I don’t know if you’ve been paying attention to what the Pope is up to lately. He’s talking with common people. Blessing non-Christians. Reaching out to those in prison. He’s eschewing the traditional glitter and pompousness of his role to talk about the poor, the role of women in the Church, and what it means to be a follower of Jesus. He’s doing it in such a humble way, in true service, that he has the attention of more than just devoted Catholics.
Many people I met on the Camino wanted to talk about the new Pope. Lapsed Catholics, spiritual-but-not-religious, and non-believers spoke of him with such astonished affection, you’d think he were the Dalai Lama or other sage with a pure heart.
On this particular day, The Pope was the last person on my mind. I walked through rain and snow up the highest peak of my entire walk. As I slogged through the frozen-ish mud, I had no idea yet that the day would be filled with warmth or song or another message from God.
In my “real life,” I can be a real stress ball, so this peacefulness of taking things one moment at a time was a huge shift for me. I just walked. Up through the wind. Up through blooming gorse and broom as far as the eye could see. Up past a distant peak illuminated by a single shaft of light. Snow. In May.
The pilgrims were on the national news that night, pictured walking through the snowfall. I could just imagine Spanish abuelitas sitting at home in front of the TV, saying Dios mio and crossing themselves, praying for our welfare.
After a long, cold uphill push, we arrived at the peak at O’Ceibreiro and were greeted to the sounds of laughter and screams. A snowball fight was in progress in the center of this idyllic little town.
My friend Louise from London (who I’d met in St Jean) got us a bunk in the enormous albergue municipal. We showered to get warm and did laundry to get dry. We went out for a late lunch and feasted by a roaring hearth. Heaven.
Later, I went off alone to see the fabled chapel in the village, Santa Maria la Real. It was calling to me. Its history is special because parts of it have been here since the 1100s when the Camino began. Many of the churches along the Way are locked, but this one welcomed me with wide open doors and candles lit everywhere. It was simple space, white walls, plain altar, and extra seating off to the right for adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
Mountain tops are known as places of insight in many traditions. Here I was, in the oldest chapel on the Camino on the top of the third highest peak of a 500 mile journey.
I sat in stillness and breathed deeply, and then I heard these gentle words, “God is bigger than this.”
My heart skipped and I blinked, uncertain that I had really heard it.
And then I knew: God is bigger than the building, yes. But God is also bigger than the rituals, bigger than the whole history of Catholicism, bigger still than our meager words to describe who and what God is.
I knew in that earth-shattering moment I would leave the Church for the second time. I had healed what I needed to heal. I knew in that instant that my spiritual journey would be outside established religion, at least for now, but that I would find God just the same and possibly closer without all the friction of Church doctrine. I could feel that powerful, loving presence with me.
I stumbled out into the cold, sunlight waning in the distant hills, and feeling at once both very alone but also at peace. I would discover God on my own terms. Or maybe His.
Which is why, all these months later, I keep thinking about this new and very different Pope. Instead of sinking into who a Pope should be, he’s dismantling the establishment and revealing a pure, spirit-focused, loving religion I have always longed for, but never found.
So my heart is still open. I’m still on the journey. I look forward to discovering how the Divine will speak to me next.