Tag Archives: death

The Iron Cross: An Observation from the Way of Saint James

CruzdeFerro

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I didn’t know Julia well.

The first time I saw her, she was sitting at the far end of the table around which our language class met. Although I knew the instructor, Chiara, it was my first day with this group of students who for years had gathered in Chiara’s dining room to discuss classic books in Italian.

That day I was the last one to arrive, and when I entered the room the group was already engaged in friendly pre-class conversation. As I took my seat, six pairs of eyes looked up at me, six mouths chorused “Piacere” with American twangs, and six hands reached across the table to shake mine.

But the person I noticed most was Julia, a trim woman about my age with a strawberry bob and a smile like a lamp.

Since I was new to the class, Chiara asked the veterans to introduce themselves: Filippo, Becca, Davide, Laura, Carla—all genial, interesting people who loved everything Italian.

But again, it was Julia who drew me. A psychologist with a PhD, she seemed warm, spoke Italian perfectly, listened to others with attention, as if they were the center of her world. Of all the members of the group, she was the one I hoped to make my friend.

Before turning to the novel we were reading, Elsa Morante’s La Storia, Chiara asked us students what we’d thought of our first assignment. Several confessed they had busy lives and for them the week’s reading was too lengthy—seventy pages requiring eight to twelve hours. But Julia said she’d had no problem—she’d even read ahead—having too few diversions in her life and too much time on her hands.

Really? A woman like her?

We discussed La Storia for a couple of hours. It focuses on the life of Ida, a Roman widow who carries many crosses: epilepsy, rape, single motherhood, a half-Jewish pedigree during World War Two, hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death of two young sons. Ida’s a very complex character, and Julia zealously engaged in our analysis of her. She seemed to identify with Ida, her voice becoming gentle whenever she mentioned her name.

When class ended, everyone stood up, that is, everyone but Julia, and a man I hadn’t seen before entered the room. “Ciao Roy,” the others said while packing their belongings. Tall, dark-haired, and slim, Roy nodded and smiled, then made a beeline to Julia. From her chair, Julia looked up at him, and from his height, Roy looked down at her. That’s when I first saw it: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

“You doing okay?” Roy said as pushed her chair from the table. “Yes,” she smiled. Then he slid his arms under her thighs, and with her shoulder leaning on his chest and her head resting on his shoulder, he tenderly picked her up, carried her out of the room, through the front door, and down the porch steps.

Outside, a wheelchair had been parked and Roy settled Julia in it, making sure she was comfortable. Then he wheeled her to a waiting car and slid her into the passenger seat. After stowing the wheelchair, Roy climbed into the car and sped way.

I was shocked. How could Julia be in a wheelchair? Such a smart, sparkling person. How unjust it seemed. No wonder she identified with Ida. She too carried a cross. No wonder she welcomed distractions. She was trapped in a metal chair.

Chiara told me her story. Julia and Roy had been married more than thirty years. They had met in a dance class in their twenties and become inseparable. They’d always led an active life, doing everything together—dancing, walking, running, watching movies, traveling in Italy.

But when Julia was in her fifties, her legs began to tingle. Over time they progressively weakened, becoming paralyzed. Her doctors diagnosed a syndrome that could potentially interfere with her breathing and eventually take her life.

Her case, though, wasn’t wholly hopeless. Many people with the same syndrome survive and recover completely. Since that could take weeks, months, or years, Roy and Julia were optimistic. Maybe she would be among the lucky ones.

Still, at the moment, Julia needed full-time care and Roy provided it. He bathed her, dressed her, fed her, did all the household chores. He carried her to the toilet, onto the airplane for vacations, and into Chiara’s house for class. And each time I saw her in his arms, I was moved by their obvious affection, the way she nuzzled against him, the way he rested his chin on her head.

How I wished I could wave a magic wand and cure Julia’s illness. How I wished I could see her stand and walk hand-in-hand with Roy.

But I didn’t have a magic wand. So I resolved to say a prayer for Roy and Julia at the base of the Cruz de Ferro when I walked The Way of Saint James.

The Way of Saint James—El Camino de Santiago—is a pilgrimage that began in the Middle Ages and remains popular today. Each year pilgrims from all around the world walk from points throughout Europe to reach the tomb of Saint James in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Some do it for sport, others for contemplation, others to pray for miracles. In September 2013 my husband and I were among the pilgrims. We began our walk in León, trekking 200 miles in twelve days.

Our first day ended in Hospital de Órbigo, a village with an arched Gothic bridge, our second took us to Astorga, a small city with a gorgeous Gaudí palace, and our third finished in Rabanal del Camino, a stone village with a tiny central square.

