“The Truth doesn’t want to be proven; it wants to be believed.”
— Katarina Gritzer
Not long ago, I returned from walking the Camino de Santiago. Like most pilgrims, I started from Saint Jean Pied-de-Port on Halloween, end finished at Finisterre on 6 December. Although a writer by profession, I find myself at a loss for words to not only describe the outward journey, but to express the inward one, as well.
I could tell you how the journey, walked with peregrinos from Canada, Germany, Ireland, Italy, South Korea, the United States, and many more countries, began with wind-roaring mountains and ended with horizon-less ocean and the silent, setting, blazing sun — immense, incomprehensible nature, and the oldest and archetypal religious symbols of human history. I could tell you how in between these enormous powers was a symbolic journey of birth, aging, death, and resurrection, embarked upon with such amazing, thoughtful, fun, curious, anguished, and intrepid people; the daunting first ascent through the Pyrenees; the brilliant twilit moment when I learned the Korean expression, “아름다운”, and the hidden surprise when I learned another, “대단하다”; the otherworldly mists of Monte Irago; the underwhelming hilarity of the facade of the Cathedral of Santiago and the overwhelming power that tidally surged forth from the High Altar within; the final steps onward, upward, to the End of the World, as a car of local teenagers sped by, honking its horn as a pretty girl jutted her head out of the window and shouted joyfully to us, “¡Ánimo! ¡Ánimo!”; the vast, unfathomable, ancient joy of the foaming Atlantic waves crashing against the rocks; unexpectedly and uncontrollably sobbing, alone in the dark with the Tomb of the Apostle, for everything I had lost along the way, both before and during the Camino; and the brief, astonishing, symbolic moment when I was almost granted the rarest of privileges for a pilgrim: to enter the Tomb itself, to cross the threshold beyond which there is no crossing — only to have the guardian change her mind and stop me, as if to remind me of my station in the face of the Ultimate.
I could tell you all of this and more: of all the synchronicity — the profound banalities and the miracles hidden subtly in the banal — and of all the humorous ironies, mental blisters and bone aches, anti-climaxes and sudden wonders, and the Kafka-esque absurdities of Galician municipal albergues — and I would still be doing an injustice to it.
What I will tell you is that I have returned from this journey in some sense transfigured. I feel somehow myself and not. Outwardly I am still Christopher Schwartz, that guy whose beard and hair really needs to be disciplined; who somehow manages to squish together philosophy and journalism, two very difficult bedfellows; and who is still woefully inefficient as his own boss, failing even now to balance sleep, work, and leisure. Inwardly, though, I have stumbled upon the secret shores of a roiling ocean of serenity. Therein, time is always enough and silence speaks; therein, the roar of human folly is no more than a whisper swept up in the tidal winds; therein, we are all eternal.
It is as though all of the world is a motherboard and I am now soldered onto the circuit of Saint James, charged with the electricity of the Everlasting. I no longer feel revolted at the idea of being in Leuven, where so many people sigh and flit away their lives in pursuit of security and approval, or New York City, that tempest of marble, glass, and steel. These places are what they are; best not to poison my veins with negativity; best to focus on how I, in my own person, can be a source of forthrightness and positive action. I still long to return to Bishkek, but it is more a longing to be with a dear friend than to escape an enemy, and if despite my best efforts I cannot return, well, so be it. I will mourn for the loss and then let it go as best I can.
I also feel as though I have had a profound encounter with perenniality, one result of which is deeper-felt conviction in the revelation of Bahá’u’lláh which, prior to the Camino and despite five years in the Bahá’í Faith, had somehow eluded me. The other day I needed to get away from the beehive-like buzz of Leuven and I found myself in the town’s oldest spot, built where centuries ago Arnulf of Carinthia faced down the rampaging Vikings. I beheld the crucifix and felt the sheer veracity and reality of the Manifestations of God. To understand what I mean, take a moment to really stop and consider how Christ’s prophecy to James, “Follow Me and I shall make thee a fisher of men”, actually came true! Millions over the centuries have bit the hook or have been swept up into the net, pulled out of the pond of normal life into the strange unknown of the divine.
