Sunday, July 6, 2008

The End of the Road

After 568days, 9350km on trains, 9824km in aircraft & 15,259km on foot, the journey from Cape Branco, Brazil, to Cape Finisterre in Spain is over. It is done. Standing on a cliff ledge overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Cape Finisterre yesterday evening I was trying to make sense of what has taken place in these last 18months but the only thing I could fathom in the moment was that the sunset was beautifully simple. A week earlier, Finisterre was still just a hopeful possibility. My gear was failing very quickly & the race was on to finish walking before it all finished working. Four out of five zips on my backpack had broken, two rips had opened up requiring a mixture of running & blanket stitches with fine fishing line, the backpack shoulder straps where dangerously close to pulling apart completely, I'd worn 3 holes in my only shirt & the walking poles had worn all the way to the plastic protective guard. Basically, everything was being handled with great care. Even my plastic spoon broke in half. Good thing I was carrying a spare. It was a 3day walk from Samos to Santiago de Compostela & it was very satisfying to make the final 30km alongside Oisin (the Irishman) after we once again walked into each other at a small village cafe. We had a spring in our step, however, both being ahead of schedule, we also had the comfort of being able to enjoy his final day & not push ourselves too hard. For Oisin, Santiago was the end of the journey. As we entered the centre of the historic city along its narrow cobble stone streets, we met my dad standing outside the Cathedral, waiting for me as we had planned a week earlier. This was now Oisin's time to reflect on his journey & so we thanked one another for the time we had spent together in conversation, prayer & silence while walking the Camino & said farewell. While Oisin's journey was at an end, I still had 90km to complete with mum & dad hoping to join me all the way to the Atlantic. We set off the following morning, enjoying cool overcast conditions for most of the day. That night mum & dad booked me into a hotel with them & we ventured down to the supermarket to buy our dinner for the night. Dad suggested we buy a couple of pizzas & cook them in the oven in our room. We'd all seen the hot plates & sink so agreed that it was a great idea. None of us though, had noticed that there was no oven. And so it was that on the 2nd last night, dad & I tried with great difficulty to cook those stupid frozen pizzas on the hot plates. And why wasn't mum helping? Well, she was too busy laughing at us, to the point of tears. We got there eventually, after having to flip the pizzas upside down to cook the tops as well. It didn't look like pizza in the end but if you closed your eyes & concentrated hard, it still tasted like it. Just don't ask about the no-oil, no-salt, no-sauce chips we cooked as well. This is why I eat canned tuna with vegtables. The following day of walking began as the previous had ended, cool & overcast. Half an hour later though, a cold shower swept in sending us diving for our wet weather gear. That shower finally stopped 10hours later after we'd walked 34km through pounding, howling wind that sent the rain at us sideways. A huge low pressure system had swept down off the North Atlantic & blanketed north-western Spain. None of us were prepared for the drop in temperature & we all began to lose feeling in our fingers as we traversed some of the more open & exposed sections of the track. The entire area is overflowing with Tasmanian Blue-gums & a noxious weed called gorse, both of which thrive in our area of Tasmania. The vegetation, coupled with the southern ocean-like weather led dad to observe that he could have stayed at home for this! Within a few hours our boots were saturated, our feet were squelching on every step & the water was whisking off noses, chins, fingers & backpacks. It was wet & it was windy. We were so wet, cold & uncomfortable that we opted to not stop for lunch but to just keep our heads down & soldier on. Late in the afternoon we eventually made it to a small town with a hotel. After some long showers & a lot of make-shift clotheslines being built we ventured down to the bar for dinner. Dad was shivering badly when we entered the hotel but was now more relaxed & warming up. As he ate his soup he commented that it was warming him up nicely but a few minutes later he was begining to find it uncomfortably hot & had to stop eating & lethargicly remove his jumper. He began to look flustered as his body continued to heat up & he had to excuse himself to the open doorway where he sat in the cool breeze trying to cool down. Mum wasn't saying a word but was watching with very wide eyes. Was he about to pass-out, vomit or have a heart attack? It was a tense few minutes as his temperature continued to rise but thank God, he regained his colour & after some deep breathes was keen to rejoin the meal at the table. I told mum that the same thing had happened to me in Mexico, but that wasn't much comfort at all. So, dad nearly self-combusted, other than that, nice meal... The final day began in sunshine & mum & dad were both keen to push on & were feeling pretty good. My camera however, was going the way of my backpack & threw a hissy-fit at having been exposed to moisture the day before. The dvd drive wouldn't fire, the lcd screen lost a colour & the camera was reporting a disc error. For a small time there it was looking like no photos or video footage of the final day would be taken. I am very thankful that all of a sudden the camera kicked into gear &, minus a legible lcd screen, was ready to go for one final day. As I walked & prayed through the final 35km my mind kept drifting back through the various events that have stuck in my mind from this journey & it was beginning to