Camino de Santiago: 33%

I tried my best to keep up with posts about our walk on the Camino de Santiago in Spain but most days I did not have access to a computer. Excuses, Excuses. Anyway…it has been a month since we finished the walk and I figured I should get around to sharing a few more images. We walked for ten days and covered the first third of the Camino.

Now we are back home in America and and very happy to be staying on Anna’s family farm in Nebraska. In the weeks ahead I’ll to share a little more about the end of our time on the Graduate Preaching Fellowship.

Pamplona: Day #5

Pamplona. This is the city famous for the running of the bulls, an activity which is exactly the opposite of walking the Camino de Santiago.



Trinity of Arre: Day #4

We are staying tonight in a parish hostel which is connected to a church from the 12th century. After a welcome from the caretaker, I noticed this sign. Some pretty good words for life.


Zubiri: Day #3

The Camino de Santiago has become very popular in recent years. Even now in September, out of the official 'high season,' there are lots of people walking. A crush of people in the dorms. Lines of pilgrims at the village supermarket.

From what we've experienced so far, walking the Camino is not necessarily a religious or spiritual journey for some of the participants. It is perhaps more about getting out in nature for a long hike; a way to get away from the office or backpack in Europe for the first time or a way to enjoy retirement. There is nothing wrong with this of course, but it just runs counter to what we expected from a pilgrimage (especially after our pilgrimage experience in Bosnia a month ago).

Last night we went to a Pilgrim's mass and the priest addressed this directly in his homily. He acknowledged that many were not doing the walk on the Camino for spiritual reasons–that people were not walking with some religious purpose.

But as is so common in powerful preaching, the sermon took a possible negative and turned it into an intriguing positive. He proposed the possibility that even though some are not looking for God on the Camino, perhaps God is in search of them on the pilgrimage. Perhaps God might be revealed to someone even if he or she isn't usually seeking out such a revelation.

We walked a good distance today but at times wondered if the journey could be as spiritually significant as we anticipated. Then we saw this cross with rocks piled around, signifying prayers of passersby.

Sure, some on the Camino are in it for the recreation, for the sport of it. Sure, some are dressed in top-end hiking gear like they are about to climb K2. We've cracked a few snarky jokes: it's like a Camino de Gore-tex out here. Another nice day on the Camino de Spandex…

But it is exciting to think about how going for this walk will certainly be life-changing for people, no matter what their initial motivations. Many will come away with new or re-newed faith. Many will catch a glimpse of God on the way.


Roncevalles: Day #2

Today we walked uphill. A lot. But it was less of a slog than we anticipated. The higher we climbed the cooler it got–a nice reward for our efforts. We walked through villages, and hillside gardens punctuated the scenery of cliffs far-off and mossy stumps at our feet.

The way is well-marked with blue and yellow signs. The shell is a central symbol of the Camino and the arrow tells you where you should lug your body and your stuff. Follow the arrow and food awaits. Follow the arrow and a bunk bed is prepared. Follow the arrow and do very little else.

In two days of walking, we haven't erred off the trail…yet. That's the key word, because it's likely that we'll miss an arrow along the way, choosing instead to focus on the scenery or the conversation or the tiredness. But we'll need to follow something outside of ourselves, this path tread by so many pilgrims over so many years. Following the steps of those who have gone before you; following their wisdom which points the way.


Valcarlos: Day #1 on the Camino

This was our view as we ended our first day of walking the Camino de Santiago. We will sleep tonight in Valcarlos, Spain at a pilgrim's dorm, called an Albergue. Today's walk was through a river valley, crossing several times between France and Spain.

We decided to take this pilgrimage for a number of reasons. Most important for us is the opportunity to explore a new perspective on the themes we have been thinking about this year. In Japan and South Africa we experienced faith and creation through farming. In Armenia we learned about daily bread and the traditions of a unique people in a unique land. Now in Spain we have the chance to experience the land as pilgrims taking a holy walk.

