Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago

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9780385507653: Fumbling: A Pilgrimage Tale of Love, Grief, and Spiritual Renewal on the Camino de Santiago

In the spirit of Kathleen Norris and Anne Lamott, Kerry Egan describes her journey from grief to faith in this candid, spiritually profound account of her pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, the medieval pilgrim route through Northern Spain.

Kerry Egan, a student at Harvard Divinity School, became a pilgrim at the age of twenty-five, a year after the death of her father. Watching her father die had shattered the image of God Egan grew up with and undermined the theology she studied in school; she embarked on her pilgrimage full of hope and dread at the same time.

Fumbling is the moving journal of Egan’s experiences as she and her boyfriend traveled from the Pyrenees in southern France through the valleys of Navarra and westward through Spain to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, said to contain the remains of Saint James. The idea of pilgrimage rests on the belief that in some places the Divine is especially available to human beings and that the journey itself—the time spent as a pilgrim—is transformative, cleansing, and purifying. Egan was well versed in theories about grieving and the purpose of a pilgrimage, but it was through walking eight or ten hours a day that she first began to understand what grief really was and to recognize God’s presence in everyday people and places.

With humor and unabashed honesty, Egan records her struggles to deal with muddy roads, blistering heat, and grouchy moods. She describes fellow pilgrims of many nationalities, the humble abodes that provide them shelter, and the beautiful, often challenging, landscape. Each incident, encounter, and hard-won mile shapes her internal journey. The repetitiveness of walking frees her to meditate for long periods, the rhythm of her breathing awakens an awareness of the connections of breath, life, and God so central to the teachings of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, and the most unlikely events—from discovering chickens in church to the pleasure of having a pizza at a train station—remind her that prayer is as at once as simple and as profound as seeing and acknowledging the joys and beauty of life.

A story of overcoming anger and sadness and finding joy and redemption, Fumbling illuminates the power of grief to enhance our relationship with God.

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About the Author:

KERRY EGAN grew up in Long Island, New York, and received her B.A. from Washington and Lee University and her master’s of divinity from Harvard University Divinity School. While at Harvard she worked as a nursing-home ombudsman, a chaplain intern at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute, and a research assistant at Harvard’s Center for the Study of World Religions. She lives in Iowa with her travel companion and now husband, Alex.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1.
Along the walls of the church in Navar, there are oil paintings of saints instead of windows. Yellow bones in tarnished reliquaries, faded plastic flowers, and plaster statues crowd tables pressed up against the stone walls. Since the only light in the dense darkness comes from the candles reflecting off the swirling columns of the gold altarpiece that stretches to the ceiling, objects emerged from the murk only as I passed by them, disappearing again as I stepped away. The cool dampness turned the layer of dust on my skin into a paste.

I knelt in the back of the church, my forehead on the top lip of the smooth, varnished pew in front of me. The wood was hard against my forehead, but not rough or uncomfortable, and after a while it felt as though my skin had begun to wrap itself around the pew, and that the wood had begun to mold to my head. I hadn't noticed that the evening's pilgrim's Mass had ended. I'd been crying for a long time, and I was startled and confused when I first sensed a gentle hovering presence all around me. Then I heard rubber soles squeaking against the stone floor.

Five or six old Spanish women in black cotton housedresses and thick glasses, with wrinkled necks and lips fallen in on themselves, crept down the aisles and slid across the pews toward me. Their backs hunched over in the light cardigan sweaters they wore to take the chill off in the still church air. They held rosary beads and pocketbooks close to their bodies. Very slowly and wordlessly moving closer, the women were encircling where I sat, until they stopped, scattered in the pews twelve or so feet from me.

The women said nothing, never got too close. They didn't make any motions to comfort or interrupt me, and though they could not know why I was crying, they did not ask. They did not know my father died one year ago on that day, or that all day I had steadfastly refused to think about him. Instead, I spent the afternoon as I walked along the Camino de Santiago, an old pilgrimage route in northern Spain, seething at the sun that burned the backs of my legs no matter how much sunscreen I put on, the prickly heat that erupted all over my belly no matter how long I soaked in cold water, the landscape with nothing tall enough to create shadows long enough to walk under, and the sky without a single cloud in it. There was nothing I could do to make it rain, to create shade, to cool the sun. I could not move the Camino under the trees in the distance. I could not move the towns closer together. I could not tell my father the things I wanted him to know, and I could not apologize for the many things I said to a sad, sick man.

A year had gone by and I could not change any of it, even if I worked very hard, was kind to strangers, begged God. I tried all those things, but I still quivered with regret all the time. I didn't know why I'd ever thought that walking four hundred miles to look at the supposed remains of Saint James--believed to have been washed ashore in a stone boat on the west coast of Spain after his death in Jerusalem--was a good idea. I didn't think I believed in God, let alone all these trappings of the religion I grew up with, for I saw little evidence to prove that God exists.

The women in the church did not know any of this. They just sat, breathing deep and long sighs, murmuring as they said their prayers around me, clicking their rosary beads as they settled their heavy bodies into the pews. Slow breath in, and a pause. A steady exhale. A rest. And then it began again. Their steady breathing steadied my own, and with ragged gulps I stopped crying. Just as slowly and silently as they came, they made their way away from me and out the door.

