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Dec 01, 2014 | the Very Rev. Russ Oechsel

Insight and Angels Found on the Way

On the 17th of March, I began a pilgrimage walk to Santiago, Spain, from St. Jean Pied de Port, France, a 500-mile journey known as the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. 


I took a sabbatical in the spring of 2014. It had been seven years since my ordination and it was time. When my wife, Linda, said she might be offered a temporary assignment in Barcelona, I began considering options of what I might do in Spain. After reading Walking in a Relaxed Manner I was hooked. Linda’s job prospect disappeared, but she encouraged me to continue with my plans. 


The second reason I chose this journey was that I really wanted some time totally alone to reconnect me and my relationship with God and to discern what ministry God was calling me to then. Several things suggested a different direction was in order. I had worked as a hospice chaplain for several years, my daughter-in-law was pregnant with triplets, and I thought there was some additional ministry to be done at St. Mary’s, Cypress, where I serve.


I also really wanted to go back to Europe to research my great-grandfather’s birthplace in northeastern France. He had immigrated to the United States in the 1800s from Alsace and was the only one in his family who had come here. 


On my way to the Camino, I located my great-grandfather’s birth certificate in the archive building in Strasbourg, France. That led me to a small village of 2,000 people where he was born and I was warmly welcomed by four people who are most likely my distant cousins. They hadn’t known of my existence and I didn’t know of theirs. It was a wonderful experience before the relative solitude of my walk. 


Preparing for El Camino

I increased my normal daily walk to 10 miles a day for two months before I left Houston, and bought boots, a backpack, outdoor clothing, etc. I did some spiritual preparation, too. I took a two-week silent retreat at Emery House, a retreat center for the Society of Saint John the Evangelist in rural Massachusetts. (See article, page 32)


The retreat helped me gain a rhythm of life that I needed for the Camino and gave me additional time for physical preparation. I rose early, did Morning Prayer, had a silent meal, walked for three hours or so, had Eucharist, ate another silent meal, read, prayed Evening Prayer, had a silent meal, and prayed Compline before going to bed early.   


I left for France in early March and found the first day’s walk to the first village in Spain—Roncesvalles—to be the most difficult of the entire 500 miles. I began at St. Jean Pied de Port at an elevation of 100 meters, crossed the pass at 1,400 meters, then dropped to 800 meters at Roncesvalles, in all a 25-kilometer walk. 


Trusting in God, I found he blessed me with great people to walk with and time to walk alone. The first day was beautiful, though cold, about 45 degrees. I wore most of the clothes I had—Hot Chillys (my son’s gift of skintight long johns), short-sleeved shirt, long-sleeved shirt, winter coat and wool stocking hat. Both albergues (similar to hostels) on the way up to the summit of the Pyrenees were closed because it was early in the season. After I’d stopped for a rest, I met two fellow walkers, one was from Switzerland and the other from Germany. Both men were mountaineers, yet they walked with me at my pace as we journeyed up the mountain. We arrived at a beautiful fountain within sight of the summit where we met an older man talking with two young girls. He was a ranger and was removing the girls from the pass because they had insufficient clothing and gear. My Swiss walking partner explained to the ranger in French that we were more adequately equipped, and we were allowed to continue the climb. 


We saw absolutely incredible vistas on our descent and were able to sidestep the snow at times, and at other places were knee- and hip-deep in snow. The trek from St. Jean Pied de Port to Roncesvalles took eleven hours. Both men stayed with me, helped guide me and waited with me on the descent as I rested my shaking legs repeatedly. They didn’t have to do that. That night we had supper together and Johnny refused to let me pay. They had learned that I am a deacon and so they wanted to learn all they could about religion and spirituality and the Episcopal Church. They wanted to know about this Jesus who says that we should love all of our neighbors. This last request was easy. 


I said, “What do you think you’ve been showing me all day long?  You have shown me the love of Jesus.” They were amazed. It took some time and further conversation for the idea to soak in. The next morning we packed up and walked together for a short time. I realized that I needed to pay attention to my body and stop walking and rest. As we passed through the small village of Espinal, we saw a woman walking towards the street, and Johnny spoke with her in Spanish. We learned she would rent an apartment for 50 euros and I decided to take it and rest. We said good-bye and Buen Camino (which literally means “good path” and is generally received as “good luck and happy traveling”), and I never saw them again.They were angels on the Way.


I was blessed to have many similar experiences with other pilgrims along the Way. The last day I was understandably excited about my walk into Santiago. I followed the way marks to the edge of the village of O Pedrouzo. It was early, about 6:30 a.m. and very dark. The path entered a eucalyptus forest, which was even darker. My headlight was in my pack and as I stood trying to decide if I should take it off and rummage through it to find my light, I saw two lights approaching me. It was a German couple who helpfully guided me through the forest until it became light. They hurried off and, again, I never saw them again. More angels. They are among us.


My key learnings fall from the pages of my journal. Along the Way I did discern new ministry. I treasure the time I had on the thirty-six days it took to walk the Camino. I saw gorgeous scenery, I met folks from all over the world, and I felt the sun, the wind, the rain, the cold and the warmth. I saw butterflies, I saw caterpillars chained together like long snakes, I learned to live in the moment as I’m doing as I write this article. These are all blessings devoid of most of the input we all receive in our daily lives. I commend this journey to you all.


Oechsel is archdeacon for the Diocese of Texas.