Heather Conn Blogs

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In what form does a spiritual community appear?

How many times, as a non-Catholic, do you get the chance to participate in a small mass, seated next to a woman who defines herself as an atheist from Alaska?


That’s how impromptu spiritual community unfolds on the Camino. In Santa Domingo, on day 12 of my pilgrimage, I participated in a eucharist mass, not even knowing what that term meant. As someone who nearly winces at the terms “God” and “Lord” and rejects patriarchal organized religion, I wondered what I was doing there. But a deeper part of me, longing for some form of collective spiritual connection or divine validation, felt in the right place.


Eleven pilgrims—a jocular late-forties Irish priest who was questioning his loyalty to the church; me; two twenty-something Catholic men from Philadelphia and two from Hawaii; a self-professed atheist; a middle-aged male Irish Protestant; a middle-aged female Irish Catholic; a 50ish Lutheran minister from Saskatchewan; and one man I never spoke to—gathered in an upstairs room at an albergue.

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Part of an impromptu mass on the Camino

I had met the presiding priest earlier on The Way and admired his playful approach to life, his commitment to grassroots social reform and his growing sense of alienation from his church hierarchy. In my view, he was an anarchist at heart. I knew that his willingness to perform this mass to a mixed group of believers and non-Catholics was verboten by his church’s traditional regulations. The Lutheran minister later warned me not to even mention the priest’s name in any subsequent public writings since he could be ex-communicated for such a supposedly treasonous act.


Ah, a cabal of rebels: my kind of crowd. The priest acknowledged the diversity of our group and gave us all the option of either taking mass or asking for a blessing. As we sat in a circle, holding hands and singing a hymn, I found myself crying, feeling goose bumps and chills, my own form of soulful recognition of something beyond description.

The priest had asked me to read Corinthians 1 verses 1-7. I hadn’t read a Bible in decades. Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. I told myself: Keep an open mind. Ignore the holy trinity language. Connect to the spirit of the words. I enjoyed reading aloud; it reminded me of old Sunday-school sessions and school performances. Yet I still felt disconnected from these phrases. What relationship did they bear to my life?

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A typical communal breakfast at a Camino albergue

My chattering mind continued. It’s just another form of saying a connection to All That Is. Don’t be so judgmental. Stay open to whatever form you might receive a teaching. Why do you continue to promote a sense of separation? We are all One.


“The eucharist relates to the washing of feet,” the priest told us. As pilgrims, we could all relate to a focus on our weary soles. Along the Camino, monks and nuns at some albergues even wash the feet of pilgrims. Our holy host spoke of our common link as people walking The Way. I felt blessed, grateful to be part of this loose-knit yet intentional gathering.


Immediately afterwards, one of the young German men was openly crying. A lapsed Catholic, this was his first mass in many decades. Something had reached him. I read somewhere that everyone who walks the Camino cries at least once along the way.


Later, some of us went for dinner at a restaurant, relishing a Pilgrim’s Menu that included red wine. This was not the Last Supper, which the eucharist commemorates, yet it reinforced a different form of fellowship, a sharing of bread and wine between global souls.

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An international communal dinner at the Apostol Santiago albergue

Communal meals on the Camino are their own form of sacred gathering, like the one I experienced on day 26 at the parochial albergue, Apostol Santiago, in Acebo. By the time I arrived, I felt as if my feet and ankles had been beaten with wooden paddles. But the two matronly hospitaleros, full of laughter and kindness, welcomed me warmly and after much-appreciated rest on my dorm bed, I felt more invigorated.


By 8 pm that night, I joined about a dozen pilgrims from France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Belgium, Hungary, and the U.S. for a dinner of salad, lentil soup, and watermelon slices for dessert. Before eating, we all read a sheet provided by the albergue, which spoke about the Camino as both an inner and outer journey, how it becomes part of you, you become part of a community and so on.

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Each of us read aloud a translation, in our own language, of the same message; there were at least eight versions and we listened to each one consecutively. The Hungarian man was last to read; the hungry Belgian beside me grumbled about having to hear the same thing so many times, but I shushed him. To me, the ritual was a wonderful validation of our separate, yet unified journey.


Eleven days earlier (three days after the mass), the same priest had hosted another spiritual gathering. This time, it was an ecumenical circle in an empty room on the 4th floor of the downtown albergue La Casa del Cubo in Burgos. In a facility that housed 150 beds, I had expected a large turnout but only about a dozen participated, most of them the same people from the previous mass.


We sat in a circle on the floor, a backpack and pillow in the centre representing our collective pilgrim spirit and passage. Since we had all seen herds of sheep fenced in along the path that morning, the priest used sheep and the Lord as a shepherd as a metaphor in his informal talk. He sang a hymn while the two Catholic guys from Philadelphia, both in the seminary, sang beautiful harmonies.

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Sheep on the path en route to Burgos

Although moved by the sound and shared connection, I still missed my more familiar reference points, the Sanskrit chants from my yoga class, and the eastern-based sensibilities that resonate more profoundly with me. Yet, in that time and place, otherwise alone, I still felt a part of something far larger than myself, regardless of what name I or others chose to call it.

NEXT WEEK: Creating sacred space on the Camino

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September 28, 2013 at 3:36 pm Comments (4)