Today we moved slowly, trying to warm up to the path and the hills and the weight on our backs. Many pilgrims have a schedule to abide by in order to reach Santiago in the time they have. We are not bound to keep a quick pace, however, and so we can take the road as it comes. Many walkers shoot for around 20-25 kilometers per day (12-15 miles). Some days we may do about that and others not.

In any case, we'll keep track of journey with a 'Credencial,' a booklet stamped at each location on the route. Since we left home last September, our official American passports have been stamped quite a bit. It will be nice to see the stamps in our pilgrim's passports as we walk along the next few days.



The Camino De Santiago

We have come to the final leg of our journey. For the next two weeks or so we will be walking the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage route in Northern Spain. We will not have time to complete the entire 35 day journey, but we decided to start at the beginning, St. Jean Pied de Port, a French town just across the Spanish border. We went by train from Barcelona to Pamplona, then by bus to St. Jean. Here we are on the bus, feeling a bit nervous as we go over a mountain pass in the Pyrenees–a climb we will make in the coming days.


Medjugorje: A Clumsy Pilgrimage

Medjugorje is a town in the southwest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, not far from the border with Croatia. The story goes like this.

In 1981, six young people were on a rocky hill in the region and saw a woman holding a child. The woman gestured for them to come closer, but the young people retreated, scared and surprised. The next day four of them with two others returned to the place and saw the same woman. It was, they believed, an apparition of St. Mary the mother of Jesus. It is claimed that Mary continued to appear to several of the young people and on the third day of the apparitions Mary is reported to have given this message: “Peace, peace, peace–and only peace! Peace must reign between God and man and between men.”

These young people and what they experienced have put this tiny Croat village on the Catholic radar, both as a site of pilgrimage as well as the focus of controversy (which you can read about all over the internet by googling 'Medjugorje').

In any case, because of these apparitions, approximately 30 million people have visited Medjugorje since 1981. 30 million people. This puts Medjugorje in the same realm as Fatima and Lourdes, two extremely popular Mary shrines for Roman Catholics.

Anna and I came to Medjugorje curious to know about why people travel hundreds or even thousands of miles to visit. We wanted to glimpse why making a pilgrimage is meaningful for people and we wanted to see what this sacred ground looked like.

This first thing you can't help but notice when you pull into town is that this place is packed. People shuffle around on busy sidewalks past row after row of stores providing every kind of religious souvenir. Rosaries and statues of Mary predominate.

We arrived in the afternoon and after perusing these stores for a bit, headed off to mass. Every morning and evening in summer there are worship opportunities at the local church. These rows of benches were filled when mass began on Saturday evening. The mass was in the Bosnian-Croation-Serbian language, but many languages were represented. With an FM radio and headphones people tapped into a translator for several parts of the service.

Near the church there is also a interesting statue of the risen Jesus. People kiss the feet and knees of the statue and rub small cloths on it. It is claimed that the statue has weeped tears or oil. Here you can see all the people gathered at Jesus feet, many of whom were quite emotional. This made me think of the story of the women who washes Jesus feet with her tears.

The following morning we woke to climb the hill to the apparition site. Here is what we found.

A steep climb with people of all ages and physical ability

Tour groups with matching hats and shirts. This group must have 200 or more, all praying the rosary as they climbed

A silent and reverential crowd at the small statue of Mary

As a Protestant I have not spent much time developing a theology around Mary or any of the saints. Nor do I hold strong opinions about whether these apparitions are actual fact. God comes to us in all kinds of ways. Mystery and miracle are such a powerful part of religious experience. How can one judge the meaningful experience of another?

At Medjugorje, at least for me, none of this seemed to matter. What made an impression on me was the clumsiness of it all. Apparition hill is blanketed entirely by jagged stones heaving up from the ground. There is very little flat space to set your feet in anticipation of the next step. Instead you wobble around, arms out like a tightrope walker, angling your ankles to get your toes onto agreeable stone.

