St. Jean Pied-de-Port
We begin in St. Jean Pied-de-Port. This humble Basque town, currently the traditional starting point for the Camino Frances, is tense with the spirit of pilgrims on their first journey and those whose footsteps have long been silenced by the sharp, layered inclines of the Pyrenees just beyond its gates. The name translates to "St. John, Foot of the Pass." Many remember the journey that awaits tomorrow as one of the most arduous stages of the Camino Frances - the first cross of the pilgrimage. It is a fitting name, calling to mind the humble and courageous figure of John, the Beloved Disciple, accompanying Jesus Christ to the cross up until the moment of his death.
A worn backpack and boots mark the entrance to our albergue, which looks out across a cobbled street that climbs in one direction towards the Pilgrim Office and descends in the opposite towards the Church of Our Lady and the Port d'Espagne beyond. Twenty of us are settled in to this traditional Basque home, aptly named "Beilari," a Basque word for pilgrim which translates to "one who awakes."
An unexpected loneliness and apprehension that had settled within me dissipates as we gather around two long tables in the back patio, playing games and sharing stories and hopes for the pilgrimage ahead as our hosts serve us our first feast of the Camino. Laughter and chatter echoes through the streets and back alleys as other groups in unseen albergues open up to one another in their excitement and fears for the road ahead - the song of the pilgrims.
After the meal, we settle into bunks in the upper levels of the house, and it is clear that although many of us who have met tonight will share most of the journey together, we will all experience it differently. On the far side of the room, a group of middle-aged and boyish Irishmen snicker while planning the day to come, as one proclaims, "If you're not done by two o'clock, you will just die - like a well done steak!" There's a heat wave coming this summer.
As stillness settles in the room, the apprehension and uncertainty returns. It is difficult to imagine what lies ahead. In the months leading up to today, I had laid a detailed plan - for stages and albergues and rest days - but abandoned it and threw out my notes and lists just days before leaving home. As of yet, it's been impossible to think of a truthful answer to the "big question" - "Why are you walking the Camino?"
As our fellow pilgrims begin to stir in the early morning, it presses upon me: "Be at peace in the not knowing." A flash of a memory brings me back to a moment three years prior, as I waited to bathe in the frigid waters of the spring at Lourdes. An elderly woman took my hands, looked me in the eyes, and uttered one French word that has marked every significant moment since: "courage."
A Pilgrim's Prayer:
"O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans,
protecting him in his wanderings,
who guided the Hebrew people across the desert,
we ask that you watch over all your servants,
as they walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.
Be for them, their companion on the walk,
Their guide at the crossroads,
Their breath in their weariness,
Their protection in danger,
Their albergue on the Camino,
Their shade in the heat,
Their light in the darkness,
Their consolation in their discouragements,
And their strength in their intentions.
So that with your guidance they may arrive safe and sound
at the end of the Road
and enriched with grace and virtue
they return safely to their homes filled with joy.
In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.
Apostle Santiago, pray for us.
Santa Maria, pray for us."