sink in that this was it. This was the end. I haven't ever re-read a single blog entry so some events had faded from memory a tad as I spend most of my time on the now, but as I walked & pondered certain situations from the last 18months I kept remembering more & more. Some made me smile, even laugh, & others caused me to breathe deeply & shake my head in disbelief or amazement (basically that I was still alive). Mum & dad set their own pace so I had plenty of time by myself as I waited at hill tops for them. Mind you, mum would have made it a lot quicker if she didn't stop & pick flowers. "Mum, please... Cape Finesterre?" Mum & dad made it through the day a lot 'easier' than the previous day with the added aid of 2 Tasmanian Blue-gum walking sticks each to help them along the way. With the weather on our side, we made more frequent stops & ate well. By the time we made it to Fisterra, the town at the beginning of Cape Finisterre, mum & dad were keen to call it a day, leaving me with the final 3km climb up along the cape to the 'end of the earth'. I continued praying right up onto the cape's steep, rocky end & with a view of the expansive Atlantic Ocean from 100m above, I climbed down along the face to a quiet ledge about halfway down. There were numerous tourists at the top & I was keen to find some quiet space to simply sit & be. There was still a few hours before sunset so I just sat & waited... with a big bowl of cereal & cold milk I'd carried up in my backpack. At first, 'the end' seemed a little hollow & it was difficult to come to terms with what 'the end' actually meant. As more & more time passed by I began to appreciate more & more the journey that has brought me to this point & in particular, the Lord's provision & love that has sustained me. All the way back in Brazil I had placed a set of rosary beads on the fence at Cape Branco, with the intention of doing the same here in Spain. The rosary is taught very heavily against by many chritians & so for me it stands as a strong symbol of both the prayer that unites us & the division that seperates us. There was nothing obvious to hang the rosary from though, so I opted to grabed one of my walking poles & jam it down in between two large stones over-looking the ocean. I tied the rosary beads onto the end of it & left it to hang in the sea breeze. I prayed, for the final time on this particular journey, "Holy Father, please unite all christians in truth & in love, for the glory of your name & for the salvation of souls. Please bless Pope Benedict XVI, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Patriarches of the eastern churches, those serving on the World Council of Churches & all the worlds chirsitan leaders with Faith, Hope, Love & Wisdom, so that they may better lead us to you & into unity with one another. Amen" Afterwards, I stood in silence before entering into my own one-on-one personal prayer time, simply thanking God for all that has happened & re-committing myself for whatever may lay ahead. It was actually during this time that I finally felt as though the walk had come to a close. This journey had finally come to an end. I sat on my rock again & was excited to see a few pilgrims I'd met earlier in the week making their way down the cape edge. Vin from Brazil, was quick to whip his clothes out of his backpack, bundle them up & throw a match on them. They went up very quickly. The other pilgrims followed suit & I wasn't far behind. I clambered over the rocks to them & after some cheerful greetings, I ripped my battered shirt off & tossed it on the fire as well. It burnt very quickly. I'm glad I didn't throw my jacket on the fire as well, it was mighty cold out there. Vin came down to my little spot (the view was brilliant from there) & he sat silently for 30mins or so before beginning his way back up to the other guys. Just as he turned his back I saw a dolphin break the water out off the cape. I called out to Vin, "Dolphin!" & he quickly turned on his heals & made his way back down. As he did I couldn't help but think that the glimpse I had caught of it was too far out from the cape & that perhaps it was a lot bigger than I first thought. With both of us watching intently, the 'dolphin' broke the water once more, only this time, we could see that it was in no way a dolphin. It was a Humpback Whale. One massive Humback Whale. It didn't resurface again but it was an awesome sight none-the-less. The sun finally set at 10:20pm & with a hand full of pilgrims watching on from their own little spaces on the end of the cape a cheer went up & a lot of thumbs in the air to one another accompanied with satisfied smiles. One by one, we climbed back up, said goodbye & headed into the twilight on our seperate paths. The walk4one had come to a close.
I intend to write 3 more blog entries before calling it a day here on the internet. One entry from Paris next week (a quick-list look at the ins & outs of the last 18 months), an entry from World Youth Day in Sydney & then one quick sign-off from home in Tasmania & that's it.
