Our Camino

By the end of July 2020, Jessica and I have already crushed 250 of the 835 kilometres on the Camino de Santiago. We have walked farther at this point than I did three years ago when my Camino walk ended after only 130 kilometres on the trail due to contracting double pneumonia.

But this time we’re not walking the Camino del Norte in Spain. We are doing it without getting on a plane!

Using a digital Camino guidebook on a phone app, we start each day looking at what section we intend to walk in Spain, carefully counting the total kilometres we would travel from one waypoint to the next ‘auberge’. And then after our daily walk (averaging between 6 and 10 kms) we document both where we have walked in reality, and where we have walked virtually.

For example, we walked today in reality along the McNab-Braeside Rail-Trail from Milton-Stewart Avenue to just beyond Miller Road (between Arnprior and Renfrew), and then back. In Spain, that would translate into a walk from Liendo to Laredo in the Province of Cantabria on the northern coast of Spain. Tomorrow we will begin in Laredo and calculate our walk to the next stopover. Slowly but surely we are making our way towards our destination which is the Galician city of Santiago, an ancient Christian pilgrimage shrine to Saint James.

The Marina trail on the Madawaska River near Robert Simpson Park in Arnprior

We began Our Camino on the first of June, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic which shut down international travel and confined us to the rigours of social distancing and isolation. We hope to complete our adventure by the time the snow flies in this part of Canada. So far, I figure, we are making decent progress towards realizing our goal.

Our main trails, locally, are the afore mentioned McNab-Braeside recreational trail, the Algonquin Trail, in-town waterfront trails along the Madawaska and Ottawa Rivers, and in residential subdivisions and the Gillies Grove conservation reserve. Before the end of our journey we also hope to walk parts of rail-to-trail paths near Petawawa, on country roads around Golden Lake, and along beaches in Prince Edward County – all in Eastern Ontario.

We rely on technology and physical supports to aid us on this adventure. We catalogue all our walks via smartphone maps and exercise apps. Also, we have found that walking poles have provided significant support and burns more calories!

On the McNab-Braeside Trail between Arnprior and Renfrew

Early on in our journey we decided we needed some training with our walking poles. So, we are grateful to Susan Yungblut for the training lesson she gave us in Brewer Park in Ottawa. Susan is a certified trainer in urban pole walking and leads the Ottawa Nordic Walks group.

We walk mostly on the gravel and packed earth of the rail-to-trails. But we spend a good portion of our walking on asphalt and cement hardtop sidewalks. We switch between using the rubber ‘boots’ on the tips, and taking them off on the more rugged trails. So the tips and suggestions were helpful!

Maybe before the end of this extraordinary year of virtual experiences, we can bring you an update on how we finished walking the Camino de Santiago … from the comfort of home.

Letting the weeds be

In this pandemic, many of us are nostalgic for the old normal. We want to get back to our favorite coffee shop, our favorite restaurant, our church service. In short, we want it to be the way it was.

And of course, there’s nothing wrong with so many of those desires for the old normal. But I’d like to make a proposal. If we are wise in this time, we will not go back unthinkingly to the old normal. 

For those of us whose physical health was not severely affected by the virus, we have the luxury to reflect. Reflect on what the pandemic is teaching us. In this time of slow down we can use the time wisely to take another look at the way things were. And are.

Right now, our lives are probably bounded in ways we have never known before. But could these apparent confinements, these ‘bounds’ which at first feel so frustrating and can make us unhappy, could they in fact be gateways into larger life, a new way of seeing the same things? 

The French writer Marcel Proust wrote, with great insight, “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”[1]

I know the force of nostalgia is strong. It’s easy to see what is happening in your faith right now and dismiss it. We would rather appeal to former days as the gold standard when physical distancing and mask-wearing were non-factors in our lives together. But what is happening right now in your faith life, however confining and disruptive the experience may feel, is real. 

Perhaps fresh perspectives have emerged in your reflections and you are not yet sure what to make of it. Perhaps God is calling you into a deeper journey of prayer and action. Perhaps you have re-evaluated your position within the church. Maybe a new direction lies before you.