On the fourth day of our Camino, we rose before dawn and departed Rabanal. As we walked a country road beneath the moon and stars, I could feel the grade increasing, straining the backs of my legs. We were ascending the pass of Irago. Soon the sun rose lemon-yellow, revealing iridescent mountains, releasing the scents of heather and gorse.

We arrived in a village called Foncebadón. There, in the eleventh century, a hermit named Gaucelmo had built a hospital, hospice, and church for the pilgrims on the Camino, but these had fallen into ruins, which we passed as we left town.

By midmorning the day was growing hot, and we reached the Cruz de Ferro, a simple iron cross atop a thirty-foot, weathered, wooden mast that marks the highest point of the Camino. According to tradition, Gaucelmo had built the cross too.

The Cruz de Ferro is surrounded by a hillock of stones amassed through the years by pilgrims who perform a special ritual there. They bring a stone from their homeland, or one they’ve picked up along The Way, and add it to the hummock.

Each stone is symbol of a burden a pilgrim wants to leave behind before leaving the Cruz de Ferro and beginning life afresh. Some stones have messages written on them, others the names of towns or people. Some have paper notes or photos tied to them, others stuffed bunnies or bears.

I’d come prepared for this moment. From my backpack I sifted a pebble I’d brought from my garden at home. Holding it in one hand, I climbed the hillock of stones, which shifted and clinked beneath my feet. When I reached the base of the mast, I looked up along its length at the turquoise sky. There, high above my head, the iron cross glinted hazy in the sunlight making me squint my eyes.

I kneeled at the base of the mast, pressing my forehead on the wood. I thanked God that I had legs to walk and vowed to finish the Camino for Julia, whose legs no longer worked. I prayed for Julia’s healing, that she could soon leave behind her wheelchair, symbolized my stone. Then I placed my stone among the others, stood, and descended the mound.

There, at the bottom of the hillock, I saw a young woman and man who had just arrived. They were standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming although they were smiling, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. That’s when I saw it once again: reciprocal adoration, the fusion of two souls.

I didn’t know the couple’s story and I didn’t need to. For me, they were Julia and Roy, the way they’d been before the wheelchair, the way I’d prayed they’d be again.

I never told Julia or Roy about the Cruz de Ferro, prayer, or stone. I never tried to befriend them; the timing seemed all wrong. But I continued to go to Italian, each week more moved by their bond.

One day towards the end of class, Julia was commenting on a character when she began coughing and gasping. Her eyes protruded from their sockets, staring around at us in terror. Someone grabbed a glass of water, another took her by the shoulders and tried to calm her down, another seized a phone.

Roy arrived at that moment, and the rest of us moved to the sides. He crouched before his wife, looking straight into her eyes. He asked her to match his respiration—inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale—as husbands often do with Lamaze. Soon Julia was breathing, and Roy carried her away.

They never came to class again. Julia died, her breathing having failed her, six months after my Camino.

I don’t picture death, though, when I think of Julia and Roy. Instead, I see them standing, locked in an embrace, tears streaming as they smile, with the shadow of the Cruz de Ferro cast long on the grass beside them. The sun shining overhead, the wheelchair now discarded, they are free from their iron cross.

 

First published in Good Letters.

The Shroud of Turin (La Sindone)

SINDONEIf you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could speak for hours. Before I saw it in Italy one Easter, I read several books on it. So I could tell you the Shroud is a linen cloth, three feet wide and fourteen long, that’s marked with faint front and back images—like those of a sepia photo—of a man in burial pose.

Beginning at one end of the fabric and panning lengthwise towards the other, you can see the front of the man’s body: his ankles, shins, knees, and thighs; his hands shielding his groin; his stomach, chest, beard, and face; his tendriled forehead at mid-length.

From there, continuing on, you can see the man’s back: his hair gathered in a ponytail at the nape of his neck; his shoulders, buttocks, hams, and calves; his heels at the far hem.

You suspect the man’s been scourged. Blood-filled back and buttock wounds bring to mind a flagellation by a leather multi-thonged whip, lead pellets tied to tips. You deduce the man’s been crucified. Blood-crusted wrist and ankle wounds suggest an ancient crucifixion, iron nail shafts rammed though flesh and bone by pounding rough-hewn heads.

You theorize the man’s been crowned with brambles. Blood has trickled through his locks from myriad scalp and forehead punctures. You surmise the man’s been speared. Serum has puddled at his waist from a right-rib, lance-shaped wound.

