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.
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.
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.