The air was still icy cold when leaving the following morning. I could see the mountain ridge we had to cross at Alto del Perdón in the distance and there was some snow cover, minor patches that had remained. However, the peaks of the Sierra de Andia Mountains north of us were covered white and stood out starkly.
I had a pleasant walk, mostly through recently sown wheat fields which were sprouting, showing lush, dark green colours; I wondered how these tender plants survive in such temperatures. The path led through small hilltop villages and it was in the second village that I lost my first glove, others were to follow. I had to retrace my steps and was lucky to find the glove in the middle of the road. I then climbed up a seriously steep and slippery track to Alto del Perdón. At times the path was so steep and muddy that extra efforts were necessary; rocks and grass on the side served a useful purpose for scraping off the inches-thick layer of clay that clung to the boots and made walking even more challenging.
I finally reached the crest and admired the row of silhouetted pilgrim images displayed here. They all walk in a westerly direction with their coats, scarves and headgear flowing – battling against the wind blowing due east from the Atlantic Ocean – right into their faces. This is what we are likely to encounter on our way to Santiago. Close to the statues was an ideal spot for breakfast and a deserved rest after the tough climb.
The name Alto Del Perdón, translated ‘Peak or Mountain of Forgiveness’, made me think of the need to forgive and forget. Could it be that one of the most important and positive human traits we should foster is the ability to pardon others? Perdón (Spanish) – Pardon in English, or, alternatively, forgiving is what matters.
On the way to Santiago due west against the ocean winds
Pardon also represents generosity and tolerance; not being offended and not holding a grudge is part of it. An open-minded and positive person, fully aware of our fallible nature, is likely to pardon transgressions with relative ease.
If perceptions are creating flawed opinions and judgments and confuse our interactions, the only way to maintain equilibrium is through tolerance. Without tolerance life would be intolerable and emotionally draining. We would not be able to see the bigger picture and understand the need for flexibility. Without tolerance it is impossible to forgive and forget and we would persistently blame others and at the same time hurt ourselves. It is for this reason that I regard tolerance as being the bigger brother of pardon, vital for every one of us to practice.
Just as it is vital to pardon others, so it is vital to pardon ourselves. In order to forgive ourselves and understand the reasons for our transgressions, we need to know ourselves. We need to be able to identify and confirm our own strengths and acknowledge our weaknesses. To do this, we need to be realistic but relaxed in the way we perceive our nature. We need to recognise that everybody is fallible and that we consequently are in no way unique and no more to blame for unintended negative behaviour than others are. Obviously we deserve reprimand for any intentional misconduct.
If we are unable to identify our own wrongdoing, we will not feel the necessity to pardon ourselves, we perceive us to be right and are single-minded. In the same way we are also unable to pardon someone we cannot recognize as deserving of pardon. Without tolerance and without being able to give pardon we would not be able to deal with the erratic behaviour of our fallible society. We would not understand and manage life’s ups and downs that raise painful emotions. Being adamant and persistent in our view-points and not more tolerant and flexible to life’s events would probably hurt us more than those around us, although they would obviously be affected too.
What would society – and the world – be like if everybody had the ability to pardon? In a small way we have a perfect example from the South African past. When apartheid was abolished, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided the setting where perpetrators of the apartheid era were encouraged to request pardon and where those that had been affected could listen and, if sufficiently convinced by the wrong-doers’ remorse, could offer pardon. Many participated and it probably was because of tolerance of victims that bloodshed was avoided. I wonder if those generous enough to grant pardon ultimately received the recognition and respect due to them. For those receiving pardon, it creates responsibilities; one cannot accept pardon and then carry on with business as usual.
A tolerant world, a world in which pardon is practiced, would be so unlike to what we observe and experience today. Such a world would be barely recognizable to us and our priorities would be very different from what they are now. If we had the ability to genuinely offer pardon, we would lose the fragile ego and self-centredness and we would find more peace and happiness. Those who can truly forgive without reservation, or expecting reciprocation can do so because of a higher level of awareness.
I also believe that honesty makes us joyful. It is as if we become transparent – have nothing to hide. Being truly honest prevents the build-up of burdens, there would be no concealing, no deception, no undue emotion, just frank interaction in a compassionate way. Life becomes far more straightforward and the rewards gained are substantial, but are they available to every one of us? For example, wealth, if pursued falsely, can compromise our minds and might leave little space for other considerations. Likewise, those living on the edge of survival surely have other priorities and considerations; the benefits of awareness may hardly be one of them. However, in spite of having other priorities, being mindful remains liberating, irrespective of social standing; countless people from all walks of life have experienced and demonstrated this. Maybe there is no perfect social condition that facilitates growth, although I imagine that a more regulated existence with limited negative distractions would be conducive to change.
The way down from Alto de Perdón was quite tricky and steep, but luckily not wet and slippery as it was after Roncesvalles at the outset of my winter journey. We reached Muruzábal and after a coffee break I searched for the way to the 12th century Romanesque church of Santa Maria de Eunate, which is situated on a detour of the commonly walked Camino. Some say that the church was built by the Knights Templar and excavations suggest that pilgrims, overcome by fatal sickness on the way, are buried here. The church has an octagonal shape, rarely found in Europe, and is described as being similar to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which the Knights Templar, whose official name was ‘The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and the Temple of Solomon’ obviously knew from their crusades to the Middle East.
