June 3, 2012
So in a few days I will be embarking on a 525 mile pilgrimage through Spain, beginning in Roncesvalles and ending at the coast in Finisterre after officially completing the pilgrimage in Santiago de Compostela. I have decided to do my best to keep a semi-frequently updated blog going so that I can look back on my experiences on the Camino and so that I can share some of my experiences with loved ones and others who are interested. I thought I would begin this experience by reflecting on the heck I decided to spend my last summer in college being exhausted and walking through a country.
Last spring I made the best decision of my life when I decided to spend my semester abroad in El Salvador. This decision set into motion the series of events leading me to where I am today, about to embark on my pilgrimage through Spain. The people I accompanied, the stories I heard, and the lives to which I witnessed were ones that will always stay with me. One person in particular, however, became the heart of my experience and is the catalyst for why I am here writing this blog now.
Father Dean Brackley was a Jesuit priest from the Bronx. On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests as well as their housekeeper and her daughter were brutally murdered at La Universidad Centroamericana (La UCA), my Salvadoran university. Father Dean Brackley volunteered to come to El Salvador in the midst of the civil war and with priests being targeted to fill the hole that had been formed by the deaths of these Jesuit priests and minister to the Salvadoran people. As you can tell, he was a pretty exceptional person, and he became a close friend of mine while in El Salvador. One Sunday afternoon, after a particularly taxing experience that caused me to question what I was doing and where I was heading, I wandered into the church at the base of the hill in Antiguo Cuscatlan where I was staying. I saw Padre Dean, went up to him with tears in my eyes, and just started venting about everything that was going on—about my frustration and guilt about being American and learning how America has harmed El Salvador, about feeling insignificant and an imposter amongst such incredible people in my program here in El Salvador, about feeling lost an uncertain of what I am supposed to do now. He calmly told me to follow him, and we went to a small room that became our weekly meeting space. God truly does work in mysterious ways, for if it weren’t for that moment of loss and confusion and frustration and sadness, I would not be here now. After an incredible talk with Padre Dean for two hours, he had to leave but told me he could meet again at the same time the following Sunday. Practically every Sunday I returned, and every Sunday I left feeling renewed and full of life. A few months into our meetings—when I was talking about wishing I had something that could help to direct me, that could give me the personal reflection and time and space needed to just be with my thoughts, to really experience life and discover where I want my life to head—Padre Dean stopped me. He said that he thought he knew of something that may be exactly what I needed. A close friend of his had recently embarked on this pilgrimage, called the Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. James), and was described as a life-changing experience. I was intrigued, but as Padre went on to describe it, I became more and more certain that this was not for me. I mean, walking 500 miles? Spending my entire summer away from friends and family? In a foreign country no less! It sounded like a nice idea, but I quickly thought it was an idealistic goal that I would never actually put forth the effort into accomplishing. Padre Dean would remain a guiding and motivating influence on my life up until the day he finally lost his fight with cancer on October 16, 2011, a few months after I left El Salvador.
The next moment that pushed me towards walking El Camino was when a close friend of mine in El Salvador mentioned an incredible new trailer she had seen that she thought I would love. Turns out that this trailer was for a movie called The Way by Emilio Estevez and starring his father Martin Sheen. I was deeply moved by the trailer, inspired by the theme, and further motivated by the connection between this and my talk with Padre Dean. At this point, I did not fully recognize the connection between Padre Dean’s reference to the pilgrimage and the movie. However, I watched that trailer religiously for the next few weeks and decided that I would see the movie when it came out and would do my best to push myself towards walking El Camino. A few months later, tear-filled goodbyes were said, friends embraced, and I was on my way back to the States.
I returned in August to St. Louis University, became more involved with Campus Ministry, and tried to find some way to transition back to the States and fill the El Salvador-shaped hole that I felt in my heart. One of the campus ministers, Ben, and I began to form a closer friendship, and his presence helped me greatly in my transition. We talked in broken Spanish about my experiences in El Salvador and on anything else that was going on in our lives. His presence and these talks kept El Salvador alive in my heart and kept my passion burning. In October, The Way finally came out in St. Louis, and Ben, his girlfriend and my friend Colleen, and I went to see it in theaters. I was deeply moved an further inspired and dedicated to complete this pilgrimage sometime in my life, though it was still ambiguous and idealistic, not anything near a practical reality for me.
Sometime after seeing the film, Ben mentioned to me the School of the Americas protest trip in November down to Ft. Benning, Georgia. I had been before, but I was motivated to go again so that I could witness the vigil through the lens of my experiences in El Salvador. The SOA protest is deeply inspired and informed by the Salvadoran experience during their civil war and many Salvadorans lost their lives by graduates who were committed war crimes after being trained in the US at Ft. Benning. I decided to return. I was having an incredibly moving experience right from the start and felt that El Salvador was once again coming alive through the people I met and discussions I had. However, I was about to have an experience that would push me past my uncertainty and finalize my decision to walk El Camino. While at the protest, I saw a man in the distance who looked familiar. When people turned and stared at him as he walked by, I realized that this man was none other than Martin Sheen himself! (Already a big reason thanks to The Way that I was still considering and wanting to do the pilgrimage). He saw that I was staring, walked over and introduced himself to me (as if I didn’t already know exactly who he was). I began gushing over how inspirational he has been in my life, how the West Wing inspired me to speak out and become engaged in issues I was passionate about and in politics that led me to the protest itself. I talked about my life-changing experiences in El Salvador and my related work at Saint Louis University. I talked about The Way and my passionate but lofty desire to do the pilgrimage some time in my life. After all this, he said to me, “well David, this sounds like something you really need to do. I think the fact that you are still considering walking 500 miles shows that you are crazy and passionate enough for this. I think if you are still considering it, you should just go and do it. People like you, with your passionate drive, you are the inspiring ones.” I can’t explain how important this interaction was to me, but it still sticks with me. I decided right then and there that I would do the pilgrimage as soon as I saved up enough money. Padre Dean, my friend in El Salvador, Ben and the Way, and now Martin Sheen. Something was clearly conspiring to lead me to El Camino, and I decided to simply go with it.
In the spring semester, I get a simple text from my mother who was then on a silent retreat. It read “I want to do the camino with you. Let’s go this summer.” And that was it. I was on my way to Spain this summer. All I needed was that extra push and motivation from someone close to me and I was on my way.
So after all of that running and avoiding it out of fear and anxiety, I sit here only a few days from what I am sure will be an exhausting and exhilarating experience. As I look back and reflect on what led me here, I can’t help but shake my head in amazement. I am unbelievably nervous but even more excited about embarking on this journey, and I will do my best to keep y’all posted on how it goes. Wish me luck, keep me in your thoughts and prayers! Sigue adelante!