Day Nineteen. So much beauty
The day began with warm toast and coffee prepared by our Albergue hosts, followed by a warm goodbye. Arthur and Julia gave me their email address in Scotland and invited me to their home. I asked them if it was difficult to make friends with people in one night, and then say goodbye to them the very next morning, never to see them again. They smiled and said yes, it was a little tough at times. I hugged them, hiked my backpack up on my shoulders, and left. I didn't look back because I thought it might be sad.
I thought about Arthur and Julia, who had mentioned that they had recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary. Like a lot of people completing the Camino, they're both retired now, but physically fit enough to do the Camino themselves. I tried to imagine what they looked like 40 years ago, before the sands of time redistributed their body proportions, before the effects of long-term gravity pulled their youthful faces southward. Sometimes when I am looking at my students, I can envision the future image they will see when they look in the mirror--an image I see in my own reflection these days. I often like to look at photographs of aging people and I find that the lines in their faces, the settling that occurs between their foreheads and their chins, can reveal something of the lives they have lived. It's often easy to see the kindness within, or the pain suffered. Each is beautiful in its own way.
I encountered a large old dog today who didn't see or hear me coming until I was right upon him. I suspect his hearing and his eyesight may be failing. When he did in fact notice me, he promptly felt the need to pull out some kind of a semi-threatening bark from deep inside his old body, and as it unfolded it was almost as though he tired of doing it before the bark was even complete. There was an attempt at dog dignity in it---but his manner was so perfunctory that I couldn't help but chuckle at the effort. He sat right back down and put his head on his paws before I had even finished passing him.
It was gray all day, and there was a good wind that made the branches of the trees sing. It was actually good walking weather, especially with some of the hills, but it was the light that really made the day for me. The cloudy skies provided this wonderfully even light on everything, and as a result, it was all was singularly beautiful. I mean everything was beautiful: the dirt beneath my feet on the path, the moss-covers stone walls, the dense forests I passed, my well-tanned legs, the rocks, the grasses, the ancient stone farmhouses... everything was beautiful in the light of this day. Filmmakers often love this kind of even light. For me, it revealed the equality of all things, everything in the created world we see. And it really gave me a kind of weird joy.
It reminded me of one of my favorite scenes from the film American Beauty. A young character called Ricky who had been through a difficult period in his life is trying to explain how overwhelmed he had become one day when he saw a plastic bag being blown about in the air in front of a garage. He had a video camera and he filmed it:
"It was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That's the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever... I need to remember... Sometimes there's so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can't take it, and my heart is just going to cave in."
Sometimes there IS so much beauty in the world. I too have had Ricky's experience of being overwhelmed by the beauty of it all. It's especially easy to see it in the birth of new life--the newborn infant, the first bud of spring, the cry of a kitten, the dawn of a new day.
But there is also great beauty in the diminishment of life: the falling leaves, the retirement of an athlete, the withered flower. The impending end of your Camino experience. This afternoon I passed a farm with lots of chickens, whose seemly always-frightened movements amused and delighted me. But I also saw one lying on its side, apparently dead. I felt a moment of regret to have noticed. I feel a little foolish to admit that I felt some pain for this loss. But at the same time there is something beautiful about the process of life, which necessarily includes diminishment and death.
I thought of all the lives that have preceded the pilgrims on the Camino--thousand and thousands going back centuries. Almost all of them have been long forgotten, just as in a hundred years everyone who is reading these words will be too. We are all part of something much bigger than we can see. There is a great creative river running in time right through the center of everything, and we are part of it. We can choose to participate and build the creation, or simply be swept into it without any choice.
That occurred to me as I toured the 11th century Cistercian monastery of Sombrado, where I am staying tonight with dozens of other pilgrims. This place has hosted pilgrims on the Camino since it was built, including in a darkened room of people sleeping this very moment on bunk beds all around me. I spent the afternoon with two of them, young women--one from Austria and one from Germany--talking about theology, and the church, and the profession of teaching (both have been teaching in an innovative university). Both of these bright women clearly have much to offer the world, and they are hoping that this walk will help them find ways to contribute meaningfully--just as the monks have attempted to do in this place over the centuries. Their names are long forgotten, but the beauty of their labor is embedded in the world we live in now, just as our contribution (God willing) will be for generations in the future.
Perhaps all of these thoughts are coming to me because I see the end of my Camino experience rapidly approaching. There has been great beauty during these last 20 days-- from my initial freshman mistakes to my veteran abilities and 'wisdom' of the moment.
I'm reminded of the prayer of the Jesuit priest and author, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, as he faced his own aging and loss of some of his physical abilities.
When the signs of age begin to mark my body
(and still more when they touch my mind);
when the ill that is to diminish me or carry me off
strikes from without or is born within me;
when the painful moment comes
in which I suddenly awaken
to the fact that I am ill or growing old;
and above all at that last moment
when I feel I am losing hold of myself
and am absolutely passive within the hands
of the great unknown forces that have formed me;
in all those dark moments, O God,
grant that I may understand that it is you
(provided only my faith is strong enough)
who are painfully parting the fibres of my being
in order to penetrate to the very marrow
of my substance and bear me away within yourself.
Tomorrow I begin the final segments of the walk to Santiago. I should arrive there on Tuesday. It will be a wonderful finale, but there are still two days of the experience ahead, and I'm sure, more beauty.