Inside the Ramparts: A Journey Inwards

We speed past green, rolling hills, pastures full of cows and sheep, and the red roofs of brick towns on the way to the Spanish city of Avila. The three hours on the train pass as quickly as the scenery due to my 85-year-old grandma and my excited conversation about the upcoming pilgrimage: our expectations, our worries, and our hopes. This was her third pilgrimage with Shalem and my very first. I was here to accompany her, or so I thought: traveling from California to Spain is no easy feat, nor is navigating a foreign language or currency, or walking on cobblestone, at her age. Still, I come from a long line of determined, spirited women.  My grandma is one of the most strong-willed and definitely the sassiest. As she says, she would be “just fine,” and so she was. 

We got off the train at Avila with some of the other pilgrims we had just met that morning in the train station. In our increasingly digital age, it interests me that even after seeing someone’s face and talking with them online in our preparation Zoom meetings, it still feels new meeting them in person. I was not sure what to expect from our group of strangers from all over the world, most of whom were several decades older than me, the lone 25 year old. I was a long way from my home on Maui, and felt nervous about my only quasi-spiritual background, and the growing realization that this was not only Grandma’s pilgrimage to Spain, but also mine. These thoughts lingered in my mind as I rolled Grandma’s and my luggage to the waiting taxi, which took us to our hotel. 

Avila’s stone ramparts rose high before us, the closest thing to a castle from a fairytale that I have seen in real life. The walls are made of stones ranging from tan to burnt orange, smooth from the many years they’ve stood guard. I can’t help but think about all the soles that have walked through and on top of these ancient walls, and the many souls who have come and gone from this city, like St. Teresa, in whose steps we followed. We drive through the city gates and enter the walled city for the first time–a physical portal to mark the journey both into this new, beautiful place, and the journey deeper inside ourselves. 

Reflecting on these moments now, I am struck by how I came to Avila with so much uncertainty: my purpose for being there, whether I would connect with the programming and the other pilgrims, and all of the baseline uncertainty of someone in their mid-twenties. I left the pilgrimage with not so much certainty, but a stronger sense of hope and a belief in the power of connecting with others, which ultimately provided me with a stronger belief in myself, in the sacred nature of my journey through life, and the beauty of the world at large. 

On that first night of listening circles, I was so intimidated to share. I sat in a circle with three strangers I had just met. I did not expect to, at the end of our 10 days together, eventually pour into the deep, hidden-away voices lurking in my mind, or the parts of my life I try to look away from–the grief of losing my father, growing up and the fear of what might happen to me, and an unpredictable future that often seems set on darkness. I did not expect to find comfort and peace in the questions and teasing-outs of fellow pilgrims–glimmers of a possibility to go deeper, and to see my story a different way. In that place, I found acceptance and belonging, and I could hear that little voice inside whispering that somehow it knew the way. 

From the group dinners full of stories and filling meals, to the quiet afternoons I spent walking alone, to the siesta-time both napping and chatting in the hotel room with my Grandma, to the general chaos and humor of managing group dynamics, to the surrounding environment drenched in history, mystery, and charm, to the dramatic cathedrals and the bustling streets, to enjoying a slower pace…the pilgrimage invited so much. I learned that we all can connect if we create the proper environment for it, and everybody has something they are working on, no matter if they are 25 or 85. I also learned no one likes fish after having it too many nights in a row, and that a gelato a day is a good idea, but I digress. Going deeper was never easier than in the reflective framework created by Shalem, and surprising joy more abundant when you come as a seeker of something new. 

On one of our last nights, we walked around the hilly streets of Toledo in silence, reflecting on St. John’s dark night and reading his vivid poetry. As we strolled the cobblestone, shining flashlights for others to find the path, and offering hands for stability, I enjoyed the gentle patience of taking care of each member of the group and smiled at the warm familiarity we had built together. In that moment, with the sound of the river rushing below, the warm night air on my face, and summer wind blowing in the trees, I felt a love for this group and this experience wash over me. I was so grateful to be right here, in the midst of these people I would have otherwise never crossed paths with, grateful to know them, enjoy them, and see the beauty in each of them, as they had brought it out in me. We walked on, and I knew that although the night is dark, there is always a light, in ourselves and others, to guide us on our way.

December 12, 2023 by Savy Janssen 2 Comments
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7 months ago

Oh Savy! What a beautiful recollection! Your words bring back to me the great gifts of our pilgrimage together. Thank you!

Barbara Jones
Barbara Jones
7 months ago

Beautiful memories of the pilgrims and our journey.


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