On the 27th day of the journey I woke up in Rabanal, a gorgeous, steep stone town with an asymmetrical old Romanesque church where monks sing the liturgy of the hours and you can sit in the crumbling, asymmetrical Romanesque church to hear them. Before setting out I went to hear them sing Lauds at 7:30. The four of them sang in Latin and spoke in Spanish. One of them was Korean and as I exited the church to climb the mountain ahead I saw him praying for four Korean women, and I joined the circle.
“I’m praying in Korean,” he said.
“That’s fine!” I whispered.
He prayed for us and blessed us one at a time by placing his hands on our heads. His fingers were strong.
I shot up into the mountains then, and in my hand I had a rock. This rock fit perfectly into my right hand, though I didn’t know that when I selected it from my mother’s vegetable garden. I had carried with me all the way from home and this was the day I would leave it behind at the Cruz de Ferro, the Cross of Iron.
They say that pilgrims carry a rock from home, or from a significant place, and at the Cruz de Ferro, on top of a mountain, they add it to the mountain of rocks left by the pilgrims before them. They say this is a symbol of releasing your sins, or your burdens, and leaving them at the foot of the cross. They say it’s a moving experience. It was in The Way.
I hadn’t thought much about my rock, or the Cruz de Ferro. I realized the momentous event was upon me that morning when I looked at the day’s map, and I took the rock out of my bag, resolving to imbue it with enough meaning to guarantee a life-changing experience in two hours’ time.
What do I want to leave at the cross? I asked myself. What is weighing me down? What do I want to surrender?
Thing is, when you’ve gone through the Christian school system the first 18 years of your life, you get so used to “leaving things at the cross” that the ritual and its lingo loses power. I held the rock and persisted, trying to reword the prompt.
What do I want to leave?
The sun rose and it was beautiful. A lot of people were on the trail but few were talking. The mood was sober and contemplative. Also I saw a cow. I thought about my question for a while but then my mind wandered.
And the Cruz de Ferro wasn’t shrouded in mist on a lonely mountaintop. It was right on the path, straight ahead, in a well-maintained parking lot and rest area. The German men I’d hung out with the previous night were taking a smoke break at the base of the rocky mound making fun of each other.
I put my things down and took my rock and walked up to the base of the cross, giving the people getting their pictures taken a wide berth.
Many of the rocks had words on them. Some people had left rosaries or photos or shells. There was a shoe. Each item had been left deliberately, by someone who once stood where I now stood.
I thought of the slogan at La Casa de los Dioses: “The key to your essence is your presence.” And I thought about all the graffiti on the camino, and all the memorial crosses, and these rocks here, and the thousands of cairns.
We all really need other people to know we are there. Isn’t that the most basic, seemingly inane thing you see scratched into tables? “So-and-so was here.” If God’s name is a verb about being, relishing our own existence and asking that others witness it are acts that prove we are made in God’s image. Even if it makes for tacky picnic tables.
I hadn’t done the appropriate mental homework with my rock, but when I opened my right hand, it was warm all the way through.
This is a rock, I thought, from the garden on the side of the house where I grew up in Puyallup, near the Puget Sound and the Cascades, where I had a long childhood with two parents and two siblings, where I came to love God and eat vegetables and paint pictures and write in diaries. And now it is here, in Northern Spain, with rocks from thousands of other people who have come from their own places and stories, and now they are all together. So of course, let me leave behind my sins and burdens and entrust them to the Living God, but mostly, in this overrated parking lot, let me leave a sign that once, like everyone else around me, I was here.