Older folks take their time up the hill with walking sticks. Some pilgrims choose to remove their shoes, showing devotion to Mary with pained arches and stubbed toes. A group of men formed a rotation to carry a woman who could not walk. She sat in a chair on platform with four horizontal poles that the men clutched with their hands.

Very few of us look nimble going up this uneven ground. Very few of us look like we know what we are doing.

But soon the statue of Mary comes into view. Some are crying, some are on their knees before her, some stand at a distance in quiet thought. Some here are seeking a miracle. Some seek a cure. Some are simply seeking the peace that Mary spoke about to the young people in 1981. For me Medjugorje is holy ground simply because of the people gathered, giving what is on their clumsy hearts to a graceful God.


Taking Bulgaria by the Horns

Bulgaria: a neighbor of Turkey to the west and chock-full of interesting churches. This was key territory for the Orthodox Church as well as for the Ottoman Empire. We had a short stay and saw what we could, avoided a near pick-pocketing and sampled a tasty dessert called 'sweet milky banica.' All in a day's work.

Alexander Nevsky Church in Sofia, a symbol of Bulgaria. Inside and out one of my favorite churches we have visited this year.

Rila Monastery, the spiritual heart of Bulgarian Orthodoxy.

Old Town of Plovdiv

Bachkovo Monastery

Roman amphitheater in Plovdiv

Sunset in Plovdiv

We really enjoyed getting acquainted with the Bulgarian Church, particularly for how lively it is. Rila monastery is a buzzing place and painted with every color in the palette. And yet many churches also have a more calming energy than you might find in other Orthodox traditions. The Alexander Nevsky church at the top of the post has muted artwork and iconography inside and its massive dome sort of makes you feel miniature in a satisfying way.

Our time in Bulgaria was too short but better than none at all. We have about two months left on the journey and I hope to keep posting photos as much as I can. We are in Bosnia now and later in the month we will take some time to visit Anna's relatives in Sweden.


7 Sides of Istanbul

We left Armenia after a little over 2 months there and we were very sad to leave. We made good friends and saw a lot of churches and experienced a unique culture. It was a special place to be.

Taking a midnight train going anywhere. Actually to Batumi, Georgia.

Now we are on a road trip for the next few weeks. We went by train from Armenia to Georgia, followed by a bus from Georgia all the way across Turkey to Istanbul. We paused for about 5 days in Istanbul and got a feel for this huge city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia. It is a city where you could spend a month doing something different everyday, learning about its history, geography, and religions. Here are 7 of the many things we enjoyed in Istanbul:

#1 Ramadan and the Blue Mosque. It was the Muslim holy month of Ramadan during our visit to Istanbul. People fast during the daylight hours which in summer makes for a long day without food or water. Each evening the fast is broken (called Iftar) and people gather with family and friends outside to eat. In the picture below you can see everyone wating to eat outside the famous Blue Mosque. It was powerful to see this act of devotion, especially because we have been thinking a lot about the relationship between faith and food over the course of the year. Next you can see a man vacuuming inside the same building.

#2 Mosaics. Istanbul was Constantinople, formerly the beating heart of the Christian world. Mosaics remain in some of the churches and they are spectacular. The first one of Jesus in the Hagia Sophia is especially striking. In the second Jesus is sharing a message in Greek from Matthew 11:28: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.”

#3 Sema (whirling Dervish ceremony). In Istanbul there is a Mevlevi order of dancers who participate in the Sema dancing ceremony, spinning to special music as part of this mystical ritual. They are known in popular parlance as whirling dervishes. Hard to describe just how amazing this was. It is a unique part of Islamic tradition in Turkey.

#4 Colorful Tiles. These tiles are found in palaces, mosques, and tombs throughout Istanbul. They are pretty firmly attached to the wall so the security guard figured it was safe to do a little texting. Anna is staring at them like one of those 3-D pictures that they used to have at the Dakota Square Mall. I think she saw a sailboat.

