Traveling stones: a pilgrimage lesson in letting go

In the sixth century Saint Benedict said, “A monk should have death always before his eyes.”[1] ‘Death’ doesn’t need to refer only to our physical demise at the end of life but to any loss experienced in life. There are many deaths we experience in life: the death of a cherished pet, the loss of friendship, the loss of a job, divorce, death of a loved one, moving into another home. Any significant change, even positive ones, involve something lost.

In the second reading for today written in the first century, Saint Paul admonishes the Corinthians to live in this world “as though not.”[2] He is advocating a certain disengagement from the attachments and claims of our lives, including some of our most cherished relationships. The likes of Paul and Benedict reflect, as well, the wisdom of the prophets and poets of ancient Israel: “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God stands forever.”[3]

Our earth-bound attachments come under scrutiny here, no doubt. The question remains for each of us on our own journeys of faith and life – what are those things of which we need to let go in order to move on? After all, in the Lord’s Prayer the words, “Thy Kingdom come”, mean little unless we can also say: “My kingdom go.”[4]

Following Jesus means leaving things behind — as the first disciples did, in our Gospel reading for today (Mark 1:14:20).

You heard about the man who was hiking in the mountains when he slipped, and started to slide over the edge. Just as he was about to fall into the abyss, he grabbed a tree branch growing out of the rock ledge. He hung on perilously dangling in the air.

He didn’t know what to do. It was impossible to pull himself up since the branch stem was slippery and wet. He swung in the silence of the breeze contemplating his fate with growing terror. Finally he looked up to the sky and prayed: “If there is a God anywhere up there, I could do with some help, please.”

To his surprise and shock, he heard God’s voice respond instantly: “I will help you. But you first have to let go.”

The man was silent for a minute. He dared not look down. It was a long way to the jagged rocks of the canyon below. Again he looked up to the sky, and said: “Is there anyone else up there?”

A long-standing tradition in doing a pilgrimage is to bring a stone from home and lay it somewhere along the path. This home-stone represents a part of myself that I lose, and leave behind, where I have walked.

Last Spring when I walked a part of the Camino de Santiago, I wanted to leave my stone in the waters off the western coast of Spain, either in Fisterra or Muxia – both coastal towns are some one hundred kilometres west of Santiago.

I imagined this place a fitting resting place for my stone since I love walking by water and coastlines. Once, long ago, people believed the coastal town of Fisterra (French, for ‘the end of the earth’) was the physical limit of land – the farthest one could go. In my imagination, I saw myself facing the setting sun, having completed the 800-kilometer, two-month trek, looking west to the horizon line beyond which lies the land of my home in North America.

I imagined feeling satisfied at the end of a long journey, having reached my goal, grateful for the challenge and all the things the Camino taught me. In that moment of gratitude and joy, I would toss my stone as far as I could into the spume and depths of the Atlantic Ocean. That was the vision, anyway.

I found the perfect sized stone while wandering around my house one afternoon a week before leaving for Spain. Because I was running about making the last-minute preparations for the journey, I placed it temporarily on the landing railing in the garage, certain I would soon tuck it away in my backpack.

Two weeks later I was scrambling up a steep incline outside the town of Irun on the first day of my pilgrimage. As I expected that first day was incredibly tough going. The temperatures soared to above 25 degrees C and the sun shone brightly. Sweat pouring down my neck and back I struggled up that cliff wondering why on earth I chose to do this on my sabbatical. I dug my walking poles into the hard-caked sandy ground to make the next ledge and wondered sarcastically if I should have rather taken rappelling lessons in preparation for coming to Spain.

In that moment of physical and growing mental exhaustion, I realized I had forgotten to pack my stone. It was still sitting on the railing in the garage back home! I stopped in my tracks and exhaled deeply.

“What’s the matter?” my Dutch pilgrim friend asked me, huffing and puffing as I was.

“I forgot to bring my stone,” I confessed my failure.

“Don’t despair,” my co-pilgrim wanted to advise. “The Camino will give you an answer.”

IMG_5248

Several days later two significant things happened. The first was while I was walking down a slope towards the northern Basque town of Guernica, I thought I should take with me a couple stones from this path, as a keepsake from walking the Camino. So, I selected two small pebbles from under my feet where I stood beholding the town and valley below.

IMG_5299

That same day, my knee seized up, and I walked the remainder of my Camino in pain. Three days later, coughing and feeling very sick, I was on a plane homebound. Diagnosed with pneumonia back in Ottawa, I had to come to terms with my failure of not having reached my goal.

Not only had I not reached Santiago and Fisterra, I had done nothing with my stone which I had forgotten anyway. By forgetting the stone, had I already destined myself not to finish the pilgrimage? These dark thoughts swirled in my mind.

After having recovered a few weeks later, my wife and I flew to Lisbon for a week of vacation to celebrate our wedding anniversary. Originally, the plan had been for her to join me at the end of my pilgrimage, where I would meet her in Lisbon. Nevertheless, this time, I did bring my stone from home, renamed my ‘glory’ stone.

