Back at the end of January this year Graham English brought us a delightful commentary about his Santiago de Compastella Pilgrimage across the top of Spain in 2011 [LINK]. In our forum a few days ago Desi drew our attention to an article by Peter Berger entitled, "Can you be a Catholic and have a questioning mind?" [LINK]. It led Graham back to reflecting upon what he'd learned from his pilgrimage – the necessity of ditching what is excess baggage. Enjoy this further delightful reflection which is a play between things pretty mundane in our lives and things pretty substantial – like ditching excess mental baggage!
Peter Berger might believe it but I don't!
A reflection by Graham English
In 2011 I walked 640 kilometres along the Camino. I began at St Jean Pied de Port, skipped a bit in the middle and walked on to Compostella. I did it by myself. Of course there were other people around and I came to like some of them but walking a pilgrimage is always to some extent something you do by yourself because they are your legs feeling the aches and your feet feeling the bumps and possibly getting blisters and it is your back that aches. It is also your psyche that handles the day to day, minute by minute thoughts and feelings. And it is you who makes the decisions. I enjoyed that bit especially, deciding. It is good for my spirit.
I carried about nine kilograms in my backpack. Someone asked me just yesterday, "How did you get by with just nine kilos?" The answer is that I left behind, abandoned or posted home everything that I did not actually need. I wore clothes that were easily washed and that dried quickly. During the days I lived on sardines, bread, cheese and oranges, and dark chocolate and waited until evening to order a meal that was more varied. I became canny about weight, uninterested in fashion and ruthless in what I would accept. I became very choosy.
Being canny about what I carry...
It has taken me a while to know what I learnt doing the Camino and I hope that more things will occur to me as I go along. But one of the chief things I have realised is that at my time of life being canny about what I carry is a very good idea. And I am not just talking about on my back. I have realised that I need to answer for myself some simple questions and to be ruthless when I apply the answers. There are some things I do not need in my mind.
Some of the questions are these:
The response to all these is, "If it is not a benefit to me then I will let it go".
Is the Catholic Church the object of our faith?
I was prompted to the above by something I read yesterday. The sociologist Peter Berger said in an article that for Catholics the Church is the object of our faith. He was distinguishing between Protestants who see the Church as a vehicle of faith and Catholics who are different.
I have been a Catholic almost sixty eight years. I was baptised on October 2nd 1944 when I was two weeks old. And I have studied Catholicism intently most of my life. I am an avid reader and have always been since I learnt to read. As a child I had not much to read and no one to recommend books to me so I read lives of saints and Catholic Truth Society pamphlets on why the Mormons were wrong and why we were right and other similar topics. Luckily I eventually found that there are better books than that and I read and read. One result of my reading and my long and varied experience of Catholicism is that I think Peter Berger is wrong. I believe in one holy Catholic and apostolic Church but it is not the object of my faith. God and Jesus and a few other things are the objects of my faith but the Church is not. Peter Berger might believe that I should believe it but I don't. God is the object of my faith, and Jesus the Christ but the Church isn't.
Not only that I do not accept generalisations like 'for Catholics the Church is the object of their faith'. I am a Catholic and for me this is not true. Just as an aside academics and debaters often do this, they generalise then knock the generalisation down (or they use them to establish a case). It is called colloquially 'bowling over an Aunt Sally'. It sounds convincing until you stop and say, "But I don't believe that at all. It is not true. You speak confidently but you do not speak for me".
The time has come for me to be
Put it another way, I am sick of other people telling me what I have to believe, or what they think I have to believe or what they claim I should believe. The time has come for me to be my own authority. This is not an arrogant position. It is like the Camino. I am carrying this pack, they are my feet, and it is my back. It is my psyche here, and my soul. I will decide what I carry.
Actually the Jews were onto this long ago. In The Ethics of the Fathers one of the rabbis says, "When you face the Most High at the end of your life he will not ask you why you were not Moses or Abraham. He will only ask you if you were 'you'."