So you guess, if you’ve read the Gospels, that the Shroud is Jesus’ burial cloth, the sudarium John and Peter found in their teacher’s vacant tomb. And you grasp why it’s the world’s most-guarded relic—displayed only once each twenty years—and why scholars debate its authenticity, some proclaiming it a miracle, others declaring it a fake.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could summarize its history. Some experts place it in Jerusalem in AD 33 and chronicle an almost gapless jaunt:

To Edessa in AD 34, where Christians hid it from vandals in the city’s stone surrounding walls, to Constantinople in AD 944, where the Byzantine emperor raised it banner-like in his palace church.

To Athens, Greece, in AD 1204, when Fourth Crusaders sailed into Byzantium and seized it with the empire’s Christian relics, to Lirey, France, in 1354, when a French knight took it for himself.

To Savoy, France, in 1453, when the knight’s heiress gave it to a duke in exchange for a country castle, to Chambéry in 1502, where the duke placed it in his royal chapel behind an iron grill.

There, the cloth remained, folded in a bolted, silver coffer, until a fire swept the chapel in 1532. Hell-bent to save the Shroud, two Franciscans doused the reliquary, summoned a smith to pry the hasps, unfurled and inspected the Shroud.

Melted silver had singed a folded corner. Water had seeped through the fibers. But except for a series of scorch marks burned through to holes at intervals, the image was unmarred, and Poor Clare nuns patched up the holes.

Then, in 1578, Milan’s cardinal planned a pilgrimage to the Shroud, so the cloth was moved to Turin, Italy, to spare him a hike across the Alps. Today, the Shroud remains in Turin’s Duomo, out-of-sight for decades at a time, in an airtight, bulletproof case.

If you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I could recount the scholarly debates. Despite the propositions of their colleagues, some historians dispute the Shroud’s existence before its debut in medieval France.

Radiologists endorse the naysayers—their carbon-14 studies date the cloth to the early 1300s; they claim the image and bloodstains are paint, a counterfeiter’s work. Forensic scientists support the yaysayers—they find no pigments on the fibers, just human blood and serum; they charge the radiologists with sampling a Poor Clare patch.

Textile experts back the devotees—they say the Shroud’s herringbone weave was prized in Caesar’s time and unused in the Middle Ages. Botanists agree with them—they say the Shroud is strewn with flower prints and pollen from Israeli mums extinct before medieval times.

But the nonbelievers are diehards, determined to prove the Shroud a fraud by reproducing it themselves: They’ve tried Byzantine tempera painting, medieval photography, printing bas-reliefs. They’ve attempted hot statue wrapping, line engraving, and vapography. They’ve tried fungal and bacterial methods, non-enzymatic browning, singlet oxygen techniques. They’ve undertaken fabric scorching, flash irradiation, and electrostatic fields.

Then came an aero-optics expert who thought he’d proved the Shroud authentic, settling the debate: his NASA image analyzer showed the Shroud plots a 3-D elevation of a tortured human male. But skepticism persists, although no technology we know of—no natural process, no artistic or photographic method—can make an image like the Shroud’s, one that plots 3-D.

So if you asked me about the Shroud of Turin, I’d have plenty to say.

But most of it is straw.

Because there’s something that leaves me speechless, something I didn’t read in books, something that didn’t strike me till I stood in the dark cathedral among a praying crowd and stared at the backlit Shroud suspended on a wall before me, so close I could have touched its fibers, the imprint, the blood.

That something is this: Jesus was a man, a man no bigger than my son, one man among the billions who have lived or ever will. And one spring evening long ago, he pulled his hair into a ponytail to prepare bread and wine for his disciples, as my son pulls on a favorite t-shirt to set out beer and nachos for his friends.

As if it were an ordinary evening.

But it wasn’t an ordinary evening; it was the last one of his life.

And when his mother saw his broken corpse, one she hoped to never see—as I hope to never see my son’s—she tossed a few chrysanthemums upon it, covered it with the Shroud, and left the tomb with her grief.

Then, when all was quiet, a flash of light, a flutter of fabric. An image to hold onto until eternity.

The Way of St. James (El Camino de Santiago)

IMG_1996_2My Uncle Jimmy died last fall at the age of ninety. Born in Sicily, he immigrated to New York when young and served in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was the husband of my aunt for sixty-one years, the frolicsome father of my two cousins, a regular part of my life until I married and moved away.

I can still see my uncle clearly as he was in January 1994. The way his brown eyes sparkled. The way his thick hair swept back from his forehead. The way he arm-wrestled my four-year-old son to laughter, easing tears caused by my father’s death.

