“As far as the east is from the west, so far hath He removed our transgressions from us.” ~ Psalm 103:12
There are certain things you don’t think much about, but really need for creating a deeper, more meaningful life. Two such things for me are symbols and ceremony.
Our symbols are those “notes to self” that remind us of our most important commitments, our heritage, even our deepest convictions. Today, they play an ever-increasing role in our lives, not always for the good.
Ceremony is to the meaningful life as the period is to the sentence. It punctuates, gives definition, and separates our most significant moments from those less consequential. Ceremony forever marks a milestone. It places a picture-memory in your mind.
My long-awaited arrival at Cruz Ferro afforded the opportunity for embracing both.
A pilgrim’s departure from Leon means the Meseta’s end is near and radical changes in the landscape are upcoming soon. Aside from Astorga’s magnificent architecture, the next two days are uneventfully necessary en route to Galicia. I pressed on purposefully through the last of the flat land eager to conquer the remaining elevations, see the new land’s heralded splendor, and leave my burdens behind at Cruz Ferro.
Keeping with standard practice in the bigger cities, I walked slowly through and past Astorga that Sunday seeing the sites, soaking up the culture and restocking with a few supplies. I intended to move on for an overnight in the smaller Murias de Rechivaldo five kilometers outside town.
In mid-November the Camino hospitality industry rapidly shuts down for winter’s onslaught. It often means the smaller villages have no pilgrim accommodations whatsoever, and you eat when you can find food. I enjoyed a great night’s rest in Murias where the only facility open was an actual bed and breakfast. There was a private bath, clean sheets and a toasty fireplace-warmed common area with a comfy couch. High Roller lives large again. If Vegan Tom could see me now…
The proprietor prepared a home cooked breakfast the next morning before I left out for the final steps along the Meseta en route to Foncebadón. She gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek and directed my attention to a framed photo near the exit. It was a portrait-type photo of a beautiful woman I assumed was her daughter.
“Es su hija?” I asked.
“Se trata de una peregrina de los Estados Unidos,” she said.
It was a photo of Denise Thiem, an Arizona pilgrim who went missing on the camino seven months earlier on Easter Sunday. She was murdered by a local who lured her off the path just a few kilometers ahead. The proprietor met Denise before she was killed. Everyone knew the story. It was a Camino tragedy that made news around the world. I thought much of Denise and said a prayer for her along the straightaway where she disappeared. One pilgrim gone home.
Cruz Ferro (iron cross) marks the highest elevation along the Camino Frances. It’s really nothing more than a tall pile of rocks and a wooden pole topped with an iron cross reaching skyward. Known as a sacred place where pilgrims leave symbolic objects (traditionally stones) brought from home, a pilgrim walks away from Cruz with a lighter load both physically and spiritually. Reaching Cruz Ferro was a moment I’d anticipated more than three years.
I overnighted in Foncebadón just a mile short of Cruz so I’d arrive there the next morning at sunrise. There’s just something about the sun coming up over the mountains that goes well with the blessings of forgiveness, second chances, and new beginnings.
Foncebadón is an unusual place that has a dilapidated, ghost-town like feel to it high
atop the Cantabrian mountain range. Its rickety rock-wooden structures, winding dirt pathways and an indescribable sense of quiet emanate a secluded sense of abandonment. But the vistas from that elevation are silently spectacular. The sunlight, especially at sunrise and sunset, interacts with the clouds and landscape in a way that produces colors I’ve never seen or imagined. It induces a sense of holiness.
On Day 30 I packed up and set out in pitch dark for the 5,000-foot elevation at Cruz Ferro. For me it was a high point in more ways than one.
The village’s main dirt path was dimly lit by a couple of ancient street lights. A hundred yards ahead at the edge of town, the path disappeared into black darkness. A young Scottish woman was seated on a rock considering the same dilemma I now faced – wait for a bit of natural light, or press on carefully with a flashlight.
Two strangers, now momentary partners by way of Camino fate, we discussed our options when Megan interjected as she gazed eastward.
“Oh my goodness, would you look at that,” she said staring past me.
I turned to see the first glimpse of daybreak, and a horizon that danced with streaming clouds and thin air painting a picture of holy fire. It was a moment when your soul tells your mind to take a picture and file it in a special place. We both went speechless.
We obliged a few photos for one another and decided to walk toward Cruz together for safety and reassurance. If the views were this lovely from town, we could only imagine what we’d see and how we’d feel a mile ahead and further upward.
No more than 10 minutes into the walk we encountered two more pilgrims, one from England, the other from Ireland, as they, too, stopped every few seconds looking back at morning’s fiery dawn. You wanted to move forward, but couldn’t help looking back at the majesty in motion.
Megan, Lauren, Philippa and I walked on through a foggy, damp darkness as the sky slowly illuminated. Our group conversation about the morning’s evolving beauty and my focus not to misstep on the rocky footpath distracted me from what we were doing and where we were about to arrive. Before I knew it I could see a tall cross taking form through the haze. I stopped and took in a deep breath of reality as the threesome walked on. I was about to step foot on what I personally considered one of the holiest places in the world. I was really here.
The three young women walked up as a group and I stayed behind, both so I could take photos for them, and walk to the cross alone for my personal moment. I’d brought four marbles from my father’s prized collection to leave behind, along with a prayer I’d seen Martin Sheen pray at this site in The Way nearly four years ago. Trivial as it sounds, it completely expressed my sentiments about the moment:
“Dear Lord, may this stone, as a symbol of my efforts on pilgrimage, that I lay at the foot at the cross of the Savior, one day weigh the balance in favor of my good deeds, when the deeds of my life are judged. Let it be so. Amen.”
Reading the prayer, I let the marbles slip randomly between my fingers falling where they might for eternity, set alongside the spiritual baggage of millions of others who’d done the same for a millennia. As they fell and trickled along the stones, I thought of my parents, my children, my wife, the people I loved the very most, and the ways in which I’d fallen short so many times. I thought of God and the times I’d offered him deals in exchange for my wrongdoing. He’d forgiven me for such things long ago. I knew it as well as I knew the sun just came up. So I promised never to waste His time again with another request of forgiveness for all things past. It was Finished here.
As my three companions stood silently watching below, respectful and reverent, I taped my written prayer to the pole, and wept. I could hear them crying, too. There’s power in such moments.
I walked down and we all gave one another a hug wiping tears and laughing and the unexpectedness of it all.
“Let’s go to Santiago,” I said.