About Greg

Greg is a minister serving Unitarian Universalism congregations in transition. He is an activist for the distribution of fairness for all people and for the spiritual and emotional evolution of personal and collective consciousness. He is a lover of stories and history, travel, exercise and family.

From Top to Bottom

There are times in life when we find ourselves stuck.  Times when the place we find ourselves is a temporary respite at best.  We see no way ‘forward’ and there’s no way to retrace our steps back.  These are times where we realize that some new way must break forth – either from around us or from within us.  At such times we cannot see the door that life will open for us and feel lost.  These are times when it becomes clear that the breaking of our assumptions or expectations or habits is sometimes not only a good way to go but, without realizing, it’s exactly the way set out to find in the first place.

Pressing our bodies tightly against the brick wall of an unknown building on the University of Virginia last week was one of these times.


Liz and I were exploring Charlottesville, VA last week having taken a day to tour Monticello and learn about the fascinating and complex life of Thomas Jefferson.  We learned that, besides his pursuits as President of the US and Governor of Virginia, Jefferson was passionate about horticulture, astronomy, education and architecture.  We wanted to go see the University of Virigina – and particularly, the rotunda at the center which he designed.

It was raining lightly when we started out for the half mile walk, up the hill, toward the campus.  We set out with pleasant enough moods and an umbrella for a leisurely, even romantic morning of discovery.  But as we got a little more than half way, the rain went (and our moods) went from easy to urgent.  Before we reached the top, it began to pour.  And just as we turned the corner – when the church and the rotunda came into view – the wind lifted and the rain shifted from horizontal to a sideways trajectory.

We stepped over a bright yellow umbrella discarded on the sidewalk with all its little spokes broken.  It seemed an ominous sight, as was the whistle of the wind now taunted our own feeble umbrella which had given up on its promise to keep us dry.

Seeing the Rotunda and the church were too far away, we made a dash for the brick building ahead of us.  Seeing the front was an additional 50 feet, we made a dash to the portico on the side.  The awning offered little shelter from the sweeping rain so we pressed ourselves flat against the wall where we avoided all but the mist and the splatter.

We stood there, humbled and helpless.  “What do we do now?” Liz asked.  “Nothing we can do, I guess.  Except wait,” I responded.  So we did.  And watched the sheets of water continue to fall.

It was then that a head popped out of one of the two unmarked doors set into the brick wall of that portico.


“Are you trapped?” asked a well-dressed middle-aged blond woman with wire-framed glasses, smiling.  “Yes,” we both said at once.  “We were on our way to the rotunda when it started to pour and we just ran for it.  We don’t even know where we are.”  “This is the administration building,” she smiled.  ”I’m Teresa Sullivan.  I’m the president of the University.”  We must have looked stunned.  “Please come in.  You can dry off in our lobby.”

This is how love and compassion flow from top to bottom.  When those in the upper echelons of influence are able to see through layers of complexity and power to see the tenderness and vulnerability of those caught in the winds and rains of these tumultuous times.  When I got home, I googled Ms. Sullivan and discovered she recently won an award for leadership.  I wasn’t surprised.  This is what leadership is: the ability of those at the top to see through stormy conditions and remember our true purpose… an aim for those at every station to understand why they left in the first place, what they set out to find and how to get there.

May this be a model for all of us on the path.

To the Glory of Life.

Carrying Stones

Before the journey, I was told to bring a rock.


I was told it was part of the pilgrimage.  That there is a place – indeed many places along the camino – to place it.

“Why?” I asked.

“Why would I carry a rock?” I wondered.  “Why carry something that had no purpose?”  Especially when I was told to carefully consider every single ounce that went into my pack?  When everything I’d read told me how important it was to lighten my load for the six hundred mile journey?”

Although I stumbled across many responses, none made much sense to me.  The reasons I heard  for carrying rocks seemed sentimental or superstitious.  I did hear the enigmatic zen reply: “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,” but that simply deflected off my fortress of skepticism.

So, I didn’t pack a stone.  Only my essential gear – not all of which proved essential.  And such items quickly found the place they belonged in trash cans along the trail.  But I did take my mother’s ashes which seemed exceptional enough to rise above all my rules of strict pragmatism.

I was told to bring a rock, and I resisted.  The resistance I carried came, I believe, from an accumulation of things I have been told over the course of my life that turned out, in the end, not to be true.  Sentimental or superstitious things, that suspected that others carried out of worry and fear.

I was told to bring a rock.  But when my plane landed and my pilgrimage began, I had none.

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I probably wouldn’t have thought any more about it if it weren’t for the mounds of rocks that I begin to see were prominently placed on markers and signs along the trail.  These weren’t rocks that were naturally part of the Spanish hillsides.  These were rocks that, in many cases, were geologically different than everything around them.  They were obviously carried and set down – often stacked one atop another – in conspicuous fashion.

I’d heard that the Camino was an ancient pilgrimage dating back to the early pagans.  That when the Christian church came to power, they sent people on it to work off their sins. Those who believed the journey would absolve them, carried rocks as a form of penance.  My skepticism grew.

