Grave along the Camino
I love the convergence of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls this time of year, as summer moves into fall, and the days grow shorter.
Walking alone through ancient forests in Galicia.
The Celtic tradition considers this sequence of days a “thin place” where the veil between our everyday world and the world of the divine becomes more permeable.
When I returned to the Camino in October of 2013, I found that much of my journey was a series of thin places. Over and over, I was touched by the beauty of nature, history, art, and fellow pilgrims. And I had several mysterious encounters that brought me close to loved ones who had died.
Once when I was hanging out at the the Albergue in Astorga, I saw a Scandinavian man about my age check into the albergue.
He seemed familiar, but I knew I hadn’t met him before. Then it dawned on me that he looked just like my Swedish cousin who had died in his thirties, many years ago. If he had lived into his 50’s he would look a lot like my fellow pilgrim at the Albergue contemplating chess moves by himself at the large chessboard in the common room. It was as if a door opened in my heart that I had shut a long time ago. I realized that I had not thought of my him for many years. Seeing his “double,” made me remember him with fondness, and say a prayer for him.
Another day I noticed that the pilgrim walking with me reminded me of someone but I couldn’t quite put my finger on who it was. We were having so much fun walking and talking that I forgot about the hunch for the rest of the day. She was funny, forthright, and down to earth. She made me laugh at myself in a “cut the bullshit” kind of way. Later on, I made the connection. She reminded me of my in-law who was about my age when she passed away from a swift-moving cancer.
She and I had never made enough time to see each other. I had regrets about that now. But somehow spending the day with my new Camino friend was like having some of that unstructured time I’d missed with her. It was a healing experience.
In 1996 my brother, my only sibling, died at 35 under sad circumstances. By the time he died, we had not seen each other for a long time, and I had many regrets about our estrangement. Could I have been a better sister? Could we have helped him find his way through addiction and mental illness?
Tom Petty lyrics on the outskirts of Santiago
Along the second half of the Camino someone had written Tom Petty lyrics on the backs of traffic signs and mileage markers. Every time I came upon one of these signs I laughed because it was so random: Tom Petty on Spanish traffic signs! Then I remembered that my brother had been a big Tom Petty fan, and he would have laughed with me.
Seeing those Tom Petty lyrics gave me an unexpected positive memory of my brother as an adult. We didn’t have many of them, and, I realized that some of that had been my fault. I remembered him in a negative way.
As I walked alone and laughed about the randomness of the Tom Petty lyrics, I felt a sense of comfort surround my troubled relationship with my brother. We had a laugh together that seemed to heal a long held grudge against him that was so tough to live with. I had wanted to let go of it, but I didn’t know how to.
This was one of the grace-filled moments of the Camino. I felt like my brother was reaching out to me through those silly signs, making me laugh, and that he wanted me to know that he had forgiven me. It makes me cry to think about it again.
These experiences of “thin places” along the Camino were full of tears, and it felt good to cry. I cried as I walked, and cried some more, and as the tears flowed, I felt lighter and freer. I sometimes wondered why I was crying: Perhaps I had not really grieved for these dear people in my life? I think that was part of it. Our culture doesn’t honor grief; we just soldier on.
It’s funny, but The Camino requires soldiering on, too. It’s hard to walk that far everyday and one of the mysteries of walking day after day is that hard physical work allowed some hard emotional and spiritual work to happen at the same time. Maybe my sedentary life had locked in those emotions? The body must hold difficult memories and emotions. I do believe that now.
The unexpected tears were also tears of joy and awe. I remembered each of these beautiful people as I walked the meditative rhythm of the Camino. I felt tears of thankfulness and joy and felt the grace of forgiveness and God’s love surrounding us in beauty and mystery.
All along the Camino I saw my loved one’s reflection in my fellow pilgrims, and our common humanity. I understood in an almost visceral way that, just beyond this “thin place,”our loved ones are alive in the Lord, and that we are all members of the “Communion of Saints.”