How the light got in: A post-Camino reflection

We weren’t terribly observant Catholics when I was growing up, but my whole family was in attendance at my first holy communion—the first time God spoke to me. I was holding a hymnal in my kid-sized hands as the organ pealed its first crystalline chords.

In song, the Divine asked me, Whom shall I send?

In response, my reed-like little voice sang out, Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? … I will go if you lead me.

Standing there in my veil and white lace dress, symbols of purity, I trusted with every ounce of my being that I would be led and protected always.

*   *   *

Becoming an adult made me forget. Being in the literal driver’s seat deluded me into thinking I had all the control. My unconscious mantra—Do it by yourself—taught me not to ask for help from anyone, least of all an invisible god. By the time I heard of the Camino in my later thirties, any sign of my youthful and unwavering trust in the Divine was gone.

When I heard a call to walk the Camino, my reaction revealed just how stuck I’d become: Seriously? No. Ridiculous. I don’t want to. I have no interest in Spain. I don’t like exercise and the very thought of walking five hundred miles is insane. No. I don’t want that kind of uncertainty. I couldn’t handle it.

I wanted to control. Everything.

Despite my lack of preparedness, the Camino was relentless in its pursuit of my soul. References to the Way appeared in random reading materials and unexpected conversations. Scallop shells revealed themselves in the most unlikely places. Even with all these flirtatious hints, the seeker must assent to her own transformation. Yes is just a word, but it’s astonishingly, remarkably difficult to utter. The longer I waited, the more I felt it.

It’s amazing to think about how much I fought the very thing I needed. Ego is perfectly content to sit in its own stink of self-righteous, small-minded, and destructive habits. Saying yes is terrifying because it calls us to face our own destruction. With yes, we become nothing, yet everything: luminous and present with the Divine. With yes, personality melts away. The ego wants no part in this appalling arrangement.

Eventually, I came around to a grudging admission of the spiritual merit in attempting this uncomfortable experience. Like a cautious lover, I relented. I said yes. And yet again. And again many times until I had clicked “purchase” for my airline tickets.

*   *   *

If I would be spiritually transformed by the Camino, my inner fortress of protection would have to crack. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “That’s how the light gets in.”

The Camino broke me open. It had to. I needed to find a new way of being. My years of resisting help meant I would not respond to subtle messages. Splitting open the layers of defense required hard, sometimes painful encounters until I learned to trust. It was not fun. For example, after a week of walking, my feet became so sore that I limped with every step. When I began to doubt my ability to finish the walk, I cried. I cracked open, admitting my helplessness. In this weak place, I asked for help, and some light got in.

Despite being with lovely new friends, I felt broken at times by debilitating loneliness. At one point—in a miniscule, one-star hotel room that reeked of old cigars, I thought to myself, “What would your father think of you here? This is what you’ve come to, all of what you’ve made of yourself.” These painful thoughts broke me open, and as I reached out for friendship, more light got in.

One day, as Muriel and I walked together on the meseta, she observed, “It seems like you’re sorry that you were born.” The truth of her words struck me to the core. I had no reply—only my silent agreement. For many days after she’d made this poignant observation, I reflected on my struggle to show up in life and merely take up space.

As my feet pounded the path, I listened to the wind and my breathing, and I wondered for the first time: Am I really allowed to trouble this person, or any person, with my story? Is it okay to ask for help? Or actually receive it? Am I allowed to say no or tell someone I’d rather be alone? Is it really okay for me to be here? This stripped-bare honesty helped the light get in.

In the most trying and desperate moments, my ego was smashed to shatters. Yet that suddenly-vacant space made room for my heart to open. It was a hard-earned blessing. Slowly, over the miles, I emptied out the sludge of my small living, and miraculously, despite myself, the light got in. An abundant waterfall of love, laughter, wisdom, and insight made me realized how loved I am. Pilgrimage revealed to me how to let go of my fearful striving and trust something greater than myself.