Later at home I was curious what the similarities were all about and searched the internet. I could hardly find any resemblance other than perhaps the dome over the tomb, or maybe Christ’s grave with the half round ‘apses’ that might faintly resemble the octagonal ‘roundness’ of the church at Eunate. In the process of researching, I was again confronted with my own lack of appreciation of the historic reality of the Christian faith. I grew up in a Lutheran household with a tradition of Christianity rather than a deep-rooted faith. Prior to my confirmation, and probably for some time thereafter, I took religion more seriously. In my adult life, when our children were being confirmed, I also had some periods of more active participation. When searching for answers to life’s challenges I at times participated in church services. Subsequently visits became infrequent, and Christmas remained the only occasion of our participation. Now even this has faded.
Religion and the life of Christ were somewhat abstract concepts to me and it was only at an age of around 55 or 60 that it became clearer that the life of Christ had a historical foundation and was not just a story.
When browsing the internet, I discovered that the hill Golgotha (translated as ‘the place of the skull’) (Matthew 27:33, Mark 15:22) is outside old Jerusalem and was at the time part of a Garden (John 19:41) that belonged to Joseph of Arimathea. Close to Golgotha Joseph had a tomb hewn for himself out of the rock (John 19:41, Mark 28:59, Luke 23:53, Matthew 57:59 – 60). This tomb had a low entrance, “Mary stood outside the tomb, crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb. . .” (John 20:11 – 12). According to the passages in the Bible, the site on Mount Golgotha where Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he was buried were only meters apart. For the first time I formed a picture of this scene. What I did find odd is that Joseph of Arimathea had his own tomb hewn out of the rock right next to what appears to have been a place of execution – Golgotha. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem with its many interlinking chapels and adjoining structures was built on Golgotha and over Christ’s tomb. It was consecrated in the year 325.
I probably see religion through the exacting eyes of an engineer and lack the ability to appreciate the deeper meaning of faith. I am surely not alone in this respect; understanding religion and faith in the modern world is challenging for many. As a multitude of people are trying to understand religion; the Church should perhaps take note of this and spread the spiritual message in a way we could comprehend, demonstrating that religion can unite rather than divide. Nevertheless, I regard people for whom faith is a source of inspiration, and who practice their religion with conviction, to be most fortunate. Have I drifted away from religion? I do not think so, I have, however, drifted away from formal religious church practices. I now see the message of religious institutions as one of a number of ways to achieve spiritual growth, to attain more awareness and to develop peace. I believe in God within me. I believe that we need to become conscious of God’s wisdom within us and learn to follow his message, which we receive on a continual basis. Alternatively, as I previously suggested, this message could be established within us in the form of the blueprint. We have to become accustomed to listen to God’s and our inner voice, learn to interpret his message, and have the courage to accept and follow its meaning. This is not a simple task and probably our biggest challenge in life. This is the path we are destined to follow so that we can find our own religion – our own God.
While searching for the way to Eunate, I got lost in the rain and stumbled along. I finally reached a village – but not Eunate. There was no one to ask and I could not find any open shops or bars. It was about three in the afternoon and everyone was on siesta. Finally a car approached and the driver confirmed that I was far from my destination. He was very kind and gave me a lift to Eunate, which was still a good five kilometres away and in a totally different direction than the one I had taken.
The church stands completely isolated in the middle of the countryside. It is octagonal, about 15m across and has a dome over the centre. On all sides it is surrounded by an unusual and interesting pergola, supported by pairs of round columns, equally spaced a few metres apart. Because of this design the complex has an elegant, almost floating appearance, even though the style of the building is Romanesque and rather austere.
The arched main entrance, framed by half columns, displays human faces on either side and these are supported by scrolls. Viewed upside down, both face and scroll clearly depict the heads and horns of rams. Is it possible that this was one of the cryptic signs with mystical meanings that are attributed to the Knights Templar, the alleged builders?
Just as I wanted to leave, the couple in charge of the interesting and rather cosy albergue next door, which must have been the priest’s quarters of old, arrived and offered a cup of coffee. While the water was coming to the boil, the hostel father showed me the inside of the church. It was stark but pleasantly decorated with plain Mozarabian motifs and arched profiles. There were small window openings in the dome, covered with slices of translucent alabaster. Through the crystalline structure of the thinly sliced stone light was dispersed and magnified and even on this gray and rainy day it sufficiently lit up the interior.
After a donation for the generously large cup of coffee I was on my way and reached the albergue in Puente la Reina just before five o’clock. The hostel is run by Padres Reparadores and, as usual, I claimed my bed, had a shower and washed my clothes.
I wanted to walk through the historic town in which Charlemagne is reputed to have stayed at the beginning of the 9th century after defeating the Moors and, as light was fading fast, there was no time for a rest.
The most important sight to see was the famous Queen’s bridge, ‘Puente La Reina’. In its pure Romanesque style, with three very large central arches, it spans the River Arga. It was an awesome sight – and in the rapidly fading light its arches created a clear reflection on the water, appearing like perfectly round circles – a picturesque scene.
Puente La Reina
I bought some provisions on the way back and passed a cobbler manufacturing and repairing leather goods. It was now dark outside and the shop was sparsely lit. The picture that presented itself could have been out of an old-fashioned children’s book. Tools of the cobbler’s trade were hanging on the wall, a workbench with a few implements acted as a counter, some rolls of leather were leaning in one corner and loose pieces were lying around. What was missing was the slightly stooped old man with horseshoe-shaped white hair framing the otherwise bald head. He would have had wire-rimmed glasses on the tip of his nose and a leather apron around the waist. Unfortunately, in his place stood a middle-aged woman, wearing a ‘modern’ dress with a floral pattern, she seemed out of place.
Eric was cooking tonight and he was proud of his culinary invention; spaghetti with a raw egg cracked over it. Noelia and I looked at each other, gave it a polite miss and cooked our eggs for the next morning’s breakfast. I had the distinct impression that Dominique and even Eric himself battled with their dishes. Eric is still very young and I am certain his cooking skills will improve with further practice.