A wise person once asked me ‘how big is your faith right now?’
I paused to consider.
‘10%’, he prompted, ‘as high as 20%?’.
‘I hope not!’ was my defeated reply.
Evidently, his opinion of me was not high.
“Well”, he said, “It’s like this. None of us has 100% faith. God knows that. In fact, most of us don’t crack 50%. If we did, imagine how we’d live. On the contrary, Jesus says ‘your faith, as small as a mustard seed…is enough'”.
“Trust me,” Jesus urges, hand extended, “Look me in the eye, and go ahead and trust me.”
The majority of the time we look at our feet instead, and fall on our faces, or sink into the sea. Sometimes, only sometimes, we look up.
It has helped to know in the months following that conversation that my faith failure is not a complete failure. The truth is, all I have is gift from the start. Little by little, Jesus reaches out to me with that same, repeated invitation to trust. And bit my bit, like a toddler walking, I learn to do so.
Next month my family will be staying in London. Our accommodation is on a narrow strip of riverside called The Southbank, mid-way between Westminster Bridge and London Bridge. A couple of months ago a man murdered a bunch of people on the first bridge by hitting them with his car, and last week a whole lot more were savagely killed on the second bridge near the Borough Market. Statistically, and geographically, this is not an ideal holiday destination.
As expected we’ve had many people ask us, shouldn’t you reconsider staying there? How about executing Plan B?
Here’s my story of why.
Many years ago I was young and free. In other words, childless. My husband and I lived in London, which put me in the proximity of the great romance of walking the Camino de Santiago across Spain. Also called The Way of St James, this is a pilgrimage of hundreds of kilometres across sometimes mountainous, always green, unfailingly picturesque terrain starting in France and ending at the death place of the disciple James – Santiago. Pilgrims walk from dawn to dusk, at times solo, or in rambling conversation with fellow walkers, covering 25-30 kilometres each day until they arrive at an albergue (hostel) of choice.
Each albergue has a different shape and atmosphere. Some are converted monasteries with rows of bunks, others smaller privately-owned dwellings with 10 or so beds. Regardless of appearance, each one hosts a vibrant community of languages and histories on any given night in the form of an eclectic mess of travellers from every continent sharing dinner and laughter. This is an important point in the story, you’ll see why.
The Way is truly a converging of the nations.
So it came to be with two weeks annual leave on offer I began walking.
The first day I was apprehensive but enthusiastic. The second morning, feeling like a newly minted pro, I woke early and set off in the dark – as most tend to do – but soon realised that at even at 5.00am my fellow pilgrims were long gone. The path led out of the village and into a cornfield. In the dark. In the silent nowhere. It was time to go.
I walked deep. There was no looking back on the village; it was quickly swallowed by the rustling corn. Ahead, a dim track in the wobbly torchlight. I had around 30 kilometres between me and the next significant dot on the map across isolated terrain. The euphoria of yesterday was losing its headiness. I was nervous.
The only option was forwards, so I kept moving in the grim darkness. It didn’t take long to notice a bobbing light on the path behind me.
Strange, I thought, I had been last to leave the albergue. Who could be coming behind me?
The next hour was, frankly, terrifying. The light did not gain on me, nor fall back. It appeared to be steadily maintaining pace with me. This person knew I was in front. Had they been watching me leave? Why were they sitting behind like this? The light bearer had evidently caught up enough to see me but now had slowed to stay in pace. This did not feel good.
At last, dawn sidled into view. I could see the walker behind more clearly, and several fraught hours later I reached a village. Oh, sweet relief! I sat down to wait for my shadow figure to overtake, feigning the need to eat a sandwich, and watched his approach closely.
The pudgy little fellow who passed by several minutes later was not at all the threatening vision I had created. He had the characteristic limp caused by Camino Blisters and was leaning arduously on a walking stick while sweating comically. Completely innocuous.
He shuffled by and was nearly around the corner when he turned to me with a look I will fail to articulate. As our eyes locked a moment too long, I knew.
‘I see you’, he said soundlessly and was gone.
Limp with adrenalin I grabbed my pack, sandwich still in hand. Time to go.
Walking out of that village I felt nauseous. Nerves, obviously. A headache developed, and the path ahead seemed eternal. I was aware that my colleague was again somewhere behind as he could not be seen on the track in front. I was glad for the head start out of the village, and maintained a near jog to create distance.
By the next tiny, unmapped village I was sick. The ‘ready to lose my stomach, head pounding’ kind of sick. This village was a single albergue pit-stop and seemed to consist of several empty dwellings around a main building. I had to stop.
Stopping was not a good plan.
