You hear it a lot in Spain.
Good road. Good journey. Good walking.
When I set out on my first pilgrim road, or camino, lots of people asked me if I was searching for something, or “looking for God”.
Well, yes and no.
I’m a walker. I’ve always walked, every day. It rescues me from my overactive mind. When I hear long-time meditators talk of their experiences, they might be describing the way I feel when I walk, particularly if I’m in nature.
Eight months before that first camino, I hiked the Overland Track in Tasmania, encountering blistering heat and a full snowstorm within twenty-four demanding hours. The next day, basking in sun and silence, I wrote in my journal:
Today, I’ve had my favourite things – bush, solitude, time, one foot in front of the other. I think I’d like to attempt something larger. Longer. Something where the gift of silence – and the challenge – could really be explored.
It’s easy, with hindsight, to see how that wish transformed into pilgrimages. I’ve now walked the 780 kilometre Camino Francés, 1300 Spanish kilometres from Granada to Finisterre, and 300 kilometres of cobbled Portuguese roads from Porto to Santiago.
And, in a way, I did find God on those paths.
Not the God of my childhood in the Catholic church, in spite of being given refuge one harrowing day by an order of ancient gnome-like nuns. Not the Buddha either, though I was rescued on another gruelling occasion by a Spanish Buddhist and his benign bear of a dog. Not the various versions of god I’ve sought over the years through meditation and chanting and invocations. I had no encounters with burning bushes, although one night beside a mystical healing spring a Hungarian woman made flames leap from a bowl of lethal spirits and sang gypsy songs in a husky contralto to a star-studded sky.
No. Not there either.
I found my god on the path. I followed it, and at every turn, I found gods in trees, animals, figs, sunflowers and roses; in beech forests and riverbanks; and in manicured fields, cultivated for centuries with sweat and devotion.
Photo credit: uniquedesign52
They made me think of my friend Ida, a devout yet irreverent sage, who says her favourite phrase of the Catholic mass is by the grace of God and the work of human hands.
I understand that.
The grace to be on this planet at this time, in a resilient frame, free to walk the earth.
Turning up each day, even when dispirited or afraid, to face yourself and others. To make a contribution, no matter how small. On the camino roads, I told stories and poems, which were salve or amusement, and I rubbed feet. I would buy golden Spanish olive oil, mix it with eucalyptus oil from home, and massage weary bodies, blistered and aching from effort.
My walks across Spain taught me my prayer.
Good road. Good path. Good way.
Now, walking the trails of Sydney Harbour, I have only to locate a gnarled paperbark, a drift of frangipanis on the shimmering surface of a pool, a salmon-gum trunk that curves to meet my touch, or the decadent hibiscus flowers that line these streets, and I have no doubt that I am in a heaven. To make work in such a place is a gift. My feet beat a prayer of gratitude into these streets of wonder, and my fingers begin to tap.
I’m walking and working.
All is well.
Ailsa Piper is a walker, talker, teacher, writer, passionate patron of the Twilight School and the author of Sinning Across Spain – a walker’s journey from Granada to Galicia published by Melbourne University Press.