Touching the sacred; making art

Days 1–12 on the Camino de Santiago

On day 1, I hiked through clouds of mist and the Pyrenees mountains, chanting the names of my family and the mantra: embrace mystery (or delightfully — embrace mist-ery). A wild horse stole the baguette from my pack as I sat for lunch, and I made human friends, who shared their bread and helped me to navigate in the low visibility. In my darkest hours, navigating steep descents through the mountains to Roncesvalles, I sang Plum Village songs to keep my feet moving through pain.

Day 1: band of wild horses approaching my baguette

On day 4, I trekked an alternative route to Zabaldika, a tiny town with an alburgue run by sisters of the Sacred Heart. In the church, an intention for my life arose, powerful in its simplicity: Be in churches; make art (current interpretation: Touch the sacred; make art). Sister Mary Solitude touched me deeply with her full embrace of my Buddhist practice. She was in the church with me while I meditated, and afterwards said: “I was with you while you were sitting. I felt your energy, and mine was the same”.

On day 7, I arrived at the first of two octagonal churches designed by Moors. A German pilgrim couple — Johannes and Susanna, who I would discover were Lutheran priests — paid my entry fee and later invited me to cook dinner with them when we arrived in Puente La Reina. I prepared tomato and apricot salad, with melon for dessert, and they created a hearty fish spaghetti.

On day 8, my knees recovered from pain! I hiked a full stage of 21.9km and then ventured another kilometer to stay with Benedictine nuns in the mountains. I was the only pilgrim in the convent, and the place struck me as very eerie — the perfect setting for a ghost or horror story. The nuns shared a lovely vespers with me, then offered a blessing for my safety and salvation. Later in the evening, I realized I was locked inside the convent, with one nun responsible for following me everywhere I went outside of my room.

Yesterday, day 11, I woke before dawn in the bottom bunk of an albergue in Torres del Rio, a tiny village housing another exquisite octagonal church. With mochila and hiking poles, I followed the Camino path through valleys of grapevines and grassland for sheep. Above me, the sky raged: thunder and lightning danced and I inwardly cursed my decision to recycle my poncho (€7 buy in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port) and to give away my waterproof Columbia jacket (Amazon, muy caro).

I walked with Katie, a devout Catholic woman from Alberta, Canada, for the final 9.4km from Viana to Lograño (my current location). She’s also 28 years old, and I asked her about trusting in God’s plan for her life. She spoke about the mystery of God’s work — life includes suffering and not getting what you want — and her practice of learning to accept and surrender to God’s will. I was touched by how similar this was to a Buddhist response to this question: Commit to the truth of not knowing. Practice acceptance of whatever arises. Surrender to what is, for the infinitude of causes and conditions have manifested in this moment.

Day 11: Sky, pastures for sheep, vineyards

Touching the sacred can take many forms

At Plum Village, I unearthed a commitment in my heart to become a dharma teacher in Thay’s tradition.

On the Camino, I’m beginning to see that the path of touching the sacred (or interbeing or God) takes many forms — and the Buddhist path is not the only way.

I’m learning to free my mind from dogmatism and strict ideas about the way things are, and to open up to all of the ways we as humans touch the mystery, the sacred elements of life: through nature, prayer, meditation, science, art, relationship, just staring at the starry night. We realize the temporary nature of own bodies, face death, come to terms with the meaning of our lives; and we do it in an infinite number of ways.

Each person I meet on the Camino is a beacon of this truth: the truth of the vast diversity of our human species, and of the universal questions that cause us to pause, if even for a moment. Why am I here? What is love? What should I do right now?

At many churches along the Camino, I sit on a wooden pew and pray. I invite in deep knowing of my own belonging in this universe; I see my ancestors and my parents and brothers, my future descendants, and all creatures with me in this very moment.

Somehow, this prayer brings answers to the questions in my heart: I know that I am here because of all that has come before. I know that love is God, is interbeing, is what connects us all through space and time. And I know that there is nothing I need to do.

Life as pilgrimage

This body of mine may walk the Camino de Santiago de Compostela until August, but my pilgrimage does not end upon reaching Santiago. Pilgrimage is a means of seeking and knowing that which is holy, and this is a path for life.

I think back to the intention that arose for me in the church of Mary Solitude: to touch the sacred, to make art.

Touching the sacred by seeking God, resting in interbeing, finding wonder in the blooming of the lotus —however I access that which is holy —this is my life’s path. Each step on the Camino affirms this commitment. I intend to create some beautiful art along the way.

A poem, inspired by a church prayer

You are whole, holy, god, infinite love — whatever form brings you to your knees in prayer

For within you is all of the universe

The flutter of one dragonfly’s wings, and you would not be you

Can you rest in your own divinity?

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Melanie Gin

Social entrepreneur, creative, engineer. I like to make things and tell stories.