis goes on to catalog the encyclicals of his predecessors, Pope Paul VI, Saint John Paul II, and Benedict XVI in their gradual awareness of the ecological crisis affecting all of mankind. Then he references Saint Francis directly, in a homely example of the saint’s ecological awareness: “Francis asked that part of the friary garden always be left untouched, so that wild flowers and herbs could grow there, and those who saw them could raise their minds to God, the Creator of such beauty.” (LS 12)
In my negative space in the hermitage, I finally took off my bookshelf a treasured old copy of the Fioretti (The Little Flowers of Saint Francis), a 1930s edition with pretty woodcut illustrations, and it helped to start reconnecting me, but I was not yet fully out of my negative space. The donkey-minders were upset: they had been looking forward to spending time with the donkeys. Couldn’t they come and stay anyway? No. There is no room here for you: there is only my living space here. Now that I’ve decided I’m not going away, there is no spare accommodation here. My plans all fell through and I’m happy to stay here in the hermitage. In fact I’m not happy but I’m enjoying being unhappy, thank you.
The donkey-minders continued to be really upset. Couldn’t I find some other way to go somewhere? No, I couldn’t. The donkey-minders continued their prayers and I was reminded of the many examples in Scripture where the faithful beseech the Lord and He eventually rewards their prayers. Was my heart so hard that I could not listen, when God who is almighty can listen, and reward the prayers of His people? Surely these faithful donkey-minders must be the best donkey-minders I could ever hope for, if they still wanted to care for the donkeys when I had told them there was no longer any need?
I began to see I must force myself to go away from the hermitage, leave the negativity behind, and go somewhere – anywhere – and hand over the hermitage to the donkey-minders. If only because they still wanted to come. I told them to come and I would work out a plan of some kind. I would find somewhere to go, and hand over to the donkey-minders. But go where? Yes, I could book into a hotel somewhere, unpack my suitcase and go to the poolside bar and order a beer. “Hi, I’m Gareth and I’ve just shrugged off all the negativity of my hermitage: I’ll have a bottle of your coldest beer and a packet of peanuts. Then I’m going to lounge by the pool and read Laudato Si’.”
No, that just didn’t work for me. I had to have a plan for going away that was fit for purpose. And the purpose was to get out of the negative spiritual space.
Then I realized there was a place to start. It was called La Gineta on the edge of La Mancha – the great wide open plains, high in the Spanish Meseta west of here, made famous by Cervantes in his pioneering novel Don Quixote – and that region is on the Camino de Levante which goes from south-east Spain where I live to Compostela. I had started out on that route from here six years ago (in 2015, when Laudato Si’ appeared), but I gave up after a week when I reached La Gineta because it was so awful.
There had been a constant headwind and the Camino de Levante crossed wide open featureless landscapes on gravel or asphalt tracks, always finishing in some poor nondescript town where the only company was a lazy dog sleeping in the dust outside a house where the whitewash was flaking off the walls and the rotted wooden shutters were closed against the sun and the stranger, and the only place for a pilgrim to stay was a ruined booking office in the empty railway station, where the ticket-seller had long been retired; where a bright digital vending machine stood on the deserted platform, and only once a day a train stopped in each direction. I gave up the Camino at that place and caught the train back home to Alicante.
I knew intuitively, that is where I need to return now: to a place I do not want to go. A negative space from where I can physically begin to walk out. A plan emerged. I would get the train to La Gineta and start walking the Camino again from there. I could now tell the donkey-sitters everything was fixed, from their point-of-view. They were delighted and the dates were put in place for them to come and stay, and they are in charge of the hermitage and the donkeys from the end of this week after I have shown them what to do.
As for me, this is a precarious experiment and I am not greatly enthusiastic about it, but I am at least moving again. The enthusiasm of the donkey-sitters can serve as a positive motivation for this project, but I have still to find my own belief in it and see if God is in this, somewhere. He always is, of course, but I just don’t see Him. There also has to be a spiritual focus: Pope Francis wrote Laudato Si’ six years ago, more or less at the time when I gave up the Camino at La Gineta and came home. I will take the encyclical with me and reflect on it as I walk. No other reading, no newspapers, no doom-scrolling the internet. Just Laudato Si’, where Pope Francis – after introducing a simple biblical creation theology suitable for laymen like me – talks about the way the originally harmonious relationship between human beings and nature became conflicted, and how Saint Francis addressed this conflict in his own poetic manner:
“It is significant that the harmony which Saint Francis of Assisi experienced with all creatures was seen as a healing of that rupture. Saint Bonaventure held that, through universal reconciliation with every creature, Saint Francis in some way returned to the state of original innocence.” (LS66)
Well, my plan is not so bold, but inspired by these words and doing something different from what I originally intended this autumn, I will start walking next Saturday and try to recover a little lost innocence to bring back to the hermitage. So I start at La Gineta, a place I do not want to go, and I will walk into the unknown in a flat featureless landscape. With only Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ as my reference point. I have no idea how this will work, but on the Camino you never do.
The previous series of Postcards from the Camino was a commentary on past experiences. In contrast, this will be live, and what is to come is unknown, but that has always been exactly the experience of the pilgrim. For the next two weeks, I will post articles from the Camino de Levante with some reflections on Laudato Si’, and we shall take it as it comes. There is no plan, except for these two weeks; and possibly to continue later next year, in the double Compostela Holy Year (2021-22) and arrive at the shrine of the Apostle later. But one step at a time.
Ultreïa: onward Catholic pilgrims!
 The ‘isolated conscience’ is a striking phrase describing the state of separation from Catholic teaching that some Catholics have allowed themselves to get into during this pontificate. Pope Francis, Let Us Dream, Part 2 (Simon & Schuster, 2020.)
Images: Header photo of windmills at Mota del Cuervo, La Mancha. Photos by the author.
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Gareth Thomas lives a solitary life in the mountains in Spain with his donkeys. A former aircraft engineer, Franciscan friar and geography teacher, he is a veteran of the pilgrim routes to Compostela and writes about the Camino de Santiago on his blog Equus Asinus (equusasinus.net).