(Keeping to my pledge to write thirty-four blogs, one every Monday, on how the Camino continues to affect my life– the same number as the days I walked the 500-mile pilgrimage)
When pilgrims first walked the Camino de Santiago, the rule was to travel very lightly. The less they took, the more they would be dependent on God. In the middle ages, Popes prescribed the pilgrim’s dress – a long cloak, broad hat, a staff and gourd, a pouch to hold alms and a satchel. The broad hats to protect them from the sun, the cloak to counter cold and rain, the satchel for food, the gourd for water and the staff for defense and support over rough ground. The scallop shell, which the pilgrims wore, soon became the symbol of the pilgrimage. This was to identify them as pilgrims and not vagabonds.
Steve and I did not follow these exact guidelines, but we did limit what we carried to ten percent of our body weight. With one change of clothes and the bare minimum of toiletries, we kept to this limit for the entire journey, supplementing our food daily. We didn’t suffer from the limitation as early pilgrims did, and instead, living that simply was a certain kind of pleasure. We were both glad we followed the old rule of limited possessions. It did keep us focused and unencumbered and not wanting for anything (except a bed at night!)
I was reminded of this old wisdom more directly when we invited Rita Pitkin Blumenthal to come to the Listening Post as our guest in honor of our third anniversary. She was one of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers who had gathered from around the world to share their wisdom and their medicine in service of the planet. Their collective story is an amazing tale in and of itself, and I encourage you to read about it; but I want to only tell the story that Rita shared that night; it is one that I have never forgotten and still guides me.
Beside being the first certified Native healer at Alaska Native Medical Center, she had done much work on deep listening with patients and in her culture. She told us the story of the long and careful preparation for her initiation to become a Yupik shaman for her people. The process went on for five years. Once each year several villages would gather and during that time, they would work on the garments and tools that she would need for her initiation rite. For five years, the skins for her robes were tanned and sewed, intricate bead work done, dance fans made, rattles fashioned, mukluks painstakingly sewn, the head dress fit to her size, and the bags where she would keep her healing arts were designed.
Finally everything was ready and the large gathering came to honor her in a ceremony to make her a shaman at last. But this is the part that set me back on my heels when I heard it; after the ceremony, her mother took her out behind the tent that night, stripped her of all her beautiful garments and tools– and burned them in front of her. And what her mother said to her as the fire blazed was only this, “Cling to nothing.” Cling to nothing. It was not about the outer garments that would make Rita a wise healer; it was what would happen on the inside to the heart. It was the inner journey that would outfit Rita to become a shaman for her people, not external finery.
Whenever I tell this story, my soul always leans into it, knows its truth. My little Camino continues in my living into not only simplicity, which can still be egoic if used as a badge, but to take that step of clinging to nothing. As with Rita, clinging implies that there is something outside of myself that is needed for intimacy with the Holy. Truth says we are never separate.
Photo of Rita Pitkin Blumenthal from the archives of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers