By Deacon Mike Seibert
CONNECTING FAITH AND LIFE
Grace: an undeserved, unearned gift from God
Camino de Santiago: the Way of St. James – a pilgrimage across northern Spain to the tomb of St. James the Apostle.
Severin, Tony, Pete, and I walked out of St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, Aug. 1 to cross the Pyrenees Mountains into Spain. We arrived in Santiago de Compostela, 500 miles away, Sept. 4.
Thirty-five days of walking 6-9 hours per day may sound like torture. Each person experiences torture in some way; some through painful blisters, some through sleepless nights, some through sunburn, and some through the mental and spiritual battle that accompanies us each day. So, why do it? Each person has their own reason, which gives them the fortitude to get out of bed and put on those shoes for another day of walking.
There’s something special about the Camino; something liberating. It’s like when you step onto the Camino, you enter a bubble. For 1,000 years, pilgrims have been walking this path, so the infrastructure, housing, cafés and churches have grown up to take care of the pilgrims.
You step into a world where the Camino meets your needs. Each day follows the same routine; get up early, walk an hour or two, stop for breakfast and morning prayers, walk some more with occasional breaks. On arrival at your hostel for the night, your priorities are predetermined; rest the feet, shower, laundry, food, friends, maybe Mass and, finally, bed. It’s that simple; but it’s that hard. By tying yourself to this daily discipline, you’re freed from making many decisions; like you only have two shirts, so no wardrobe choices! The routine empties you of worldly cares; and ever so slowly, one step at a time, you make progress. Progress toward Santiago, yes; but more importantly, progress in disconnecting from the constant cares of the real world. The real world becomes a vague memory – freeing you to be with your thoughts.
Admittedly, many of those thoughts are about how far we gotta walk yet; how the feet are feeling; when the next break is; and readjusting your pack on your back.
None of what I’ve described sounds earth-shattering or life-changing, does it? But when it’s over, the release of that discipline creates a surge of emotions. It’s like climbing a mountain, which is very hard – one grueling step at a time trying to catch your breath – and suddenly you step onto the peak. And you’re rewarded; not with congratulations, but with a magnificent view, which tells you that you are in a privileged spot on earth, and all of the hardship and effort was worth it.
Stepping into the plaza in front of the Cathedral at Santiago is like that. Rather than being the end of the journey, that’s the moment when the real inner searching kicks in. Why this rush of emotion? On one hand, it’s just another church – albeit an amazing, towering Cathedral. On the other hand, this is the convergence of all the trails across Europe, travelled by many thousands for a thousand years; and I’m the privileged one standing right here, right now. How is it that this spot, this beauty, this moment can be mine? And why does it tug at my heart so?
I don’t deserve this. I don’t deserve the privilege to be standing here. I don’t deserve the sacrifice my wife made to allow me to be here. I don’t deserve the prayers of dozens back home who lifted me up, nor all the people who filled the gaps of my responsibilities at home. I don’t deserve the many blessings and new friends we met along the way every day. I don’t deserve to be standing here. I don’t deserve this grace of God; but after all, that’s kind of the definition of grace.
The only possible response is to soak in the experience with gratitude. The Camino teaches the pilgrim to recognize and be grateful for every blessing. It’s all blessing; even the rocks that trip you, the heat that keeps you awake and the hills that wear you down. Without the hardships, the mountaintop would lose its impact. It’s all grace.