Is that a weed growing? Or the real deal? Perhaps it is too soon to tell the difference. But whatever you do, it would be a mistake to rip it out now or dismiss it out of hand. Now, you need to let it be, and grow with it.

As we experience discomfort of this time, let’s begin to dream of a new normal, a new normal that addresses these emerging issues and possibilities. If we’re wise, we won’t go back; we’ll go forward.[2]

During the early days of the pandemic lockdown when snow still covered the ground outside, my family started from seed growing vegetables and flowers indoors. 

Two months later we planted the tiny seedlings outside. Since then, they have grown. And we have given thanks for these plants’ and flowers’ resiliency and verdant growth. 

But they have started sharing the earth with other uninvited guests. The weeds began to compete with the tomatoes, cucumbers and nasturtiums. And so, the overwhelming challenge begins for the avid gardener. Days can be spent in the yard or garden doing nothing else then pulling the weeds. It’s amazing how most of the gardener’s time in the late Spring and early Summer can be spent doing only one thing: pulling weeds. 

Indeed, isn’t this how we often approach our lives? Our natural, even compulsive tendency is to pull out, or try to, all the things we perceive are wrong in our life and in the world. Whenever we start to diet or exercise, whenever we take on some just cause or new discipline we will normally run up against distractions, obstacles and challenges. 

And our knee-jerk reaction is to obliterate, purge, remove, expunge, cast off whatever is in our way, whatever blocks our good intentions. If only we can get rid of the impurity in the world and in our lives! If only we can purge our lives of the sin and the bad … then, and only then can we move forward. And, we end up doing violence.

What Jesus says goes against this impulse. Jesus tells a story, a story about weeds and wheat. When the weeds grow alongside the wheat, the workers immediately want to get busy pulling those weeds out from among the wheat. But the landlord calls for a reality check. And, for restraint. ‘Let the weeds and wheat grow together until the harvest.’[3]

What does it mean to trust God? What does it mean to have faith? What does it mean to follow Jesus? Trusting God, having faith, being a disciple of Jesus is about acceptance, not riddance. The way forward is not marked by violence of any kind. The way of faith is not resisting what emerges in our awareness and on our path.

On the journey of faithfulness, we practice being present to it all. We give permission for the weeds of our hearts and minds to grow alongside what is good and true within us and in the world.

During this time of increased solitude, seclusion and confinement, many of us are discovering what actually matters in our lives. The simple acts of love. The basic practices of listening and paying attention to what is right in front of us.

Yet, as we discover what actually matters we still need to co-exist with all those impulses, hurts, and wounds roiling within us. They will always be there even as we will learn to live alongside this messy, less-than-ideal mixed-up-ness of our lives. On this journey of acceptance we may discover by God’s grace that the parts of ourselves that bother us will eventually loosen their grip on us in the light of God’s unconditional love shining over it all.

We let things grow as they will. And trust that, on the way forward, all will be well.

[1]Cited in Geoffrey Tristan, “You Have Enough” (www.ssje.org, July 15, 2020).

[2]Brian McLaren in Richard Rohr Daily Meditations (www.cac.org, 9 July 2020).

[3]Matthew 13:24-30

And they shall grow

The prophet Isaiah writes,

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
  and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
 making it bring forth and sprout,
  giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,

11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
  it shall not return to me empty,
 but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
  and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
12For you shall go out in joy,
  and be led back in peace; 
  … and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.[1]

I am standing in Gillies Grove, Arnprior, right in the middle of an old-growth stand of Hemlock and White Pine trees beside the tallest tree in the whole of the Province of Ontario – measuring 47 metres (147 feet) high and more than 100 centimetres in breadth.[2]Right here.

It’s one of my favourite places because it makes me feel what the prophet Isaiah expresses about how we grow, and that the end result of that growth is unmeasured joy.

Jesus told a story about tiny seeds growing from the ground.[3]Here, I see Jesus describes, using the image of a farmer planting seeds, our healing, our growth, and our transformation. Our hearts are home to the seed of God’s truth and love whose purpose is to grow and bear fruit. 

But, he also speaks of the conditions that can inhibit our development and growth. Not all the seeds can grow to their fullest because the condition of our hearts do not make it possible. 