Or consider how the story of human history is really the story of that same transcendent might working through each and every one of us — and moreover, how it is truly the very same power returning, again and again and again. It takes sheerest form under the visages of Siddhartha, Muhammad, Moses, Krishna, Christ, Bahá’u’lláh, and it is slowly and painstakingly establishing a Kingdom of Heaven, a vast Empire of the Symbolic, first within the internal world, pioneering our hearts, transforming our consciousnesses, before sweeping out into the external world to conquer injustice, to render the earth a garden, to hop among the craters of the moon, and to reach for the stars themselves.
I also now feel that I have new conceptual models with real existential consequence, ones I can sincerely believe in to boot, as they are derived from my lived experience of walking the Camino itself. I had many reasons for going on the pilgrimage, but the most fundamental one was to work on my mode of being. Over the last few years, I had sought to weld together various dualities — activism and careerism, service to others and self-promotion, etc. — but by October, the cap had busted and the seam was cracking. I both wanted and needed profound and positive inner change, as though I were a globe that had been spinning westward and now realized that it must reverse its course. However, once on the Camino, I quickly realized that relying only upon my own native mental resources would probably be insufficient to render long-lasting any possible gains after the journey.
It now occurs to me that I needed the Camino to provide me signs, even miracles, kicks to the psycho-philosophical groin. Put another way, I needed incidents of synchronicity: revelatory and symbolic events in whose manifestation my mind would necessarily participate, but whose nature could also not be rationally reduced to being mere products of my imagination alone. In this way, I would both have less excuse to permit myself to slide back into established ways of thinking, and I would also have mental structures that were in some sense “outside” my own mind, transcending the limits of skull and thought: perceived realities in which I could have confidence and, as a result, that would wedge and buttress and push the globe eastward, against its own habituated momentum, until its new rotation was as natural to it as the old. Much to my amazement — not only while I was on the Camino, but also now, perhaps even all the more so now — this need was fulfilled.
One of the most remarkable incidents occurred in the early morning on Monte Irago, on the path to the Cruz de Ferro, one of the greatest and most significant locations on the route. The tradition at this stage of the Camino is for pilgrims to leave at the foot of the cross a stone symbolizing their burdens. I wondered for a while which burden I wanted to leave behind, but had not yet come to an answer.
The entire mountaintop was enshrouded in mist and silence. As my fellow pilgrims and I stepped out of our albergue, we encountered a pilgrim we had never seen before. He was draped head to toe in green — green boots, green trousers, a green poncho — and across the bridge of his nose was a stark white bandage. I waved to him, but he simply stared blankly at me in reply. His eyes seemed empty, and his arms hung limply at his sides. A quick walker, he zoomed past us into the mist. After a moment, I felt strangely compelled to keep up with him.
For the next half hour or so, we walked, not really together, but in some sense conjoined. Always ahead of me by a meter or two, the stranger was a gray, dim silhouette. I was struck by the peculiarity of our journey, and I suddenly realized: there are burdens and then there is burden; I do not want to leave behind burdens, I want to leave behind burden; and the most fundamental burden is the burden of the Self. And as I pondered this, entranced by the stranger’s spectral shape and the steady rhythm of his walk, from some dim space in the back of my skull whispered these words:
“The Self is the shadow cast by the light of the Soul striking the body. It is a dark form in the mist, slowly disappearing. All things are shadows, cast by the burning light of God.”
We cut across a paved road and then skirted alongside it while shouldering a small forest to our right. This experience of, as it were, three roads — the paved asphalt highway, the wilderness, and the Camino — made a strong impression upon me; I return to it at length in the next sections below. The very moment this impression dug in, thoogh, I looked up and beheld the Cruz de Ferro, rising skyward from atop a concrete mound covered in the rubble and artifacts and tributes left behind by countless pilgrims before me. I ascended and laid down my tone. The stranger, though, glanced blithely at the cross and then away, not hesitating even for a moment, just continuing his walk as though he were passing by just another object. And then: his dark form slowly disappeared into the mist.
My friends and I never encountered him again. Moreover, no matter who we asked, no one ahead or behind us ever encountered him nor had any idea as to who he had been. It was as though he had been a phantom, a Soul that had been utterly lost in emptiness of the Self, inwardly dead though to outwardly eyes alive — “dead in trespasses and sins”, “walk[ing] according to the course of this world” [Saint Paul, Ephesians: 2:1 and 5].