My glory stone represented all my aspirations, desires, longings which I knew deep down the Camino had taught me to let go of. I had to surrender even my human yearning and goals to God.

IMG_5853

And so, at Cabo Da Roca near Lisbon, Portugal – the farthest most western point of land on continental Europe – I threw my glory stone into the Atlantic Ocean facing the setting sun. I had to practice letting glory go.

IMG_5812

It seems I was still bound to finish some kind of pilgrimage during my sabbatical. I didn’t have enough time to go back to Spain and finish the Camino de Santiago. But I did have enough time to walk the entire length of the longest contiguous sand beach in North America – fifty kilometres on Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. There, my journey of letting go continued.

IMG_6200

There, on “Cape Disappointment” – fittingly named – I brought the two pebbles that I picked up in Spain on the last day I walked on the Camino. One glorious afternoon, I scrambled down into Dead Man’s Cove – also fittingly named – on Cape Disappointment. After reflecting on my disappointments of late, I realized on my journey of life not only did I need to yield all my dreams but also all my regrets and suffering. And so, I threw those stones of disappointment into the Pacific Ocean. I let these go.

 

I realized life is not lived well when we obsessively hold on to all those things that cause us grief. I had to offer these to God as well. Later, while I sat on a park bench near the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment looking over the Pacific, I met a couple of Americans visiting from Portland. In our conversation, we were able to affirm that “all great spirituality is about learning to let go.”[5]

IMG_6217

But I didn’t leave my pilgrimage empty handed. When I climbed out of Dead Man’s Cove that day, I picked up from the sand a smooth, round stone. Now, any rocks on the Peninsula are rare. Most of the fifty-kilometre stretch is sand, land created from the outflow of the mighty Columbia River as it spills into the Pacific Ocean. Most rocks you see on the Peninsula have been trucked in. So, I was delighted to take with me back home, a rare thing.

And hope is a rare commodity in this world of pessimism, denial, and despair. This is my “stone of hope”, that I hold forever, amidst all the human aspirations swirling in my life and all the disappointments and failures which I regularly need to practice letting go of.

IMG_6752

We hold not only that which we need to let go of, but we also hold hope throughout our lives. “We do not simply resign ourselves to the give-ness of the world, for we have planted within us a great hope that God’s kingdom will come on earth, as in heaven. This means we are a people who look to the future with trust and hope, confident that God is working God’s purposes out and that God’s realm is even now breaking into our world.”[6]

At this point in your journey of life, which stones are you holding — of dreams, of disappointments, of hope? Which ones do you need to let go of? Which do you need to hold on to? I suspect it is true when the likes of Saint Paul, and all the wise teachers over the ages, writes: “Hope does not disappoint us.” [7]

[1] cited in Ruthanna B. Hooke in David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B Volume 1” (Kentucky: WJK Press, 2008), p.280

[2] 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

[3] Isaiah 40:8

[4] Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation, Thursday, January 18, 2018.

[5] Richard Rohr, Center for Action and Contemplation, cac.org

[6] Ruthanna B. Hooke, ibid.

7 – Romans 5:5

Iceberg lessons

IMG_0028.JPG

She said she had driven all the way from Seattle. But it would be another four hour drive from where we were staying to the northernmost tip of Newfoundland. And she wondered whether it was worth it.

Her husband had planted the seed of doubt when she talked to him on the phone earlier that day. “All that way to stand on a mound of dirt, shiver in the brisk air, and look out onto a freezing patch of ice bobbing in the cold water?”

We were told that the last time Newfoundland had seen so many icebergs float into its myriad of bays and inlets was in 1912 — the year the Titanic sank after hitting one of these mammoth patches of ice.

Our itinerary on the Rock didn’t include a visit to Twillingsgate where over fifty icebergs, other tourists told us, crowded the bay there in early summer this year. But we were fairly positive, given the ideal conditions, that we might see some icebergs in the north near St Anthony and L’Anse aux Meadows, where we were headed anyway.

So despite the lack of enthusiasm from our travelling friend from Seattle, we set off up the highway. Four hours later we were rewarded with some incredible views of one of natures most extraordinary displays of beauty, power, size and transformation.

I suppose we could have chosen not to go — like the tourist from Seattle. Some folks, it seems, will not even want to consider the possibility of being transformed. But had we believed her justification for not going, we would have missed this golden opportunity for being enriched, yes, changed by seeing something new, something beautiful, in God’s creation.

Saint Paul uses this term only a couple of times in his letters to the early church. “Be transformed”, he urges the church (2 Corinthians 3:18; Romans 12:2). How are we transformed in Christ Jesus?

Seeing the icebergs taught me some Godly lessons about the journey of our lives, the journey of our transformation. So, what is the transformation that an iceberg undergoes?

