From stone to flesh
Weeks before departing for my Holy Week Camino pilgrimage in April, I am out for one of my practice walks. Bundled into layers of winter clothing, I cross through muddy, grayish-tan grass crusted partly by winter's snow melting into the thawing ground. It is Lent: the season of awakening, of emergence, of spring. I am training my body and spirit for the discipline of pilgrimage, while the body of earth does the tough work of thawing and bursting seeds into new vulnerable life.
Between trees and highway I roam, my glance moving up and down from the soil to the sky. My pace quick, something catches my eye, but I don't realize what it is until I am several steps ahead. I gasp, pause and slowly step backward. What is this next to my toes? There, poking out of the mud, I see a heart. A heart shaped not from melting snow but stone. Amused by the Lenten call to conversion, I grin and think of Scripture.
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you;
I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
During the Camino, I made the effort to be fully present to each moment, to enter into the Holy Now. With my attention more rapt to the world around me, every sight, smell and sound seemed more vibrant and crisp.
I vividly remember the first moment I was overcome with amazement during the journey. Toward the end of the first day, I had been walking alone for a time, with no other people in sight. In that part of Spain, spring was in full bloom. The afternoon sunshine was warm and bright. I was moving down a hill toward the coastal village, rounding a corner along a quiet country road. I walked under trees full of white blossoms, arching over the path. As I made my way through, a perfect breeze moved the trees and snowed white petals upon the path and me. The sweet aroma of the flowers was so thick in the air that I could practically taste the goodness. In that moment, God's love was a full sensory experience.
And that was only the first day. It seemed as if the wonder and awe increased exponentially within my heart as the journey continued. Faith was redefined. Each experience of beauty seemed to send my heart leaping higher into the galaxy.
As I walked all those miles, my body ached and exhaustion was intense, but the gorgeousness of God's creation became a motivation to keep moving forward. Morning mist decorating valleys. Calla lilies growing next to a brightly painted wall. The angle of the twigs and leaves lying together. Cows quietly munching in pastures. The firmness of ancient stone crosses along the road, connecting us to past and future pilgrims. The shimmer of streams. Trees draped with light in such a way that the leaves seemed to glow.
After our five days of walking had come to an end, I found myself reflecting on how the pilgrimage had transformed me. I wondered if my stony heart had become flesh, if I was more in tune with God. Besides an increase of awe for God's goodness, how else had I been transformed?
Before I left for the pilgrimage, I wondered what was stony in my heart, what was in need of conversion. Perhaps it was as simple as the fact that my mind and heart are just so occupied, so full, that being open to God's awesomeness in each moment, in the Holy Now, can seem almost impossible.
Like many of my peers in religious life, my calendar is clogged with long lists of tasks, meetings virtually and in person, and opportunities to serve and give input on local and national levels. When we try to schedule meetings between us, the sentiment is repeatedly expressed that we're ridiculously busy, that we're all stretched too thin. Since we younger sisters are such a rare species in the church, it seems that everyone is eager for our gifts and involvement. How well can we serve and be present if so much is being demanded and expected of us? How do busy schedules impact our vocation to live contemplatively, to tune into God in the Holy Now?
I don't have any answers, and I recognize that this is not a new conundrum in the annals of Catholic sisterhood. I know that many others could tell similar stories of their own overfull lives. But I think that if I hid the fact that my packed life hardens my heart, everything I am writing here would lack integrity.
Certainly, this is not a dynamic that is unique to those of us who are young, or those of us in religious life. It is a messy dimension of the modern world, especially for those of us who are people with privilege. Still, my heart could be calloused by my schedule. You can ask the sisters I live with: I hate praying for patience. There's no space for patience in my schedule.
After we walked the Camino, I found myself reflecting with my friend, another pilgrim, about how we had been transformed by the journey. Our feet hurt and had taken on new form; they didn't feel like our own. Our muscles and energy felt stronger. We felt capable of doing what we had formerly considered impossible. Oh, and I think I am more patient now, too, I offered. I agree! We laughed together, but then I felt a little embarrassed by her too-enthusiastic response. I wondered, worried: How impatient do I seem most of the time? How obvious to others is this particular hardness of my heart?
I've been home from the Camino for two months now, two very full months, largely packed with the work of completing a master's degree. At times, the piles of books and the demands of studying have gotten me so densely inside of my head that I have to remind myself to breathe deeply, to feel my feet upon the ground, to look up and connect with people in the same room.
Immersed in my typical tasks once again, a humdrum of living now hovers. Has the wonder that was exponentially increased on the Camino been watered down? Has my heart become re-hardened and calloused to the wonders I encounter each day? I hate to admit it, but some ugly feelings of irritability have returned, invading the gratitude I'd like to be my guidepost.
Nowadays, on short walks between activities, I have to muster up intentionality and mindfulness. Look at the green life around you, Julia. Listen to the birds. God is with you right now, pay attention! Over and over, I must alert my mind and heart to the vibrant colors of creation, to widen my view so I can see what is true.
The truth is that we all are pilgrims; we all are on a journey through life. As we travel, the presence of God invites each of us to connect with what's holy, so our stony hearts can become enfleshed with wonder.
As Phil Cousineau tells us in The Art of Pilgrimage, "Every traveler can transform any journey into pilgrimage with a commitment to finding something personally sacred along the road."
That muddy Lenten day, the sacred item I found along the road was a heart of stone. Now, I am praying that my heart is softened by patience and attentiveness to God's wonders, no matter what makes my days full.
[Julia Walsh, is a Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration, a retreat presenter and a blogger who can be found online at MessyJesusBusiness.com.]