As Christians, our sickness of the soul comes from a profound lack of love in our lives – love for self, love for another, love for creation and love for God. 

How does love grow from our hearts? How do we heal the wounds and put down the barriers of hate, mistrust and greed that block the flow of God’s love through us? 

In the midst of the COVID 19 pandemic crisis, Richard Rohr recently said, “Love always means going beyond yourself to otherness.”[4]

During this time of social distancing from other humans, it is still possible for some of us to go outside. In truth, for me, making a connection with the beauty of creation out of doors has kept me sane, grounded, and connected with God. I have seen more people outside sitting, walking, visiting, exercising than ever before. I  have a feeling we will all have a newfound appreciation for the outdoors when this time of “sheltering in” is over. 

Fifteenth century Swiss physician and philosopher of the German Renaissance, Paracelsus, asserted: “The art of healing comes from nature, not from the physician.”[5]

Perhaps in a time of great rate of change, we can discover fresh ways of being in tune with ourselves, with others and with God by connecting a little with the wonder of creation.

In closing, I’d like to lead you through a short, meditation you can practice next time you are outside.

“The invitation is simple: Walk slowly [or sit still], while silently noticing what is in motion in the forest. There is always movement, even when things seem perfectly still. Strands of a web drift in the air, trees move in the breezes, birds fly by, and squirrels scramble in the branches, grasses bend, insects crawl. . . .

[Notice these subtle movements] until you become accustomed to it. 

Walking slowly [or sitting still] for more than a few minutes is, paradoxically, stressful. . . .[Normally, our minds and our bodies are going at high rates of speed, so slowing our minds down can cause us anxiety because we don’t know what we will find there. But] … because the mind and body are a single entity, slowing our body will also calm our mind. . . .

The eternal movement of the forest gives our minds something to engage with. Just as with sitting meditation the breath is always there and available for watching, in the forest there are always things in motion. Your mind will drift, and many other thoughts will arise. When they do, gently bring your attention back to noticing what’s in motion.

When you find you have automatically sped up, come to a complete halt for a moment. It’s an opportunity to fully give your attention to one thing, noticing how that thing is in motion. After a brief pause you’ll be ready to continue your slow walk.

I recommend that you walk [or sit] like this for at least 15 minutes. That’s enough time for your mind to go through several cycles of distraction and calming.”[6]

Like in the storytelling of the scriptures, being in nature is an actual experience of true presence. Some have suggested that creation was the first bible.[7]Saint Paul wrote in the opening chapter to his letter to the Romans, that “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature … have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”[8]

By ‘reading’ creation and focusing our attention in nature we can grow in appreciation of God’s truth and love. Because we experience it for ourselves. We feel it in our bodies. Creation thus offers us a wonderful expression of God’s love and truth growing in us.

[1]Isaiah 55:10-12


[3]Matthew 13:1-9

[4]Richard Rohr, “Love Alone Overcomes Fear: A Message from Richard Rohr about COVID-19,” Center for Action and Contemplation (March 19, 2020), https://cac.org/love-alone-overcomes-fear-2020-03-19/

[5]Paracelsus, in Selected Writings (Princeton University Press: 1988), 50.

[6]M. Amos Clifford, Your Guide to Forest Bathing: Experience the Healing Power of Nature (Conari Press: 2018), 34–35.

[7]In the lives and works of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226); St Bonaventure (1221-1274); Sr Ilia Delio; Fr Richard Rohr (see 19 May 2020, Daily Meditation, www.cac.org). 

[8]Romans 1:20

Love chooses us, so choose love

During my paddle on the Ottawa River last week, I encountered a mink for the first time. Its sleek, oily and—compared to a beaver or otter—rather tiny, narrow body was sunning on a rock, and then scampered into the water to get away from me as I approached. The top of its head bobbed above the water line for a while, keeping an eye on me, before it dove underneath and away from my sight.

I was reminded that during this time of ‘Great Pause—when the engines of a mighty and powerful economy have slowed down causing disruption and anxiety for many—especially the financially vulnerable, the poor and marginalized—the animals of the land and sea have populated areas that have quieted significantly from human activity.

