This summer I had the pleasure of walking the Camino de Santiago. You probably already know this given how many videos were sent out during the trip. It took me 28 days to finish about 800 kilometers with just two days off. My main reason for taking this time for pilgrimage was to walk in silence with my Beloved (God, Spirit, the Divine.)
I did it because the universe lined up a way for me to have time; and I was fortunate enough to be present to SEE IT and SAY YES TO IT.
My heart had been longing for dedicated space for quite a while. Space to be undone. Space to be distracted. Space to be absorbed. Space to enjoy simplicity day in and day out.
While this kind of experience can be the quality of life wherever we are, wherever I am, there was something dynamic about having just a backpack and just one duty- Presence- while following yellow arrows through the countryside and coast to the end point, to the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela.
I’m the kind of person who finds it burdensome to carry even a water bottle on a hike so you can imagine how it felt at first having a pack on my back ALL DAY. To my surprise however, it did not take long to grow close to this constant companion. In fact, each morning I began to look forward to strapping up and bringing with me my new friend whose contents took care of my needs and whose weight hugged my hips.
Once the walk was over I didn’t want carrying the pack to end. So I kept the same routine, even clipping all the straps for the first day or two. With all the newly arriving pilgrims bearing packs on their backs, it was nothing noticeable to anyone but me.
After the days of respite it came time to move on from Santiago. Some go home from here, some go on to site seeing to some select Spanish destination and many continue their pilgrimage on foot or by bus to one of two cities on the Galician coast, Finisterre or Muxia. I chose the former.
Even before getting to Spain my heart had been set on going to Finisterre. It was interesting to see how clear this intention was even as other pilgrims highly suggested Muxia over the former, almost to the point of trying to convince me. But my heart knew Finisterre was the place. And this heart did not let me down.
Finisterre, (or Fisterra to the locals,) was named at a time when most people thought the world was flat. The promontory was considered ‘the end of all land,’ and taking a boat from there heading east would lead to certain death once the edge of all water abruptly dropped off.
‘What a dramatic way to bring the pilgrimage to a close,’ I thought to myself, as my bus ride hugged the southern coast, buzzing through small villages and ports. Arriving in Finisterre descending the bus steps wind whipped my hair into my face, cool enough to give me goose bumps. It was a town situated amidst intense movement of water and wind on both sides. This movement propelled me to undertake the short yet ever inclining walk to the lighthouse not long after landing. I can’t actually remember how long the walk was, maybe a handful of miles, but what I did know was that I would finally reach the ‘0’ kilometer yellow seashell embedded in a concrete post marking the official end, (or beginning I suppose,) of the Camino.
We pilgrims were like a steady stream of ants single filing the footpath up the road with the Atlantic Ocean rushing against the rocky shoreline and seagulls playing in the currents of air. It was quite a romantic site. The sunny day made the ocean look like a bowl of jewels and after a light adjustment my body relaxed into the warm wind brushing it from all directions.
It was an easy walk, perhaps made so given the days of longer miles preceding it, and not long after I was stopped at the infamous marker. Two sisters, in tears were taking pictures of each other so I took a few of the two of them together. They were giddy with the afterglow of having actually completed one of their dreams together, the Camino.
The marker is set a short way before an actual working lighthouse set among boulders and rocks, a small yet beautiful restaurant and hotel set close to the edge, and a small café. Water rushed from three directions, waves crashing against each other in the cross current. A solitary cross rising high in the air, was situated to the left facing due east as though it were blessing anyone that would venture out into the waters that would eventually drop off forever.
It was here, standing in front of the cross, that I was reminded of many sacred texts bearing the stark invitation to lay down our packs in order to freely follow a call and live in the Light.
Pack, used in this way usually implied all that encumbers us or we are encumbered by, that obscures our essential freedom. It seems that if we are simply carrying a ‘pack,’ we can still walk towards our goal, right? Which means the phrase must be symbolic in nature. When I think of pack in this way the word surrender seems most accurately descriptive.
The cross rising so high into the open air seemed to beckon me to lay down my pack there. Officially, symbolically, and of course playfully. It felt poetic. It felt appropriate.
So I did. Without lengthy words like the ones you are getting here, and with simplicity I laid down my pack. No emotion arose, no felt sense of completion occurred.
But silence enveloped me. A current of silence.
If you could lay down a pack you carry, what would it be? Guilt? Old negative memories? Shame? Limiting beliefs? What could laying down your pack mean for you in this moment?
