Have you ever had nagging doubts about whether you behaved properly at some event? Or thought back on an experience, only to realize you now think about it in an entirely different way than you once did? It can happen in pilgrimages too. It was enlightening to check back with Ásta Camilla Gylfadóttir about our 2016 trek with her and a group of other Icelanders from Bær to Skálholt. I’ve been worried that with our English-language needs and our massive tourist luggage we eight Canadians “spoiled it” for the Icelanders that year. But for Milla, our walk is only a bright memory. For her, the fact that there were Canadians along on the Pílagrimar only made it better. I can’t tell you how liberating our recent Zoom chat turned out to be.
Which makes me realize once again that there are many parts to a walking pilgrimage: the journey is only one of them. A big part of any pilgrimage is narrative: the stories that gave rise to the pilgrimage (at Lourdes, for instance, the Marian appearance to Bernadette), but also the stories that come out of the experience of the pilgrims. Like the dozens of crutches left in Brother André’s chapel at St Joseph’s Oratory, Montreal, or the hundreds of pilgrim blogs, videos, books, and poems arising from the Camino de Santiago in Spain, these later stories “layer on” to the original narratives, making the original journeys richer, more complex, and more about the present. A pilgrimage stays ever-present – and ever meaningful – in its re-telling and sharing. For that I’m thankful.
Bare details don’t tell it all: Bær to Lundur, 17 km, Oddsstadir to Fitjar, 12.2. There is a map, but no obvious trail. Elínborg, Hulda and Floki, with few others, dream of a trail walked by Icelanders and others, to mark faith, and history, and friendship. They have planted posts over the years to help guide the way. But unlike the Camino, unlike even St Olaf’s, here there is rarely a visible path. A Spanish poet wrote that “the way is made by walking”. And isn’t that the way it is with life? The way is made by walking. And so is the trust, and the faith, and the community, and the hope. And the pilgrim.
Somewhere between Hvalfjördur and Thingvillir (the double ‘l’ pronounced with a d/t sound, thus Thing-vit-leer) we were drenched in mist, rain, and mud. And, since our day ended up being an almost 30 km scramble over what the Icelanders call ‘leg-breaker trail’ (Leggjabrjótur), by the time we were done we were sore and wet and cold in every possible way. And dirty. When my daughter looked at some of the clothes we’d been wearing, she coined the term: pilgrimage-gross.
Which got me thinking about appearances, pilgrimage, Icelanders and North Americans. Nowhere we stayed had the kind of full-length, or even half-length, mirrors so common in North America. There was a kind of self-acceptance and natural toughness to the Icelanders with whom we walked, an easy gracefulness that seems to come from closer contact with the natural environment. What’s more, I noticed that the folks we set out with became more handsome and beautiful as we shared the trials and the trail together. So even though our clothes (and especially our boots!) became progressively more ‘pilgrimage gross’, a kind of ‘pilgrim beauty’ shone even more through the mud, mist and cold, and was everywhere present in the people and the land.
I was feeling somewhat exhausted when CBC Radio One’s All in a Weekend called me on the trail for a follow-up interview while we were high up on ‘bone-breaker’ trail after having been briefly lost in the clouds (by the way, Gabriel had to shout out to me how to say “bye” in Icelandic, but they cut that part). The “troll” comment was a reference to the big, happy rock-and-roll guy! #thingsyouwishyoucouldtakeback