I love when I am able to find secular examples that point to spiritual realities. When shown explicitly religious media, my students often give what they think are the correct answers based on their years of Catholic education. Yet when it is something that seems a bit unrelated to the class, they tend to have a greater openness and willingness to interact with the material.
On the second class day of the new spring semester, I showed them a TEDx talk called “500 Miles, Two Best Friends, and One Wheelchair.” (Feel free to take a minute…or 19…to go and watch this video.) The image of strangers taking the time and effort to carry a man in a wheelchair up a mountain seemed to obviously gesture toward the Church on earth and the Church in Heaven.
“Through the power of community, I climbed mountains.”
At one point near the end, Justin says. “Through the power of community, I climbed mountains” and it resonated so much that I had to write it down. So many conversations lately have pivoted around the need and desire for community and authentic friendship. While some say community cannot be built, I disagree. I believe community must be built. While we cannot choose to magically connect with people, we must be intentional in how we use our time in order for community to be successful.
This community that Justin and Patrick found was possible because others were willing to be intentional with their time and energy. The pilgrim duo they met in the cathedral in Burgos were willing to wait for them before climbing the mountain leading into O’Cebreiro. Then other people heard the story and decided to wait, too, without ever meeting Justin or Patrick. Community requires intentionality and it reminds us that in this pilgrimage of life we cannot walk alone.
A priest friend of mine often said, “You can be damned alone or saved with others.” I think he was quoting someone but I was never certain of the source. The idea is that Hell is isolation, but Heaven is necessarily communion. Communion with God and with others. The reality of this can be revealed in the many “saint pairs” that have arisen over history. St. Francis and St. Clare. St. Benedict and St. Scholastica. St. Louis and St. Zelie. St. Francis Xavier and St. Ignatius of Loyola. The list could go on and on. St. Teresa of Calcutta and St. John Paul II? Saints live a foretaste of the heavenly communion through their authentic friendships with one another. They “carry” each other up the mountain, using friendship to encourage the other to enter into deeper relationship with the Lord.
The Church Outside Space and Time
This earthly community is easy to see from the video. All you need to do is change the people who physically carry Justin into the people who emotionally/spiritually carry you. But as Justin described being carried and looking back occasionally, only to see a new stranger assisting in the work, I found a strong link to the communion of saints. The humans who went before us and finished the race now seek to spiritually carry us by their prayers and intercession. None of us walks this path alone; rather, we are carried by those on earth and those in heaven. The assistance from Heaven is no less real than the aid we receive from our earthly companions.
Those strangers who physically lifted Justin were like the saints who lift our prayers to the Lord, adding to them and improving them by their sanctity. Many spiritual authors describe the journey to God as climbing a mountain. Bl. Pier Giorgio made his motto Verso l’alto in mountaineering and in life. To the heights was exemplified in all aspects of his life. Unlike the people who built the Tower of Babel, we reach toward God knowing it is only by His grace and not our work that we will reach Heaven.
The Camino of Life
Justin and Patrick reinforced my belief that the Camino is like life. I still find myself reflecting on my own Camino four and a half years ago. While some parts I’ve forgotten entirely, others are imprinted in my mind. I recall the sense of communion I felt with the Lord and the beautiful, trying communion with my traveling companions. It was a step away from my ordinary life and yet it was a microcosm of my entire world. I climbed mountains, literal and figurative, and I was never alone. From the prayers I offered and the intercession I requested to the sufferings I offered up and the rest I sought: all was done in relation to others.
Despite the excitement I felt to be on such a journey, I couldn’t help but grow weary of the path as the days turned into weeks. Arduous at times and monotonous at others, the Camino reminded me that life ebbs and flows, but Christ can be found in each moment along the way. He is present, though sometimes hidden, in the people around us. In the slow walkers, the bikers, the rude French pilgrims, and the drunk Spaniards, Christ can be found. The beauty of Christianity proclaims that Christ has entered into humanity and thus redeemed humanity in all aspects.