That was the last time I saw my Uncle Jimmy. Almost twenty years ago.

On the day my Uncle Jimmy died, I didn’t even know that he was ill. He’d lived in Florida for two decades and I in Seattle for three. Through those years our correspondence was limited, consisting only of Christmas and Easter cards with a few scribbled pleasantries. Some years, even cards were lacking.

No, on the day my uncle died, I wasn’t at his bedside hugging him. Instead, I was in a Spanish cathedral embracing a very different Jimmy, not one of flesh and bones, but of gold-plate and jewels, the bust of Saint James, apostle of Jesus, whom Spaniards call Santiago.

According to Christian tradition, after Jesus’ resurrection, James traveled to the Iberian Peninsula to spread the Gospel. Upon returning to Jerusalem, he was beheaded, becoming the first Christian martyr. His acolytes carried his corpse to Palestine’s coast and placed it on an unpiloted boat that miraculously crossed the Mediterranean, passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, and landed on the shore of Spain among the fiord-like rías of Galicia.

In Galicia, the body was buried in a small shrine and the town of Santiago grew around it. By the twelfth century, an immense Romanesque cathedral had been built over James’ tomb and was attracting half a million pilgrims each year. People walked there from all over Europe, hundreds and hundreds of miles, crossing mountains, valleys, plains, and rivers, risking starvation, dehydration, injury, raids by bandits, death. For them, the pilgrimage was an enactment of the spiritual journey to God and the hardships were tests of faith.

Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually walk El Camino de Santiago, The Way of Saint James. Heads swathed from blazing sun, blisters bursting in boots, backs bent under packs dangling emblematic scallop shells, they now come from all around the world and include believers and non-believers alike. During the last two weeks of my Uncle Jimmy’s life, my husband and I were two of them.

The Way is very much like leapfrog. Though the most travelled route is 500 miles long and starts five miles from the Spanish border in the Pyrenean foothills of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, France, some pilgrims walk from farther points—Rome, Zagreb, Warsaw—others from spots nearer Santiago—Pamplona, Leon, Sarria.

All along The Way, pilgrims encounter each other, walk together for a distance, talk in spontaneous pidgins of English-Spanish-French-German-Italian. They lose each other at rest stops or to slow or quicken their pace, then rediscover each other at intervals of minutes, hours, days.  On the road, in restaurants, and in refugios, they bond through a cycle of challenges, triumphs, chow, chat.

We spied our first fellow peregrinos in an otherwise empty hotel breakfast room on the morning we set out from Leon. They were sitting at another table, a chic Spanish-speaking couple in brand new hiking gear. Finishing our pastries and coffees, the four of us stood, heaved our packs, smiled—neither my husband nor I speak Spanish—went outside and found the route. We walked neck in neck for hours. When the road split, we turned left and they turned right.

Two days later we recognized them in a restaurant in Rabanal, heard them speaking English to another couple, introduced ourselves. By the end of our conversation, we’d come to know them as Miguel and Liliana from Colombia. By Villafranca, we were dining with them, sharing insights on how to deal with blisters, manage backpacks, parent children, face midlife.

Likewise, in bits and pieces on The Way, we came to know Kyung Mi from Seoul, who clicked her walking sticks on gravel, offered me a parasol when the sun grew hot. And the group of students from the Catholic Newman Center at University of Washington, who early mornings shared the glow of headlamps and song-filled sunrise prayers. And Matteo from Genoa, who climbed a mountain pass with me, insisting I practice my Italian to distract me from my bleeding feet.

When pilgrims reach Santiago, they embrace in front of the cathedral. Strangers only weeks before, they now regard themselves as friends. Together they enter the cathedral and walk their last steps together up stairs that lead behind the altar. There they hug the gilded statue of Saint James, then descend to the Pilgrims’ Mass.

At Mass I gazed around me at hundreds of peregrinos, many now dear. People who had walked into my life, touched my heart, and would soon depart. People like so many others—my parents and grandparents, lost neighbors, colleagues, friends—who had once been marvelously present but had vanished due to distance, distractions, death.

People like my Uncle Jimmy.

I wanted to put my arms around them, all the people of my life. Those I’d known well and those I wished I’d known better. Those here and now. Those there and then. I wanted to hold them forever in a way that Facebook can’t.

Towards the end of the Pilgrim’s Mass, eight red-robed attendants launched the botafumeiro, a massive silver incense dispenser hung by a sturdy rope that swings an enormous arc across the church transept. At the first oscillation, the organ began to boom as every eye in the cathedral lifted to heaven with the fragrant smoke.

