by Johnniewalker Santiago, shared with permission
On the way up the hill to the end of the world at Finisterre he realised with utter conviction that the spiritual journey he was on would not end but would continue for the rest of his life.
John decided that he needed to explore this “inner journey” and that this exploration would be an integral part of the Guides he would come to write.
I was confused. “What is this ‘spirituality’ you are propounding, John?” I asked. “For some people the Camino is God centered, for others it is simply a walk, for some people there is meaning in crystals, for others it is the Cross. Under the new-age-speak, what does John Brierley believe?” I apologised for being intrusive, but John continued with absolute honesty. “I am on a journey of enquiry” he explained. I accept everybody and what they believe. I can sum up my philosophy as being trying to find what connects us rather than what separates us.”
He talked about his traditional upbringing in the Church of Ireland, “but it never became an important part of my life.” In contrast the spiritual awakening he experienced as a pilgrim has led to a lifelong search for understanding of the nature of “God, Jesus and the Trinity.” As we talked further the jargon of self-help psychology fell away as John spoke about his developing relationship with Jesus Christ. He described him as his brother, an older brother who he can depend on.
Just for a moment, the simplicity of what he said hung in the air. Then in a rush, like a descriptive chapter in one of his Guides he was off again describing the self-help book a Course in Miracles which he uses as a framework for life. He quoted the book verbatim, “Words are just symbols of symbols, and therefore twice removed from reality.” He explained that he is conscious of the limitations of language and that what he tries to do in his Guide books is not simply give directions and information but “like a brother to the pilgrim, I try to walk the spiritual journey with them.”
The Camino as a spiritual journey
John is clear that he sets out in his books to give people “permission to talk about the Camino as a spiritual journey” – the concept of the inner and outer journeys is inherent to the design of the Guides and he will not change that approach. “Will there be more Guides?” I asked. The loquacious Irishman was short of words in answer. More routes are being considered. Perhaps the route from Granada, perhaps the route from Montserrat above Barcelona. We’ll have to wait and see.
“What I do,” he concluded with total conviction, “is write Guide books which point people to an empty space which they can then fill with their own journey”.
The best job in the world
“Do you have the best job in the world?” “You bet I do” he answered without a hint of smugness.
We talked for a considerable period more, the conversation reinforcing my impression of John as a man without guile, successful in what he does, energised by the Camino and planning more adventures. Before I met John I had wondered about the whole “inner journey” thing. At the end I realised that although we may question whether a guidebook is the best place to promote the concept, his sincerity in doing so cannot be doubted. He is a very nice man.
The John Brierley Story
After that interview in 2010, John and I kept in touch. I was writing guidebooks for the Confraternity of Saint James and often we shared information. I used to tease him that he only wrote guidebooks to routes where they would sell enough, whereas the CSJ were interested in guidebooks to the lesser-known routes – the Camino Inglés and the Camino Portuguese Coastal route were two of these at that time. John was forthright about this. “It’s my job which I need to support my family,” he retorted, “it’s your hobby!” Often when I was updating guidebooks for the CSJ, a hospitalero or hostal receptionist would say, ”John Brierley was here last week asking the same questions!”
John’s guidebooks were superior. His maps were accurate, and he took huge pride in how he verified distances. “I wear a GPS on both wrists,” he said, waving his fists in the air like a boxer.
We are ALL pilgrims
We would meet whenever John was in Santiago and that continued until the end. He had strong views about some things. For example, he related how some people denigrate pilgrims who “only” walk from Sarria or from Ponferrada. “We are all pilgrims,” he declared, ”we are all pilgrims in life and on the Camino, no matter where we start!”
As John’s philosophy about the transformational nature of the Camino experience matured, he travelled to Ireland, the USA, Canada and Australia speaking eloquently on this theme.
We also started appearing together on internet seminars – particularly more recently during and after Covid. At times I teased him mercilessly about his “new age” theory that the Camino could change the world. Never once did he rise to the bait and argue back although once he said he was praying that I too would become a convert to his philosophy!
It was during one of these online discussions with John in February 2022 that I noticed a change in him.
I contacted him the next day asking about his health. He replied that he had had surgery for cancer but unfortunately it had spread. An intensely private man, he only made this public many months later. I asked him what he was going to do. “I’m going to give myself to the healing power of the Camino,” he replied, ”I have guidebooks to update post Covid.” He added with total frankness, “I want to die in harness.”
He shared his plan to walk three Caminos in the forthcoming period. This he did and he reported that he was feeling strong. “The Camino is working!” he declared in one email.