#5 Leather Work. Shoes, bags, and anything else you can think of. The leather crafts in Turkey are very nice. This picture is at the Ramadan market where this older fellow is making shoes.

#6 Homemade Food. We have been traveling for about 10 months now and sometimes we are eager to find some routine or something that feels like a home, at least for a few days. There was a tiny restaurant near our hotel in Istanbul and we frequented it. Simple food and these two really friendly guys to serve it up.

#7 Hagia Sophia (Church of Holy Wisdom). The Hagia Sophia is one of the most beautiful churches around. It started as a church for the first thousand years of its life, then became a mosque, and now it is a 'museum' (which I guess means they can charge a lot of money to get in). Some Christian art remains as well as some elements leftover from its days as a mosque.

We left Istanbul and we are looking forward to some traveling in Bulgaria and Bosnia for the next few weeks.


Tonir: Not Something that the Copy Machine Needs More of

We met a nice Armenian family who wanted to have us to their village to learn how to make lavash, a special type of flatbread that is eaten with almost every meal here. They have a baking room attached to their small barn with an underground oven called a tonir. The tonir is similar to a tandoor which is used in Indian cooking. In any case, it was special to see how this traditional bread-making process worked. Our host was Rosa, the grandmother of the family who knows all the tricks of this trade. It was special to see how lavash is made, especially because it is a big part of Armenian identity and cherished as daily bread. Here are a few pictures to walk through how the tonir is used and how lavash is made. It was one of our last days in Armenia and was a great end to our time in this hospitable and beautiful country.

Forming the dough. Perhaps the first time they had ever seen a man try to do this. I was pretty clumsy with it.

Rosa preheats the oven using these bricks made of straw and manure

Fire in the hole

While it's heating up, the tonir is used to cook eggplants. The charred skins are removed afterward

The same method is used with peppers

It is a three woman operation, one to roll the dough, the next to put the bread in the oven, and the third to hook the bread to remove it

Here Rosa is passing the dough between her forearms to stretch and shape it

Then she stretches the dough onto this pillow looking thing

With the pillow on her arm she slaps the lavash to the wall of the oven

After a minute it is finished

Here is the finished product

After the bread is done, the meat goes into the tonir, hung on skewers

A pretty neat cooking method

We also picked a lot of fruit in their backyard. Apricots are just finishing so they insisted we take a lot


Church Picnic


Grilling with some fellow seminarians at Marmashen Monastery in Armenia.


For me the khachkar is one of the most powerful symbols of Armenia. A khachkar is a carved stone cross which can be set up at a site of devotion such as a church but also as a memorial in a cemetery or at a roadside. Some are over a thousand years old but still today master craftsmen are carving khachkars. The height of khachkar production was in the 13th and 14th century. Some are simple and some are ornate. No two are exactly alike. In short, they inspire because they focus attention on the cross, recalling the story at the heart of the Christian faith. Sometimes you sense that the cross is being discovered in the stone, a kind of pilgrimage for both the carver and the viewer. Here are a few examples of our favorite khachkars from around Armenia.

It is typical to see khachkars like this lined up in the vicinity of churches

Here you get a sense of their scale, some being quite large

New models coming off the line. Again, people emphasize that no two khachkars are alike

A field of khachkars at Noratus near Lake Sevan

Khachkars can be placed within the walls of churches or set in stone like these

A new khachkar. Notice the grapes and pomegranates at the bottom, both important religious symbols in Armenia

Khachkars with Christ portrayed are less common.

A very impressive example. At the bottom a 'tree of life' symbol emerges from the cross.

One of the most amazing we saw, carved by a fellow whose nickname was 'the embroiderer'

Here is a short video of a khachkar master and his words about the craft and the significance of khachkars are especially poignant.


