Years ago, I took a class to learn how to meditate. (The fact that I was 24 at the time, and misread the flyer, and thought it said masturbate, will go unmentioned here.) Long story short, meditating is tedious and boring, not nearly as much fun as masturbating, and only taught me one thing I managed to retain: the Universe knows what it’s doing, even when it’s not clear to me. And it rarely is. Clear to me, I mean.
I mention this because, 23 days, 4 boxes of blister band-aids and 12 bottles of Portuguese wine into my hike on the Camino, I found myself staring up at the majestic spires of the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, Spain.
The good little Catholic girl inside me was speechless with fear.
I had, after all, declared myself a heathen decades earlier.
I had rejected 5 generations of devout Catholics in my family, rolled my eyes at the holy water and golden chalices and baby limbo, turned my back on 12 years of Catholic education. Since my escape, I’d been a self-righteous Baha’i, a spectacularly unwise Buddhist, an anxious Wiccan, an uncomfortable agnostic, and a depressed secular humanist.
Adding insult to injury, I saw no evidence that God was adversely affected by my defection. He seemed blithely unconcerned, for which I was also unaccountably angry. Why didn’t he come after me? Why didn’t he fight for me? Why couldn’t he act like that crazy boyfriend I had in 11th grade who made a complete fool of himself when I broke up with him?
Oh, I believed in something, I would explain to people who didn’t ask. The Force or the Oneness or Universal Love. Just keep that churchy crap away from me and we’ll all get along fine.
At 55, I reclaimed “heathen” as my anti-religious designation. And set off on the most Catholic of pilgrimages.
El Camino de Santiago — the Way of Saint James — is the pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Spain, where the faithful believe the remains of St. James the Elder are entombed. The medieval peregrino (pilgrim) almost always walked the Way for serious religious reasons, finding lodging and food where he might, and depending upon the kindness of strangers. Modern peregrinos have an easier time, sleeping in hostels with hot running water, and choosing their routes with care.
I chose the Camino Portugués, a 150-mile trek up the rocky coast of Portugal.
As I began, I barely gave St. James a thought; I sought only 3 weeks of silence, solitude and physical challenge. My tight schedule left no time for medieval legends or spiritual revelations.
But the Camino – and the Universe – had other plans for me.
Which is how I found myself at the Cathedral, with a dusty Jesus smiling down at me. No pressure, he seemed to say. Neither was there any reproach from the golden statue of St. James, whom I stood in line to embrace. Not a whisper of condemnation as the saint stoically endured my hug, my tears and my hiking poles smacking into his neck.
Like millions of pilgrims before me, going back centuries, I arrived dirty, tired and just in time for Mass. My backpack banged into people and pews, but I pushed into a seat as an Italian priest poured out his syrupy words. I hadn’t heard much English over the last 3 weeks but Mass is the same in every language. I knew from his cadence when to rise and when to kneel and when to beat my breast. The butafumeiro streaked over our heads, a golden comet, and the incense curled itself around me.
I leaned back into the hard bench. My journey was over. I had no miles to cover in the morning, no deadline to meet. I had made it.
And then I heard it.
You are mine.
I felt the words in a soft echo. They tickled. Like when you’ve been in the pool too long and your grandma makes you lie down with your ear to the pillow and be still, and let the water find its way out.
You. Are. Mine.
I took a breath. I was hungry. I needed sleep. I absolutely had to pee.
Why do you feel so at home here? Here, in this massive monument to Christianity?
On my right side, a guy with a bushy beard and corn casserole in his recent past poked me with his elbow. “Shush,” he whispered. I stared at him in confusion.
You are home.
A dark, rich voice. Masculine and steady. Wrapped itself around me, climbed up my spine and puffed up against that crumbling wall of faith at the base of my neck.
You are mine.
Just those few words, and nothing more. The rest hung in the air, unspoken, but understood.
There is no place on this earth that you are alone. Ever.
You are always mine.
You belong to me.
Corn Casserole poked my shoulder, pushing me into the aisle so we could take Communion. I staggered to the priest and back, my bones like eggshells.
I wondered later, as I wandered through the medieval city and stood in line for my Compostela, why the voice of God came to me as an alpha male, dominant but benevolent. Like one of Christine Feehan’s psycho Carpathian warriors. My perfect man.
I wondered why I felt safe and loved and protected and, okay, just a little turned on.
I wondered why I had set out on the Camino alone, not very healthy and not very calm, and yet with complete and total assurance that I would arrive safely, with no ill-fortune.
I caught my plane to Chicago on Sunday, and stopped by my dad’s house first thing. At 81, he was almost the same age as the carved rosary beads around his neck.
“I’m home!” I said breezily, kissing him enthusiastically.
He let go his beads and laughed. “You never left home,” he said.