Last fall, inside a quaint confessional in a rural Wisconsin parish, a priest from Spain encouraged me to visit his home country to hike an ancient pilgrimage trail called El Camino de Santiago. As I thought about his suggestion, my eyes were drawn to a large crucifix on the wall.
I took his encouragement to heart. One month later, I was hiking in an unfamiliar country, eating strange foods, making friends with fellow pilgrims from foreign lands, and doing my best to communicate with the locals in a tongue not my own.
It was all so peculiar, and it was all so extraordinary.
Throughout northern Spain, in each village, town, and city along the Camino, there are pilgrim hostels called albergues. Albergues are as different and diverse as the pilgrims that stay in them, but one thing is pretty universal: they’re cheap. A typical night’s stay in an albergue is €5 (about $6), making a month-long hike of the Camino a relatively affordable journey. Most albergues are little more than a large room with dozens of bunk beds, a bathroom, showers, and if you’re lucky, coin-operated laundry facilities.
After arriving at an albergue each evening, I would plan out the following day, determining which town I could hike to before sundown—there was nothing worse than hiking in the dark. I then folded my 6’4’’ frame into a bunk bed made for a human no taller than 5’8’’, and I’d doze off to the sounds and smells of the twenty other pilgrims sharing the room.
Early each morning, I would awake with one simple but very important goal: keep moving forward. I would pray for strength, and as the rising sun warmed my back, I journeyed west.
And I carried on. I kept walking. I didn’t stop.
Grandma Willie Mae
A few weeks after completing the Camino, back in the U.S., I walked into a large, sterile room with massive windows. It was a cold February day, but bright sunlight was pouring into the room. A plethora of large, cozy leather reclining chairs lined the far wall. On this particular day, nearly all of the chairs were occupied, one of them by my ninety-one-year-old grandmother, Willie Mae.
A kind, tough-as-nails, faithful Catholic woman born and raised in rural Oklahoma, Grandma Willie experienced much over the course of her nine decades on earth. I sat with her for a while, asking to hear stories of her past.
She spoke about her childhood, sharing memories of enduring both the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl. She told me about her first husband, Clarence. A paratrooper during World War II, he was a hospital administrator for many years after the war. He and Grandma had five kids—eight if you count her three carried-to-term miscarriages (and of course she does). Clarence died many years before I was born, so I never met Grandpa.
She told me stories about Bill, her second husband. Grandma and Bill met at church—the classic story of two widowed seniors falling in love over post-Mass coffee. A warm, kind-hearted man with an infectious smile, Bill died a decade ago. She told stories about her kids when they were young, and reveled in the great people they have become. She lost a son to cancer a few years back. When she spoke about Dan, though there was sadness in her voice, she smiled at the memories. The smile remained as she spoke with pride of her ten grandkids and ten great-grandkids.
Most of the stories I’d heard before, of course, but Grandma’s reruns are priceless. Many of her stories were about loss, but they were more often filled with joy than sadness. Death is, after all, a part of life, and just as assuredly, suffering is a part of life.
During a break in the conversation, I found myself gazing out those big windows, pondering this crazy journey that we call life. When I looked back at Grandma, she was shifting in her chair with a grimace on her face. The recliners in the room were indeed cozy, but Grandma was having difficulty getting comfortable. I did my best to take her mind off her discomfort, but it was obvious she was in pain.
The Way of St. James
Nearly 2,000 years ago, the Apostle St. James walked across the Iberian Peninsula, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ. Upon returning to Jerusalem, in recognition of his great work spreading Christianity, he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa. James’ head was buried in Jerusalem, but his disciples took his body by sea back to the Iberian Peninsula, where it was buried in present-day Spain.
In the eleventh century, The Cathedral of Santiago was built atop the place of his burial. Since the early Middle Ages, pilgrims have come from all corners of the earth to walk in the footsteps of St. James, to arrive at his cathedral, and to pray at his tomb. The pilgrimage hike became known as El Camino de Santiago, which translates to The Way of St. James.
