Eight Days on The Camino

By Sierra Neiman Westbrook

“I’m lost.” Susan Anquist remembers admitting this on the fifth day of her journey on the Camino de Santiago. Anquist, a recent Portland Seminary student who graduated with an MA in Spiritual Formation, says pilgrimage has long been an apt metaphor for how she views her journey with God. When Anquist first heard about the Camino, an actual ancient pilgrimage route to the shrine of the apostle James in northwestern Spain, she felt stirred to trek this trail herself. For Anquist, setting out on her own, at 58 years of age, with hopes of traversing 800 kilometers despite her asthma was only the beginning of the challenges. Seeing the Camino as having profound parallels for all of life, Anquist undertook this trek as an exercise in letting herself be spontaneous, open-minded, attentive, and if need be, lost.

“In the ancient days, people started a pilgrimage right where they were,” Anquist shares. Anquist quickly clarifies that since she lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia, opening her front door and starting her journey toward northwestern Spain wasn’t possible, yet she believes the real work of her pilgrimage began the moment she first felt drawn to the Camino, years before she actually set foot in Spain.

Although her inner work in preparing for the Camino was deep, her practical preparation was minimal. “I had a longing for [my Camino pilgrimage] to be deeply serendipitous,” Anquist confesses. While she wonders if she should have done more to prepare herself physically, she sensed she could lose the full opportunity of listening to God if she focused on planning. “I wanted to hear what the birds were saying,” she shares. “I probably sound crazy! But I think birds are more of a metaphor….I wanted to touch, smell, and feel. I wanted to be really open, and not make [the pilgrimage] into something.”

Living in the moment meant she set out on the Camino early one morning hoping to find breakfast within the next hour, without having researched how remote that stretch of trail through the Pyrenees was. After four hours of passing not a single village or even another pilgrim, Anquist prayed she’d find food. Then, within minutes a man showed up with three bags of fruit. “You need food!” he said, in perfect English. Anquist shakes her head, feeling this was no coincidence.

Another day, Anquist felt compelled to enter a beautiful but abandoned ancient church along her route. Inside, she wept with an overwhelming sense of God’s presence. “If that was the only experience I had on the Camino, it would have been worth it.”  

On day five, when Anquist crossed paths with a pilgrim from Australia and admitted she was lost, Anquist asked this fellow traveler, “Would you like to be lost with me?” While Anquist felt grateful to gain a traveling companion, walking with someone changed the nature of her journey. “I had to lay down some things.”

In addition to laying down expectations, Anquist also lay down two stones she carried. Carrying stones is a customary Camino practice. While pilgrims approach differently the symbolism and significance of carrying and then laying down stones, Anquist decided she would take two stones from home—one representing what she knew she was carrying in her heart and mind (what she “wanted to talk with God about”), and the other for what she did not know she was carrying but that she expected God would reveal along the way.

By working toward a posture of open attentiveness, a practice Anquist describes as “rigorous,” she felt God uncovering in her a spirit of competition. Although Anquist’s use of guidebooks had been intentionally minimal, she read enough to determine her target was walking 24 kilometers per day. As she journeyed, however, she realized she’s simply “not a 24-kilometer person,” and that she had to give herself grace as she walked shorter distances. Another significant realization was that she was deeply tired, both from completing her seminary studies one week prior to the start of her trip, and from being unable to sleep well during nights spent in hostel rooms full of snoring pilgrims. After 8 days and 150 kilometers, she lay down her need to finish the pilgrimage, having discerned a call to listen to her body and soul.

“The Camino brought me face to face with the tensions we experience in our human experience—the gifts of holding both sorrow and joy … simultaneously, and listening for God in that space.”

– Susan Anquist, Portland Seminary alumnae, MASF

Although she did not complete the pilgrimage she thought she’d complete, Anquist followed God’s leadings in completing the pilgrimage she needed. “On the Camino I experienced the love and care of God in my brokenness and vulnerability,” she relates. And just as she started her Camino before setting foot on the actual trail, so she feels the Camino is not over for her yet. As Anquist completes her certification as a spiritual director, she finds her pilgrimage informs her work. “The Camino brought me face to face with the tensions we experience in our human experience—the gifts of holding both sorrow and joy (or whatever) simultaneously, and listening for God in that space,” she shares. This gives her a new sense of expectancy that God will “show up” in the lives of her directees, without her orchestration. If God’s presence can be unusually palpable in a forgotten church building, shouldn’t we expect God to be close to those who feel abandoned and empty? And if a person simply cannot sense God’s presence, Anquist is ready to be lost together.

Further reflections:Today, February 3, 2019…as I reflect on the impact then and now, I (Susan) offer these thoughts…

There is little space in our Western world, and even in the church to slow down our lives and actually listen…listen to our lives, our longings, our joys and sorrows…listen for the still small voice of God. This journey gave me the gift of listening. Walking is real time. I suppose in many respects I was prepared ahead. Due to a very sick spring with asthma my physical preparation was curtailed. Yet, I still heard the invitation from God to go…to rely on the serendipitous gift of the day. Although my reasons for going were not about having to do anything to attain God’s approval. I was struck by the hunger of people to hear from God…my own hunger. I suppose, it in many respects reflects my vocation of Spiritual Direction (which I prefer to call Spiritual accompaniment)…opening a space to sit with another and listen…listen for the nuances of God breathing life into our brokenness, our joys, our empty spaces…our sorrows.

It was an honour to learn to pray without words at time, to appreciate the gifts of life, the birds, the movement of grass in the wind, the tenacity of the soul. Although, part of my journey was about laying down expectations…it was more about picking up gifts. I loved journeying and meeting up with seekers. I loved the silence. It was not deafening, it actually awakened my heart to God. I do feel compelled to go back to Spain, start from where I left off and see what gifts of God, I might behold. (Maybe in 2020…Lord willing) but for now…I sit reflecting on the gifts of this day as I ponder my favourite poet Mary Oliver’s words, Instructions for living a life. 

Pay attention. 
Be astonished. 
Tell about it.

So today, there is much to behold.

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