But I heard that in the earliest days of the Camino, pagans understood stones as capable of absorbing and holding our worries.  Our losses and our sorrows.  That we could pick up a rock and transfer our disappointments, regrets, hurts and despair into by doing the work of reflection, that is, sifting out the wisdom which is the blessing from the worry which is the burden.

I chose not to start my journey with a rock.   But somewhere around half way point – the 300 mile mark – just after Liz had to go back to work and I was on my own, I asked myself a very humbling question: “What did I carry instead of all these rocks I was seeing?  What did I pour my worries and sorrow into.  By this time, the arduousness of the road had me answering more honestly than usual.

A lot of my sorrow and worry and pain, I poured into Liz.  A lot of rigidity and overwhelm got poured into my family and friends.  Efforts to appear competent got poured into work.  A lot of the skepticism and vigilance got poured into life in general.   These things – to ‘ward-off’ disappointment (pun intended) – are not light things to carry – and I’d been carrying them for a lot longer than this 600 mile journey.

It was at this time I picked up a rock.  And from then on, in the times I routinely found myself becoming pensive – where I would ruminate and cogitate and worry – I held onto my rock.

The highest part of the journey – atop the Leónese Mountains – about two weeks before we arrived in Santiago – is where pilgrims come across the Cruce de Ferro (Iron Cross).  It is a mound of rocks surrounding a large pole extending far into the sky.  Atop the pole is an iron cross.   The rocks around the cross have names or words or prayers written on them.  Some have string tied around them or other symbols of significance.  They were brought by people who’d carried worries or prayers to this point from all over the world.  To get to the pole, you have to climb up ten feet of these worries.

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When I arrived there I realized my fears and worries had a place where they were understood.  Where they were recognized and known and where they were at home.  I could almost feel my own rock jump out of my pocket.  It was like they said, “The purpose of the stone you bring will become clear when you get to the place it belongs,”  I set it down and thanked all my sorrows and worry for trying so hard to protect me.  I also poured out some of my mother’s ashes – a mixture of sand and small pebbles – and realized that, for years, my mother had carried a lot of my sorrows.  And I thanked her for trying to protect me.

They say that the position of Cruce de Ferro is important.  From the Leónese Mountains, you can practically see Santiago in the distance.  And you are supposed to approach and enter Santiago with joy in your heart.  Hard to do when you carry so much worry and fear.

The road to Santiago – to wherever we are headed – is lined with sorrows.  It is also lined with superstition and sentimentality.  Look to the side and you will see how rocks hold all these things in place and allow you the lightness necessary to be a bearer of gratitude and joy.

The Belonging that is our Birthright

So you tried love.  And it worked out okay… for a while.  But after a few episodes of feeling star-struck and then blind-sided, drawn in and then disillusioned, you decided to be a little more careful.  You discovered love wasn’t always reliable and you felt your tender heart preferred more guarantees.  You needed some rules.


And for a while you had religion… which was nice… sort of…because religion seemed to be about rules.  Even if they were a little confusing at times… but they also seemed comforting… and offered a sort of overarching reassurance that no matter what, God loved you… and Jesus loved you… and the church loved you… at least as long as you believed the right way and prayed the right way – according to the rules – everything would work out.  And it did… for awhile… until it didn’t.  And it was all good… for awhile…  Until it wasn’t.  Until you began to discover exceptions.  Until you realized that sometimes, despite believing and praying and living according to the rules, your heart could still be broken.  You could still feel betrayed… empty.


Many people experience those feelings with religion.  And it’s often at this point where they decide to make a change.  Although they can still feel a deep sense of spirituality alive inside them, they feel the need to separate themselves from all the inconsistencies and hypocrisy they discovered in the rules of religion.  They vow to begin making their own rules.   And with that vow, they go around and collect the various examples of lessons and practices they’d been handed about God and Jesus and prayer – and throw them all out the back door.  The whole kit and caboodle.  The baby and the bathwater.


They work hard to forge a new set of rules – their own set of rules… which they reason will be more reliable, leave them less vulnerable.  And this strategy  works… for awhile.


But, despite this, they notice still occasionally feelings of a familiar emptiness.  And when they dare to get quiet enough, or take a really long walk or have a really honest conversation with themselves, they recognize that what’s missing is some inherent sense of belonging.  Some connection that they know was meant to be theirs by birthright.  And though they are rarely able to say by whom such belonging was promised to them or in what form it should appear, they go off in search.  Until the day comes when they finally look out in the backyard of their own house and see, peering out from the tall weeds, an old man and a rusty old tub, out in the back yard where they’d been thrown away so many years ago.  And they notice that old man staring back at them… expectantly… wondering if it’s finally time to have a real conversation about love.


Prayer for Peace

This is a draft of the prayer I will offer at
The Second Annual Interreligious Prayer and Dialogue for Peace
this Sunday evening, September 29, 2013 at 7:00 pm
at St. Francis of Assisi Parish
Triangle, Virginia 18825 Fuller Heights Road, Triangle, VA 22172.


This service is based on the Assisi Decalogue for Peace.  I was asked to comment and pray upon decalogue #4:
“We commit ourselves to defend the right of all human beings to lead a dignified life, in accordance with their cultural identity, and to start their own family freely.”