The main trail of the Camino begins in a picturesque French town in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Atop cobblestone streets, pilgrims begin the slow and steady walk west. Between the start at St.-Jean-Pied-de-Port and its finish at the Cathedral of Santiago in the Spanish town of Santiago de Compostela, pilgrims traverse eight hundred kilometers. The terrain varies, from mountains to barren flatland, and everything in between, including days of winding through massive vineyards. There are countless small villages along the trail, and a few major cities as well. Yellow arrows and small scallop shells, pointing pilgrims in the correct direction, are ubiquitous.
Don’t Stop Walking
As I journeyed across Spain last fall, I thought about the cathedral often. And as I got closer to the end of the Camino, I thought about the cathedral more and more. During both the tough times and the good times, I thought about that cathedral.
Walking the Camino was much more difficult than I had imagined. In the grand scheme of things, the suffering I experienced on the Camino was fairly benign, but it was suffering nonetheless. Without the goal of the cathedral, I’m not sure I would have continued. Without the opportunity to pray at the tomb of St. James, to receive the Eucharist in the enormous, breathtakingly beautiful Cathedral de Santiago, I’m not sure I could have endured the struggles. I began the Camino with the end in mind, and the end was in mind throughout.
As I journeyed across Spain, I kept my gaze westward, imagining the feeling of seeing the cathedral for the first time.
Preparing for the End
The last few months were quite difficult for Grandma. A fall last October resulted in a broken shoulder. Turns out, ninety-one-year-old bones don’t heal all that fast, making even the simple act of sleeping an unpleasant affair. And now, on top of that, she’d recently been diagnosed with cancer—stage four lymphoma.
Sitting with her on that chilly February day, watching the slow drip of chemotherapy drugs enter her bloodstream, I noticed a crucifix on the wall. Grandma was receiving treatments at a hospital founded long ago by Catholic nuns, so crucifixes hang in each room—a reminder of the suffering Christ endured for us; a reminder of the merit gained by uniting our suffering with his.
A word that is often used to describe Grandma Willie is determined. She never complains about her lot in life. For a woman who has lost two husbands, four kids, and suffered through various ailments and illnesses, that speaks volumes.
It was a profound experience to witness her suffering, while simultaneously hearing stories from her past in which she overcame suffering. It’s as if every experience of life was preparing her for this moment, and for what was to come.
She was in pain, but through it all, she kept her gaze on the Lord. She would endure, without complaint.
Most pilgrims on the Camino carry a large hiking backpack loaded with essentials. Some pilgrims have more essentials than others, like the guy from Croatia who carried three (3!) extra pairs of boots and a large bottle of whiskey in his pack. I carried only a water bottle, a few snacks, rain gear, a Bible, a journal, a sleeping bag, and Man’s Search for Meaning, a book by Viktor Frankl.
A psychiatrist from Austria, Frankl was one of the millions of Jews in 1940s Europe sent to concentration camps. He was first sent to Auschwitz, later moved to Dachau, and finally ended up at Türkheim. It was there that he was liberated by American soldiers in April 1945.
His experience in concentration camps would shape his approach to therapy and his philosophical outlook on life. In his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, he writes about his personal experiences in the camps, and he reflects on the various ways he and his fellow prisoners responded to the unimaginable suffering endured at the hands of the Nazis.
In the book he writes, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms–to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Throughout his suffering, he would take things one day at a time, one moment at a time, one step at a time. He kept moving forward, and never gave up.
Sharing in the Sufferings of Christ
While chemotherapy wages war on the cancer in one’s body, the collateral damage can do great harm to the patient. Even the strongest, healthiest person in the prime of his or her life can be brought to their knees by chemo. For a ninety-one-year-old woman still suffering from a broken shoulder, Grandma went downhill fast. Three or four chemo sessions in, she became so weak she could no longer walk. Then, she fell ill. Pneumonia. Things went from bad to really bad. Then she rallied. Then she got worse. Then hospice was called.
She was moved to a larger room on the fourth floor of the hospital. In addition to a hospital bed, the room had a large sectional couch and several chairs—lots of space for family to gather, and gather we did.
For more than a week, she mostly slept. She was comfortable, the nurses assured us. Not once was she left alone, as at least one of her children were with her at all times. Even at night, her children took turns staying up, keeping watch, making sure Grandma was resting peacefully. They say for patients like Grandma, the hearing is the last thing to go. So we talked to her. We laughed at stories from the past. And we prayed aloud for her. Each night her kids would gather around her and pray the Divine Mercy Chaplet—her favorite prayer.
