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  • Writer's pictureJ Bristol

FEATHERS, FLAGS, AND 2X4S

A lesson from the Camino de Santiago de Compostela



More than once as I trekked across northern Spain on Camino to Santiago de Compostela, I found myself drifting from the Way. The path varied wildly from city to village, from narrow foot path in remote villages to concrete paths paralleling a highway. The only marker that guided the way was a small yellow arrow. Not even following behind other pilgrims could guarantee you were on the right track.


Although I often walked with or in sight of other pilgrims, there were many times I walked solo. Some times for miles and hours alone and between arrows.

I drifted one day while chatting with a lovely fellow peregrino from Israel. We floated through a small village. The day was overcast, but there was a translucence about the light of the late afternoon. Everything looked sharper and a dense fog was rolling in. We had stopped for coffee some kilometers back, but seemed to lose others as we minded our own pace and got lost in our chatter.


We crossed a bridge, passed a small brick church and headed west toward the woods where it looked as if the path turned from pavement to dirt. This was not uncommon along the Camino de Santiago. We heard some commotion behind us and turned to see in the distance a man entering what looked like a residence. Not giving it much attention, we continued up the path, passed a barking dog and entered the edge of the woods. Suddenly, we heard commotion again - shouting and a bell ringing. Behind us and rapidly approaching was the gentleman we had seen, now speeding toward us on his bicycle, ringing its bell and waving his arms to catch our attention. Through various gestures of pointing and failed attempts at English, we concurred we were going the wrong direction. We about-faced and walked alongside this kind and caricatured gentleman’s bike until he safely nudged us back onto the path.


What a small but beautiful experience. So simple, yet profound. This watchful guardian angel of a guy probably sees hundreds of pilgrims make the same mistake each year, and yet with compassion and a total sense of urgency, he chased us and put us back on track.

This experience took on a larger meaning for me as I found myself wishing I had such a loving, timely hand to guide me back to the path when I strayed in daily life. All those times where my life took a major detour or even derailed . . . I definitely would have noticed the bicycle bell and waving arms of such an intensely concerned man, right? Hmmm . . . not so sure about that.


Maybe it was the silence of the Camino that allowed us to be acutely aware and heed the first sign. In retrospect, my life came fully equipped with signs just like that. In me, around me . . . in line at the grocery store or on the license plate of a passing car. The commotion of daily life or my unwillingness/readiness to allow these signs were the only things that veiled them from me. In all reality, if I were being honest, I’d have to admit to floating by a red flag or two - or even a field of them, noticing or even commenting on them, but not realizing their significance.


A spiritual teacher and mentor of mine once summed it up as such: “Darlin, you can choose to receive your lessons via the feather method or the 2 x 4 method (as in, getting whacked upside the head with a 2 x 4). The choice is really yours. But, it doesn’t take many 2 x 4s before you start noticing the feathers . . . “

Turns out . . . I like feathers. And I am grateful for the lessons and loving, timely hand with which they keep me on track.

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