If there is to be peace in the world
There must be peace among the nations
If there is to be peace among the nations
There must be peace within the cities
If there is to be peace within the cities
There must be peace among neighbors
There must be peace in the home
If there is to be peace in the home
There must be peace in the heart.
-        Lao Tzu


I overheard a conversation this week about conflict among cultures.  The conversation touched on what is happening today in Syria.  In Iraq and Iran.  It touched on what took place in Rwanda and Bosnia, in the 90s.  And what happened in Germany in the 30s and 40s.
-        Finally, came the question: ‘What is genocide?’
-        Someone responded: ‘Genocide is when two different groups, fight.  And the dominant group attempts to exterminate the other so as to maintain their dominance.’
-        ‘No’, came the response.  ‘Genocide is when two groups of people WHO BELIEVE THEY ARE different, fight.  And extermination and survival become the dominant strategies.’


It is the beliefs underneath actions that are powerful.  To paraphrase writer, Kurt Vonnagut, “We become who we believe we are so we must be very careful about who we believe we are.”


There is so much fighting of ideologies in the world.  And not just in the world.  Closer to home.  Fights about beliefs… ideologies… traditions… rituals…  And sometimes we lose.  And feel overpowered.  And helpless.  And, eventually, isolated and desperate.


In my tradition, there is a reading which appears in our hymnal from poet Marge Piercy which speaks to this.  She writes.


What can they do to you?
Whatever they want.
They can set you up,
they can bust you,
they can break your fingers,
they can burn your brain with electricity,
blur you with drugs till you
can’t walk,
can’t remember,
they can take your child,
wall up your lover.
They can do anything you can’t stop them from doing.
How can you stop them?


Alone, you can fight,
you can refuse,
you can take what revenge you can
but they roll over you.
… But two people fighting
back to back
can cut through a mob,
a snake-dancing file
can break a cordon,
an army can meet an army.


Two people can keep each other sane,
can give support,
love, massage, hope, sex.
Three people are a delegation,
a committee, a wedge.


With four you can play bridge and start an organization.


With six you can rent a whole house,
eat pie for dinner with no
and hold a fund raising party.
A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own media;
ten million, your own country.


It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care to act,

it starts when you do it again
after they said ‘no,’
it starts when you say ‘We’
and know who you mean,
and each day you mean one more.



Our greatest battle in this world is one which we all wage against the illusion of our separateness.  We form powerful distinctions based on our age, our gender, the color of our skin, our lineage, our sexual orientation, our habits and preferences, our religion and our politics… And we distort these distinctions – expressions of our uniqueness – into conclusions that we are different.  But we are not.  We are fundamentally one people.
And beyond that, we are one with all other life on this planet.  Indivisible and interdependent.
Let us pray.


God – who is to us the alpha and omega – everything and oneness – who is known to each by a different name…


Call us together.


Help us listen, beyond the barriers of pride and ego, beyond anger and fear and desperation.


Fashion from the tensile strength of our distinctions, the unified bones of one body and charge us with the work of bringing together neighbors… and cities… and nations until the Love you created within us is made manifest among all people around us.





The Map of Mercy

Consider how you were made.  The well-loved blueprint that outlined your frame… the careful instructions that described how flesh connects to bone… the prayers which guided your soul to join to head and heart.


Consider the first time you expressed helpless need – fingers outstretched into a fuzzy world… that first thing you saw that taught you the word, ‘fair’, the great battles between fear and love which revealed the concepts of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; the first sight of something that might die which engendered mercy, the wish for relief and its application upon all things that helped you understand liberty.


Consider, what made you as if, arranging its shape can turn it from fear and trembling into the cure for cancer, or a heliotron producing fully formed suns – complete with planets that orbit your world.  But don’t ignore all the naivety that came pre-installed in your operating system, or the crooked teeth that came, and the gait that stays even after the injury is healed, or the arthritic joints ushered in by age, or the baldness, or the trembling that won’t stop.


Consider, as well, the brilliant number of endings that came with your birth and the equal number of beginnings – plus one.


Now imagine the response when your fear is revealed… your desperation… your reluctant conclusions that something else must surrender for you to be safe.  Imagine the discipline with which one of you applies force, creating a cascade of sorrows.  Imagine what your maker might say.


Do the impossible.  Restore life to those you have been dead to you, wholeness to those you compartmentalized, resilience to what you have hardened, trust to the forsaken.


Bless each other with heart and soul, hands and feet, soft gaze and a tender tongue.  Make brain and brawn, blood and sweat and muscle and bone the carrier of burdens on one and another’s road to bountiful.  Do this for the clothed and naked, the too poor and too rich, the infirmed and the invincible.


All this has been given to you – without your asking – like grace.  Like a bridge built by others that stretches to the island you made out of your loneliness when you gave up looking for a way home.   It comes without guilt or shame, shoulds or oughts or any pains of the past.  It is offered with promise and purpose and a blessing written onto a life-sized map of mercy.

The Flight of Wonder

The Flight of Wonder

(inspired by Heather McHugh)

The toddler

Besides being an energetic ball of boundless wonder

was quite ordinary.

A little pale, lanky

and not yet completely familiar with the owner’s manual

that came with his body

-        evidenced by his drunken gate,

-        and the wide eyes and wide open heart,

he displayed as he stumbled up and down the aisle.

He was one of us

    – only more so –

one of the heard of passengers

headed to some place

too far to imagine

trying to get there

in the fastest way we could think.

When he passed my seat the second

and third time at full tilt

I turned my attention from Lethal Weapon 4

to see what was so urgent.

Then I noticed…

He’s running back and forth
across a small sun-blazed circle shining on the carpet

The mesmerizing brilliant beam

magically connected

-        by floating dust particles

to a small crack in a window

some 10 rows back

at just the right magic moment

at the end of the day

right before the sun sinks over the horizon.

‘It’s light!,’ I thought.  ‘Only light,’

But then, I caught myself

diminishing his wonder

and I summoned myself toward accountability

trying to recall

Why had I stopped noticing such things?
Why I had stopped appreciating such things?

Stopped looking for such things?

Indeed, it’s worth asking why I

– and the hundreds of others on board –

propped in rows and sitting obediently in a line

not, also in that moment, fallen captive to wonder?

Why were we not also running back and forth

darting across the beam

watching it trace a line across our body

marveling in astonishment

that it did not cut us – or the whole plane – in two.

Then, after the umpteenth time
he ran past my chair,

I began to notice

that besides having lost wonder and whimsy

I was also becoming alarmingly low on patience.

Which is exactly when,

suddenly, he noticed me noticing him

and stopped –

leaving one daring hand on my armrest

to inspect the wonders of me.

Some people cannot hear.
Some cannot walk.
But everyone was sun-struck once,

and set adrift.
Have we forgotten how astonishing this world is?

So perfectly turning our attention

to the practicalities of life,

have we also become deaf and unmoved

by radiance?

Looking back on that moment

now a generation of years ago,

I wonder if that toddler lost what he once radiated.

If his wonder and imagination faded in importance

like Mel Gibson faded from prominence.

I wonder if the stewardess

who came and took that little boy

to his seat

was just ushering us all toward our inevitable destination.

Telling us to buckle up

so that we can prepare for take off

toward all that cannot stay young forever.

The Masks We Wear

Dear Friends,

Recently an article appeared in Psychology Today about a four year old girl who wanted desperately to be a pirate for Halloween.  Her mom took her to a costume shop where she was very clear she didn’t want to be a nice pirate.  She wanted to be a mean, scary pirate who isn’t afraid of anything.  So she got a pirate mask and a swashbuckler hat and an eye patch.  And, as soon as she got home she donned her garb and ran to the mirror to check herself out.  But after taking a gander at herself, she screamed in horror and tore off the costume.  When asked what was wrong, she said, “I’m too scary.”  That’s when she decided to be a fairy instead.

It’s fall which brings two things to mind: change and masks.

Change often has to do with seasons… with the texture and color and location of leaves as well as the temperature we’re in and the clothing we don.

Masks come to mind because of Halloween.  But also what we do while addressing changes around us we may not feel prepared for.  When we’re young, Halloween gives us a chance to ‘try on’ a new persona that may stretch our understanding of our own personal ordinary-ness.  But sometimes, either because we’re lazy or have an inkling that ‘we’re not quite done with it,’ we wear the same mask we did last year.  Sometimes for years on end.  For a myriad of reasons, this can become an approach to life.

It stands to reason that as we move through life our story and our narrative change.  It evolves as we evolve.  It reflects and integrates the complexities we’ve encountered.  If we’re honest and true to that changing story, our face – the face we present to the world – changes as well.  But sometimes we’re not completely ready to change our story.  Or the way we face the world.

In his book, ‘Mother Night,’ writer Kurt Vonnegut introduces the main character as expatriate American playwright Howard Campbell, who lands in Germany, marries a German woman and passes coded messages on to US generals.  As his cover, he pretends to be a Nazi propagandist, but things become horribly confused and he not only ends up botching his assignment and ruining his marriage but becoming an unwitting inspirational icon to bigots.  In his 1966 introduction to the paperback edition, Vonnegut says this: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” 

Of course, this moral is as applicable to entire communities, societies and cultures of people as it is for an individual.  When our efforts to hold on to the stories or masks which have outlived their usefulness, we can bring about great internal as well as external conflict.   Holding on to a narrative of personal innocence can keep us apathetic instead of motivated to learn about the things around us that need our help.  Continuing to believe that we’re a frontier society surrounded by danger can be one of the reasons we own so many guns and why we seem unable to keep violence from spilling into the public square. Clutching onto old stories that society is an equal playing field where anyone can succeed blinds us to the increasing numbers of people falling through the cracks.

The greatest religious and moral breakthroughs – for individuals and communities – comes when we begin to see clearly.  Like the little girl standing in front of the mirror, seeing herself as she really is instead of how she has imagined herself to be, she becomes willing to be honest about where she is.  Which helps her get where she wants to go.  Sometimes these experiences can be painful.  But think of it as breaking through the painful constrictions that reveal our wise and expansive selves.

Songwriter Jim Morrison once described it this way:  “Pain is meant to wake us up. People try to hide their pain. But they’re wrong. Pain is something to carry, like a radio.  It’s sending us a signal of our own reality. If you feel ashamed of that signal, and try to hide it, you’re letting society destroy your reality… The most important kind of freedom is to be what you really are.   When you trade in your reality for a role, you trade in your life for an act. You give up your ability to feel, and in exchange, put on a mask.”

To be religious these days has nothing to do with reciting old stories, believing by doctrine or acting holy.  To be religious these days means to be fiercely transparent and courageously vulnerable.  It is being willing to let what is old die, so what is new can be born.  It is seeing the impotence of what’s dead so as to understand the Glory of Life.






















Finisterre – End of the Earth

A dozen times since I first saw Finisterre on the horizon, I felt tears overcome me.  I brushed them aside while climbing down the hillside plateau above Cee when the cape – Cabo Fisterre – appeared, more than 20 km in the distance.  Then, as I lay in bed, thinking of the next morning´s trek into destination city.  Then still, another handful of moments while walking along the coast, seeing the colorful houses of the town and the lighthouse off in the distance.

Tears make everything harder.  Along the steep and rocky descent into Cee, where each footstep needed to be carefully placed, it slowed my pace.  During the evening, trepidation mixed with the excitement of the journey ending.  The next morning, as the waters edge appeared closer and closer and I walked beside it for the last 6 km, I began to think of why the prospect of making the last 7 km rountrip – from the town of Finisterre to the cape (the land´s edge) – was so hard.

I am glad to be finishing.  There is no doubt about that.  Hours upon hours of walkng, carrying everything on your back… constantly scanning the horizon for markers of the way to go, always fearing the missed-sign which leads miles in the wrong direction and adds hours to the journey.  Arriving at each day´s destination, only to have to go from hostel to hostel to see if they have room… showering in a closet-sized room and stepping on your dirty clothes to keep from getting your clean ones wet as you put them on.  Washing your clothes by hand and hanging them on the line.  Getting up hours before the sun, walking by lamp-light so as to have a better chance at an open hostel and enough sunlight left in the day for your clothes to dry before dark.

It´s not without an array of blessings: beauty being one.  And adventure.  And some of the most fascinating and amazing people.  There are enough moments of wisdom and inspiration and useful lessons doled out in one day to last a year in the ´real world.´ I won´t forget the places I´ve seen, the people I´ve met or the lessons I learned and wouldn´t trade them for any amount of comfort I could have crammed into this past six weeks.

I´m not at a loss for what the tears are about.  Or the challenge they place before me.

I did a pretty good job of packing for this trip.  Where as many perrigrinos (Spanish for ´pilgrims´) fell to the temptation of trying to avert disaster or discomfort and carry along their hairdryer or the eight books they planned to read along the way, I took only what I knew I needed. Where many were mailing packages of supplies home or simply leaving them in the albergues (hostels) along the way, I packed and repacked the same back (although my medical portion of the bag did significantly increase in volume and weight with the addition of blister cremes, bandages, ibuprofin gel (which is awesome and should be allowed in the US) as well as bedbug spray.  But I did bring one thing not on too many other´s check-lists: my mother´s ashes.

It wasn´t much weight.  Only a few ounces, really.  So I was surprised by the weight of pulling them for the first time from my pack in Peunte de le Reina and scattering them in the courtyard next to the hostel where we stayed – a particularly warm climate with friendly people with songs and stories that created a nice spirit-filled evening.  When I poured them out onto the ground it suddenly felt like everything about the journey suddenly became heavier… and harder.  I wasn´t expecting such an unbidden response.

Celia WardAnyone who´s ever heard me talk about my mother knows that the path we walked over the course of our life was not the smoothest or easiest.  There were certainly times when she was front and center with care and understanding and acceptance in my moments of greatest need.  And even times where I could tell she loved being there for me.  But there were many moments where she wasn´t and what needs I had were left unmet.  Indeed, there were enough moments where I stopped letting those needs be known, unable to bear the disappointment.

I fell into a habit I´ve seen a number of people try: replacing the disappointment with hurt and anger.  And finally filling that space meant for openness, humility or vulnerability with a protective self-reliance.  All the while, I harbored a fantasy that one day my mother would figure out how to be the caring person I had needed and set aside her own self protection.  I coupled that with the twin fantasy that a mate would come along with that same selfless love I´d always wanted and rescue me – heal the hurts and recognize the love and care I had to offer.

But this year, when I turned fifty, and my mother died, I came to realize that I needed to put these fantasies to rest.  Which was part of the whole Santiago adventure: find a way so far removed to carry the grief and set it down.  Maybe to the end of the earth.

So the pain at pouring out the ashes at Peunte de le Reina… and then again in Villambistio… and Burgos… and in Carrion…   It didn´t make sense why it would feel so heavy to set down grief.  Why the tears?  Like there were other obstacles in the way.

When I arrived in Finisterre, I checked into the albergue.  I didn´t take a shower or do my laundry – the usual orders of business after reaching my destination.  There was still 7 km to go to the cape.  So, I kept my boots on and put my stuff away.  And from my pack I pulled the remainder of the ashes I had been carrying.  It felt funny to be walking somewhere without my poles or my pack.  And without all that, I was struck that it felt oddly heavier with just the ashes.  And as a new set of tears came, it suddenly dawned on me why.

It occured to me that I could never let go of my mother without first finding someone who would be willing to take on all the responsibility I had been draping over her all of my life.  The role of someone to offer solace and support, someone to understand the attention that was missing, offer the appreciation and affection, be someone to confide in, and build confidence from…  And the only one who could ever offer all that was me.  And I wasn´t sure I was up to it.  It´s sometimes easier to resent someone else for not loving us than to love ourselves.

Carrying those ashes up the long hill came with all the predictable bargaining.  I could hear my mom´s martyred reasoning: begging me to let her retain the responsibility for loving me and providing my sense of wellbeing… and I could hold on to my resentment and all the reasons why I couldn´t have the life I wanted, take the risks that were mine to take and open my heart to the love I hoped to know.  I walked on.

When the road arrived at the lighthouse, a smaller dirt path split off and headed down to the water.  It swtiched directions, back and forth, down the steep grade until it finally leveled off and became more and more narrow.  For a while it became two narrow tire tracks and then one single slender track through the brush until the path disappeared altogether.  That´s when it all became clear.

I hadn´t come half way around the world and walked to the end of the earth because I needed a place far enough away to leave my grief.  I came all that way to show myself I was strong enough to carry my life as far as I wanted to go.

I followed what appeared to be a little rabbit trail through the bramble and thistle until all that was left was the rocky cliff edge.  I traced the edge of the rocks to an outcropping where I could clammer out as far as I could.  I sat with the bottle in my hand, listening to Yo Yo Ma and opened a conversation with my mom from every decade of my life.  I recalled my changing needs and feelings and her changing response over the years.  Remembered the times we connected… the times we struck out.  All the tenderness.  All the complexity.

Finally, there was a pause.  The waves lapped against the rocks as if to offer a reassuring plea – ´we are big enough,´I could feel them say.  ´We can take her.´ I let her go into the wind and the waves.  And I let go of my expectations and resentment of her. And doubts of myself.  I wept for a few minutes, asking forgiveness for the weight of needs I placed on her – and others – that they could not meet for me… and the needs I failed or refused to meet for myself.   And then, lighter in spirit, I climbed up through the bramble and back to the town of Finisterre.

Tomorrow, I move on to the town of Muxia.  I haven´t read ahead in the guidebook, so I dont know what it means, but I know this:  In the ancient Roman days when this camino first began, Finisterre was believed to be edge of everything known.  Beyond its shore, lay uncertainty, harrowing and even dreadful predicaments.  It wasn´t until later that they discovered that Muxia was actually slightly further west than Finisterre.

This camino is ended. Tomorrow, when I walk on to Muxia, it will be to expand the bounds of all I´ve known.  An opened bottle is like an opened heart.  You can fit a lot of love and adventure in the space taken up by hurt and resentment.  It made me realize that you can use such containers for gratitude.  If they´re big enough.

´Buen Camino´

We say it, literally, dozens of times a day.  When passing by other pilgrims… when townspeople pass us on the street…  But, especially, we say it when we leave… when we rise and get up to continue our journey.  Whether we rise to begin our morning trek, or from one resting place to the next, we always turn to the pilgrims around us and say, ´buen camino.´

It means, ´good path,´ or ´good way,´ as in a blessing for the way ahead.  But it is much more than that.

I wrote in an earlier blog, that it has become a reality of the camino that each pilgrim lives with the constant understanding of uncertainty.  We never know.  Specifically, when we part that day, we never know if we will see our current company again down the path.  Sometimes we can make assumptions.  Sometimes even arrangements.  But on the camino, things happen.  Blisters.  Injuries.  Unexpected new opportunities.  Accidents.

I arrived into the Santiago de Compostella on Tuesday, July 23rd.  This was two days before the feast day of St. James – the day the entire town waits for every year to celebrate its raison d´etre – reason for being.  We joked as we we were walking into town that without St. James and this pilgrimage, the town wouldn´t even have a name.

When we arrived, it certianly seemed true.  The cathedral rises above everything and the entire town encircles it.  And at night, when the lights are cast upon the magnificent spires, it looks like an ancient Oz in all it´s emeraldness.  Every day, pilgrims arrive into the city, jubilant – the completion of often more than 800 km of prayerful (or mostly prayerful) walking toward this church.  Everyday, inside the cathedral, a mass is performed to honor those who have arrived.  The ritual goes back 1400 years and, somehow, the all the history is sewn into the importance each pilgrim feels as he walks into the magnificent St. James square.

The town was in the midst of all its preparations when we arrived.  The dozens of pilgrims we started with swelled to hundreds and then thousands as various pilgrim routes converged in Burgos, then again in Leon and especially at the 110 km mark in Sarria.  And so many of them increased the daily distance they travelled to arrive in time for the festival on the 25th.  The music, the celebration and – above all – the fireworks set to go off at midnight on the 24th – all set the tone to commemorate what to each person feels like an epic accomplishment in their life.