Initial dialogue with the young monk at the albergue was politely friendly. Come in, come in, he said. Be warm! Have soup! Rest. Lie down. Stay.
Too sick to move, I did as directed. He sat nearby, writing. And subtly watching. I passed in and out of sweaty sleep, ever aware of the silent figure metres away, but enjoying the soft cushions and warmth of the couch too much to move. He’s a monk, I rationalised, he has visitors all day. I’m fine. Hours passed in the tomb-like quiet until abruptly in a moment of wakefulness I heard an urgent internal voice demand: ‘You need to go! Go!’.
I leapt to gather my pack and jacket. The young monk insisted that I was too sick to leave, that I needed to stay the night, and passionately gesticulated his disapproval of my departure. I was already halfway out the door.
I’m not sure how I was able to jog most of the way to the next town crippled with gastro. Though it was several hours away, and I was lumbered with a heavy pack and walking boots, I reeled off kilometres at a fear-driven pace. I can’t explain why my experience of the kind monk had suddenly seemed so sinister except to say that when the Holy Spirit speaks, we act. I guess I’ll never know.
The sun had just dropped below the horizon when I saw the inviting lights of town. At last, people. That night I slept in a sizeable albergue that was popular with pilgrims. I was loathsomely unwell but managed dinner with my fellow travellers. It was a pure relief to be back in the boisterous, crowded, congenial company of fellow pilgrims. Their presence supplanted all desire for sleep. It had been a tough day, but possibly I’d overplayed my fears. Across the long table, I saw the morning’s stalker, cheerfully engaged in light conversation. He nodded hello with a smile. It all seemed a little silly in hindsight.
Until lights out.
Sometime after midnight, amongst the rows of bunk beds and gentle breathing, I was assaulted. I woke to a solid man straddling my sleeping frame, hands under my clothes, grabbing at my trousers. Awoken with a jolt, I slapped him away. Presumably startled, he scuttled onto the next bunk. His bunk. I lay still. Failing to breathe. Aware of his frozen form on the bunk next to me I frantically weighed options. Do I shout? Wake the room? No, it’s not that serious. I can’t wake people and inconvenience them (said the polite and deluded Baptist). Maybe he’ll stop. When his hand slid back under the covers a second time, I didn’t wait to find out.
Drama averse, I opted against shouting and bolted for another dorm where I crouched on the floor among the rows of beds and sleeping bodies. I watched the door and waited through the endless, formidable hours of darkness.
I’m sure you’re thinking that the man trying to crack the safe that night was the dawn walker. It wasn’t. When light finally brightened the sombre dorm, I woke several women I knew in the vicinity and, under their protection, we packed urgently and left. But not before reporting the attack. It was as I hurriedly wrote my account to the albergue staff that two men appeared from the dorms to ask if I was ‘her’. The girl everyone was talking about. News had spread of the attack. The perpetrator was a convicted minor (19) in their care. The two men were French social workers walking the Camino with the boy instead of jail time.
It was later that day, struggling along the path with my protective possie of sisterhood, all four theatrically vomiting with gastro, that I met Peter.
Peter was a little dumpy, huffed and puffed, and stumbled along with his walking stick and blisters. He approached me quietly from behind, as he was want to do.
‘Hello, I’m Peter,’ he smiled, with fatherly eyes.
‘I heard about last night. I want you to know, I’ve been with you. I was following you yesterday, through the cornfield. I saw you stop at that monk’s hostel on your own. I checked that you arrived in town last night. I’m here if you need anything.’
It turns out, Peter had walked The Way eleven times. All three exhausting months of it, from start to finish. He knew every twist in the track and was one of the most unassuming, kindest souls I’ve encountered. He was always within distance over the following ten days, never overbearing, just always available for a chat.
He told me later that he had just felt an unusual conviction to follow me that morning when he saw me leave in the dark.
Coincidence? I think not.
When people ask ‘do you think London is a good idea?’ in an age of terrorism and security threats, I think ‘yes, we’re ok’. I have learned that danger is real and present. And that God is in front and behind, and a quiet voice of warning. I’m quite sure that God appointed Peter to my path. That it was God’s voice telling me when to leave the monk. That he created my escape from the night visitor who did not dare pursue me in the crowded dorm. At every point of the way, I was protected. Even when I didn’t know I needed to be.
God holds my time in his hands. At his words, my life will be finished, and I’ll join Him. I’m ok with that. Terrible events will come too, but never without his protection, his knowledge and his presence.
I don’t have a mountain of faith yet, that’s still a work in progress, but I’ve learned that I do have a mustard seed. And my 10% has become more like 20.