November 23rd was the last Sunday in the Liturgical (B) cycle. This is a three-year cycle built around the readings from the three synoptic Gospels of (A) Matthew (B) Mark (C) Luke. The first Sunday of Advent marks the start of the new liturgical year. This cycle and the words from Mark will remain with me in a very special way. It was during this period that I listened and heard God’s voice. For this I’m thankful.
Mentally it was paralyzing, physically it was easy. God had a plan to get me to Spain and the moment I set foot on the ground in Loyola, He began to work on me. It wasn’t long before my childish excitement to walk the Camino Ignaciano was taken from me. I was overcome with loneliness, fear and darkness. God was with me, but I could not find him through the foggy and dense mountainous terrain in the Basque Country.
After two days of climbing over two mountain ranges I arrived in the small town of Araia. Broken, tired, wet, cold and alone, God began to place “helpers” in my life. “But the helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you. “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” John: 14 26-27
I found a “Casa Rural” after about 1 hour of walking the streets of Araia. An elderly woman welcomed me into her home and showed me to my bedroom. While doing my end of day pilgrim chores, I was in conversation with God asking for some kind of mercy. I was saying “uncle”, I give up, but God kept me pinned to the ground. I realized I was no longer in control, I realized I had never been in control. From my backpack I pulled out the little bread I had remaining and some olives. My dinner that evening was simple, but my interactions with God began to change. I became more passive and listened more. What I was hearing was Montserrat. ( Montserrat by plan was about a week away on foot). Montserrat (serrated) is the mountain where St. Ignatius laid down his sword in front of the Black Madonna and committed himself to God.
After a restless night sleep, I made my way to the community kitchen where I was greeted by two other guests.
“Buenos dias, Habla ingles”? I asked. They replied, “No”. With that, the owner of the Casa rural came in with toast, juice and coffee, and fortunately she spoke some English. I asked her,”Where is the closest train or bus, I need to get to Montserrat”. She laughed, and pointed at my feet, “about 60 km away is the closest bus station in Vitoria-Gasteiz.” Again, that feeling of hopelessness took over. I was being directed to Montserrat, but it looked like I was a week away. A conversation in Spanish coupled with laughter was taking place behind me between the two guests and the owner. The owner turned to me and smiled. ” These two are working in Vitoria today and will take you to the bus station. Helper number 1! I arrived in Vitoria and after seeking guidance on what was the closet town to Montserrat, I purchased a ticket to Igualada. My bus was leaving in 12 hours (9:00 pm) and the trip would take 5 hours. Things began to turn for me that morning. I felt some hope for the first time in a week, the skies were blue and the sun was hot. I found a bench in the city that became a significant cornerstone of the journey.
While on this bench the inner clutter, worry and darkness that was keeping me from hearing and seeing God clearly made way for a peaceful silence and centering prayer. It was also at this moment as I rummaged through my backpack looking for my passport that I came across a note (Helper number 2) my wife Mary tucked away prior to my departure. I believe her intentions were for me to find this note on the first night. Looking back it was God’s intention for me to find this note on my darkest day when I was praying to be found.
The words in the note were filled with love, encouragement and gratitude. It reminded me of what I left behind and the importance of family. The 9 o’clock hour struck and I was on the bus heading to a remote town in Catalonia. I looked out the window often knowing that I was passing the Camino route that I should have been walking. I would let myself feel guilty briefly knowing that God placed me on this bus for a reason. As dusk turned to night, the bus got dark and so did my heart once again. The bus finally pulled into the sleepy town of Igualada at about two in the morning. My eyes stung from fatigue, my belly was hungry and I no idea where I was going. I slung my pack over one shoulder and made my way over to the small 10 x 10 bus station. Inside two men chatted. I asked them, “taxi por favor?” In broken English one of the gentleman shouted out, “That’s me, LETS GO.” Helper number 3. “Hola, my name is John”, he said full of gusto. He grabbed my backpack and tossed in the trunk of his old dusty Renault. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I asked John to take me to the closest hostel, motel, or any place I could rest. He started the car, and in a very loud voice shouted, “LETS GO”. We became fast friends and he asked me why I was in this town. As best I could in spanish and english, I told him about the camino and my desire to get to Montserrat. I even think I told him God was expediting my arrival to the mountain top, in so many words. We soon pulled up to a seedy motel, that I was to call home for the night. Upon our hand shake, he told me he would be back in the morning to make sure I was ok. We agreed on 7:00 am. After another sub par sleep, I was up early and on the street waiting for John. 7:30am came and no John. Moments later, the dusty taxi came around the corner and John was tooting his horn in a celebratory fashion. I reminded him of my walk to Montserrat and that I needed to find the Church of Santa Maria near the town hall square. “LETS GO”, bellowed from John and we were off. We arrived near the town and from what I recall, the traffic pattern would not allow us to get any closer to Igualada center. John pulled over and put the car in park. I extended my hand and said “Gracias”. John laughed, and said “I go with you.” John guided us through the maze of tiny walkways until we finally found the church. It was here that I would get my pilgrim passport stamped and prepare for the 25 mile trek to the top of Montserrat. I hugged John and told him God placed him in my life when I needed him most. I headed into the church and began the pilgrim process. It was a bit slow and I finally got through about 15 minutes later. When I walked outside the church I was pleasantly suprised to see John waiting for me. With a sandwich in hand he told me I would need it. We said our good-byes once again. After walking about a block, I slowly turned and looked back, John was watching me, making sure I was ok. His parting words to me were,” The mountain is magic”.