My last two and a half weeks on the camino became much quieter and more reflective after Liz left and I have used the time to have more contemplative and prayerful conversations with myself and others on the path.  I did walk in with about 15 others and we did celebrate… and upon seeing each of the several dozen people I walked with during the previous five weeks, hugs and smiles were exchanged, a few beers were consumed and stories were plentiful.

But the quantity and caliber of the celebration preparing to be deployed at the festival seemed to be registering far higher on the exuberance scale then the quiet and tender new ideas I had been collecting.  So after getting my certificate of completion from the credentialing office, and seeing many – but not all – of the people I´d met along the way, I retreated to the hostel where I was staying about .75 km from the cathedral.

Roots and Boots, my hostel, was chosen because it has a magnificent view of the cathedral, and I managed to get in earlier enough to get the best room and the best bed among all 175 spaces.  My top bunk looked out on St. James square so that I would have a perfect view of the fireworks that would begin going off around 11:30 pm.

At about 10:00, I noticed that I had left my electrical adapter in my last hostel, and I went downstairs to the desk to ask if they had an extra one.  But the woman who had been so kind and helpful to me when I arrived was running out from the office area and closing up the room.  ´Escopa me,´ I tried to interupt.  But she stopped me.  In very broken English she said, ´sorry… not now… there is something terrible… I must go to the train station…´ and she hurried out the door.

I didn´t ask anyone else about it.  I just went back upstairs and got into bed and waited for the fireworks to begin.  At 11:00 the lights around the cathedral went out, for what I thought were the final preparations.  But 11:30 came and there were no fireworks.  Finally, at midnight, the lights came back on.  I was confused.  I wasn´t sure if I missed it.

Around 12:30, others came back into the room we were all sharing and there was a lot of whispering, but it was all in Spanish, so I could not understand what everyone was saying.  It wasn´t until 6:30 in the morning, after I went downstairs and was preparing to leave that I heard the news.

At around 9:00 pm, a train travelling from Madrid into Santiago – bringing a number of celebrants into the city for the festival – derailed only a few few kilometers from the station.  77 were originally reported dead.  I later found out that the woman who worked at the front desk had her son on the train.  He lived.  But another pilgrim, who had already finished his camino and was returning to be with other friends – who was to be staying in the room next to the one I was in – died.

A dozen of us sat around the hostel watching the news reports feeling helpless and sad and lost.  In various languages, we volleyed ideas about going down to help or donate blood.  But we had no medical records and no transportation.  So after much discussion, a group of us decided to do what we could: to continue our walk because they couldn´t.  To walk and carry their stillness with us.  Our destination: Finisterre: ´the end of the earth.´

The big pilgrim mass – the one so many of my fellow pilgrims were hurrying to arrive in time for – was cancelled.  In its place was a mass to honor the dead with the bishop in attendance.  Everyone had prepared for a great celebration.  What was held was something very different.

When I arrived at my first stop, 10 km outside of Santiago, I ordered a cafe and sat down to watch the mass which was being televised.  Inside the cathedral, the cameras panned over the faces of attendees.  There were dozens of people I knew – people I´d walked with over the course of the last 6 weeks – who were in attendance.  Everyone looked stunned.  Everyone had tears.

We say ´buen camino.´  It is a powerful gesture.  We say it, I think, in place of the feelings we hold but have no words: ´It has been lovely travelling the way with you…. it would be wonderful to see you again at the next place of rest… but one never knows.´

Today, with a heavy heart, I remember those who died… and those who were affected by this tragedy… and all those who carry with them the power of connection and the precious impermanance of life.  And I hope everyone is able to impress upon those they are with, how wonderful it has been to share this part of the way together.

Day 16 or so… from Burgos to Hornillos to CastroJeriz to Fromista to Carrion and beyond…


A number of individual circumstances prevent me from posting regularly… not the least of which is whether or not internet is available at all in the hostels or towns we end up at.  And even when internet is available, posting – as compelling as it seems to me – falls below the priority line when it comes to finding a place to stay, food, footcare, laundry, and even being with the people who´ve travelled alongside us.

I am still stuck on the question, ´why are you walking?´ and I have asked almost everyone I´ve come across and gotten into some very interesting conversations.  I have come to understand that there must be a compelling reason in each pilgrim.  The journey itself is not easy enough to make the choice cavellier.

Walking the camino means enduring 20-30 km a day of foot pounding on a wide variety of paths – many of which require focus and concentration to protect weary and sore feet and where it often gets up to nearly 100 degrees F.  The camino means dedicating yourself to the moment to moment focus to not lose the path (or get waylaid onto a different path), the daily search for a place to stay, among people whose language you don´t speak, so that you can sleep with 8-20 people in a room, endure a symphony of snoring almost every night, take showers with five other people in the bathroom, eat food which is often good and nutritious but not always, sleep in rooms that are never air conditioned and almost always above 80 degrees… just to wake up between 4:00 and 5:30 to repair your feet with blister pads and creme, pop a couple of ibuprofin (and even apply some handy ibuprofin gel).  It means enduring stretches as long as 18 km without water, praying for the next cathedral to poke its head into view as you rise to the top of the hill and living with the disappointment when it doesn´t.  It means leaving behind all the assumptions of comfort and distraction so that you can fully experience ´the way,´ even when ´the way´ means hardship and pain and delayed gratification and is often a symbol for something you can´t fully remember or call to mind.

