Many of you know that a few weeks ago Ardelle and I walked a leg of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain. This is the third such trip we have taken with a group. Something I love about this strange pedestrian endeavor is the movement back and forth between solitude and community.
One day I decided to spend some time alone on the path, so I adjusted my pace accordingly. In that quiet, I tried to commit several lines from an Antonio Machado poem to memory.
Traveler, your footprints
are the only road, nothing else.
Traveler, there is no road;
you make your own path as you walk.
As you walk, you make your own road,
and when you look back
you see the path
you will never travel again.
Traveler, there is no road;
only a ship’s wake on the sea.
This is a translation. In the original Spanish, lines three and four read “Caminante, no hay camino/ se hace camino al andar.” Countless songs, bumper stickers, and, no doubt, regrettable tattoos have expressed some version (or perversion) of the lines. They’re favorites of many Camino walkers as well, for reasons that seem obvious enough. Well… The reasons seem obvious until you mutter the poem over and over again to yourself as you walk.
You see, to walk the Camino is to experience an almost perfect inversion of Machado’s poem. To walk the Camino de Santiago means, by definition, that you are not making your own path. You are walking one of the paths made by the footprints of other people across centuries. And the path does not disappear, like a ship’s wake on the sea, once you’ve traveled on. The Way remains. Others will walk it tomorrow. Others on the day after that. Just as peregrinos have for more than a thousand years.
Given that so many of us prize freedom in so many of its forms, it’s astonishing that the experience of not cutting a path for oneself for a time drew more than 400,000 people to the Camino in 2022.
I knew some of these thoughts would make it into a blog post in some form before violence erupted in Israel and Gaza. Frankly, everything feels trivial held up next to the horror that is unfolding before us. I feel both ill-equipped to say anything and that it would be unconscionable to say nothing.
I tiptoe in with the metaphor I began with, noting that a path is also a shallow rut. We are all of us shaped by paths cut by those who have gone before us in ways that are good and beautiful and in ways that are not. We must pay attention to both of these truths at once if we’re to discern when and whether it’s a time to step off the road and begin to cut a new way. Knowing my tendency to overvalue my own wisdom and need for freedom and undervalue the need for the constraints of community, I think I should generally assume that the times to depart from the path are very few and very far between. But there are ruts we must find a way out of if we’re to survive.
Undoubtedly, a great majority of Israelis and Palestinians want families on the other side of the border to be able to go about their lives peacefully and joyfully, raising children, making friendships, offering their thanks and their worries and the rest of the contents of their hearts to the God of Abraham in their prayers. But clearly, there is also a deep rut of hatred and violence that runs across generations in far too many hearts as well. That rut is so deep. Can its sides ever be scaled so that a new path to a more peaceful Israel and Palestine might be cut?
Today, I don’t know what I could possibly do besides mourn with those who are mourning and weep with those who are weeping. The ruts of vengeance and violence are deep, and they stretch back through the whole history of our species and beyond.
Perhaps the next thing I could do is ask honestly what it would take and what it might mean for the violence that reaches my life to stop there, at least as much as is humanly possible for an imperfect human like me. Maybe that next thing is also to ask what path I need to set myself upon or what path I need to return to with other fellow travelers so that whatever grip this violent, vengeful world has on my violent, vengeful heart can at least be a little weaker tomorrow than it is today.