Ararat and Armenian Hospitality

“The fountains of the deep and the windows of the heavens were closed, the rain from the heavens was restrained, and the waters receded from the earth continually. At the end of 150 days the waters had abated, and in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, the ark came to rest on the mountains of Ararat.”–Genesis 8:2-4

One of the reasons we came to Armenia was Mount Ararat. If there was ever a country whose identity is tied to place, it is Armenia. In the picture above you see Mt. Ararat, mentioned in Genesis as the place where Noah's Ark came to rest. Armenians indentify themselves as the descendants of Hayk, Noah's great-great-grandson. Thus in the Armenian language the country is called Hayastan. Throughout many parts of Armenia, Mt. Ararat is visible on clear days. However visible, it is not easily accessible for Armenians. Ararat stands in eastern Turkey which was formerly part of historic Armenia. The border between these two countries is closed for a host of reasons, most notably the issue of the Armenian genocide in the early twentieth century as well as Armenia's conflict with Azerbaijan, whom Turkey counts as an ally.

Here again you can see Ararat with Khor Virap monastery on the left

Flood stories are found in many cultures and it's no surprise the biblical tradition has its beginnings with the story of Noah. It is a story with many themes: creation, judgement, promise, renewal. At the center is the human relationship to the land, our need for solid ground and a desire for creatures to be at home.

It was a powerful experience to see Mt. Ararat at Khor Virap, especially on such a clear day. After visiting the monastery, we were asking around the parking lot how to get back to Yerevan where we were staying. A family drove up and called for us to get in. 'Don't worry about Yerevan,' the husband said, 'You are coming to our house!' After a short drive we were at their home and a small banquet ensued. We ended up staying for a couple days with the family. They showed us how to make different Armenian foods and we enjoyed the company as well, drinking a lot of coffee (along with a healthy amount of homemade vodka). The grandmother of the family had her birthday so we got to enjoy those festivities as well. They also took us to their grandfather's grave where they have a tradition of each person walking around the gravestone and putting incense on a fire. It was special to see this part of their lives. Here are a few images of their hospitality:

One of several enormous meals

They were busy preserving fruit from numerous trees. The apricots are especially delicious in Armenia

Armenians appreciate grilled meat which they cook on sword-like skewers. This is our main host Komo.

Since the time of Noah, men across the globe have considered this an extremely worthwhile pastime

Another big meal



A big joy for us in Armenia has been the time we have spent with Father Nshan, a priest/monk/dean/scholar in the Armenian Church. He serves as the dean of a high school for young men who intend to go on to seminary for training as priests in the church. We first met Father Nishan when we were visiting Echmiadzin, the Holy See of the Armenian Apostolic Church. Not long into the conversation we found out that Father Nshan lived and studied in St. Paul, MN not far from where we went to school at Luther Seminary.

Father Nshan invited us to stay for some days in the village where he leads the high school and this was a very special experience. The high school is located on the grounds of a historic monastery called Harichavank in northwestern Armenia near the Turkish border. In our visit Father Nishan gave us a rich introduction to the liturgy and theology of the Armenian church and answered our barrage of questions about church architecture. We also shared meals with the young men of the high school and sat in on their classes. Another highlight of our time was twice daily worship in the main church. The students are being trained in all the various aspects of conducting worship in the church and it was especially moving to hear them sing throughout the liturgy, some 40 voices strong.

It is also important to note that this high school just recently re-opened after being closed for decades when Armenia was a Soviet Republic. During that time when religion was suppressed, Harichavank was mostly silent. Now it is filled with the voices and the energy of young people. As a whole Armenians are committed to their faith and in this post-communist era a shortage of priests is a big challenge for the church. It was exciting to experience the energy of this school and the future of ministry in Armenia.

A tour with Father Nshan

Inside the santuary

One of the classrooms

With some ladies from the church

After a bit of searching I found this video about Harichivank made by the Armenian church. It is in Armenian but in it you can see more about the school and also hear the young men singing which is pretty cool.

Finally, the radio program On Being keeps a blog and they posted a picture and short reflection that I submitted to them. Check that out here: