When I left to hike the 540 mile Camino de Santiago last May (2013), people didn’t really know what to wish for me. Most knew I was working through a major grieving journey after losing my 19-year-old son Cullen, but no one seemed to “get it.” My associate at work honestly didn’t expect me to return (was I to stay in the Pyrenees to herd sheep?) In retrospect, I’m not really sure what I was hoping for either. I wrote my siblings a letter informing them that I was going, and that I literally hoped to have some profound conversations with my God and my son. Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, Bernadette, Therese, and blessed Mother Theresa are among many who claimed they very clearly heard the voice of God throughout their lives. I think my family were deeply disturbed by such an expectation; lacking faith that such communications could indeed transpire, were scared that I would spiral into deeper and deeper anguish and depression. Several simply said, “I hope its everything you need it to be.”
Regardless of my expectations, it was something that I simply felt compelled to do. Watching a movie called The Way, was the last thing Cullen and I had done together, and its eerie foreboding of a father who must confront the accidental death of his son pulled me forcefully. Martin Sheen plays an American doctor who learns of his son’s accident, and when he travels to Spain to bring the body home, discovers the accident had occurred as his beloved son was hiking the 800km Pilgrimage called Camino de Santiago towards the Cathedral at Santiago, where St. James is buried. We agreed to make the pilgrimage together when he returned from China, after he earned his master’s degree. I decided to make that Camino and enter the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela on the first anniversary.
On my 31 day Camino I did, in fact, have many such conversations. Although I longed for the voice of Charlton Heston or James Earl Ray to come echoing through the woods or from the sky, those weren’t my expectations. I learned from Elijah that the voice of God wasn’t in an earthquake, the wind, or fire, but instead in the “soft whisper of a voice.” So I walked the weeks alone and most hours, there was only the silence.
On April 20, 2013 as I entered the tiny village of Utrega, Spain, the ground began to rumble, and as I wondered if there could be a train nearby, streams of people ran into the street and began to shout.
May 5th, I began my trek across the Meseta. I have no idea why I thought the Mesa would be dry and hot, but today it certainly was not. The entire day was below freezing, and the steady wind varied between 20 and 40 MPH. Fortunately it blew from behind me, but the sound of the wind was extremely loud and sometimes made it hard to carry on a conversation or even think.
Later in May, on the 9th, with the Meseta 4 days behind me, the weather was still chilly, and now included frequent showers, resulting in a bone chilling shiver that began to play tricks on me. I struggled onward (as many pilgrims I had met liked to say, “Ultreya!” (an expression urging one to “go beyond,” or “onward with confidence!”). sarcastically telling myself that these past few days had certainly fulfilled some of the requisite suffering to constitute a “pilgrimage!” The rain had trickled off my waterproof pants, but the small drops that wicked onto my socks had taken a toll. My toes were numb and my hands had tremored with shivers for hours. The road forked and I committed to the albergue (similar to a hostel) 4 kilometers down this road. As I neared, I realized I would have difficulty continuing, but the strengthening smell of wood in the fireplace kept my feet trudging forward.
My heart sank when I discovered the typical 8-12E cost 25E here, as I realized I only had about 20E until I got to the next town big enough to have a bank. I shrugged as I continued on, realizing there were no other nearby accommodations listed in Brierly’s Guidebook. But as I got further from the albergue, the intoxicating sweetness of the fireplace smoke seemed to get even closer. Less than 100 meters later, just around a bend in the road, was something that made me start to sob. Here was a farmhouse with “pilgrim accomodations,” including dinner that night and breakfast, for 12E. Within 30 minutes, I had enjoyed a hot shower, a delicious home cooked meal, and sat with my feet by the soothing warmth of this fire, communicating something with its popping and crackling.
None of this clicked until the afternoon that I hiked for hours alone through the logging forest. This was one of the emotional days, as I shouted out at God in frustration. Why was he not speaking to me? I read scripture every morning to give me something to meditate on. I said several rosaries every day as I walked. I spoke aloud the “Sinner’s Prayer,” and “Speak, Oh Lord, your servant is listening” repeatedly. “WHERE ARE YOU?” I finally shouted through the tears at the top of my lungs. “I’ll do anything you want, but you gotta talk to me, show me something!”
Later I would recall this day, as I read C. S. Lewis’ book, A Grief Revealed, where the devastating grief from losing his wife Joy to cancer made the author very human to me. Here was the quintessential man of faith, that I had on such a pedestal for authoring such inspiring Christian literature (from the apologetics of Mere Christianity, humor of Screwtape Letters, thought provoking The Problem of Pain to his best known children’s books, so full of symbolism such as Chronicles of Narnia), having the very same emotions I was having. Lewis didn’t doubt the existence of God, just “what sort of a God?” “A loving God? He wasn’t very loving to Joy!”
Lewis continues, “I turn to God now that I really need Him, and what do I find? A door slammed in my face. The sound of bolting and double bolting. After that, silence. It’s like being in prison.”
That’s exactly how I had felt for months, and more specifically, at that moment. No one around for probably miles, I hadn’t seen anyone for hours. And silence was all there was up there in the Spanish mountains, except the sound of the wind rustling through the trees, which now was loud enough that I couldn’t have heard that “soft whisper of a voice” that I was trying so hard to hear.
And then, out of no where, I was startled and jumped as the shadow of someone passed me, as if I was standing still. He muttered something very softly, almost a whisper, that I couldn’t understand, maybe some other language, I assumed. “Wow,” I thought, “that guy is really flying!” And there was just something really strange about him, he looked so … familiar. And he wasn’t carrying a backpack like everyone else, it was more like a rucksack. That’s it, he had what looked like khaki or desert camo colored – rucksack. And then it hit me like a ton of bricks. This guy didn’t just look familiar, I knew exactly who he was. But Mike Snelgrove was gone now. (Mike is the subject of my next blog post)
So, I stood there in utter astonishment. I really gotta read more of that “Old Testament” stuff that’s not “actually relevant” anymore.
1 Kings 19:11-13
11 The Lord said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.”
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.
I had felt an earthquake, felt a toppling wind, and the warmth of the fire. And finally, the passing whisper. As I relived this day in my mind the other day as I was working around the house, trying to find the message, this song shuffled out of my playlist:
“What Do I Know Of Holy” (by Addison Road)
So What do I know of You
Who spoke me into motion?
Where have I even stood
But the shore along Your ocean?
Are You fire? Are You fury?
Are You sacred? Are You beautiful?
So What do I know? What do I know of Holy?