Sweating and tired, I slipped off my backpack and slumped on the wooden pew. I sat looking at the stained-glass window in Bilbao Cathedral for an hour…maybe longer.
Though I was physically still, my emotions continued the journey that had started the moment I began the Camino del Norte a couple hundred miles away.
I sat in wonder thinking about the beauty of it all. The 700-year-old building was so magnificent that you couldn’t help but sit silent in awe; a human attempt to somehow express gratitude and glorious hope in God.
I imagined the craftsmen who created the stained-glass window before me and I hoped they were motivated by the same wonder I experienced on the pilgrimage in the beauty of the country, the sun and the sea. It was a wonder which I’d experienced before, and it had been persuasive and influential in shaping who I am.
However, in recent years, increasingly these moments of wonder were interrupted by a whisper that said “something is wrong”.
And sitting in the cathedral, the image of a craftsman worshiping through his art crumbled away as the whisper came again. Wonder was jostling with anger, pain, and disappointment.
Put bluntly, the last few years had been an absolute shit show. My family and I had been plunged into a darkness when my wife was diagnosed with a serious illness and a whole host of hassles besieged me at work. This darkness exposed my limits and made me question everything.
Confused and irritated
I had undertaken the Camino pilgrimage with no desire to remain the same as the person I was when I left England. I was looking for something: perhaps hoping to re-find the God I had once known.
After a lifetime of faithful prayer and church attendance, I’d spent hours begging for a miracle when I needed it most. But the miracle I sought did not arrive, and I don’t think I’ve been the same since.
I sat confused, angry and irritated that I’d had to go through the journey I’d been through. The scars remained raw and stubborn to any healing. I carried every piece of hurt on my shoulders like the backpack I wore on the pilgrimage: a heavy, bitter load which dug into me, weighed me down.
It obscured appreciation of beauty and mocked any sense of spiritual wonder, and made a lifetime of church teaching feel thin and ineffective.
Power and control
As I sat in the cathedral, I reflected on my confusion about faith and church. The bewildering fusion of divine and dusty had haunted me over the past 100 miles.
The context in which I sat somehow embodied this paradox of beauty and bullshit. After all, cathedrals are never built just on pure intentions. They represent the blend of religious power and wealth fused with national pride, regional ambition and personal ego. To different degrees, they have always been used to control populations and stifle dissent. The ineffable God of Wonder co-opted as a metaphysical policeman to maintain the status quo.
The co-existence of heart-wrenching disappointment and stubborn hope haunted me.
Originally, I wanted this trip to be a bold journey of hope taking me back to a place of strong faith. I had wanted to feel like I used to, when I would awkwardly throw my hands in the air during worship, close my eyes and concentrate as hard as possible in order to “feel” God.
The pilgrimage had been more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. But it was also more challenging than I’d expected. As I was pushed to my physical limit, it revealed to me how serious my questions were and how angry and disappointed I had become. The extremes of the trail mirrored my emotions.
I had to face the fact that God had not come to my aid in the way I had wanted. I had half-imagined myself telling people how God had shown up and people would cheer and whoop. But the slap-bang instant healing that I’d heard so often emphasized in my charismatic church had not come.
I had spent a surprising amount of my hike crying. The tears were an overflow of a confusing mix of emotions, as I found reflecting on my experiences both unbearable and strangely peaceful.
I wondered if I was doing this ‘pilgrimage’ right. However, the simple but challenging task of long walks in solitude and surrounded by natural splendor unlocked something inside of me. As I walked and wept, something happened to me.
My pilgrimage took me to a strange conclusion.
It did not resolve all my questions about God, but it did heal me of my need for tidy conclusions. I didn’t re-discover the same faith I had previously known. But I did find something bigger than I’d ever imagined.
I found God’s presence in places I’d never thought to look. A wider and broader God. A God who is peaceful and present in everything. A God who is not perpetually beyond my reach. A God who can be found amid both the beauty and brokenness.
Simon Dwight is an Adviser to the government on how community and faith groups address rough sleeping. Follow on twitter @IamSimonDwight