Robert Sibley has written:
“This was as it should be. The pilgrim, like any serious traveler, undertakes an interior journey that parallels passage through the external world. Each sustains the other. There is a psychological benefit to the feel of the mud and stones and trees and rain and sun.”
“For the first time in I don’t know how a long I was content to be doing what I was doing and being where I was without nagging myself with the thought that I should be doing something more worthwhile or be somewhere more exciting. I was happy to be where I was in the here and now. I enjoyed that rarest of satisfactions — contentment. I wanted to walk forever.”
“I would remember this place as special. The lines of a favorite poem by the Japanese pilgrim-poet Bashõ flitted across my mind: “In this bush profound,/ Into the very rocks it seeps/ The cicada sound./ Here, now, the glimpse of the underglimmer.’ ”
A Rumour of God
Robert C. Sibley, copyright 2010 Robert C. Sibley
I had, for some while, wished to read something of The Camino de Santiago. Not a guide book, not a how-to, nor an expository work of facts and history, but an experiential account, something I might share vicariously with the author.
Scores of books have been written about the Camino. To paraphrase from the Epilogue of The Way of the Stars, I was lucky. I stumbled onto Robert C. Sibley’s book.
Never mind that he and I are men of like age, so that many of his references mirror my own, giving me easy access to certain touchstones in his life. Never mind that I found myself immersed in his experience within the first several grafs of the Prologue, which produced an immediate sense of place, with imagery I find to be positively cinematic, indicative of a certain sorcery with language.
What has struck me in The Way of the Stars, and in his following book The Way of the 88 Temples, is the way Sibley shares himself, publicly, and with me personally.
These are, on one level, chronicles of long distance walking, requiring weeks and months on the path. Anyone attempting such a venture will encounter a multitude of physical sensation, all manner of weather, variation in accommodations and food, moments of physical pain, moments of striving and uncertainty. But his books are about more than that.
Sibley allows us to join him in the experience of places. Spain and Japan provide the terrain, climate, culture and history. We are invited to come along with him, to see, to feel, to appreciate places remote and perhaps foreign to us. But the effect is more than that.
There are references to philosophical, emotional and spiritual encounters throughout each of his pilgrimages. There are expressions from Catholicism, from Buddhism, which form the bedrock and the traditions of the pilgrim routes themselves. But these are journeys not of religion but of the human condition as it is expressed in that part of each of us which exists on a level apart from the mechanics of life. He hints at renunciation, quiet moments of falling in love with the pilgrim experience, and his wish to remain so, to live simply, as a perennial traveler, apart from his other life. But wisdom and recognition of where his path leads is about much more than that.
“. . . it is easy to let moments of possible wonder pass by you if you aren’t prepared to recognize them or learn from them.”
His works are personal, records of fact, of feeling, of his soul, experiences of heart, mind and spirit, as he reflects upon his pilgrimages, a most accurate description in every sense of the word. And in what are perhaps the most poignant moments in each of these heartfelt accounts are the people, a procession of beautiful souls with him along his path. Their lives touch his life, their presence enhance and transform his experience. Some of these meetings are casual, fleeting, so brief as to have passed unnoticed by one less attentive than Sibley; others reach into the deepest places within him and remain; transformative, salubrious, immutable.
These are journeys which lie beyond the realm of pure intellect, beyond logic and reason, beyond names and symbols, beyond mysticism and enchantment. It is not possible for me to define the works which Sibley has produced. Each is, of course, bound by that which words and language can convey, and his ability with these tools is superlative. But in the end, on the final page, in the last analysis, I find the overall effect to be an expression which lies somewhere beyond words, beyond categorization.
“The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d been fighting the road, trying to assert myself against the Camino. Every hill was an endurance test, something to master. I cursed the rain and railed against it. I kicked at rocks that threatened to turn my ankle. I bemoaned the mud that weighed down my boots. I loathed my clothes being wet. I knew that attitude wouldn’t get me to Santiago. I couldn’t beat the Camino; it was what it was, and it wasn’t going to change. I had to change while walking it, not the other way around. I couldn’t walk twenty or thirty kilometers every day for weeks on end, regardless of the rain, snow or fatigue, if I was going to resent every step along the way. If I reached Santiago, it would be because I accepted the Camino on its own terms. I remembered a saying among pilgrims : El camino es fe, sudor, Y esperanza”; the Camino is faith, sweat, and hope. Okay, I thought, but it’s also aceptacion, acceptance. Or, as Hemingway might have put it, the Camino requires grace under pressure.
I remembered how years earlier I’d spent some time at a Buddhist retreat, trying to meditate, reading Zen poetry, and imagining life as a monk. Some three decades later, sitting in a bar in Pamplona, I recalled my long-ago fantasies about an ascetic life, and a phrase attributed to Zen Buddhism came to me: “When you sweep the floor, just sweep; when you eat, just eat;when you walk, just walk.” Was that it? Was that what I had to do? – just walk? Don’t anticipate. Don’t think about what is to come or what has gone before. Don’t regret. Don’t resent. Put one foot in front of the other, six hours a day, day in and day out, until you reach the end. Just walk.”
The Way of the Stars, Robert C. Sibley, copyright 2012 Robert C. Sibley
Chapter 3, Paths
I found myself repeatedly returning to this excerpt from The Way of the Stars. On the surface, Sibley is describing his response to his first three days on the Camino., but I’m struck by the economy of the first of these two grafs, the way the expression of physical response translates to spiritual response, capturing the mechanics of feet and body, but also awareness and acknowledgement, the process of conversion of heart and mind.
Unlike Sibley, I’ve never spent time at a Buddhist retreat. I am, however, familiar with some of the basic tenants. As Sibley has observed, it is an awareness that “…enlightenment itself is nothing more than the full illumination of everyday experience”, that “…every day and every place offers the potential for realizing one’s Buddha-nature.”
“I was entering what the anthropologists have described as a ‘liminal state’ in which I moved beyond the normal strictures of my everyday life and into a psychological condition in which I no longer felt bound by the constructions of my normal social order or by the sense of identity and belonging that I obtained from that order.”
I get it. At this time in life, I am grateful for the capacity, stillness and spaciousness to absorb what he is talking about. I recognize my own entry into something like the liminal state, “occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold”. With the more or less constant presence of the obligations of middle life now fulfilled, commitments to work and family substantially discharged, I sense the ending of that part, a sense of having crossed a boundary. I found the transition to be abrupt. I was not as prepared as I believed myself to be. Adjustment was needed. Gradually, I am beginning to see the next part of my journey and myself in simpler terms. I feel less adrift, more sufficient in each moment of each day and, for the first time in my life, I am more able acknowledge reality, inhabit reality, to know that good is good enough and to accept what is.
I am grateful to Sibley, for his honesty, his capacity for perception, his compassion, his wisdom, his ability to grasp the extraordinariness of the ordinary, to share the candid and illuminating effect of his experience. I will never walk the Camino or the Henro Michi, and yet, through his writing, I have.
And with his help I have recognized expressions from his work which are familiar to me, which have been revealed to me on my path, my journey, reflections of what I understand to be true, and to find in his words affirmation and acceptance of those truths
In The Way of the 88 Temples, Sibley quotes himself, in response to a fellow pilgrim who is contemplating abandonment of his journey on the Henro Michi:
“No excuses, no complaints. Just walk. That’s all a man can do.”
A concise instruction for living if I ever heard one. Thank you, sir, for the glimpse of the underglimmer.