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What might I do on a Thursday morning after a week filled with commitments? The answer came easily and speedily. Go to the movies...well, go to the church to join a group of folks to watch and then discuss a DVD. The choice became a treasure as I traveled mentally with Dr. Tom Avery, an ophthalmologist played by Martin Sheen in the movie, “The Way.”
The story, in short, captures the thoughts, desires, fears and dreams of pilgrims who choose to undertake the historical journey Camino de Santiago, “The Way of St. James.” It is a spiritual voyage traveled for more than a thousand years by pilgrims of all faiths and backgrounds.
Early in the film, I began to feel a tug, a powerful urge to join their company. Whether that can ever be achieved as portrayed in the film is not the point. What is important is that we all find our personal routes through the highways and byways of our personal lives.
Too often, we wait until something traumatic happens to jolt us into the awareness that we need to take a chance. We need to reevaluate our priorities. We need to confront a niggling truth: “You don’t choose a life, you live one.” Thankfully, it’s not too late, even then, to stop and take the measure of our doings. It’s not too late to be who we are meant to be.
Tom Avery once declared eyes were the windows of the soul, but discovered that his statement was scarcely his belief. The initiating event was the tragic and sudden death of his only child, son Daniel, who could not follow the dictates of his father...a son who truly believed that life must be lived, not chosen. For them, and for many of us, there seemed always to be “a sweet misunderstanding,” to use James Taylor’s words. Tom died when Daniel died. He saw no sense in praying, no need for God. Tom lost his way.
Tom’s story is ours, as well. We lose our way until we find the Way. The discovery is a lifelong process. It is both exciting and exhausting; delicious and dismaying. It is done alone but together with others. We walk the way knowing that we need to do it for ourselves, in spite of ourselves, because of ourselves.
It is an intriguing journey into paradox. We laugh when we thought tears would be relief and we cry when laughter melts our frozen hearts. We fear losing the comfort of our chosen lives, comfortable ones that ask little and give less.
As we traverse the ups and downs, we meet strangers who become sojourners of truth, both theirs and ours. They ask us questions we do not wish to answer. They mirror our worst selves and our best selves. They enter our traveling path when we least expect and least desire companionship. Their life questions provoke our own and we rankle at the intrusion, the breaking of our life’s crust...the revelation of our soft interior being. All seems coincidental, chance happenings. Yet, no one walks by accident. Everything is providential.
Along the way, transformation happens. It is neither swift nor steady. It always surprises us, dancing its way into our deepest selves. Incendiary questions spark dying embers, inspiring and conspiring us to change. Speed does not matter. We need to give ourselves time to journey through narrow lanes of understanding, over mountains of messes we have created, into valleys of disappointment, to touch our destiny and feel the push and pull of our individual quest.
Inevitably, we’ll fall along the way. We’ll lose patience with ourselves and others. We’ll want to do it our way, alone and lonely. We’ll lose the treasure we carry with us, our past and scramble to find it and keep it close.
Tom Avery brought his son’s ashes with him along the Camino de Santiago. So, too, do we bring the ashes of our former existence, our previous desires, needs, wants, goals, and understandings. We carry them with us, scattering them as we journey, not because we are afraid but because we must. We must bury the past in bits and pieces as we go. Doing so, we sanctify the road of life until our journey ends.
Scattering the ashes opens our eyes to all God’s creation. It helps us to know that this journey is a holy one, one that allows us to come as we are. It celebrates us as we are. It allows us to love and pray as we can. Interestingly, as each of us takes a step into the divinity of those moments, others find they can too.
Our mixed motivations and various reasons for choosing to walk the way of goodness are no longer deterrents to holiness. They are more real than we’d imagined and more wonderful.
Avery’s pilgrimage was not the final stage of transformation into awareness. He had not changed permanently, nor had his three companions. Despite their awed response upon arriving at their destination, the Cathedral de Santiago, and their correspondingly heartfelt proclamation of change, they remained flawed in the faithfulness. In a sense, nothing had changed. Everything is now seen in a different light.
A father’s grief did not disappear; it became a gift to be opened so that his son’s life could be lived with him. A woman’s promise to denounce cigarettes was broken almost before it was made, but the smoker was more aware of the other smoldering fires in her life. An obese traveler who walked to reduce his weight dramatically accepted himself as he was.
A writer traveling alone to overcome writer’s block saw the occlusion dissolve in the sight of companionship. Given entry into the soul of another, he was able to find his own way.
It’s all about recognizing, becoming aware, delighting, honoring and reverencing who each of us is that is transformative. It is never about what we think is our transformation. It means that we must be on the way, always and in all ways. It’s about living the life God has chosen for us, not choosing the one we opt to live. It’s about writing the truth with the instrument of our lives.
Let’s go for a walk.
Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.