John remained on my mind during my walk to Montserrat. He would have made St. Ignatius smile as he truly put others first. My excitement grew as I left the town and in the hazy distance I had my first sighting of this place I had been called to.
I felt as though this mountain was watching me each step of the way. Every corner I took, the serrated peaks were in sight.
This day felt different then all the others. I had a smile and a jump in my step that I had lost during the previous week. It was now very easy to find God in everything today.
I remember playing a great deal of music during this stage of the walk. After 9 hours and about 24 miles on the mountain trail I arrived . Words can’t begin to describe how I felt as I looked down on the Benedictine Abbey.
My pace picked up as I got closer and I finally arrived at the Hostal Abat Cisneros. I was brought to my room and on the table was a bottle of champagne. You know who I wanted to believe had that sent to the room, but He knows I don’t drink. After doing the usual pilgrim chores, I opened my windows wide and before me was the most beautiful view of St. Michael’s Cross. If I only knew the significance that spot was to have on my life.
After a brief rest, I made my way over to the Basilica. As I approached the Atrium of the Basilica, I was amazed by the open roof courtyard areas and the spectacular Gothic structure in front of me. I opened the heavy door, found my seat inside and settled in for evening mass. The Benedictine monks began to enter the sides of alter one by one. Shortly after the monks were settled, 50 boys from the Montserrat Boy’s Choir took their place on the altar. I was blessed to hear some of the most talented young voices in Spain. The evening Vespers began and the monks accompanied the text of the mass in Gregorian chant. My head spinning, taking in my surroundings, I finally saw the Black Madonna high above the altar.
My attention was now focused on Her. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine St. Ignatius kneeling in front of Her for hours. I slowly opened my tear filled eyes and I experienced a moment of consolation like never before. God just made it clear to me the reason He called me to Montserrat.
The morning came and this pilgrim slept peacefully for the first time in almost 2 weeks. I was greatful to be here and I was overcome with a feeling of joy. After a quick breakfast I headed back to the Basillica in anticipation of viewing the Black Madonna. As I entered the cool building it was quiet.I walked towards the steps that would take me to Her. With each step I took, it became clear to me I was the only human in this vast space. My hands were clammy and my mouth dry. At that moment I was face to face with the Black Madonna.
I reached up with my left hand and held the round object which She held in her hand. We looked at each other in silence. The uncontrollable tears began to flow. Our conversation began. For the next 2o minutes, I took the postion that Ignatius did, on my knees, alone, in what is usually a very busy visiting spot. We spoke of my inability to forgive, my holding friendships at an arm’s length. Then, without hesitation, I whispered, “Dear God, thank you for guiding me to this spot. You brought me to my knees in despair only days ago. Today, you bring me to my knees so I can commit my life to you in the same spot St. Ignatius did. God, my heart and arms are wide open to you, please continue to show me the path.” I gathered myself and made my way out of the Basilica to explore the vast trail system on the mountain; I was in need of silent reflection. I found myself a few hours later at Saint Michael’s cross sitting on a large rock looking out at the Pyreness towards France. Without realizing what I was doing, I reached into my day pack and pulled out my phone.
I placed a call to an old friend and I forgave. Many years too late.
Days later, I arrived in Barcelona to catch my flight home. I put on my headphones and played what ended up being the theme of my trip…”Remedy”, by Zac Brown. My final glance out the plane window captured the spot that changed me for ever. The slow work of God.