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 boots crunched a processional.
I walked with a bunkmate from the night before. We had been wise women to a young Spanish consultant, also sharing our room, who was considering his future.
As the dawn began to rise around us, she mentioned casually that the Pope had opened “the gate.” This year as well as next are special for walking El Camino. Those reaching Santiago will receive a plenary indulgence – a free pass out of Purgatory and into Heaven – for making the pilgrimage.
I joked that this would be my second, and hoped it would take care of any personal indulgences over the years since receiving my first in 2010.
The Iron Cross loomed ahead of us suddenly. We silently queued and waited our turn. Climbing up the hill of stones, I placed my offering amid the many others symbolizing released burdens.
As I walked down and away, my eyes released a burden of tears.
The last six months had been challenging, with my Dad in and out of the hospital for various heart procedures. As a family, we had to come to grips with some harsh realities.
I was walking El Camino for many reasons this fifth time. One among them was to release four months of live-in care at my parent’s home. Waves of grief ebbed and flowed daily.
Stopped in the path ahead of me was a young Dane with a halo of wild blond hair. He was visibly moved, struck still on the path in awe of the beauty all around.
It made me pause too, look up from my thoughts and emotions. It made me present to the place I was blessed to be in. Such absolute peace in the morning light. Rolling green mountains, valleys filled with frothy mist. Clear air and sunshine. A lightness from having laid down burdens at the cross.
“My country is very flat,” the young man shared, “I have not seen such beauty.” Tears ran down his face.
Christoffer and I ended up walking in sync as the sun rose higher in the sky. There was a purity and authenticity to him that shone brightly. He was a singer from Copenhagen. His brothers before him had walked El Camino as a right of passage, and now was his turn.
This day at the Iron Cross would always stand out for him, he said. Then he shared about another, very different morning early in 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 and demons had risen around him. He ran in terror back towards the town he had left, with the full weight of his backpack bearing him down.
We talked about facing our fears and how, in doing so, we free ourselves. By bringing our shadows into the light, we clear away the darkness and terrors that 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 devoted Catholics. I took a moment, and consciously dedicated my pilgrimage for their plenary indulgence. I prayed it would give my parents peace of mind as end-of-life uncertainties challenged them. My heart burst open with a flood of tears.
Christoffer stopped, listened, and embraced me.
Later he searched his 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 handed it to me.
I ripped off a piece, wiped my eyes, and blew my noise. “Thank you” I said, handing him back the roll.
We sat down on a large rock and each pulled out our snacks. 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 offered some.
“Yes, cake in the clouds!” I smiled.
“That’s a song title – Cake in the Clouds!” he said. “I will remember this moment.”
So would I.
We walked on until the next town, where our paths diverged later that morning.
Learn more about El Camino de Santiago and the Iron Cross here.