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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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

Cape Disappointment

How do we learn to deal with disappointment?

When health concerns mount? When there are cutbacks in the company you work for? When a relationship breaks down? When someone betrays you? When you fail to meet your goal? When you lose something precious?

How, as people of faith, do we learn to deal with disappointment? When what has happened does not make sense, when we can’t understand ‘why’?

In 1788 Captain John Meares named the spot of land overlooking the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Cape Disappointment. He was disappointed that the Columbia River was simply thus, a river, instead of the fabled Northwest Passage which he was intending to find.

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Mr. Meares was obviously well off-course to his goal. We know today that the Columbia River begins its journey at Columbia Lake in central British Columbia, Canada, and winds itself south hundreds of kilometres into the states of Washington and Oregon before spilling into the Pacific.

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In keeping with the rather downer of name, the lighthouse on Cape Disappointment overlooks the hundreds of shipwreck sites off the coast. The United States Coast Guard recognizes this large area of water as the most dangerous among all the river outlets along the continental shores of the United States.

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Both the strong outflow of the broad and mighty Columbia competes with the powerful tides and winds generated by the largest ocean on earth. Crisscrossing currents of water create constantly shifting sand bars and opposite flow wave action that can confuse, disorient and ultimately undo any mariner navigating this passage.

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Add to this mayhem the fog which has an uncanny knack of coming in unexpectedly on the north breeze, disappearing under the burning sunshine as quickly as it appears. I stood bewildered in such a fog jam on the beach one day, unable to comprehend how a perfectly cloudless sky in beautiful sunshine can change so quickly. Signs are staked at entrances to the shores along the thirty-eight mile stretch of contiguous sand beach north of the Cape warning unsuspecting swimmers of rip currents and unstable sand conditions above and below the surf.

In short, while ascetically beautiful to the eyes, this small part of the world contains hidden, life-threatening dangers beneath the surface of things. Disappointing is an understatement when considering the potentially dire consequences of a mariner’s failed attempt at moving around the Cape, let alone dealing with the failure of not arriving at one’s goal.

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In the first reading for today[1], God responds to Jonah by asking questions, rhetorical though they are. Jonah expresses his anger at God for sparing the “great” city of Nineveh. God’s actions did not make sense to Jonah, even though Jonah confesses his belief in a gracious God who is “merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”[2] He obviously did not think much about the people of Nineveh regardless of God’s mercy. Yet he is internally divided, unable to reconcile his belief with his feelings. He can’t figure it out. He is depressed. And wants to die.

If God says anything toward Jonah’s healing, it starts with a question: “Is it right for you to be angry?” And when God provides a bush to protect and save Jonah’s life, a bush that then dies, Jonah is angry again. What does God say to Jonah’s outburst? Another question. “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And to top it off, the entire book of Jonah ends rather abruptly, again with a question from God.[3] Questions. Not pat, cut-and-dry answers. Questions.

I wonder if we have tended to make God and religion into something and someone to give us quick and final answers. We demand ‘what’ from God when all along Jesus, in the wisdom tradition, is primarily teaching ‘how’. Out of the total of the one hundred and eighty-three questions that are asked of him in the Gospel, Jesus only directly answers three of them.[4] In the New Testament, Jesus’ very first words spoken to his disciples was a question: “What are you looking for?”[5]

Jesus turns the tables on the disciples, as he does time and time again. Rather than give them what they are looking for in a neat and tidy package of an easy answer, he throws it back at them. What do you want?

The first call of Jesus in our lives is a call to be honest with ourselves. Before we can do anything, we need to be true to ourselves. And commit to that lifelong struggle to move beyond our intellect and its insatiable compulsions for answers, towards actions that reflect a trusting heart. Because following Jesus in this world does not, most of the time, make a whole lot of intellectual sense. If we are being faithful.

It is not our job to know everything. God knows all. We don’t have to. Ours is a call to hold, not rid ourselves of, all the messy contradictions of our lives. Abraham, Jacob, Rebekah, Moses, David, Job, Esther, Jonah, Elijah, the disciples, Paul – they were not people who had all the easy answers to life’s complex questions. But they were trusting, obedient, and they acted. Sure, they objected to God at times. Yes, they made mistakes. If anything, the story of Jonah ought to reinforce the importance of a real, personal, topsy-turvy relationship with God. That is the stand-out characteristic of all the faithful.

During the years following the Council of Nicea in the fourth century, a common heresy re-emerged under the leadership of Eunomius, a bishop in Cappadocia (in modern day Turkey). Eunomius argued that we can understand the nature of God simply and clearly. Reflecting on what was the mystery of the Trinity, he implied that God was perfectly accessible to human intelligence.[6]

The Cappadocian Fathers, as they are called, reacted to Eunomius. Basil the Great, his brother Gregory of Nyssa along with John Chrysostom insisted on the incomprehensibility of God to the human mind, and the necessary limits of theological discourse. Their position became the orthodox, Christian stance, ever since.

I wonder, ever since the Reformation, the industrial, scientific revolutions and enlightenment era of the last few centuries in especially the western world, haven’t we slipped back into this heresy once again? Pretending, even though we may not be aware of it, that we should have answers to all of life’s important questions.

It is our natural humanity to strive to know everything. But if we are honest, our minds certainly cannot grasp fully such incomprehensible realities as the mysteries of love, suffering, death and God. Here, we must trust and let go of all our pretenses. “For,” in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.”[7]

Disappointment in life is a doorway to a deeper awareness of God’s truth and presence in our lives. Our varied expressions of worship, of living out God’s call, our prayer lives – all these are not so much, then, a matter of petition, of doctrine, of rule-setting-and-following, of solving the discrepancies and inconsistencies of the bible and theological discourse.

Rather, our complex lives with all the joys and disappointments become the tableau, the canvas, upon which we discover we are not alone. And that God is ever present and faithful, regardless of what we do or think. You can’t make God love you one ounce more – by all your right thinking and having all the right answers – than God already loves you right now.

Often, the disappointments of our lives bring us to this realization more than all of our accomplishments and successes. Because if we are going to get anywhere in our lives, we need to hope and believe, despite the disappointing circumstances of our lives.

Cape Disappointment marks another very important place in the history of North America. It is not just a place that signifies disappointment, tragedy and danger. It is also the very spot where the famous Lewis and Clark expedition reached the Pacific Ocean in November of 1805. Yes, Lewis & Clark met with many a disappointment and setback along the 3700-mile route up the Missouri River, across the American Midwest, over the Rocky and Cascade mountains and down the Columbia River Gorge that took them a year-and-a-half to accomplish.

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On the journey, were they ever absolutely certain they would make it? As it was, they must have taken their disappointments in stride. For on an uncharacteristically calm day in a stormy November, they made their final push around the western Cape and finally met the limitless horizon.

Significantly, the Lewis and Clark Expedition was called the Corps of Discovery. Today, a 10-mile-long, well-groomed paved path winds through the dunes of Long Beach Peninsula and up into the forest of the Cape. It is called the “Path of Discovery”.

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Cape Disappointment is intricately tied to the Corps of Discovery, where both failure and success are entwined in a rich and diverse history of exploration. The spirit of questing celebrated on these shores includes and transcends both the unique events of human tragedy and human achievement. You cannot have one without the other. In one place. In one human being. Each of us is invited to the journey that includes, embraces and transcends disappointment and failure.

At some point along the journey, you need to have hope in order to continue. Even in the midst of all our unknowing, we can believe and trust in the solution, before it happens.

It’s called faith.

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[1] Jonah 3:10—4:11, NRSV, Proper 20A/Ordinary 25A/Pentecost+16

[2] Jonah 4:2

[3] Jonah 4:4,9,11, NRSV

[4] Richard Rohr, “Adam’s Return: The Five Promises of Male Initiation” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2004), p.112

[5] John 1:38, NRSV

[6] Belden C. Lane, “The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality” (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), p.105

[7] Isaiah 55:8, NRSV

photos by Martin Malina IMG_5940