Caféchurch, the Camino de Santiago, and Martin Buber

I’ve been struggling with finding some sort of way to write interestingly about my experience of being involved in Caféchurch. The problem it is unlike \anything else I have ever done. It is entirely all consuming, and has been amazingly rewarding and deeply costly – the most fun, and the most pain, I have ever experienced. It is no easy task to talk about it without lapsing into hyperbole.

However, there is one thing that I have done that combines pain and pleasure in a similarly intense way: walking the Camino de Santiago. When you’re on the trail, everything else stops existing. Get up (at 5am), deal with your feet, pack your few belongings, and then walk. Stop, eat some food. Walk some more. Lunch. Walk. Arrive, shower, wash sweaty clothes, go to local restaurant, drink vino tinto and eat until bed time (9 pm) with a dorm full of fellow pelegrinos. Then, tomorrow, do it all again.

The thing about the Camino, though, is that the real journey, the important journey, is the internal, spiritual one. You have to make the outer journey – but only in order to make the internal one. It isn’t about seeing lovely views; you spend just as much time walking across featureless agricultural areas, not to mention the occasional industrial area and past at least two airports. You aren’t doing it to meet people, though you do meet plenty of people, and there is much good cheer. It is not some sort of gourmet experience, though the pilgrim menus are both cheap and plentiful. Your feet hurt, and you develop very specialised blisters on your hands from your walking poles. But all these things – they are secondary. They are, as Aristotle would put it, necessary, but insufficient.

The problem is that the inner journey is very hard to describe except in terms of the outer journey. It isn’t that you achieve special insights as you walk – though you may do, in the intervals between wishing your feet didn’t hurt so much, and wondering how far until lunch. It did leave me with a sense of confidence in what I was doing with Caféchurch – that just because it was hard that wasn’t a good enough reason not to do it.  It did toughen me up a little, made me less attached to material things. After all, if I can live contentedly with the six kilos I can comfortably carry, perhaps that means I don’t need all the toys and so on of modern western life? Not because there is anything wrong with them, but because (and to the extent which) they encumber me, stop me from focussing on what is overwhelmingly important.

It’s not that the toys (broadly defined – tech toys, fine dining, international travel, whatever floats your boat) are the problem. Rather it is the temptation to place them at the centre, so that the organising principle of my life becomes maximising my ability to acquire them. Technically, this could be called “inordinate”, or, if you want to be a bit fiercer, “idolatry”, though I don’t want to come on like John Knox (I’d need to grow a beard for a start.)

What goes on in Cafechurch, the events that make up the life of our community and take up so much of my time and attention, are so hard to explain to people outside. They seem so small and inconsequential. When you are hearing about the trials and triumphs of someone else’s life, to respond (even if one could) in terms of a feeling that someone’s prayer life is growing, that someone else seems more ready to identify as a Christian than they were, that the mood in the room last Tuesday felt really profound seems so irrelevant, inconsequential. It’s just like the get up, walk, eat, walk, eat, sleep, repeat cycle of the Camino. The value isn’t so much in the external things as in what they mean internally.

So, for me, a starting point for thinking about Cafechurch is how, like the Camino, it clarifies my choices. Of course, “running Cafechurch” could itself become an idolatry – worse than the last set, because it is more subtle, feels more worthwhile, and can paint itself with spiritual colours. The corruption of the best is the worst, and it is only because spiritual-pastoral work provides such opportunities for growth that it provides such opportunities for corruption as well. The question I always have to be asking is whether my leading Cafechurch is just another ego project?  Am I in danger of becoming a Pharisee, spiritually proud and resentful?

It’s not so much leading Cafechurch as being involved in it at all that provides a lot of opportunity for both love and suffering – what the profoundly wise Franciscan Richard Rohr, calls “the greatest spiritual teachers of all, if we but allow them.” These aren’t the sorts of lessons that can be easily summarized. Unlike philosophical arguments, the lessons are only capable of being told suggestively, by story, myth, or ritual. They rely on some sort of touch point in experience. They aren’t communicable like a good theory is, and if they are compelling, then it is in quite a different way. They are juicy with life, but if we start drawing out some supposedly universalized principles or (even worse) moral, the process of abstraction, freeze-drying for easy transport, and rehydration on demand, extracts all the goodness from them. You’re left chewing on rind.

To be in relationship is to be in a reciprocal network of giving and receiving. Depending on the relationship (because we can’t all be in completely intimate relationships with everyone), I extend myself in order to make someone else’s concerns my own, to feel their joys and sorrows as my own, and allow my friend to do the same for me. We need to get up off our backsides and interact with people in the real way. Not through the self-presentation of Facebook,  but making an attempt, however limited, to reach that level of real relationship that Martin Buber calls the “I-Thou” relationship, where I see the other as a real person, an object in their own right, not just a means to use to reach my own aims of pleasure or power.

So Caféchurch is like the Camino, is like life as a whole. Though it’s an efficient way of doing it, we don’t need to wearily trudge across the top of Spain for weeks on end to drive below that which is secondary, the pleasures of life that, while good, cannot be the central, organising principle. The outer journey is only as worthwhile as the inner journey, and that journey is made up of opportunities to love, occasions of suffering. The stuff of growth, our relationships with other people that, ultimately, leads to that nameless, transcendent-but-imminent, reality we all-too-easily refer to as God.

2 comments

  1. Well written! Think I am going to follow along and see what you mean by Caféchurch…

    1. Thanks! Always glad to meet a fellow pelegrino! The website for Cafechurch is at http://www.cafechurch.org, and talks about what it is a bit – in spite of the domain name, it’s in Australia. Here is a post I wrote about the context of Cafechurch: https://alisterpate.com/2013/08/12/context-post-modern-church/ and here is one about what its like doing church in a pub: https://alisterpate.com/2013/08/12/on-doing-church-in-a-pub/

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