*   *   *   *   *

That isn’t the end of the story, of course.

In a workshop I attended last fall, the following words hit me like a spiritual two-by-four: Enlightenment is not transformation. ~ Dara Marks

I suddenly realized why everyone claims that the true pilgrimage starts in Santiago: the Camino is an experience of enlightenment. It gave me a glimpse, a tantalizing taste of how life could be. it showed me how I could let go and trust, how light and joyful I could be moment-to-moment.

Completing the Camino is only half the journey. Enlightenment isn’t transformation. It wasn’t done with me yet.

Like many pilgrims, I really struggled after I got home from Spain. Some people call it the Camino blues, but it’s more than that. I could not resolve what the pilgrimage had revealed to me despite obsessively re-reading Brierley’s guidebook, looking at my journal, and drinking Spanish wine with friends.

It was nice to be home with my familiar people and possessions, but I struggled with the sense that something precious was dying—something I had to hang on to no matter what. And I lost it anyway. Into its place moved unspeakable sadness and longing.

Intellectually, I knew that the second half of the journey was about learning to live my Camino epiphanies in my life. “Bring home the boon,” someone said. But I hadn’t the faintest idea how to do this. I just felt terrible. I had to shake it off somehow.

Within a few weeks, I was back to where I’d started, repeating my life-long pattern of controlling everything. My Camino had revealed that my life could be better, but I didn’t know how to get there once at home.

I got stuck for a long time. Most days felt like walking through a deep, dark cave with no exit. And, erroneously, I kept thinking, I can do this. I can figure it out. I thought had to find my way through its passages alone. This is the part of the journey many never walk, or if they do, few talk about it. In the months that followed my Camino, I went down many blind alleys, trying to find my way—out or though, I didn’t care.

After struggling for over a year, Dara’s words were like discovering a bright-yellow, spray-painted arrow on the wall of my labyrinthine tunnel: the Camino gave you enlightenment, now you must move toward transformation.

But transformation doesn’t just happen on its own; it requires assent. Last week, almost two years to the day of my anniversary of starting the Camino, I remembered. Yes wasn’t just for that innocent seven-year-old me, or my reluctant, pre-Camino forty-year-old self. It was something I would have to choose again. And again. And again.

Yes is power. Yes commands armies of angels to move heaven and earth in support of the seeker’s goal. Now I understand that yes is the key to moving from enlightenment into transformation. Say it again: yes to uncertainty, yes to change, yes in spite of fear.

In the weeks ahead, I’ll be sharing a play-by-play of my second, inner Camino. The one in which I transformed my life. I’ve talked to so many pilgrims struggle with Camino blues, my hope is that my story will help you walk your own journey that begins after Santiago—and say yes to the transformation that awaits.

16 thoughts on “How the light got in: A post-Camino reflection

  1. Thank you for sharing that ❤
    I found too that the post camino part was far harder than walking it, blisters included !
    What I really missed is that feeling of freedom and the everyday talk with my inner self. And that feeling of freedom.
    Bringing those feelings back to an everyday life is so hard and takes so much time ; the fact is that path doesn't have any yellow arrow ! And that makes it even much more precious.

    1. Your statement that it’s more difficult after is really saying something, Muriel, considering how bad your blisters were! I wonder if I still would have gone had I known how hard the journey would be afterward (or if I would have believed anyone who told me).

      It takes time. There are no arrows. And it it truly precious. You said it beautifuly. Peut-etre tu vas ecrir un post avec le meme sujet! Je voudrais le lire!

      1. I would say that’s a good thing that one doesn’t know what’s ahead. Had I known I wonder if I would have gone out my mum’s belly :))

  2. Just lovely, Jen.
    And how great that not only do you *want* to talk about it but that you’re also capable of doing so with compassionate, articulate expression.
    Looking forward to reading!

