As some of you know, I have just returned from walking a portion of the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrim route (or, more accurately, routes) that lead to Santiago de Compostella, which is supposed to be the burial site of St. James the Greater, one of the twelve disciples who walked the dusty roads of ancient Judea with Jesus. The Camino is made up of “stages” (daily walks) ranging between thirteen and eighteen miles, which you walk carrying your possessions in a backpack. If you are smart, you try to put as little as possible in that backpack, and to make it as light as you possibly can.
The start of Day Four began in fields of wheat, interwoven with poppies like bright orange gems. As we walked, we began to approach a high mountain, limned on top with wind turbines, spinning beneath a half-moon that would not set. The path turned into a steep ascent that opened breathtaking views of field, rolling hills, and the mountains we had already crossed. It occurred to me that we were hiking through paradise — or would be, if it were not for the weight of those darned backpacks. Then it occurred to me (walking makes philosophers of us all) that I could say the same thing about life: we are walking through Paradise — this great world that God has given us, these people God has given us — and so often we can’t see it, because we are weighed down by heavy burdens of our own choosing , both the ones we have picked up ourselves, and the ones others have imposed upon us, but which we have not figured out how to lay down.
I do not know the mind of God, but I’m fairly sure that caring for one another was not meant to be one of those burdens. It was meant to be a gift: the way we participate in our divine nature, becoming like the God who showers his gifts indiscriminately upon his children, giving sun to the rich and to the poor, and sending rain upon the righteous and to the unrighteous alike. (Matt 5:45) And yet, recent events in our country suggest to me that we have lost our sense that our neighbors are gifts. We patrol our neighborhoods with weapons, waiting to strike down the interloper. We refuse to allow undocumented children easy access to our universities, depriving ourselves of the gifts that they would bring to our society and our economy. Most recently, we have even failed to renew the SNAP program, taking bread out of the mouths of millions of men, women, and children who cannot, in this jobless recovery, find work that will enable them to meet their basic needs.
Years ago, Milan Kundera wrote of “the unbearable lightness of being.” He juxtaposed the way we often see one another as burdens with what he considered the true existential crisis: the vertiginous terror of not being bound to one another at all. He writes, “The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man’s body.The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life’s most intense fulfillment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become. Conversely, the absolute absence of burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant. What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?”