We left before dawn, hoping to reach the Iron Cross by sunrise.
The hushed darkness, underlit with a rim of light, gave a feeling of ceremony. Our hiking boots crunched a processional on the dirt path.
I walked with a bunkmate from the night before. We had served as wise women to a young Spanish consultant, also sharing the room, who was considering his future.
As the dawn began to rise around us, my companion casually mentioned that the Pope had opened “the gate.” This year as well as next were special for walking El Camino. Those reaching Santiago would receive a plenary indulgence – a proverbial pass out of Purgatory and into Heaven – for making the pilgrimage.
Having received my first such indulgence in 2010, I wondered idly to myself whether this second one would apply to my next life. Or were terms limited to the one and only life allotted me by religious dogma?
We crested a rise and suddenly, ahead of us, the Iron Cross loomed. Silently we queued with a scattering of others and awaited our moment at the top. It was a solitary and sacred journey up the mountain of stones, each one placed by a pilgrim releasing a burden.
Once at the top, I intentionally placed my offering at the base of the Iron Cross, which dated back to Roman times.
I consciously let go six months of my parent’s heart procedures and hospital stays, emergency rooms and fractured bones, cognitive decline and caregiving. Though aware that these were the realities of aging, grief weighed heavily on my heart.
My eyes released a burden of tears as I walked down and away from the cross.
Stopped in the path ahead of me was a young man with a halo of wild blond hair. He was visibly moved, struck still on the path, in awe of the beauty all around us.
It made me pause too, and look up from my thoughts and emotions. I came back to the present moment and the absolute peace offered in the morning light. Rolling green mountains, valleys filled with frothy mist. Clear air and sunshine. A lightness from having let go.
“My country is very flat,” the young man shared, “I have not seen such beauty.” Tears ran down his face.
Lars and I walked in sync as the sun rose higher in the sky. There was a purity and authenticity to him that shone brightly. He was a musician from Copenhagen, whose brothers before him had walked El Camino as a right of passage. Now was his turn.
This day at the Iron Cross would always stand out for him, Lars said.
Then he shared about another, very different morning in the first week of his Camino that also stood out. Leaving his hostel alone in the early morning darkness, he had walked into a violent rainstorm and had gotten lost. Blinded by the dark and rain, he had sheltered under a tree where all his fears had risen around him. He ran in terror back towards the town he had left, with the full weight of his burdens bearing him down.
We talked about facing our fears and how, in doing so, we can free ourselves. By bringing our shadows into the light, we begin to clear away the darkness and terrors that can hide in them.
As we walked on in silence, clarity struck me. Having released what weighed me down, I could see without my own burdens distorting my vision.
While I’ve chosen a different spiritual path, my parents are devote Catholics. I took a moment and consciously offered up my pilgrimage and plenary indulgence for them. I prayed it would give peace of mind as end-of-life uncertainties challenged them.
My heart opened, and a tidal wave of grief rolled through me.
Lars stopped, listened, and embraced me.
Later he searched his giant backpack, and came out with a dented roll of toilet paper. “My brother gave it to me, and said I would know when to use it.” He laughed and handed it to me.
I ripped off a piece, wiped my eyes, and thanked him.
We sat down on a large rock and each pulled out our second breakfasts. In front of us, two mountains formed a deep V, filled with mist like thick smoke in a bowl.
“You have cake!” he marveled as I shared a packet from the morning’s hostel.
“Yes,’ I smiled gesturing around us, “Cake in the clouds!”
“That’s a song title – Cake in the Clouds!” he grinned. “I will remember this moment.”
So would I.
We walked on together to the next town, where our paths diverged later that morning.
Learn more about El Camino de Santiago and the Iron Cross here.