Monday, October 26, 2015

Book Review: To the Field of Stars

Author: Fr. Kevin A. Codd
# of pages: 271 + about 12 pages of introduction and a map
Original Publication Date: 2008
Publisher: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
My Copy: Paperback

I think this may be my last book on El Camino de Santiago for the foreseeable future. This is slightly because I've grown tired of reading about it but mostly because I have other reading goals for the year that I would like to meet. Also, I'd prefer to end my Camino reading binge on a positive note. This book certainly did that!  I finished it way back in August but it took me a while to unpack everything I was thinking and feeling after reading it. Even now I know I fail to truly do it justice.

I am about to share here a story about stars that dance.  May I advise  you to exercise a modicum of caution in attending to what follows, for the story of stars dancing over a field in a faraway land may draw you away from the ordinary business of daily life that you find yourself, quite to your surprise, in a new world of unexpected adventures and remarkable people and some very profound mysteries. If this should happen to you, if the story of stars playing above the dusty bones of an old saint should capture you in its strange field of gravity, it may well draw you out of your house, down the street, and out of town. ... You will witness miracles. page 1
So begins this impressive memoir. Already I found myself reaching for a pen to begin underlining great long passages, sweeping paragraphs, and beautiful bits of prose. Fr. Codd begins with a lovely introduction detailing what a pilgrim is, exactly, and why a pilgrimage to the shrine of a dusty old saint in Spain is even remotely desirable before he dives into his first day on the road. 

I'll admit that the first 2 chapters are a bit of a disappointment after the blisteringly lovely introduction. Disappointing, but incredibly real. Getting rained on in the Pyrenees and being miserable as a result and talking to mountain goats in the Basque country is the reality of the first couple of days on the camino. The other thing that disappointed me in the first few chapters was that he seemed to forget he was a priest. That stung a little, since the primary reason I was reading this book was to get a truly Catholic perspective. I got the secular perspective from Jack Hitt's disturbing Off the Road, the practical perspective from The Camino Guide, and now I was ready for a perspective that somewhat echoed my own. Yet, throughout the first several chapters, Fr. Codd didn't really behave as a priest.

Later, though, that began to change, and I began to understand. I got a glimpse of a man who had dedicated his life to the service of God and His people, but who was still just a man. He prayed his Rosary in the morning and sang in his joy, but he also had moments of petty selfishness, complaints, and unhappy suffering. At first I found this reality unsettling and downright annoying, but eventually I came to appreciate the realness of this man's humanity. I was reminded to imagine people complexly, especially those we tend to put on a pedestal.  He also started acting more like a priest after those first few chapters and his insights are absolutely worth reading and mulling over. That's part of why I spent so long reading this book: there's a lot to consider about life, the world we live in, and the people we're stuck on this rock with.

I also liked that each chapter covered about one day on the Camino. There was some repetition (the morning routine, for example, but eventually that was left out as the book went on) but it really allowed him to focus on his reflections on churches or experiences with fellow pilgrims. These reflections really made the entire book special and filled the void left by the complete lack of introspective, spiritual reflection from Off the Road.  Once he started leaving out his morning routine - or at least glossing over it - there was still the feeling of the daily grind on the camino, that it just keeps going, but there was a sense of triumphant human spirit despite the length of the journey. 

In the end, the priest in him came shining through and I really enjoyed reading about this man's transcendent journey across Spain, the friends he made (as well as the friends he didn't make), and the lessons he learned.

Truthfully, the only drawback was that I had trouble picking up this book about a quarter of the way through. I think part of it was camino fatigue and the rest was just laziness on my part. Otherwise, I really, really liked this book. I think you will, too.

Some quotes I loved:

From page xi:

                 "It might seem all very superstitious to the scientifically sophisticated populations of our modern western world, but for centuries much of life in the Christian world revolved around relics, prayers, and pilgrimages.  Our predecessors in the faith held firmly to three simple beliefs. One: God cares infinitely about us.  Two: the saints know what we are up against and direct God's kind attention our way.  And three: miracles happen."

