By Ward Ching
In early to mid-November of 2012, my wife, Melinda, and I walked and drove the Spanish Camino de Santiago.* We started in Montserrat (Catalonia) and drove north to join The French Way, finishing in magnificent Santiago de Compostela.
For Melinda, it was a reaffirmation and extended exploration of her earlier pilgrimages on the Camino. For me it was an entirely new learning experience. While Melinda has been researching and visiting sacred spaces, exploring the divine feminine, studying sacred geometry, and walking medieval labyrinths in
Chartres and San Francisco for an extended period of time, my interest only recently emerged. Sure, I was curious, but to dive headlong into a field so different from mine was not a priority.
Why the change? First, as an academically trained political economist my intellectual orientation is empirical. I am trained to achieve problem definition through conceptual framework development and hypothesis formation that leads to observation, data gathering, and analysis. In my professional work, the potential influences of sacred spaces and walking a well-placed labyrinth are difficult to conceptualize, much less understand and communicate to others.
Yet, as I observed Melinda and many of her colleagues doing the things they do, I noted a change in them and subsequently a change in me. I have no way of explaining what that change was, or what it may lead to, but I thought I should spend a little time trying to figure it out. Thus, I agreed to a purposeful and hopeful trip to Spain to encounter the Camino for myself.
Here are the assumptions I took with me as I started the nearly three week trip. Most of them were obliterated in the first nanosecond I tried to employ them:
- I wanted to learn to “read churches.” There must be a framework with which to objectively view the architecture and storyline of the churches and monasteries that I would be visiting. The question was: Could I discover the framework?
- How hard could this be? I was born and raised in Hawaii, where spirituality was all around me in the culture. Surely I would recognize the symbols and structures that would allow me to read sacred spaces.
- I could observe Melinda and mimic what she did to unlock the way to “read churches.” If she could do it, I could do it. What she felt and experienced, I could feel and experience in a similar fashion.
However, when Melinda and I got to Spain and I tried to truly engage the Camino, I became progressively disoriented. I was struggling to be as open to my surroundings as possible while purposefully trying to take in as much information as I could. I discovered later that my disorientation was due, in part, to my unfamiliarity with the subject and my natural tendency to force-fit the experiences into something I could understand. In empiricist’s lingo, I was trying to differentiate between “information” and “noise.” Additionally, I was stubborn and I thought the pre-trip assumptions would help me. Ultimately, the very assumptions I’ve relied on to filter and make sense of the information around me became the very source of confusion.
My disorienting journey began with our stay in Montserrat and got progressively worse as we visited Valle de Hecho, Huesca, Puenta la Reina, the Monastery of San Pedro, San Juan de la Peña, Leyre, Burgos, Silos, and O’ Cebrero. I got substantially better after arriving in Santiago de Compostela and visiting friends in Girona.
Throughout the trip, Melinda was absolutely no help. When I got stuck, she let me stay stuck. Her point was that it was my experience and any suggestions or perspectives she might offer would color my outcome. And, as is normally the case, she was absolutely right.
Clearly, what I had to do was reexamine my expectations about what I could experience. Based on what I was feeling, there was no way that I was going to be able to “read a church” or any other sacred space for that matter, with the limited background, experience, and training I possessed. I had to start at square one and work my way forward, whatever forward meant.
What I consistently observed in Melinda, the pilgrims we encountered, and others who were approaching sacred spaces, was the act of asking permission to enter and to be one with the space. What I mean by “being one with the space” is that they were hoping to engage and be open with whatever they encountered, to experience what was to be experienced. No limitations, no boundaries, no expectations except to be open to whatever happened.
For most of the people I watched, the act was simply a pause at the door or placing a hand on the passageway, followed by a deep purposeful breath and then an “intentioned entry.” People who were “intentioned” appeared there with a purpose. They seemed different from people who were casually entering the sacred space. It was as if they had a reason for being there. They were not there as ordinary tourists taking photographs or being quickly herded through a segment of an organized tour. It was as if they organically had to spend meaningful time there. Intentioned visitors seemed fundamentally different.
So I started asking permission. When I physically approached a space I took the time to be still, get centered, and rest my hand on an entry stone or door and ask in the form of a prayer: “I come in peace. I seek nothing more than to learn. I ask permission to enter.” In most instances, I physically sensed nothing more than my own breathing, stillness, heightened awareness of my surroundings, and rising sense of anticipation. A couple of times I felt what can only be described as a welcoming breath in response. It was as if the space was saying to me: “Ok, let’s play.” I have no idea if any of this was real, but it really did not matter. I got the chance to play.
During the latter stages of our trip along the Camino, I continued to try to find a framework within which to organize my observations and experiences. Back home in California, I am a high school baseball coach. I work with pitchers and catchers at the junior and varsity levels. As a pitching coach, I work with young pitchers to improve their mechanics, conditioning, game understanding/management, and level of competition. One of the things I teach pitchers is that the pitcher’s mound is actually a chalkboard. Their cleat marks on the mound are a visual representation of the balance, direction, and lower-body mechanics of their last pitch. “Reading the dirt” is something every competitive pitcher learns to do.
I realized that what I may have been doing with my efforts to ask permission was, in a way, “reading the dirt.” By recognizing the symbols, architecture, and “rhythms” of the sacred space, I was beginning to see patterns that created a sense of balance and direction. The naïve result was the opportunity to appreciate what I was observing and experiencing. As a result, my confusion started to diminish.
This was most evident during our visit to the crypt at Leyre. I watched Melinda engage the space and comment on the uniqueness of the building. As I walked the room and stood quietly amongst the stone columns, I felt different sensations of pressure and temperature in different parts of the room. I asked permission to be open and receive whatever the place offered me. I tested my senses many times while exploring the space. I felt welcomed there.
As Melinda and I completed our pilgrimage, it became very clear to me that my time and struggle had made an impact on me. I learned that awareness is different from simply being awake; that rigid a priori one-size-fits-all assumptions may not be as useful as originally intentioned; that the experience is in the journey; and, that the outcome of the journey is entirely personal.
*The Camino de Santiago is a 1000-year (or older) pilgrimage road across Spain. It is actually a network of routes across Europe. The most popular Spanish route, The French Route, often also called The Camino de Santiago, stretches 500 miles from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in the northwestern province of Galicia.
For more information on the Camino, go to Following the Milky Way
Ward Ching did his doctoral studies at the University of Southern California in International Relations and Economics. He is currently Vice President of Risk Management Operations for Safeway Inc. and lives with his family in Ross, California.