I can tell you what my short ritual meant for me. It was not a big breakthrough, it was much more like the stance expressed so well in Psalm 131. The psalm goes like this:
My heart is not proud, nor are my eyes haughty. I busy myself not with things too great for me. Nay rather I have stilled and quieted my soul like a weaned child, like a weaned child upon its mother’s lap so is my soul within me.
I started reflecting upon how difficult, at times impossible it is to lay down our packs. We say it, and hear it, as though we should be able to simply cast down a pack that is intertwined with who we define as ourselves with the whisk of a hand. And yet, does it seem to work that way? Do you find that even with your best efforts, and your most sublime moments of surrender, that what you carry seems to stick around?
Before moving on with our reflection, I want to give you an extract from the movie called, The Mission. You will see how it fits soon enough, maybe you can even relate to the main character. The movie is a classic even if you are not a person of devotion. This particular scene still makes me cry each time I see it so sit back and enjoy the snippet.
The movie is about three groups…and much more of course. The first are natives of a South American land; the second is a religious order seeking conversions and also seeking to help them learn many skills; and the third is social/religious hierarchy. Though slave trading was strong the religious order opposed it.
One of the main characters, Rodrigo Mendoza, a ruthless and highly skilled slave trader, is highly esteemed by the reigning groups and this segment is about him. Rodrigo is highly sensitive about the opinion of others, in fact if he felt someone might be minimizing him rage and bloodshed could follow. Yes, he could kill a man for a slight of word. One of the memorable lines that reveals his insecurity was an inflamed moment with face reddened and hand on his sword he yells, ‘Are you laughing at me? Are you laughing at me?’ And the sword moved to kill who was challenging his insecurity.
This gives you a good sketch of him as the movie opens.
At a certain point, the leader of the religious order, Father Gabriel, does something that inspires him. Rodrigo had killed his brother for sleeping with his wife and was in prison. This priest visits him and challenges him by his wisdom and his kindness. The priest laughs at him, and the prisoner rises in anger. But the priest sees him with eyes of his heart and when Rodrigo asks, ‘Are you laughing at me?!’ Father Gabriel says, ‘Yes, because what I see is laughable.’ This honest reflection launches the slave trader into the desire to be a true man.
Rodrigo goes through radical change; he not only abandons his profession of hunting other human beings and selling them, but also joins the religious order and seeks to humble himself in every way. The sword he used on others, he now uses on himself. Like so many of us, this man makes amends with his words and actions but holds above his head his own refusal to forgive himself.
In a radical act of penitence the novice decides to string up all he has used for his evil acts into a huge net made of thick rope, tie it to his back, and climb the route he forced the natives to traverse. It was a muddy, root laden treacherous climb up the side of a mountain.
The priest that was now his friend, his mentor and the leader of his order sat at the top of the climb with a large group of native children.
The weapons and gear in his net dragged below him as he moved up the side of the mountain grasping the stones and branches around him to complete his penance. Sometimes the incline is so vertical the bag actually dangles its full weight in the air, pulling his shoulders extremely.
At one point the heavy pack drops and this man turns around without a moment hesitation, he descends to return the bag to his back. He climbs again. His devotion is passionate and purely focused upon one goal.
Yet, is this the goal asked of him?
As Rodrigo gets close to the top the young children laugh at him and and look at the priest. They don’t understand this man, what he is doing makes no sense. Father Gabriel is not able to explain in a way that the children can accept.
The climbing, exhausted man is covered with mud and water, his hair is plastered to his head, his hands are raw and each move upward is a struggle. The priest lets the children go to him, to greet him.
As a true paradox, the children continue to laugh at him as they come close and surround him. As they laugh at him, Rodrigo, who used to capture and sometimes even ruthlessly kill their family members, begins to cry. He is worn down, his heart is broken open, and the heavy pack of guilt and self-hatred upon his back leads him to cry and sob. The children draw closer, wipe his face with tender small hands, and laugh all the more. One of them takes the leading priest’s knife and begins to saw away at the rope.
The man is unable to stop the boy and then it happens.
The rope breaks and the pack falls down the mountain leading Rodrigo to cry all the more.
The tears change as the pack is released, and he does the unthinkable. He laughs at himself. Encompassed in a sea of children pouring kindness upon him, his heart is restored to its innocence.
While there are so many messages here, I wish to name just one as our article comes to an end: Rodrigo wasn’t able to free himself of the very pack that held him back. Even though he couldn’t relieve himself of his great burden holding him back, it was relieved for him.
What might we do to be relieved of our own packs? Perhaps acknowledge we are unable to do it ourselves. Perhaps create the spaciousness for it to be relieved by the Hand that created us all.