A priest stopped by to give Last Rites.
In his apostolic letter, Salvifici Doloris, St. John Paul II writes, “Those who share in the sufferings of Christ are also called, through their own sufferings, to share in glory.”
Hanging on the wall in her hospital room was a crucifix. She was sharing in the suffering of Christ. She would soon share in his glory.
The Cathedral de Santiago
Six or seven kilometers from the end of the Camino, I saw the Cathedral de Santiago for the first time. The tall, Gothic spires of the cathedral can be seen from a great distance, pointing towards the heavens. After nearly a month of walking the Camino, the end was in sight. The emotions of being so close were wide-ranging. I was thrilled to be so close to the end, and also surprisingly sad that the journey was nearly finished.
Arriving in the town of Santiago de Compostela, the trail first traverses through the modern part of the city. Very suddenly, the city turns from modern to ancient. The cathedral is nestled in the old part of the city, and I found myself walking on narrow, cobblestone streets.
I first heard the bagpipes a couple of blocks from the cathedral, and as I got closer, they rang out louder. Pipers take turns playing the bagpipes each day, welcoming pilgrims to the cathedral. It’s an emotional moment, finally arriving in the main square and looking up at the millenia-old cathedral, all while a glorious and angelic bagpipe melody wafts through the air.
It was December, but warm sunlight was pouring down from the sky. I walked to the far side of the square, dropped my pack, and I sat. For an hour or more, I stayed there, reflecting on my journey. I watched as other pilgrims arrived, jubilantly strolling into the square, overcome with emotion.
Twice daily, Mass is celebrated in the cathedral. I arrived early so I could pray at the tomb of St. James. I explored the various side chapels and stared in awe at the magnificent main altar. My feet were sore, but it didn’t matter. I was floating. I’ve been in some glorious and beautiful churches in my day; this might have been the most awesome. I’ve never been more convinced that beauty will indeed save the world.
Kneeling before Mass, I noticed more than a dozen other pilgrims, haggard, exhausted, and so full of joy.
Grandma’s Last Days
Grandma Willie died on a Wednesday. Surrounded by family, she took her last breath. There were tears and hugs and prayers. She’d fought the good fight to the end. She’d run the race to the finish. She’d kept the faith.
For the last five years of her life, Grandma Willie lived at a Catholic retirement home in Oklahoma City. Those were, she would say, some of her best years. She loved the people there—her fellow residents and the staff alike. A half dozen or so retired priests are in residence. There’s also an order of religious sisters who, in part, staff the retirement home while living in a convent next door. Plus, and this is the best part, there’s a chapel on site, which meant that daily Mass for Grandma was only a short stroll from her room.
Her wake and funeral took place in the little chapel at the retirement home. She was then laid to rest at a cemetery named Holy Name, next to Clarence and her four children who preceded her in death.
It was all so beautiful. It spoke to the life of Willie Mae, a person who strove every day to know, love, and serve Jesus Christ. At her wake, the Rosary was led by a nun who Grandma Willie had gotten to know well over the years. We prayed the Glorious Mysteries. At the announcement of each mystery, Sister would share a story about Grandma.
Sister told us that over the last couple of months, Grandma Willie had spoken often of the pilgrimage that is life. Hers was a difficult journey at times, but it was always filled with joy.
A few weeks prior, Grandma shared with Sister that she felt the end of her journey was near, but that she wasn’t sad. She was ready for the end. She’d worked her whole life for the moment that was to come. She was ready to be with Jesus, to be with her family in heaven, to be at peace.
I miss you, Grandma—we all do, so very much. I still have a few kilometers left on my journey, but I’ll be keeping my gaze towards heaven. You’ve shown us the way, and I’ll strive everyday to follow in your footsteps.
Life is a pilgrimage, and so I’ll keep moving forward. I will pray for strength, and I will journey east towards the risen Son.
I’ll carry on. I’ll keep walking. I won’t stop.
What joy it is to imagine you basking in the beauty of eternity.
Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord,
and let perpetual light shine upon them.
May they rest in peace.