Now and then I have breakthrough moments. A few years ago I realised that no one knows what happens to us when we die. Some people have always known this I suppose but, for me, this was a major breakthrough. I suddenly thought to myself, "No one knows!" No one has come back from the dead and told us what happened to them. Whatever the Resurrection means, and whatever actually happened Jesus didn't talk about it. The Creeds say "he descended into hell, the third day he rose again from the dead, he ascended into heaven" but this tells us precisely nothing. It is a mythical explanation of something the evangelists then the creedal authors couldn't express so they used the cosmology of the time and the poetic and religious images of their day and told us nothing at all except that Jesus is raised and we ought to be hopeful. I am hopeful.
Yet all my life people had been telling me they did know what happens when we die. They talked about heaven, hell, purgatory and all that. But they do not know. As it happens I trust God to handle all that. I do not know but I trust. Enough said. Please don't tell me St Faustina had a vision of Jesus for who am I to Faustina or who is Faustina to me that I should believe her? She doesn't know. I don't know. She's just another Catholic with an opinion. When I was a child there were even priests and others who told me stories about condemned souls coming back from the dead to warn about hell. But as the Gospels tell us when talking of Dives and Lazarus, Abraham doesn't buy this kind of visit from the dead. We just have to live wondering. We will find out when we die. That is soon enough surely. Meanwhile live a good life.
There are some things we do know...
They whoever they are do not know what happens to us when we die. There are things we do know, all of us. We were born, we live, one day (I hope it is later rather than sooner) we will be gone. So now is all we have. We had better make the most of it.
From the age of zero we have information pushed onto and into us. Some of it is very useful. My father taught me that if an appliance is not working the first thing you do is check to see the power is on. He also told me never to force machinery. Another bit of information was, "Always put things back where you found them". Each of these things has proved true and useful, but amidst the true and useful there was an awful lot of stuff various people told me that was rubbish, or superstition, or wrong, or misleading. Some things I was taught were right at the time but now they are wrong, for example 'the tallest building in Sydney is the AWA tower' or 'the population of Australia is ten million'. Lots and lots of what I learnt was useless. Some of it was damaging. Some of it turned out to be toxic. That is the information I need to let go of, to throw away.
Luckily for me I met a few people who taught me to think. And I met a few people who taught me to read properly, to interpret. I also met the occasional person who was pleased that I asked questions. Some people hate questions. They want you to be them. They cannot abide independent thinking let alone independent action. I have met a few of those and not all of them all that long ago. But the helpful people are not like that. All of the wise people have in common that to varying degrees they do not have a plan for me.
The good guides didn't know what a complete me would look like but were content to give me some tools to work it out for myself, and now and then some reassurance that I am okay. For them there were no templates or moulds, just possibilities.
It is still a struggle. I have a tendency to be overwhelmed. I have a great fear of being crushed. One of the results of my childhood and the early part of my life generally is that I have at times let myself be pushed around by authorities. What I most fear being overwhelmed by is all the things I am told I should believe and all the things I am told I should be like.
But my life goes on. It is a waste of time hoping for a better past. What happened made me who I am now. I have no regrets and no resentments. There were lots of things I didn't know then and couldn't do then but I do know them now and I can do them now. One of these things I know is that I have to be my own authority because on that I will be judged, the decisions and choices I made. If they do not like it well that is tough luck.
When I decided to walk the Camino I read a lot: stuff on long walks, specific information about the Camino, stories of other people who had already walked the Camino, hints and warnings about the trek. Then I made my own plans. As I walked I discovered that some of the advice I'd been given was really helpful: things like always having dry socks, carrying enough water, setting off early and getting there early. Some things I'd been told didn't apply to me: for example I didn't need to drain blisters once because my skin didn't blister. Some guide books said, "You should not miss this site" but I did. It didn't interest me or I didn't have time or something else took priority. I do not regret the things I missed. I might go back and see them though next time I might walk a different route altogether. There are so many ways to go. I realised early, "This is my Camino. I can walk it as I wish, within limits as it is and I am finite, but it is my Camino."
A friend tells me that when our life ends all that need be left in my mind is what I truly believe. I am not there yet but I am on my way.
Graham English written and submitted to Catholica on 23 Aug 2012
What are your thoughts on this commentary?