A more conscious decision taken to achieve my goal was setting for myself various “meditation tasks” while I was on the pilgrimage. An early one — inspired during morning mass in a chapel in Logroño after reflecting upon a powerfully sculpted Romanesque crucifix, particularly the dream-like way in which it depicted Christ’s pain, how something abstract and triumphant radiated through the physical torment and seeming defeat — was to contemplate the suffering of the Manifestations, primarily Christ and Bahá’u’lláh, as a way to investigate the reality of Their claims. I remember also being struck by the Romans’ sarcastic sign of condemnation nailed above Christ’s head: “INRI” (Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum). The realization of how materialistically they and many of the Jews had misunderstood the nature of His assertion reverberated within me, for as Bahá’u’lláh said, that “the things He hath reserved for Himself are the cities of men’s hearts” and that it is the mission of the Manifestations to “to seize and possess the hearts of men” [Gleanings: 139 ¶5; 105 ¶6]. They come not to establish actual kingdoms, but symbolic ones.
However, it was contemplating the actual day-to-day grind of walking the Camino itself that, in retrospect, proffered the most crucial insights. I feel that I finally began to understand what it really means to be human, ineffable and inconceivable though this may ultimately still be.
First, an historical note. The actual pilgrimage route is pagan in deepest origin, later converted into a highway by the Romans, who converted the Celtic worship of the sun into their own polytheistic system before themselves being converted to Christianity. This highway, in turn, became re-paved then asphalted and turned over to primarily economic purposes in the modern era, beginning in the eighteenth century. The Camino today is now a dirt path, zipping through farms and running alongside the highway — and frequently intersecting or overlapping with it. It is now a separate space between the asphalt on the one side, and wilderness on the other.
The Camino’s outward transformations reflect history’s inward evolution. Scholars often think that in the pre-modern era there was neither distinction between spiritual and material civilization, nor any peace possible with other-ness. Hence, the Christian highway of aging and cracked Roman stones that doubled as both political-martial-economic transit and religious pilgrimage route, juxtaposed on the one side against Muslim armies and on the other the Desert of the Duero. Today, spiritual and material civilization are now beginning to be understood to be distinct, i.e., not necessarily separated, but not the same, either. We can see this growing realization manifested in recent centuries’ many social-political experiments on the relationship between religion and the state, e.g., separation (America), laïcité (France), theocracy (Iran), suppression (China), and so forth. We are also beginning to make our peace with other-ness, as both the innate diversity of our species and our real destiny as stewards of nature, rather than its unquestioned masters, become clearer and clear. Indeed, this peace seems inevitable, as both human diversity and nature are being in some sense re-asserted, ironically, by crumble and collapse, i.e., the dual-deterioration of the nation-state and the environment. If we do not cease our silent war against ourselves and our world, we will perish.
The insight that the spiritual and material are two different planes of reality extends to the existential question, How will I live? There emerges to one’s eyes three distinct paths: the asphalt road in the towns and cities; the deer trail in the wilderness (insofar that one can speak of a path at all in the wilderness); and the invisible route of the soul, i.e., the Camino. The asphalt road is the culmination of humanity’s struggle against the wilderness: it represents physical safety. For those driving on this road, it perhaps even represents freedom, or at least a clear way forward so that they do not have to worry too much about how they should proceed. However, for those wandering on the deer trail, the asphalt road represents the enslavement of humanity and the violation of other-ness. Only away from the comforts of conquest and in the daily austerities of separation, solitude, survival, and (for some) sedition is true freedom to be found. Between these two camps are the pilgrims, quite literally zigging and zagging, sometimes on the asphalt road, sometimes on the deer trail, sometimes somewhere else entirely, popping in and out of view. They are following path-markers only they can see and understand, making their way to a destination everyone’s heard of but few have actually felt really inclined to visit. And most of all, to those on the other two roads, the pilgrims seem strange, silly, and senseless.
