I don’t fight them and in fact, simply let them visit. But the parts of me that tend to be the most pessimistic and fearful pipe up from time to time these days, enumerating so many ways in which the pilgrimage to Santiago may not work. Soon enough those negative thoughts dissipate and there is such a sense that I am already walking. That now matters as much as the day I walk into the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela.
On Saturday, I officiated at a burial out in rural Alabama. Just the name, “Oak Bowery,” is so beautiful. A good part of the drive to get there was on country roads. We had had blistering heat for several days and as I got closer to the funeral home where the visitation was taking place, the rain started–welcome for the relief from the heat, challenging for a graveside service. That old cliche, “even the skies are grieving” seemed appropriate for a person who died too soon. However, I barely made it to the funeral home in time to join the funeral cortege. Because I was late, I ended up fairly far in the back of the line of cars following the hearse. The woman who died comes from a large family so even a small family graveside service meant about 25 or so cars slowly, carefully, driving in the rain.
Over and over again, on the opposite side of the road, cars had pulled over to the side, out of respect for the solemnity of that moment. Most of them had pulled off enough that if there was an emergency vehicle or someone in too much of a hurry that needed to get through, they could do so–probably the kind of thoughtfulness that does not require thought if you’ve lived out in that part of the country.
I kept wanting to stop and lean out the window, thank each stopped car for the respect they were showing, for acknowledging the hearse not only carried the precious remains of a beloved person, but had opened a thin, a liminal, space. Each person in the cars that had pulled over was surely reminded how even in life, we are always closer to death than we want to accept. Just as important, especially for those grieving intensely, all those cars that had stopped were a silent reminder that we carry our grief in community, that no matter how isolating sorrow can be, there are always other pilgrims walking along the way. That companionship matters.
Hoping to walk from Porto to Santiago de Compostela means so many different things, even now. I’ve buried a lot of folks in the past year; just since Easter, I’ve officiated at 4 funerals. After I got the news that B had died, I sat with the parish administrator who has also become a good friend, and said, “so, so many losses.” Her response took me by surprise. She said something like, “yes, but then that has to do in part with the fact that we are getting older, more deaths come with the territory.” I was startled–after all, I simply cannot fathom that I am already more than 60 years old. But she has a point.
Without wanting to be lugubrious or morbid, one thing the pilgrimage means to me is an opportunity to recognize that in this time of my life, I am walking towards my own death. It isn’t that I anticipate it any time soon, or want to obsess about my mortality. It is much more about the realization that there is hope and grace to be found in not running away from, nor denying my days will come to an end. I yearn to meet death with dignity, grace, to have lived so even the last days have space for joy and laughter in the absence of fear and regret.
It looks like there is a place on the Coastal Portuguese Route, where pilgrims who have gone before me have left stones engraved with a message, a word, a simple image. The most famous of these rock piles is on the French Route of the Camino, at the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross). The tradition of putting down a stone on such a pile is ancient. It is a gesture of penance, of gratitude, of putting down a burden. You have to travel light for this journey and I am trying to think what small stone or stones I’d want to put down if there is a rock pile like there is at Cruz de Ferro on the French route. Perhaps it will be those two words, left behind to open more space for life.
That part of the road is far off still. Here today, there is now…