My first-ever encounter with a mink made me think. Have you considered that we humans are one of very few species that can decide not to do something we are capable of doing.[1]That means, we have the innate capacity to change, like no other creature. We have the capacity to choose one way or another, to grow and stretch ourselves in a direction not governed merely by instinct nor compulsion.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus prays a thanksgiving for having shown his disciples the ways of God. And in so doing he draws a distinction between mere knowledge and wisdom. Knowledge, in our world, is power. But that’s not what Jesus is about. Jesus is about teaching us wisdom. Jesus prays, “You have hidden these things [… the ways of God]… from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.”[2]

We are on the way to discovering the difference between having all the facts and information about God—and knowing God. Here is the starting point of wisdom. The wisdom writers and poets of the Hebrew scripture say that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”[3]

I take that to read that it is receiving a real experience of, and encounter with, God in our daily, simple lives out of which we become wise people. Because this experience of, and encounter with, is not always an easy walk in the park. It isn’t always a euphoric, feel-good, out-of-body experience when we encounter God. In truth, an experience of God is grounded in the struggles of our lives and relationships.

Unfortunately, we often bring too much of ourselves, our egos, our mental fixations and baggage of hurt and past pain into such an encounter. We often get too much of ourselves in the way of God, to block a loving, challenging, healing encounter. That is why Jesus so often in this Gospel mentions the children, the infants, as models for coming to the Lord. The vulnerable. The innocent. Yes, maybe even the naïve—from the point of view of the world. 

Yet, at some point on the journey forward, we need to surrender. When Jesus counsels, “Take my yoke upon you”, and “Come to me you who are heavy laden”, he is saying, “put down your load.”[4]

Put down all the things that you think make you great. Put down all the striving, the restless agitations of our souls. There’s a time for everything.[5]And maybe now is the time, even if just for a moment, just to put it all down.

The heart of the story of Jesus in the bible is that a human being fully realized, fully divine, chose not to exercise the power that was his, to circumvent the cross. Jesus chose not to overcome Pilate, and the political and religious powerhouse, with force. Jesus stopped himself, Jesus lay it all down—‘not my will but thy will be done’ he said in his hour of agony.[6]He trusted his abba. Jesus took up God’s yoke in the assurance of God’s love for him in his time of trial.

Today, in this time of disruption, discomfort and upheaval in our world when it is all too easy to fall into despair, we may wonder why God does not exercise intervening power to make things right. Is God not all-powerful?

The power of God nevertheless is the power of love. God created us as an act of God’s love. The act of creating us in love is therefore a kind of divine self-restraint.[7]What does that mean? Why would God exercise self-restraint?

Let’s say as a parent we continue to make choices in place of our children as they grow into adulthood; that is, we understandably want to spare them from suffering the consequences of a choice they might have to regret. 

Yet it is a lack of love on our part to do so, since by not permitting them to risk we essentially try to shield ourselves from possible suffering—the pain we will feel each time our children commit themselves to a way different from the one that to us seemed best for them.

Alternatively, when we allow our children to make decisions, and therefore to take risks, we will worry, yes. We suffer the freedom we have given them.

We are God’s children. And God loves us. Therefore, God will suffer with us, as we are given the freedom to act. God sheds tears alongside us when we suffer the consequences of our misdeeds. God rejoices alongside us when we make meaningful steps forward in our lives. Such is the infinite power of love.

And this is the perfect love of God for us, without a trace of self-interest on God’s part. God wants us to be free to build our own lives. And take responsibility for our actions. And exercise a maturity of a creature who can change directions when necessary, who isn’t always a slave to our base impulses, our compulsive reactions.

We, who, can choose to love.

[1]Bill McKibben, Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? (Wildfire: 2019), 255, 256.

[2]Matthew 11:25

[3]Psalm 111:10; Proverbs 1:7; 9:10

[4]Matthew 11:25-30

[5]Ecclesiastes 3:1

[6]Luke 22:42

[7]Hans Jonas, “The Concept of God after Auschwitz” in Steven T. Katz, Shlomo Biderman & Gershon Greenberg, eds., Wrestling with God: Jewish Theological Responses during and after the Holocaust (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)