Stepping away from analogy, what I am describing here is, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, the mainstream of any given society and its discontents, the former represented by the grand swell of normal people, striving and toiling for the genuinely good things in life but also for objects and career and money, and the latter represented by radicals of various types, from hippies in isolationist communes to terrorists waging insurgency. What is especially intriguing here is how the two camps are acting out of ego and unwilling to admit certain truths to themselves: deep down inside, they tacitly agree with each other and really relish each other, the mainstream for the radicals’ viscerality, the radicals for the mainstream’s comfort. They also agree that the pilgrims are somehow absurd. To the mainstream, they appear vaguely and stubbornly malcontent: sure, maybe normal life is boring, but compromise is inevitable if you want to have love and security. To the radicals, the pilgrims are tourists: they are play-pretending at being free, but they are not really removing themselves from the system. Neither see the true adventure upon which the pilgrims are embarking.
I had long believed that true spirituality meant harmonizing and integrating these two paths; I now see that both exist on the material plane, and by their own terms, they are usually irreconcilable or subject to an endless cycle of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The radical may either be assimilated by the mainstream or succeed in overthrowing it, only to itself devolve into that which it despised. This dynamic can and often does result in progress, but just as frequently also in regress — if not simultaneously. It is a wheel that seems to turn but does not really; at best, it turns nobly and intrepidly, but without direction. Look to Russia for a case study. The achievements gained by this spinning may be the worthiest, but they come at unnecessarily great cost; are often fragile to corruption, especially moral; and can be susceptible to the demons of simplification, self-satisfaction, and heedlessness. Look to America for another case study.
I now see this third way, which to be clear is not “between” the other two; it is distinct and transcends them. To those on the asphalt road and the deer trail, the pilgrims’ route appears crooked; but to the pilgrim, it is the asphalt road and the deer trail that are crooked, intersecting with the Camino, not the other way around. On the way to Santiago, I thought of the Qur’an’s opening prayer [1:6], “Guide us on the Straight Path” (“اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ”), a statement that always perplexed me considering how in my own life’s journey there have been a great number of frustrating twists and turns, not to mention perplexing disappointments. These feelings arose from misunderstanding; now I understand that when one walks the spiritual path, sometimes one is on the asphalt road, sometimes one is in the wilderness, sometimes somewhere else entirely. To achieve your purpose — as it were, to reach Santiago — you must be willing to release and walk: to accept and rejoice in the path behind you, to brave and embrace the path that emerges ahead and which is revealed to you step by step, whether through burgeoning city or ghost town, whether through storm or sun. The pilgrim confronts the path-marker pointing further into the unknown, and with pain, tiredness, worry, even doubt, shouts, “Ultreïa!”, “Go forward!”
It is worth walking this third path because there are so many wonders to behold; there is real unity of purpose and fraternity; and there is serenity yet also achievement. That latter point is perhaps the most important for me as a young man, as I used to think more in material terms of spirituality as either docility and passivity, or rage and activism. How often have you found yourself believing that spirituality meant “not giving a crap”, letting injustice go on while you found some kind of transcendence seemingly outside of society — in a lover, in a child, in a business or creative project — or even outside history — in a religious faith, in an ideological movement, in a scientific or academic research endeavor? And how often have you found yourself believing that achievement had to be recognizable to external eyes? Even accomplishing the task of stumbling all the way to Santiago actually means nothing to the pilgrim, as my new friends and I discovered when we discovered a cathedral wrapped in renovation scaffolding.
Walking the spiritual path is worth it if for no other reason than another simple insight gleaned by actually walking it. Until several weeks into the Camino, I had somehow been preserved from injury, even though the majority of my fellow pilgrims had suffered tendinitis, bad knees, horrendous blisters, and so forth. I was surprised by my good fortune. Yes, I was probably generally fitter than most, but not as fit as the athletes among us, who all suffered problems. Yes, I had been generally well-prepared for trekking by my friend Jordi, who had just done the Camino a few months before, and by my experiences as a Boy Scout and doing some hikes in Kyrgyzstan (a “pleasant stroll” in the Ala-Too mountains would terrify most Westerners), but not as well-prepared as pilgrims who had spent months journeying from Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich, and Prague, who also were injured (I remember Victoria from Berlin bandaging her feet; when I asked about the nature of her injury, she simply replied, “3000 kilometers happened to my foot”). And then one day in Vega de Valcarce, I was mesmerized by a slim, crystalline cascade of water flowing down from an enormous roadway cutting across the valley over our heads, and I tripped, horribly spraining my lower shin muscle. Many things changed after this.
