Way of Grace
"Why are you doing it again?" several people asked me when I told them I was going to walk the Camino de Santiago for a few weeks this summer.
I walked across Spain for a month two summers ago, over 400 miles. I was facing my impending separation from Fairfield University after 23 years of teaching, creating several academic programs, and directing the Media Center there. My identity was so wrapped up in that place that I wasn't sure who I was going to be anymore, and I thought I needed to spend some significant time asking God to give me at least a hint how I might be best used next. A friend's husband had walked the Way of St James a few years ago, and I was fascinated by the idea. It seemed like a dramatic way for me to find some answers.
It was an incredible trip for me. A month alone, walking beside astonishing ocean vistas, up challenging mountains, through tiny villages and large cities in northern Spain. A heavy backpack on my shoulders, step by step ("inch by inch" as Costello said to Abbot) I worked my way across multiple regions rich in history and cultural identity, the great nation of Spain, which once threw its military, economic and political weight around the world like we Americans do today. And with every step, God was communicating with me non-stop, even when my shoulders were aching and my feet warned of impending blisters. Pay attention to everything, God kept saying. Nobody pays attention to anything anymore, God complained.
I kept reminding God what I was made of flesh and blood, and I would appreciate it if the Creator paid attention to my right pinky toe, and maybe my overtaxed shoulder muscles. (That's when the Creator chastised me for bringing too much stuff on the journey. At the next town, I relieved myself of a lot of things that seemed prudent to carry along. Presto: my burden was much lighter!)
Well, somewhere along the Way I was encouraged to take my humble talents and be a bit more directly useful to the mission of the One with whom I claimed companionship in the Society of Jesus. And that led me to my present bumbling attempts at the Church of the Epiphany in Manhattan.
So, why the Camino again? The questions remains, doesn't it?
As a filmmaker, I was deeply moved by the work of one of my favorite film directors, Terrance Mallick. His movie, Tree of Life, blew me away for its examination of the Way of Grace versus the Way of Nature. I have never understood what grace really meant until I watched that movie reveal it for me in the real lives we all of us live.
In the Tree of Life, the mother of three young boys represents the rule of grace: love, kindness, gentleness, justice, compassion. The father of the boys represents the rule of nature: indifference, power, might, advantage, domination.
The writer Brian Doyle--another one of my heroes--wrote an essay about grace. He said that "you can be good, bad, or indifferent, and you are equally liable to have grace hit you in the eye...Grace is uncontrollable...utterly free, ferociously strong, and about as mysterious a thing as you could imagine. First rule of grace: grace rules."
I believe in grace. I have witnessed it within the horrid events that unfold in our world, and within the unnoticed moments of our everyday lives. There is a holiness that lies within the indifferent universe of matter, and grace reveals its existence and yes, it hits you in the eye. It affirms to you that your faith is not a lame salve for your existential fear that all of this...this... life... is for naught.
So, why the Camino again?
Because I am on the hunt for grace. To better understand its presence everywhere and at every moment, and to find a way to better proclaim it in a world that seems to prefer the lordship of nature.
On the walk, the Originator hits you in the eye with grace, if your eyes and your heart are open. You rule, grace.
In thanksgiving for the man with the walking stick ahead of me, who turned periodically and motioned to warn me that this path was the better, easier, quicker, more beautiful alternative.
For the man sitting on the bench, his beret at just the right angle, that God will remind him of how beautiful he is, and how precious a child he has always been.
For people who built the tunnels underneath gigantic mountains so that pilgrims and bikers and little kids and even thieves and other sinners could preserve their energies and get to the other side more quickly, and holy was their work for all.
For those who left messages of hope, and humor and inspiration to all who passed by and happened to look up.
For the beauty even in the end of things, hopes dashed, and promises broken.
For horses that endure dozens upon dozens of flies feeding on their teardrops, for their patience with their fellow creatures.
For those who try, sometimes in vain, to hold back the indifferent and destructive forces of nature.
For the cow who reminds us that sunshine and a meadow of grass is all that is needed to fulfill the function for which we were made.
For the prayers we all have in our minds and in our hearts, that signify our humility and our dependence, which itself is a gift from God.
For flowers of all kinds, all shapes and all colors, for they are beautiful and so fleeting.
For little children, who love to play in the sand.
For boys, who plot and scheme and play dumb games.
For the beauty of the earth, for the beauty of the skies, for the love which from our birth over and around us lies.