I’ve had double digit shoe size since I was in the fourth grade. I know what it means to wear shoes too small, to have toes curled under trying to cram big feet into stylish foot wear that doesn’t come “in my size”! My feet have continually paid the price for many of my shoe decisions. One of the great anticipated delights of retirement was to be able to wear my walking shoes on a daily basis (men’s—size 12). And when my husband and I decided to start retirement by walking the Camino de Santiago (a 500 mile walking pilgrimage across Spain), good walking shoes were our first purchase. I spent days researching proper sock wear and printed off volumes on foot care. I knew that our experience would be closely tied with the state of our feet as we walked. I was right—but at a deeper level than I had anticipated.
Each day as the pilgrims filled the albergues (hostels) where we spent the night, the first order of business (after our showers!!!) was foot care. Massaging, creaming, treating blisters, opening to air, placing new bandages. It was a communal affair with the more experienced offering advice and sharing their “equipment”. It was strange—at first—to see people who often shared only a few common words—bent together over a throbbing toe, a heel blister, an oozing sore. One of the earliest of many experiences of hospitality was from a Hungarian women who spoke only a few words of English, but who taught my husband, Don, how to care for my many blisters. In a way I could never have imagined, our feet symbolized our many shared experiences and the opening of boundaries between pilgrims from so many countries, languages, religions, life-styles, politics. We came from many different places, for different reasons, with varying agendas—and yet just as our feet shared the common path of the camino, our hearts were also opened to our common journeys, our common struggles, our common pain, our common joy. Life stories were shared with the same generosity as were band-aids and foot cream. The reasons for the pilgrimage often drifting off into stories about broken marriages, the death of a spouse, a child’s particular pain or distress, estrangement from religion, a hunger of the heart or soul, a longing, a hope. All of the differences we had seemed insignificant in the light of our need for each other, and the gift of each other. Because the journey was hard and long, we each sensed how our separate journeys were bound together.
But our walking did not just bind us together with each other. In ways that are hard to explain, our walking bound us in new ways to Jesus! After several hours of walking, pilgrims would stop in various towns and roadside cafes for a break. We would sit at small tables close together with other pilgrims—many we hadn’t seen before, some we had criss-crossed with as we walked—and share the small talk of travelers. But it wasn’t unusual for those from Christian traditions to weave in Bible stories. For awhile I thought this was a strange phenomenon, until I realized that Don and I often would refer to a story we remembered from the Bible. Walking through the countryside every day—through vineyards, and pastures with sheep and cattle grazing, beside fields of freshly harvested wheat, past the homes of farmers and through small villages—made the stories of Jesus and his disciples doing the same thing seem natural to talk about. All of a sudden we would remember (as if for the first time) how many times in the Bible it says “as Jesus was walking” or “while they were on their way” or “while Jesus and his disciples were going through the grainfields…” So many of the stories took on different and immediate meaning. We were not only sharing the camino with the other pilgrims in this particular journey, but we were sharing it with all those who had ever walked this path and we were sharing it with Jesus whose ministry was intimately tied to putting one foot in front of the other, and feeling the wind, and the sun, the blisters, the tiredness. Of having the time and opportunity to stop along the way and chat with others on the journey. Of knowing a deep intimacy with the creation. Of sharing an amazing bond brought about through such intimacy.
The experience of walking with others, of sharing life at very basic levels, of being close enough to hear each other’s breathing, of smelling each other’s sweat, of sharing our complaints about sore feet and aching hearts, of laughing around the table with friends from Japan, Germany, Denmark, Australia, and Brazil, of receiving the gift of being heard and offering the gift of listening, of remembering Jesus as he showed us God’s kingdom doing those very same things—well, it made me wonder if the way to our hearts isn’t through our feet. …With sore and tired feet, we aren’t likely to buzz around others at fast speeds. We’re “forced” to walk together, to get to know each other, to depend on each other, to see our similarities and appreciate our differences, to understand our connectedness with each other and with God, to take in creation, to learn who we are, and to really see what and who is around us. …Could it be that our feet could be the source of a deeper, more meaningful ‘walk’ with each other and with God?