Learning God's plan along Field of Stars

By  Gillian Kantor, Catholic Register Special
  • June 20, 2008

{mosimage}To the Field of Stars: A Pilgrim’s Journey to Santiago de Compostela, by Kevin A. Codd (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, softcover, 271 pages $19.99).

In the opening pages of his book, priest and author Fr. Kevin Codd dedicates his words to his mother and father, “who taught me how to walk.” Whether this is in gratitude or accusation for the anguished steps that would follow 50 years later when he walked the almost-800 kilometres to Santiago de Compostela is for the next 270 pages to reveal. But what is immediately apparent is that Codd’s parents have, in fact, taught him how to walk and write — an essential combination for his pilgrimage.

Codd is one of the thousands who, every year, carefully organize their backpacks, heave them onto their shoulders and, with determination and gusto, embark on the ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain. There are different routes to Santiago — all challenging — and Codd makes his start in Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, taking him over the Pyrenees, into wine country, across the Spanish meseta, up more rocky hills and down through lush valleys until, after millions of steps, Santiago comes into sight.

{sa 0802825923}This Compostela he seeks is literally translated to mean “field of stars.” He wants to journey here, to see the stars dance, to look up to an endless sky at the completion of his journey and, after exertion and sacrifice and prayer, feel that much closer to heaven. As a Spanish-speaking American priest living in Belgium, he desires to learn more of himself and understand his place in the world. On a pilgrimage where silence is prevalent and space is vast, this is not an uncommon goal.

Lessons come quick. Though the road is travelled by many and each night’s refugio (the hostel-like dormitories where pilgrims rest their tired bodies) is full, Codd seeks solace on his daily walk. For the most part, this is granted by an unwritten pilgrim code: wish your fellow pilgrim a “Buen Camino” and carry on your way unless conversation is invited.

To every rule there is an exception, and Codd found this in a tag-along pair of Spanish men who used the eight-hour walking days to argue about politics, religion and life in general. Now this middle-aged priest wonders how to ditch these noisy friends without hurting their feelings. He fails, is humbled and the learning begins.

Codd allows us to see his true self on this journey. He is a man who gets aggravated and frustrated. He gets blisters and needs massages. He wants the best from himself and fellow priests. He is fiercely proud of his country and finds himself defending America’s post-9/11 actions to other nations who feel they are being bullied. He struggles with his own priestly status on this pilgrimage. Will the collar prevent him from making friends? Cause others to judge him before they know him? He walks us through his morning rosary, conversations with friends, prayers for his order’s seminary and his desire to grow in his vocation.

In his honesty, what Codd has accomplished in To The Field of Stars is what many pilgrims of the Camino attempt as they scribble in their journals each night. He keeps an accurate, thoughtful account of each painful step, each beautiful mountaintop and lush valley, each meal shared and each quiet moment enjoyed. This is a journey pilgrims want to remember and Codd’s detailed descriptions of his 35 days puts words to what many cannot express.

But as pilgrims will discover, their strengths are also their weaknesses. (Codd himself recognizes that his ambition drives him to tackle this road but also moves him too quickly and into injury.) So it is, too, with this book. While the level of detail allows us to picture a pilgrimage we ourselves may never take, it can also drag us down like the heavy backpack from which Codd longs to remove excess.

If he wished to remove excess from this book, he most certainly could begin with the daily reference to his morning stop for café con leche and tortilla. In fact, a disappointment for the reader who longs to learn more about the road and the effort of each step is that Codd often quickly walks us through his 20-some daily kilometres in two or three paragraphs, with the rest of the chapter dedicated to diary-like entries on the meals he ate, with whom, when he did his laundry and whether or not he enjoyed the Mass he attended.

But each pilgrim’s journey is his own. And the stories Codd shares with us add up to a significant experience in one priest’s life. He knows what he has witnessed and participated in has changed him — and not just in the kilos he dropped or the beard he grew. He realizes, “Something fundamental is happening to me out here.”

In the end, the stars do dance — just not the ones Codd anticipated. Like all ambitious pilgrims, Codd sets out with expectations. He learns God has other plans. Those plans are revealed in the steps we must learn to walk.

(Kantor is in Australia helping to organize World Youth Day 2008.)

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