After President Greg rang the Rotary bell, and following a spirited “Star-Spangled Banner,” Lauren Heinonen came up to deliver a fabulous Inspiration. Lauren, one of RCAA’s newest (and youngest) members, is a real luminary; the Rotary spirit of service above self shines brilliantly around her. She spoke of epiphanies — of that spark that can suddenly ignite the devotion of a young Rotarian to the service of others. But first, the transformation of self. She evoked the young Thoreau, ensconced in the one-room cabin of his own making on the edge of Walden Pond: “Not until we are lost do we begin to understand ourselves.” A fitting maxim certainly for a pilgrim, for our individual life journeys, even as a title for our speaker’s presentation.
In keeping with the questing spirit, Dave Keosaian and Tom Strode led us in singing that favorite Rotary standard, “The Happy Wanderer.” Greg then returned to the podium and welcomed everyone. Guests were introduced, such as Lauren’s partner Chris Wentland, a U-M aerospace Ph.D candidate. Visiting Rotarians introduced themselves, among them Bala Murthy, a member of the Rotary Club of Washington, D.C., and Secretary, Yoga & Meditation Fellowships of Rotarians. Bala enthusiastically described the importance of fellowships: “They are the way to the future.” He showed some slides detailing what Yoga and Meditation Fellowships can accomplish in the school setting: “We go to schools and teach the students one or two meditation techniques that can calm their minds down” from the frenzy of social media permeating their lives. “As a result, perhaps Rotary will pick up more millennials,” Bala posited.
Brandon Black then made an announcement: “If anybody [here] is thinking about becoming a Rotarian, please get with me. Also, we have an amazing group of Rotaractors, and it’s that time of the year [preparing for winter], so if you’d like to Rent a Rotaractor for yard work, please let me know.”
Speaker: Dennis Powers came up to introduce our speaker, the Rev. Alan Gibson. “Pilgrimages are journeys to seek out places where the Divine has intersected with our world,” Dennis began. “Some faiths [Islam, for instance] hold them as core values…Other faiths look on them as aspirational [Jewish people praying at the Western Wall]. Such searching for the abiding presence of God was an integral part of life in the Middle Ages.” Dennis then linked history with the present: “For us today…it is all but impossible to relate to what life was like for ordinary people in the Middle Ages — travel was hard…Outlaws preyed on solitary travelers…The journey along the Way of St. James nowadays is still focused on personal growth, self understanding, and spiritual awakening. Our speaker this afternoon will bring to life for us what that walk is like for the modern pilgrim.”
Mr. Gibson began by recounting the “unsuccessful mission” of the Apostle St. James the Greater, in Roman Spain in the mid first century A.D. Later, after his martyrdom in Jerusalem (44 A.D.), James’s relics were brought by his disciples to Roman Iberia, to Compostela. Gibson pointed out that, after a long period of neglect, the Saint’s burial place was rediscovered during the reign of King Alfonso II (791-842). From this time the tomb at Santiago de Compostela became the most visited Christian shrine in Europe during the Middle Ages, with pilgrimage routes carrying thousands to the cathedral each year. “In recent years,” Gibson noted, “over 200,000 have walked one of the two main routes — the Portugese and French Caminos — representing 130 nationalities. Most walk, some bike, and a few Romantic ones ride horseback.” Apparently, the medieval roadside conveniences are alive and well today: “Restaurants cater to travelers with inexpensive ‘pilgrim meals’ — three course dinners with a bottle of local, no-label wine.” Hostelries of various kinds abound, most with reasonable overnight rates. Conveniences aside, Gibson stresses that “the Camino [pilgrimage] de Compostela isn’t for everyone. But don’t count yourself out; if you’re healthy and reasonably fit, you shouldn’t have much difficulty.” The mountains of northern Spain can be arduous, though, as anyone who has biked the region can attest. And it can rain, a lot. Father Gibson has walked the Camino twice, with one trip made somewhat uncomfortable by frequent rain (“I could’ve done without the wet and cold, especially at night.”). His daily walked mileage averaged about 15. “It’s very important to rest one full day each week,” he asserted.
Many slides were shown, creating a visual chronology of his Camino from beginning to end. From crossing the gigantic Santiago Bridge, “the second-longest in Europe, at 7.5 miles,” to toddling through olive groves, from visiting beautiful Baroque-style churches along the roadside, to Coimbra, “the old capital of Portugal,” with its famous university, founded in 1290 (in Lisbon, then moved to Coimbra in 1537), to the waterfront of Porto, at the mouth of the Douro River, from which the world’s best Port has been shipped for centuries. In addition, lustrous blue and white tile-sheathed churches and outdoor shrines adorn the route, where one can often find offering boxes “to get loved ones out of Purgatory.” Of course, the high point of Mr. Gibson’s pilgrimage was Santiago de Compostela itself, the town and cathedral. “The priests swing a huge incense pot by pulling on chains,” he observed, “so as to lessen the smell of the pilgrims…at least that’s the traditional view.” He’s planning to go again, to trek the complete French Camino: “It takes 33 days, if you’re pushing yourself. October is the best month, weather-wise, to do the pilgrimage.” But rain, cold, and blisters notwithstanding, the experience is unforgettable, illuminating. And, as our speaker pointed out, “a good meal is never far away.”
Hearty applause resounded through the ballroom. No doubt many members were feeling inspired enough to ponder going on a Camino; just as many, perhaps, were grateful simply for the presentation, the beautiful slides, the Weber’s coffee, and of the prospect of a Wolverine win this Saturday. Greg adjourned the meeting with sage words from Mark Twain — “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.”