Whenever I saw him online at this time, I thought he looked remarkably well. However, as we now know, this was simply a blessed time of respite from an illness which was marching on.
A lasting record of his thoughts
John knew his time was coming and he contacted my close friends Leigh Brennan and Patti Silva of the Camino Café Podcasts and he worked with them to make several videos – one announcing that he was passing the guidebook baton to his daughter Gemma, and others recording for posterity his thoughts and philosophy about the Camino, about life.
This is the trailer for these: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gvx241VwwPU
For John there was always one more Camino. He emailed that he was going to walk the Camino Portuguese and that he would see me on arrival in Santiago. However, soon he emailed from the route to say that his health was deteriorating and that he needed to return home.
The Last Supper
We met for lunch in the restaurant San Clemente in Santiago. John was delighted that Leigh, Patti and Stephen joined us. He took the opportunity to discuss theology with Stephen and to laugh and joke with all of us. We talked Camino, we reminisced and gossiped just a bit. John took my hand and thanked everyone for what he called the “Last Supper.” We asked Stephen to sing to John and when he sang the famous Irish ballad, “The Fields of Athenry” we all joined in the chorus our eyes glistening with tears.
Thank you, John Brierley,
I firmly believe that whatever we have to say to the people we love we should say to them whilst they are still alive. Therefore, I concluded the lunch by explaining to John that today we couldn’t invite the tens of thousands of pilgrims who owe him a great debt but on behalf of the Camino community we wanted to thank him:
For making the Camino more accessible, especially for those who are uncertain.
For guiding us when we might get lost.
For helping us find accommodation along the Way.
For stimulating our awareness of the inner journey as well as the physical.
For sharing his money as well as his knowledge through many donations to Camino causes.
Finally, we thanked John for being the gentlest, most sincere friend that anyone could have.
With a fond embrace we parted. That, however, was not the end…
Volumes of Love
John returned home to be with his family as the end approached. We emailed each other most days. I asked him if I could tell the pilgrim world how gravely ill he was – “people will want to support you”, I explained. He refused at first. I wrote again, ”pilgrims will want to tell you how much they love you.” His response was indicative of how sick he was. ”Send the love now, John.”
In all forums I told people how ill John was and invited them to send emails to be formatted and forwarded to him. Within days 1,600 emails arrived from all over the world. They came from people who simply wanted to thank him for all he has done for pilgrims. They came from pilgrim associations to which he donated money. They came from people he had encountered on the routes. They came with memories. Above all they came with messages of love and support.
“Tell the pilgrims I said thank you and that I love them.”
I formed these into “Volumes of Love”, and I sent one or two each week. At first John was bowled over by the amount and the sentiments expressed. He asked me to thank everyone. “Tell the pilgrims that I love them” he wrote. As he became increasingly weak and bedridden, his daughter wrote to me to say that her dad was sleeping a lot but when he was awake, she was reading the emails to him.
At the age of 74, John died on July 2, 2023.
Developing the Camino Portuguese
Of course, John’s legacy rests in the lives of the people who used his guidebooks to walk the Camino and in the Camino causes he supported with his generous donations. His legacy lives on in the videos he made and above all in the family and friends whose lives he touched.
However, John was also concerned about the future of the Camino. We discussed the huge number of pilgrims walking the Camino Francés and the need for an alternative long-distance route. We had both walked the Camino Portuguese from Lisbon to Porto and then to Santiago. We recognised that the route from Porto has a highly developed pilgrim infrastructure with many albergues and other accommodation. The route from Lisbon, however, whilst very beautiful, is not well served with pilgrim accommodation, particularly in the early stages .”If only there was an albergue to break up that first stage out of Lisbon pilgrims would come in their droves,” John said.
As John became increasingly ill his desire to do something about this became all the more urgent. He wrote to the pilgrim associations. He and I met online with the pilgrim association Via Lusitana based in Lisbon. We met with the Board of American Pilgrims.
The conclusion is that we have identified the need for a new international organisation to develop the facilities on the route from Lisbon to Porto – starting with the development of an albergue in that first stage.
Representatives of the English language pilgrim associations, the Portuguese, and Spanish associations are coming together on 1 August to move this forward.
John insisted that a bank account be opened for this project into which he would make a significant donation to fund the initial stages of developing this new albergue.
When it comes to pass, I believe it should be called the John Brierley Albergue. Don’t you think?
Thank you, Johnniewalker, for sharing this beautiful tribute to John Brierley.