    Like Muriel, I miss the freedom. And I miss having hours alone every day to walk through my thoughts, pray out loud and within, pray absentmindedly and actively…and all that time with self. Lots of space to ‘be’–emotionally, at least.

    1. Thank you, FF! ❤ I will endeavor to report back from the inner battlefield! 🙂

      I share your sentiments; I miss feeling so free — as I pursue something with such a clear purpose. It seems like those would be contradictory to miss both. Saggy beds and crowded albergues? Not so much. 😉

  3. Oh my God, Jen. This is really good. As in REALLY GOOD. It is so personal, so poignant, so insightful, so vulnerable. Not to mention it is so well written. It is such an honor to know you; I hope you know that. Thank you for sharing your story, your SELF so deeply.

    1. Thank you so much for your compliments, Nancy. We’ve got a mutual admiration society going on here. 🙂 I’m so glad to be sharing this journey. ❤

  4. They say freedom is but a state of mind. If you found it on the camino, then it follows that you have the ability to find it off the camino. It could be harder to find freedom amongst others who themselves don’t feel free. That could make you feel uncomfortable – the odd one out. Hence giving you a sense of a lack of freedom. Maybe it’s like the smoker who gives up smoking only to start again when they hang out amongst their smoker friends. It feels more uncomfortable not to smoke. We are so conditioned to be a certain way.

    It also begs the question: freedom from what? I often think it is freedom from judgment – for me anyway. It’s really great you are so free with your self in your writing. I could never be that free especially as I know that people I know are following me on my blog. 😊

    1. I couldn’t agree more. Those who love us want the best for us, but transformation is our own journey–with or without others’ approval. Choosing to live one’s truth is quite possibly the best gift we can give to our communities, our world.

      Never say never. 🙂 My mom reads this blog, as do some of my best friends. I keep making the leap to reveal much of the story and trust that their love for me includes the ugly, unformed aspects of my character as well as the good. That said, I often hover hesitatingly over the “publish” button! Thanks so much for commenting! ❤

  5. This is profound stuff, heartfelt and vulnerable. Do you know Brene Brown? She’s done work on vulnerability and shame that has helped me move forward. Look forward to further posts.

    1. Hi Beth – I LOVE Brene Brown’s work. I think I must have watched her TED talk on vulnerability at least a half dozen times. Too bad watching doesn’t equal assimilating the ideas into action (for me)! 🙂 Thank you for mentioning her work and for commenting! I love your blog!

  6. And I say yes to you! To your discovery of yourself. To your courage. To your willingness to follow your truth and transform no matter how much the “ego is perfectly content to sit in its own stink of self-righteous, small-minded, and destructive habits.” (brilliant sentence by the way).

    Much of what you say resonates for me as I’ve walked my own version of the Camino – the need to crack open, the humility, the tears, the belief that I shouldn’t take up space in the world, that I shouldn’t have been born.
    All the following sentences are a description of my own journey:
    “If I would be spiritually transformed by the Camino, my inner fortress of protection would have to crack.
    I reflected on my struggle to show up in life and merely take up space.
    Slowly, over the miles, I emptied out the sludge of my small living, and miraculously, despite myself, the light got in.
    Yes wasn’t just for that innocent seven-year-old me, or my reluctant, pre-Camino forty-year-old self. It was something I would have to choose again. And again. And again. yes to uncertainty, yes to change, yes in spite of fear.”
    May we both continue saying yes. Thank you so much for sharing your story with such eloquence and honesty.
    Alison

    1. (tears!) Thank you so much for sharing this, Alison.

      I’ll admit that choosing smallness in the world hardly seems like a sin compared to aggressive, selfish bigness, for example—and yet. How many lose out by not knowing all of you, or hearing your perspective, or gleaning wisdom from your story? I second your yes to living authentically, showing up (no matter how terrifying at times), and answering Yes to what calls us.

      Man! Am I ever glad we’re connected! ❤

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