From page 23, about the Rosary:

                 "In point of fact, the rosary is a perfect prayer for a pilgrim; its repetitive recitation of the same few words over and over remarkably falls into time with my footsteps... This kind of prayer is so very Catholic.  It is image-based, it is physical, it is rhythmic, and its "power" doesn't depend on feelings or creativity or a presumption of personal holiness.  It is a good prayer for a sinner."

From page 26, talking about "offering up" his daily walk for his seminary brothers:

                 "We [Catholics] believe that by 'offering up' something important to us even if it is a trifle, the trifle becomes holy because from then on it belongs to God.  And in being explicit in that offering, and paying attention to God in a very personal way, and crawling into God's big lap with our troubles, God can't help but tend to us."

From page 44:

                 "I am learning something here about the camino: an expansive generosity and spontaneous kindness has been woven into this way, making us more caring ourselves and then more trusting.  Step by step we are walking out of our fear.  We are learning that it is easier to care than to not care.  We are being softened even as our feet are being toughened."

From page 48, reflecting on a crucifix in a church:

                 "Those arms of Jesus stretching achingly upward seem to be grasping at heaven yet the gravity of earth seems even stronger as it pulls him down into its dusty crust.  The utter earthiness of the image and the physicality of this dying body pull me out of myself."

From page 107:

                 "So the road is good for me.  Out here I see.  Out here I sing.  Out here I pray like crazy."

From page 115:

                 "...what is urging us forward on this road, is the longing to see real stars again. ... We want to see far more than just one star; we want to see them all, strewn, cast, dancing away in their galactic pinwheels.  We want to see there an extravagant God who does not count or measure but just pours and pours and pours, grace upon grace, stars upon stars, into our sky, into us.  We hope against hope that before we die we might see what Abraham saw: a universe shot through with sparkling care.  To see the stars dance, to dance with them ourselves, this is what attracts us, this is what has grabbed us by our souls, and this is what is pulling us down this crazy road.  Ah, yes, the seeing of stars is indeed a great thing in this life."

From page 187:

                 "It is one of the most beautiful moments of common prayers I have yet had along the camino, and it refreshes me and, I believe, the others.  It also gives lie to the common belief that this generation of young people has no thirst for the beautiful and the holy.  I have repeated this lie too many times myself.  This evening prayer makes it clear that they do thirst for something transcendent in their lives, but to our shame don't find it often enough in those of us who are supposed to be mediators of the holy in the world.  The the extent that they are empty and thirsty it is to an uncomfortable degree our fault, not theirs."   

And finally, one of the quotes from this book that has stuck with me still: 

From page 142: 

                "Bidden or unbidden, God is present."

Recommended Reading Level: Adult. There's nothing really specifically inappropriate for younger readers, I just sincerely think they wouldn't be interested. There's a lot of heavy religious themes that might go over the heads of younger readers, as well.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars. I'm deducting that one star because I really was annoyed at the first couple of chapters and I wasn't at all inspired to keep picking up this book through certain parts the way a 5 star would. It's still one of my top recommendations of the books I've read so far this year, though. 

Who Should Read It: Catholic people, people who plan on walking the Camino in the future who are also Catholics, people who like Catholic priests, people who want a religious, reflective perspective on the Camino, people who are open to religious experiences, people who are comfortable reading about conversations with mountain goats and snails and stone saints.

Further reading to consider:
Fr. Codd chronicled his second pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela at

For more of the books I've loved, hated, and reviewed, please check out my Book Reviews tab. To see the full listing of books I've read this year and what I'm currently working through, feel free to peruse my shelves at Goodreads.

Happy Reading!


*Note: I am not now nor have ever been an associate or acquaintance of Fr. Kevin Codd. I am not an agent of or in any way associated with Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing or any of its affiliates. This is an unpaid, unsolicited review of a book I genuinely liked and wished to share. All text quotations are used for the sole purpose of reviewing and are not claimed as my own.*

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