Twenty years later: The Phoenix

Taking the road to Santiago twenty years ago, I stop at Villafranca Del Bierzo. One of the most emblematic figures of the walk, Jesus Jato, built a shelter for pilgrims there. People came from the village and, thinking that jato was a sorcerer, set fire to the place, but he was not intimidated, and together with his wife Maria Carmen he began all over again – the place became known as The Phoenix, the bird reborn from the ashes.

Jato is famous for preparing the “burning”, a sort of alcoholic beverage of Celtic origin that we drink in a sort of ritual, which is also Celtic. On this cold spring evening, at the Ave FĂ©nix there is a Canadian, two Italians, three Spaniards and an Australian. And Jato tells of something that happened to me in 1986 and that I never had the courage to include in my book Diary of a Magus, certain that the readers would not believe it.

“A local priest passed by to say that a pilgrim had come through Villafranca that morning and had not reached Cebreiro (the next leg of the walk), so for sure he was lost in the forest”, said Jato. “I went out to look for him and only found him at two o’clock in the afternoon, sleeping in a cave. It was Paulo. When I woke him up, he complained: ‘Can’t I even sleep for just an hour on this road?’ I explained that he had not splet for just an hour; he had been there for more than a whole day.”

I remember as if it were yesterday: I was feeling tired and depressed, so i decided to stop for a while, came across the cave and lay down on the floor. When I opened my eyes and saw the fellow, I was sure that only a few minutes had passed, because I had not even moved an inch. Until today I do not know exactly how that happened, nor do I look for any explanations – I have learned to live with mystery.

We all drank the “burning”, accompanying Jato’s “wooh!” while he spoke the ancestral verses. At the end the Canadian girl came over to me.

– I am not the type of person who is looking for saints’ tombs, sacred rivers, and places of miracles or apparitions. For me, making a pilgrimage is celebrating. My father and my sister died young, both of heat attacks, and maybe I have a propensity for that.

“So, since I may leave this life early, I have to know as much as possible of the world and relish the happiness I deserve.”

“When my mother died, I promised myself to be happy every sunrise. To look towards the future but never sacrifice the present because of that. To always accept love whenever it crossed my path. To live each minute and never postpone anything that can make me happy.”

I remember 1986, when I too left everything aside to make this journey that was to change my life. At that time many people criticized me, feeling that it was crazy – my wife was the only one to lend me the support I needed. The Canadian girl tells me that the same happened to her, and hands me a text she carries with her:

“This is part of the speech that Theodore Roosevelt, President of the United States, gave at the Sorbonne in Paris on the 23rd of April 1910.”

I read what was on the paper:

“Critics don’t say anything: they merely point an accusing finger at the moment the strong suffer a defeat, or when they commit a mistake. True credit goes to those who are in the arena, their faces covered in dust, sweat and blood, fighting on bravely.

“True credit goes to the one who makes mistakes, who fails but little by little gets things right, because there is no effort without mistakes. He knows great enthusiasm and deep devotion, and spends his energy on something worthwhile. That is the true man, who in the best of hypothesis will know victory and conquest, and in the worst of hypotheses will fall, yet even in his fall he is great, because he has lived with courage and stands above those small-minded souls who will never know victory or defeat.

Next text will be posted on the 29th of April 2006.