I sat in the pew for a few more minutes and watched the gold light at the front of the church pulsate through the remnants of tears in my eyes. Alex walked over, slid down the pew to sit next to me and said, "There's a wax effigy of a saint in a glass coffin in the back of the church . . ." His voice trailed up in a hopeful question while his eyes, which change from blue to green depending on the light, searched my face from behind his glasses. Everyone comforts in his own way; Alex's way usually involves the absurd.

We walked back to the pale effigy with disheveled black wig and faded clothing. I smiled for him. Then we pushed the door of the church open and stepped into the sunlight, still blinding even in the evening, reflecting off the paving stones of the square.

With the dark cloth of their dresses contrasted against the bleached yellow-gold of the buildings and street, the old ladies stood in a circle talking. The circle opened as I walked past, and the women, with jaws firmly set, looked at me.

One of them nodded very slowly. It was not a nod of acknowledgment, but a continuous nod, one of agreement.

I often wonder now what the woman was saying yes to, what that nod meant. I didn't wonder then. Yes meant yes, and for that moment, it made sense.
2.
Though I was in a strange world on the Camino, with a foreign language and foreign food, odd experiences and odd people, the strangeness of it didn't bother me too much. In some ways I had been a stranger to myself for many months.

I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, but didn't really understand or care about anything I read or heard in class. I slept sixteen hours every night and lived on Cheerios, pizza, and ice cream. Whole days went by during which I did nothing but sit on the couch. I didn't watch TV or read or nap. I just sat. I wasn't sad or lonely or angry or happy. I was doing surprisingly well after my father died, I thought. I didn't feel a thing.

He died in June after three months in the hospital for sepsis, but he had been very sick before that. He had been in the hospital on six different machines and twenty different tubes before, and I had thought he was going to die then, had steeled myself, but he didn't die. The strangest part of that spring was that this hospitalization felt exactly the same to me as all his others, only the end result was so different. I was well rehearsed in these long hospitalizations, had over twenty years of learning how to make the lump of anxiety in my stomach sit quietly, of splitting my practical and emotional lives between the private and almost secretive world of sickness and the outer world of school and friends and jobs. But I didn't know how to respond when he actually did die.

And that I was relieved, and that I couldn't feel sad because I did not miss him because I was angry at him, so angry at what he had become and what I thought he had done to everyone in my family--this left me without knowing what to think of myself. It was easy not to love while he was still alive, but what did it mean to not love when he was dead? To be glad that my mother's house no longer smelled like illness? To be relieved? It's not that I didn't know what to think. It's that I could barely stand what I thought.

The more compassion and kindness people shared, the more I began to avoid people, all people, spending more and more time on my couch, the weight of shame pinning me down. Even this, though, didn't register as a feeling. It was physical--a heaviness in the diaphragm and bowels, relieved only by the thought that I didn't have to take the bus down to Long Island that weekend, that I didn't have to go between worlds, between the world of books and blooming crab apple trees and the world of beeping machines and foul smells and the heavy mix of fear and longing that it end. The two worlds didn't seem to understand each other at all and I was tired of splitting myself in two.
A friend from divinity school mentioned one day that she wanted to walk the Camino de Santiago. I'd never heard of it, and I'd read only a single book about pilgrimage that fall, but I decided that walking to Santiago was exactly what I should do. I had no idea why I wanted to go on a pilgrimage to a Christian holy place, since I didn't believe in a God I would want to spend energy and money trying to get to know, especially after having just witnessed what I considered his creation gone wrong. Of course, this was assuming God had even created any of this, for he didn't seem to have much power or desire to intervene. Nevertheless, I bought a guidebook on the Internet and explained my incoherent and ill-formed plan to Alex.

Alex and I began dating in our junior and sophomore years of college. He went to law school immediately after graduating because he thought it was expected, and because he believed it would make his parents happy. This trait of his, the desire to make others happy even at the expense of his own happiness, means that he often takes on burdens that shouldn't belong to him. He didn't like being an attorney, finding the confrontational aspects of it exhausting and the wool suits entirely too constricting and itchy. He moved to Somerville when I started divinity school, and within a few months Alex was making the biweekly bus trips with me.

He was sitting on the floor playing a video game, rocking and careening back and forth as his buxom female character fought off attack dogs and bandits. His broad swimmer's shoulders were hunched over the game controller.

"Spain, huh? That sounds cool. I like sangria." He paused to have his character pull out a bazooka. "And naps. They take siesta every day. I want to go, too."

"This is not going to be a vacation. This is a pilgrimage."

"Yeah, that sounds good. I like religious stuff. All those weird relics. Jawbones and kneecaps. Oh, shit." His character fell into a lake of fire.

"I really mean it, Alex. This isn't going to be like Prague, where you can just drink absinthe and go to pornographic puppet shows. We can't just stop in the middle and go to the Costa del Sol and get drunk every night. I am going to do this." My voice got louder as I spoke, almost shouting.

Alex turned around to face me. He furrowed his thick eyebrows, and li...

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