First, it’s important to understand how the iceberg gets from point A to point B. The icebergs make their long journey following the North Atlantic Drift circulating the Baffin Basin from Greenland across to Baffin Island, down along the coast of Labrador and finally to Newfoundland. The icebergs we saw this summer were over a year in coming.

So, the first lesson of the iceberg is that whatever the transformation is, the change takes place over a long time. Enduring change in Christ is usually not sudden or immediate. The change addresses the deepest parts of our lives, even those parts wracked by sin — where our anger, our fear, our anxiety reside.

But because of its long-term nature, it’s easy to drop off and abandon the journey. We may feel it’s too hard and pointless a commitment since we see so little change in the short term. We can be discouraged, distracted, dismayed. We may choose, based on what we see in others around us, not to even bother. A.k.a. Seattle tourist.

But while inevitable that the ice will melt eventually and ‘die’ in whatever bay or cove it grounds upon, its purpose will be fulfilled in a unique way. The transformation is part of the bigger plan. In the end, it’s not about our choices; it’s not about us; as individuals we are not at the centre of our lives. It’s about God’s purpose, fulfilled in a unique and beautiful way through our individual selves. Each iceberg completes the journey in a way like no other, presenting unique shapes and sizes, landing on unique shorelines or melting out in the warmer currents of the open water.

The point is, however we change, we are still ourselves. In the transformation we undergo we don’t lose the best parts of ourselves. An iceberg still contains it’s basic elements of H2O. Just because the iceberg eventually dissolves it doesn’t lose the essence of its being. The iceberg’s transformation continues to incorporate its basic composition right to the end.

But — and here’s the rub — the change towards the good doesn’t occur without significant disruption.

One morning we walked down to the local coffee shop right on the rocky shoreline of Hay Cove, near L’Anse Aux Meadows, when we heard a booming ‘crack!’ Our heads turned immediately to the source of the thunderous clap: The iceberg nearest the shore had cracked in half. It had calved — shed part of its bulk and then slowly rolled over. We saw exposed to the air an icy wall that hadn’t likely seen the light of day for thousands if not millions of years. Remember over 80% of an iceberg lies underneath the surface of the water.

IMG_0029.JPG

The resurrection happens only because of the cross. There is no easy, short cut on the journey to being transformed in Christ, who modelled for us the pattern — the way — of dying and rising to new life. But this often difficult disruption seeks only to maintain balance and equilibrium; it is a redeemed disruption, so to speak. The iceberg in the water needed to shed part of its bulk so it could find a floating balance once again.

In the Gospel text for today (Matthew 16:13-20), Peter is redeemed. Jesus gives Peter the power and the grace to lead and be the ‘Rock’ upon which the church will be built. What an affirmation of Peter!

And yet, let us not forget the way Jesus had been with Peter over the years. This is the Peter who will deny knowing The Lord during his hour of greatest need (Matthew 26). This is the Peter who pretends to know all the answers when most often he gets it so wrong (Matthew 16).

Not only does Jesus show enduring faith in him, he lets Peter be Peter. Yes, at one point, Jesus even rebukes Peter (Matthew 16:23). But Jesus nevertheless lets him make his mistakes and do what he feels he needs to do, even though Jesus knows that Peter’s compulsion will more often than not get him into trouble.

Remember, it was Peter’s idea to come out of the boat and walk on the stormy water to Jesus (Matthew 14:28). He wanted to do it; this getting out of the boat and walking on the water was not Jesus’ idea. But Jesus let him do it anyway, even though it would get Peter into trouble. In other words, Jesus shows his love to Peter by accepting all of him — including his faults. This is the nature of God’s love — to love us ‘while we are yet sinners’ (Romans 5:8).

There is nothing symmetrically perfect with icebergs, as much as there is nothing morally perfect with anyone of us — despite the fact that we call ourselves Christians and say we follow Christ in the world today. We will, with time, break and crack. Bishop Michael Pryse attended the Canadian Lutheran-Anglican Youth Gathering in British Columbia last weekend, and he quoted the main speaker who said, “The church is like a glow-stick; it can’t shine until you break it!”

There is something true about this: That we can only fulfill our destiny — like icebergs do — when we accept the fact that we are broken, and will break, along the journey of life. When we come to terms with our brokenness, when we bear our suffering as our own, then the beauty of our lives can shine forth.

Denying our faults, pretending they are not there, or hiding them only leads to expecting those around us not to make any mistakes either. Well, that only leads to even more deception and lies. “Do not think of yourselves more highly than you ought,” Paul reminds us (Romans 12:3), appealing to a sense accepting and understanding our limitations.

Jesus saw the truth about Peter; that despite his brokenness, his pride and compulsion, the church needed someone like him. Jesus sees the truth about us, and values us, despite our faults.

We have to take the good with the bad, in ourselves and in each other. Then, in the honesty of the relationships in this place, the transformation of which Paul speaks takes place. In the sometimes cold and stormy waters of the baptism in which we began our journey, we continue in faith on the currents of God’s love. We can fulfill our mission only because of the faith God has in us.