I try to hunch into the longer shadows cast by the spotlight. Then I try turning around and searching for some speaker or spectacle that might give me more shade. I quickly realize that all my efforts to remain anonymous are about to abandon me when, my head still turned towards the back of the church, I feel two very eager hands clasp mine with a squeal of recognition. Knowing the inevitable is about to happen, I grab her hands back – “no, no, no, no” – I chant to to the receding tune of my last chance to keep the flag from rising. But I’m too late. One of her hands escapes my desperate grasp, flies into the air, waves my protests away as frantically as she petitions immediate attention;
“La petite fille! La petite fille!”
(“The little girl! The little girl!”)
As if Jesus himself had commanded it, the sea of shadows parts, a bright light blinds me and a microphone the size of a small animal is thrust under me, chest level.
The priest, as unfazed and natural under the eye of national television as he is under the adoring attention of his parishioners, smiles at me. There is a slight surppressed laugh under his grin, and as he knows both me and my story quite well (having found me homeless the day before and offered me a free and cozy room in the church’s youth center for the night), for the camera’s audience and curiosity only does he inquire, “And you pilgrim? Where do you come from?”
(I want to kiss his sweet feet for switching to English!)
Blinking, deer-like, under the camera’s headlights, I answer, “The United States.”
“And where are you walking to?”
“I’m walking to St. Jean Pied De Port.”
“Thank you.” But he relieves me of duty only temporarily because when I find him after mass as we had, earlier, agreed to meet, the cameras are still following him. And as I am his chosen lamb, he waves me over and says, “We’ll eat together, yes, but first, the camera will film you getting your first stamp in your pilgrim’s passport.”
There is little room for negotiating with a priest and so as I am ushered into a backroom, the bright light and furry microphone again attach themselves to me. The news anchor turns on his English as well; “Why do you walk?”
Now I am an introvert, and I write because I hate to talk, especially to the population of France, but I give it a terrible go: “The Camino, for me, is a metaphor for life. It sounds simple, but I walk – because I love to walk.”
This is a very poor summary of the understanding that I consider each step on the path, a day in the life – and that walking is the ultimate practice of presence – not living for a beginning, ending or destination, but a surrender to the simple act of stepping; living.
Whatever. Cameras could care less.
“Are you alone?”
(Thank god for an easier question!)
“Are you afraid?”
With this question, my faith obliterates the bright light as I, overcome with such confidence that I almost laugh out loud, reply…
Later, over coffee, bread, butter and jam, the priest and I realize from where our affinity stems:
After my confession that it has been a very long time since I have been to a mass, he says, “Neither had I spent much time in the church before I chose to become a priest. I travelled for five years around the world and then I walked the Chemin de Saint Jacques. At the end, I came to the inner realization that priesthood was my path.”
To this I question, “But it is exactly my travels that took my religion away! Not brought it to me! I’ve seen so many people, the world over, worship in so many ways, none less sacred than another. So how is it that this same route brought you to yours?”
He shrugs with a smile that hints he knows more, “Each pilgrim has her own path.”
For one second, looking at our matching paths prior, I am scared; What if the same thing happens to me!?
And then with a sigh of sarcastic relief, I laugh at the ignorance and petty discrimination of the Catholic church and say to myself, “I can’t! I’m a woman!”
The priest walks me back to the church – where a special staircase is literally RISEN from the floor – and a hidden entrance to the chemin opens the path to pilgrims. With two kisses (as is French custom) from the priest, I am thus blessed, and on my way.
I descend. And, thus, my pilgrimage begins….