Everything tries to be round.
A few years ago I was blessed to work with my students on a feature film about three brothers seeking their future in South Dakota in the 1880’s. Filmmaking, like all art-making, is a pilgrimage of sorts. You set out with a kind of plan of what you hope to accomplish on the journey, but when you open yourself up to the creative flow of it all, you're never quite sure where it will take you. There are always unforeseen calamities, necessary crisis management, but those difficult moments are always eclipsed by extraordinary, wondrous, thaumaturgic events that could never be imagined. When you voluntarily enter into the Creative Flow of the universe, you should be prepared for a wild and heart-blowing ride.
An important element of the film’s story is the wisdom of the Lakota people, one of the seven Sioux tribes who have lived in the western part of North America since the 12th century. One of the characters of the film is a Lakota elder, and his voice is heard repeating the words of the famous Lakota holy man, Black Elk (who towards the end of his life converted to Catholicism):
“Everything an Indian does is in a circle, and that is because the Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round.
The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power whirls. Birds make their nest in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. The sun comes forth and goes down again in a circle. The moon does the same and both are round. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where Power moves.”
As I have gotten older, I have begun to believe that the circle is more of a spiral. Like a good character in a novel or a screenplay, the journey of life never brings you back full circle to the ordinary world you left. It spirals back to the starting point, but you are at best within spitting distance.
When you are young, the days/the weeks/the years seem to drag on and on, don’t they? But as you age, they mysteriously get shorter and shorter, one week becomes the next month which turns into a decade, and you look back and marvel at the length of the road traveled.
The owner of a restaurant I passed proudly displayed a sign proclaiming it had been open since 1995, and I thought, big deal, in a country where people live in homes that are over 300 years old. And then I realized that 1995 was 23 years ago, a respectable tenure for a restaurant to gain a reputation, and 1995 was coincidentally when I first began teaching at the university.
When humans first discovered the circular nature of their terra firma, it had to be mind-blowing for some. What? If I keep going straight ahead, I’ll eventually wind up back where I started? That’s ridiculous. Of course it is true that you will physically return to your place of origin, given the correct latitudinal and longitudinal directions. But it doesn’t mean that you return the same as you began.
On pilgrimage you focus on the now, of course. With each step comes the opportunity to notice every smell, taste, sound, sight, and touch: the texture of the ground upon which you walk, and the refreshing caress of your skin by the invisible breeze ; the rich fragrance of the fields you pass; the insistent call of the rooster/the dog/the goat; the sweetness of the wild berry you sample; the golden sunlight that illuminates the landscape.
Every journey does something to you, doesn’t it, especially when you walk with your mind, heart and soul open to the small moments given to you all along the way. And the more you do so, the more significantly you are transformed and transfigured when the spiraling circle finally is closed at the end of the journey.
All along the Way of Grace, I have encountered reminders of the brevity of our life. Sometimes it was revealed in the smashed snail along the roadside, the carcass of a dead bird. Then there were the little walled cities of the dead that I passed whose avenues were lined with decorated mini-mansions of engraved marble, advertising their noted inhabitants. Paper notices of someone’s passing were nailed to trees all along the route, a curious way of publishing an obituary and the details of the coming funeral. And as I neared the final destination of Santiago de Compostela, there were the memorials to pilgrims who had closed the circle and made the final pilgrimage to the Power of the World.
The approach to the final destination of the Camino is not particularly dramatic. You begin to leave behind the quiet fields of growing corn, the dark, steep and muddy paths through untouched forests, the tiny lanes of little villages inhabited by people who will never grace the sidewalks of New York even as a tourist. The roads get bigger, the traffic more constant, the pilgrims suddenly adjoining you from all directions. Finally, from atop a hillside, you see the gaggle of buildings (if buildings gather as gaggles) that make for a city, and you descend without much drama to a functional traffic circle that bears a modern sign announcing your arrival.
There is no doubt that it brings a series of mixed emotions to your heart. Relief, for one. Finally, the burden of the backpack will be over, the pain in the toes and the shoulders fading. A real joy that you have made it, wow, I did it, and the great anticipation of being in front of the Cathedral and within reach of St James.
But also a bit of sadness, no? The end of a great journey also brings regret, like when you finish a great book that has challenged you, bored you, angered you, and lifted your heart to heights that have made you soar. You don’t want to read that last page, do you? You want to save that last bit of ice cream, make it last forever, right?
The Camino leads you directly to the front of the Cathedral of St James, your ultimate destination. It is a magnificent setting, and it is much fun to see the pilgrims arrive there, often in groups. There is much hugging, more camera mugging, and a collapse on the stones of the plaza. The rest is well-deserved. But it is also a bit of a circus, and there is lots of laughing and cheers.
Inside there are the pilgrim Masses, three or four a day, and if you are lucky, you get to see the spectacle of the biggest incense burner (called the botafumerio) soar through the air over the heads of hundreds of pilgrims in the pews below. It feels like the man on the flying trapeze, and it has the same astonishing effect. The Catholic Church is of course the originator of some of the greatest theater in the world.
After the Mass I made way down below the altar, because it is there that the bones of St James rest, and I was carrying precious prayers from many people to the Saint. I laid them before his tomb, mission accomplished, and then I prayed for a while—which was not an easy task with a stream of people moving through the small space continuously.
I prayed in thanksgiving for all the graces received these last two weeks, including the annoying ones, the discouraging ones, the dumb ones (forgetting to take my power converters THREE TIMES along the way). I prayed for all the graces I have received these past months in my new home in New York, and for all the gifts I have received since my last visit to this wonderful place—all the people who have been kind to me, who have inspired me, who have humbled me.
Afterwards, I went outside and sat on the steps beside the Cathedral. I watched a family for a while--father and mother, a teenage daughter, her two younger brothers. The boys were doing boy things--happily splashing in a fountain, showing off their new t-shirts for the camera, taunting their older sister. The parents watched with smiles on their faces and small conversation, no doubt wondering how to feed their sparrow-children, and what to do with them for the rest of the afternoon. All around us were dozens of other families, groups of newly arriving, triumphant young pilgrims, older couples pointing out trinkets in the multiple shop windows nearby. The sounds in the air were merry: the wail of the Galician bagpipe bouncing off of ancient walls, the occasional group cheer at an epic moment of photo portraiture, the voice of a young child calling for her mother's attention. I looked upon this scene and loved every minute of it. I could feel the presence of the Spirit of holiness spiraling all around us, through us, below us, and in us.
I believe that God is always with us, and always whispering to us that we are beloved. I also believe that God whispers that we should be beloving one another as well.
I prayed in gratitude for this journey, and look forward to the next. And I prayed for you and me, that we will continue to keep our hearts open to the great spiraling circle in which the Power of the World moves, and that we will always try to be round.