Then I understood. The Way doesn’t end in Santiago. And if we continue on it, loving those who cross our path, we can hope to be united with each other in God’s realm.

 

Photo by Vincent Samudovsky

Requiescat in Pace

l_btiAEUoAHAHKbCeJGive them rest, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine on them. The just will live in memory everlasting and will not be in fear of ill report.

Thus begins the Solemn Requiem Mass that some Roman Catholics say on All Souls’ Day, when the Church prays for the dead. Historically, the Catholic tradition grew from a Jewish practice first performed after a battle described in the Second Book of Maccabees.

According to the Maccabean story, so many faithful soldiers perished in the fray that their leader Judas fretted for their souls. Desiring to atone for their sins and ensure their resurrection, he took up a collection, amassing two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem. In a similar way, modern Catholics combine their prayers, hoping to expiate sins and usher souls from purgatory to heaven.

While the custom of praying for the dead is ancient, there was no official Catholic celebration until late in the tenth century, when a French pilgrim returning from the Holy Land was shipwrecked on a craggy island. There he met a hermit who told him of a chasm in the rocks through which continuously rose the groans of the suffering souls in purgatory.

From the fissure also erupted the intermittent curses of the demons that supervised the dead. These devils reviled the monks of Cluny, France, whose prayers were especially potent and were depleting purgatory’s ranks.

Prompted by the hermit, the pilgrim hurried off to Cluny and begged the abbot and brothers there to redouble their supplications so every soul in purgatory could stop suffering and pass to paradise. Thus, the second of November became All Souls’ Day, an annual day of prayer, a custom that spread throughout France and Europe, reaching Rome in the fourteenth century.

My church, Blessed Sacrament in Seattle, celebrates each All Souls’ Day with a Solemn Requiem Mass according to the Dominican Rite. The Mass is said at night in Latin and includes Dominican chanting and polyphonic hymns.

A black casket is placed upon the altar surrounded by six man-tall candles that burn throughout the rite. Inside the otherwise-empty coffin are the names of the parishioners’ deceased, hundreds and hundreds of names, among them those of my parents and grandparents and many others I have loved.

Also among the names is that of a priest, Father Tom Kraft. Tall, with salt-and-pepper hair, a jack-o-lantern smile and deep gray eyes, he said all the Masses I attended when I first joined the church. Every single Sunday, he talked and sang of God and placed communion in my hands with a grace that moved me greatly.

Still, I never said a word to Father Tom until his last second of November, when I wrote him a letter. Now, on every All Souls’ Day, I pray to always say I love you to the living, not wait to pray for the dead.

November 2, 2008

Dear Father Tom—

If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and there would be peace, and no poverty or illness, and you would be well.

But I don’t have a magic wand, which is why I started going to Blessed Sacrament the week after Easter this year, after a thirty-year almost-total lapse in church attendance. I chose Blessed Sacrament because I liked the bricks and steeple, and it’s close enough to walk there from my house.

What I found at Blessed Sacrament was more than bricks. I found music so soulful I ache, stained glass so lovely I fly, and a sweet, consistent community that sounds like they mean it when they shake my hand and wish me peace. They look right into my eyes and I look back.

I also found you, a priest who smiles and glows from the altar, like the prayers, songs, readings, and community all really mean something, and like God is actually up there, or even better, down here with us. And when I walk home each Sunday, the sky and flowers and leaves somehow seem more vivid, and the homeless make me bleed even more than they usually do.

It’s probably for this reason that I thought of you a few weeks ago. My son Sean is a sophomore in college who will defend just about anyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, social status, or sexual orientation.  The only people he doesn’t understand are those with religion.

As far as Sean can tell, God is an excuse for committing atrocities who allows people to go to church on Sunday, then spend the remainder of the week denigrating Arabs, Latinos, Asians, African-Americans, the poor, the disabled, and gays. To my son, religion is a show without interiority.

This, I think, was one of many reasons that the recent death of Sean’s friend Luke shattered Sean as it did. Luke was a good, caring person, and Sean kept on repeating that Luke didn’t deserve to die at age nineteen. Sean also didn’t want to believe that he’d never see his friend’s face again or hear his voice.

So I wished I could send Sean to you because I had a feeling you could open a window that would enable him to hope that someday he would see Luke, and maybe even God.  

I didn’t know when Luke died—I didn’t know until today—that you are fighting cancer, or that you have a CaringBridge blog-site with 911 letters and almost 25,000 hits, all expressing the same prayer—that you go on glowing from the altar. I can’t predict the future, but I know one thing for sure, one way or another you will.

I miss you, Father Tom.

Requiescat in pace.