I found walking on flat surfaces nearly unbearable and downhill descents were fearsome. Yet, going uphill, even steeply, not only proved perfectly fine, but sometimes even physically pleasant. And this was very peculiar given that the muscle I had sprained, to my understanding, should have hurt precisely in the opposite order. From this experience, I drew a very simple conclusion, but one which had the authority of real pain: humanity is meant to go uphill.
As there are three paths, consider that there are three kinds of people, very broadly-speaking: the downhillers, the flatlanders, and the uphillers. They are characterized by their choice of terrain in the journey of life. The downhillers seek what they perceive to be the easiest terrain; the flatlanders seek the way hard-won by their ancestors; the uphillers seek the seemingly hardest terrain. What happens to them is telling.
Downhill is deceptive and dangerous: there is a constant threat of slipping, falling, and injury, and gravity reveals itself to be an enemy, not a friend. Some downhillers realize this and convince themselves that theirs is in fact the hardest and hence “truest” terrain, similar to those who live in the wilderness in my above analogy. Gravity must be fought against and mastered, for gravity comes to mean death. Most downhillers, however, may never realize this, and they will waste away their lives scrambling without ever really understanding why.
Flatland is deceptive and undermining: it is usually safe, but not always; it can be tough on the feet, but there is no fight with gravity, either; and, similar to the asphalt road, it can have the allure of history, the sense that one’s forebearers suffered and sacrificed to level the mountains and fill up the pits, so that we, their descendants, could have “the good life”. Yet, there is little to no challenge walking on flatland. Gradually, one begins to enter a trance, letting thoughts wander until the skull is filled with white, blank noise. The outside world fades away, and not long after, the inner world too.
Uphill is deceptive and dangerous, but in a subtly different way than downhill. Gravity is both friend and enemy, as it is no longer representative of death, but of ultimacy: it is the unavoidable challenge to be met, and it is an unyielding force to be worked with, sometimes overcome, sometimes relented to, sometimes sidestepped. Most of all, ascent is most characterized by present-mindedness: one cannot permit either worry or a drifting in attention; one must focus. And in the act of focusing, ironically, there is achievement, as one eventually reaches the summit.
Three terrains, three responses to the peril that is intrinsic to life. One avoids, perhaps sometimes to turn around and embrace, but in an even further self-destructive manner. Another also avoids, and nothing more, but also revolting angrily the moment peril appears, which it inevitably will. Only one really embraces, recognizing the inescapability of the danger and choosing to meet it head on, not for its own sake, but for the sake of the transformation it will bring, and perhaps not even for this, but possibly even for a goal beyond oneself entirely. And it is only by embracing the peril that one can appreciate the other terrains — the momentary ease and regeneration that can be provided by the flatland, and the exhilarating rush that can be provided by the downhill, both en route to the next uphill.
There is still so much to say, but I feel that I should close with this reflection: our feet, so crucial to our evolutionary bipedalism, are also the clearest physical sign of our spiritual station, ultimate origins, and true purpose. On the Camino, I thought again of the Qur’an [2:238], which instructs humanity to “stand upright in devotion before God” (“قُومُوا لِلَّهِ قَانِتِينَ”), and invokes the experience of traveling through the world as a symbolic indication of our fundamental calling to be explorers, trekkers, pioneers. If we were to listen mre closely, we would find this call eching forth frm all of the great Scriptures of history. Indeed, during my journey, I had noticed how walking on asphalt, though I had initially expected it to be more comfortable for the feet, proved to be actually far harder than walking on dirt or even through mud. Our place is neither upon the pavement nor in the widerness: if only we would listen, would hear that we are called to walk the path of the spirit into the future, sometimes hidden, sometimes clear, and always, always ahead of us, to the horizon of the impossible. Ultreïa.
“O thoug pilgrim of the Sacred Dust! Render great thanks to God, the Most Glorious, the Lord Who hath guided the unto this path and caused thee to enter the sanctuary of the All Knowing. Render thanks unto Him for having enabled thee to take shelter beneath this bountiful favor and attain that which is the hope and aspiration of the chosen ones of God.”