I am particularly thankful to every person who has encourged me along this journey, who has prayed for me & with me, who has got me back on my feet after muggings & bashings, who has pointed me in the right direction when I was lost or fed me when I was hungry. Although I posted a blog each week there has obviously been a lot that went unsaid. I've had to learn to be thankful for what I didn't want to happen & in particular to forgive those who stuck guns or knives in my face or tried to take from me whatever it was I had. No matter how often I forgive those guys in Russia for trying to beat the living daylights out of me (for example), I still feel the need quite regularly to once again let go of my anger towards them & desire to become a Kung-Fu master & return to their bar & toagain forgive them & refocus back on God. I'm relieved to be able to let my body rest now as well. The reporting of the physical tole was sometimes masked due to my concern over being told to stop (stuborn, yes). Through Russia & Belarus particularly, I was suffering from an irregular heartbeat where my heart was trying to pump blood without having drawn any in. This in itself is normal & not too much to worry about so long as it doesn't occure more than a few times a day. I had a few sleepless nights though as it 'mis-fired' nearly every 30seconds for hours on end. It wasn't particularly pleasant. In fact, it was down right scarey. The three major factors for that condition are rapid weight lose, stress & physical fatigue; I satisfied all three criteria. My greatest battle though has probably been against myself. God is patient, very patient. The other issue that raised its head early on in this walk is that I am Catholic. It didn't take too long for me to realise that the invitation to pray for christian unity was easily lost amidst theolgical arguement or a desire to 'convert' me or vice versa so I began to simply introduce myself to people according to what I was doing. A few times, after explaining the mission & extending the invitation the people I was talking to agreed emphatically with the call to pray for unity & then proceeded to heatedly pull apart the un-godly Catholics, unaware that I was 'one of them'. Time & time again I had to simply bite my tongue & refocus the conversation on prayer & re-evangelisation. One particular time I wanted to go to mass on a Sunday but was staying with an evangelical family, to whom there was no difference between their church & mine. I understood & was deeply moved by their acceptance, but I'm Catholic because I believe that the eucharist is indeed the body & blood, soul & divinity of Jesus Christ, not because the Catholic Church was simply the nearest available house of God. I loved being with them during their church service but I felt unfulfilled without the eucharist & so I slipped away aftwards & ran through the town to find mass. I always felt as though I was treding a fine line & it was difficult at times to not offend. I haven't been walking praying for the unity of those christians who have the same beliefs as me or act upon their faith in the same manner, but I often suspected that I was accepted on that basis. Even within the Catholic Church. And yes, I realsed that I viewed other christians with tinted glasses according to their church background rather than on who they were. It simply drove home how seperated christians are. At times people heard my invitation & instinctively asked what church I was from. My answer then gave way to either instant acceptance or intant dismissal. It was always a challenge that drove me into a lot of thought & prayer but rarley made the blog for you to read. A radio interviewer wrapped up his program & interview with me by saying, "Yes, well in the end, I guess all that matters is that we are brothers & sisters in the Lord." I thought about it for a long time afterwards as I encountered more & more "What church are you from?" and I began to disagree with the interviewers closing remark. I began to conclude that "No, it's not a matter of "In the end we are all just brothers & sisters in the Lord & that's all that matters", but instead that "To begin with, we are all brothers & sisters in the Lord." It's a starting point, not a finishing point. It's a point to move forward from. I guess the one big crunch point that I've learnt along this journey is that unity is not a place we reach, but an action we are involved in & live out. I guess personally the big change has been that my passion for unity centred around theology (the truth) as I began in Brazil, but it's unity in love that has captured me throughout this walk. Unity in truth still holds its place as a present day emergency, but it was Christ's love that was most evidently missing in the world. Of all the poverties encountered, it was the poverty of love that shocked me the most & has challengd me personally. Please continue to pray for unity, please continue to pray for me & please continue to pray for one another. Thank you & God bless, Sam.
"I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me." John 17:23
"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love." 1Cor 13:13

5 comments:

fra A.R. said...

I am so happy for you Sam! Well done. Now go back to Australia, on time for the WJD.
Your friend from St. Anthony of Padua-Italy, fr. Alessandro Ratti

squirt said...

awsome samio. well done mate. i'll give you a big hug when you get home. see you soon. maybe even in sydney. congratulations mule.

Christel said...

WOW Sam, I can put in words how impressed I am with what you did and more than that, what God is doing with your life. Thank you for saying yes, thank you for putting up with all the difficulties you encountered along the way, thank you for the awesome pictures you made, thank you for the blog entries and for giving us an idea of what you went thru, thank you for your blisters, thank you for your prayers, thank you for your love to the Eucharist and for your open heart to love those who dont love it! Thank you, thank you, thank you. You're an example of life to me! Once again, in case I haven't say it yet: THANK YOU!
GOD BLESS U ALWAYS SAM!!
Christel from Venezuela

alistair said...

The Lord bless you, and keep you;
The Lord make His face shine on you,
And be gracious to you;
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace.

lachyresearchproject said...

heard your story in a presentation at my school today, i was completely blown away! everyone has been saying how much they enjoyed your speech and it was the most inspirational talk they have ever received! your story is truely amazing and will be remembered and your courage will be inspirational in times of need!