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Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Living in a Prayer

See what I did there? All part of my secret masterplan to insert lyrics from the glorious nineteen-eighties in an audacious attempt to turn back time and restore to the world big hair, spandex trousers and shoulder pads. I’ve already managed to slot a couple of Wham hits into my preliminary PhD pensamientos without any adverse reaction though I’m not sure that kind of defeats the purpose. What’s the point in being playfully subversive if nobody really cares?

But I digress. The teaching is almost done and next Friday sees me set out for Cataluña and three weeks walking along some of the lesser-known caminos. Dedicated followers of this blog will recall that I’d planned to set out with a group to walk the first few stages of the Camino Frances, from St Jean Pied de Port over the Pyrenees to Pamplona. Subsequent events, mostly spending far too much time attending to the educational requirements of the sons and daughters of the Somerset bourgeoisie, caused me to rethink: I needed to spend some time on my own. 

Talk about splendid isolation. Two years ago I made my debut on the Santiago pilgrimage by following the Camino Francés and then, because I literally couldn’t stop (and I do mean literally), carried on to Finisterre where the ocean stopped me in my tracks. I dislike labelling any popular path a pedestrian motorway – it smacks of perambulatory snobbery – but towards the end of the walk I did develop a misanthropic streak which I think intensive tutoring has reawakened. To that end I’ve decided to follow three much less-frequented Caminos: the Ruta del Ebro, the Camino Catalan and the Camino Castellano-Aragonés.

Talk about solitary figure in a landscape. I fully expect to meet absolutely nobody else during my three weeks on the road. At the moment that doesn’t bother me, whether I’ve become stir crazy by the time I reach Burgos is another matter altogether. What has been uppermost on my mind is the idea of making a pilgrimage that doesn’t take me all the way to Santiago. Does that turn the pilgrimage into a ‘mere’ six-hundred kilometre hike? Do I have to go ‘all the way’, if you’ll forgive the euphemism. 

There is, I hope, method in the madness. In between negotiating long journeys up and down the A303, the highway that leads from Hell to happiness, I’ve been ruminating on the tenuous link between landscape and theology. Or, more specifically, the link between landscape and liberation theology. There’s a useful chapter on pilgrimage in Frédéric GrosA Philosophy of Walking’ in which he refers to ‘Gyrovagues’ – itinerant monks who ‘journeyed ceaselessly from monastery to monastery, without fixed abode.’ They were denounced as wretched by Benedict of Nursia, who accused them of indulging their passions and cravings but it’s a notion that appeals to me, a theology of itinerancy and deviation. An interesting article on them can be accessed here:

In moments of intellectual adversity – and believe me, they are legion – I turn to my trusted tomes. In this case the truly inspiring ‘Life out of Death: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador’ by Marigold Best and Pamela Hussey. Many years ago I had the privilege of meeting Sister Pamela; she confirmed my theory that the smaller the nun in stature, the greater her theological presence and radical thought. Revelation came in an interview with the Honduran theologian, Carmen Manuela ‘Nelly’ del Cid who speaks about the plight of peasant during the Salvadoran civil war: 

‘[they] possess a sense of nomadic spirituality such as the Israelites had in the beginning. We have lost this because we have become too settled. They haven’t lost it because they are always expecting to move on. They discover a God who walks with them and so they can also identify with a small God, a God who hasn’t got an answer to everything, a God who is so weak that he suffers with them. But he is a God who is with them, there, and when they discover this more clearly they become capable of greater commitment. They discover that there are things that need to be changed.’ 

I learned most of my theology on the ground, in Central America, El Salvador in particular. It was in Morazán, El Salvador that I came across Nelly’s God who comes among the peasants, ‘who has identified with them’. And a Jesus who was killed for ‘being a big-mouth, for speaking out and denouncing injustice’.

Nelly’s theology reminds me of Angela Carter, it doesn’t just subvert traditional theology, it inverts it too. A big-mouthed Christ who walks with the poor; a Virgin Mary with a bit of an attitude - Our Lady of the Clenched Fist.

A tenuous link or girt, humungous leap of faith? Clearly I’m opting for the latter but only time will tell. The journey starts next Friday, on the 10:30 from Bristol to Paddington. Then it’s Eurostar, SNCF and RENFE to the Catalunyan town of Tortosa where the fun begins in earnest. There’s a reason for taking the train – slow travel; all will be revealed in time.

Expect more activity on this blog in the next month.


Marigold Best and Pamela Hussey: ‘Life out of Death: The Feminine Spirit in El Salvador', CIIR (1996)

Frédéric Gros: A Philosophy of Walking, Verso (2014)


  1. Ohhh, i'm jealous, hope you'll be giving us regular updates and a map, we NEED a map!

  2. Me too...looking forward to hearing about your progress on the lonely caminos.

  3. Very thought-provoking piece. Carmen Manuela's "They discover a God who walks with them and so they can also identify with a small God" reminds me of some walking and mountaineering accounts where the traveller feels as though a prescence is with them. In Getting Higher (the complete mountain poems), Andrew Greig invokes the Buddha as an invisible prescence, and there is the story of the Big Grey Man of Ben Macdhui, though this is perhaps a wee bit off, no doubt perpetuated by the brocken spectre (a natural phenomenom that projects one's own shadow into the mist -, and a little more sinister than the companionable Buddha. There are more examples, I'm sure, but they're the ones that spring to mind just now. Look forward to your future accounts.

    Best, Kieron