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One has to have good reasons.  There are too many ways the camino can defeat you, lose you, discourage you, humble you and return you to your uncompelling reasons.  You have to have good reasons.  Certainly better than those who were sent on the camino in the middle ages… those for whom the camino was a punishment… perhaps for a crime against the church or where the church would deem you unworthy of entry into heaven without the paying of an indulgence.   Church Magistrates would give the opportunity to pay the indulgence by walking the camino and reporting to Santiago.  Of course, this was also good for the church since it would give validation to the pilgrimage that the church was trying to promote.   It may have also rid certain areas of undesirables.  It is thought that  only 80% of those who began the camino during the middle ages lived to see the square of St. James at the other end.  And those that did survive, never returned.  It would be unheard of.  And unneccessary.  Because if, indeed, they did survive, they would have accomplished the goal of becoming a different person.

So, perhaps that is what the camino is really all about. People who are looking for that difference.  People who want something about themselves, or their lives to be different – or perhaps just to make a difference.  The kind of difference they had always wanted their life to make, but hadn´t quite figured out how to get there.  I´ve met plenty of such people on the camino.

I´m thinking of Chris from Missouri – an only child, raised in a farming camino now surrounded by brothers and sisters and travelling from city to city.  He´s travelled the world now for two years and has  a disciplined search for the best way to make a difference in his life and with others.

I´m thinking of Thomas – in his sixties – from Northern England.  Now an artist… formerly a social worker for thirty years… always a songwriter (he´s the one who wrote, ´Come Walk Along the Way with Me´.)  He is going to finish the camino and return to England in time to spend 10 days with his daughter who is now finished with her education and is moving to Austrailia for post grad work.

I´m thinking of Carolina – in her thirties – from Brazil now living on the border between France and Switzerland.  Between jobs… between relationships… between visions of what she would like to spend the rest of her life doing….

I´m thinking of Maayan, nearly 30 from Israel.  Preparing to go to Madison in the fall for post grad fellowship in Political Science.   In two weeks of the camino she has found an unexpected romance.

I´m thinking of Johannes – also early 30s, from Sweden – tall and lanky – a school teacher who is kind but, like his culture, a little guarded and reserved.  Finding Maayan and walking the way with someone has changed him.  He smiles all the time whereas before it was hard to see a smile.

I´m thinking about the more than a  dozen mother – son or  father – daughter or mother – daughter teams that have come… hoping to discover a new facet of their relationship.  20130706_065949.jpg

 I´m thinking of Andreas and Ricardo from Sicily who are walking the camino to purify their intentions before entering into the seminary… 20130704_194010.jpg

and of Fr. Simon, Marcus and Talida – the Canadian Catholic misisonaries who are using the camino to help people during the moments of their spiritual  challenges…

I´m thinking of the people who have come to the camino from every country, at all ages, from every class  and culture looking for a part of themselves that has not been revealed in all the repeateable, day to day, routines that have intentionally been built into their lives.

I´m thinking of the nuns of Avila who run the albergue in Carrion, who sing  vespers at night and wash sheets and check in pilgrims during the day…  And who make dinner and pray and sing songs with the pilgrims at night.  IMG_20130707_181232_366.jpg

I´m thinking of the priests who do the pilgrims mass and who offer a pilgrims blessing to any pigrim that comes up after mass.   Who will take your head in both hands and look  into your eyes and say, ´God Loves You and is with you every step…´ and make the sign of the cross on your forehead.

The Camino changes you.  There are many who say that it is a commercial enterprise… that it started with the church  finding ways to relieve sin with penatentive indulgences.   That it was a way for the church to self promote and for the cities and villages founded around churches to thrive…   There is no doubt that there is truth to this… But there is also truth beyond this… The camino is a force of beneficence. The very act where strangers meet and help one another make it over a trying stretch of road, where curiosity and cooperation, for once, reign in a world so filled with competition and spite… the way reminds us that all of us – every one of us – has something good to offer.  The Camino gives us the opportunity to see this and learn from it… even if it is sometimes dolling it out in difficult and painful ways.

Yesterday, in my conversation with Antonio (Italy), IMG_20130712_120914_762.jpg

we decided  this.  After talking about how the new pope practiced foot washing with prisoners we pondered the reason he would get on his own knees to be with people who have been told they are not worthy of living among normal citizens.  We surmised that seeing someone of obvious worth humble themsleves forces us to see from a different perspective.   We understood that humble comes from the Latin root, ´humus´ which is the same root as human and means, ´grounded,´or óf the earth.´  We talked about how this is why people get on their knees to pray.   Why we bow or kneel before something that is holy.  So that by being humble, we might begin to see what God sees in those most healing or holy moments.

We reduced it to a three premise set:

- Life is difficult.

-  When it is difficult, it becomes humbling.  -

-  When we feel humbled enough, we begin to see things the way God may see them and appreciate things from a more reverent perspective.