Rocks are not the first things I’d think to bring on a 480-mile pilgrimage walk across northern Spain. Hiking shoes, dry-wicking shirts, sunscreen: yes. But rocks? Though not shown on any packing list, I would wager that many of my fellow pilgrims along the route to Santiago de Compostela (a journey popularly known as the Camino), are carrying their own rocks.
The rock is meant to symbolize all our fears, burdens, and expectations about our pilgrimage. Some pilgrims carry a rock from home. Others, learning of the tradition only after being on the trail, pick one up as they walk along. We won’t carry them to Santiago though. Along “The Way” there stands an iron cross. When pilgrims arrive at this cross, they leave at the bottom of it the rock they’ve carried — symbolically placing all their worries, fears, anxieties, burdens, and expectations at the foot of the cross.
Ten days before I left on my pilgrimage, I gathered friends and family together for a pre-Camino send-off. My friend Sr. Elizabeth Anne gave a blessing and then anointed my eyes, my hands, and my feet. I took some time to tell the group the history of the pilgrimage.
“This trail has been around more than a thousand years. St. Francis walked it; so did King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Even Shirley MacLaine, more recently.” Some chuckled at the variety in that group. “Back in the day, it was believed that the relics of St. James the apostle were buried at Santiago, but that has since been questioned. Today, people walk for various reasons.”
After my friends listened to my story, they asked some questions.
“Didn’t you mention something about rocks?” my friend Maureen asked.
I told the group about the aforementioned tradition. “And this is the rock I’m bringing,” I said as I pulled it out of my pocket and held it up between my thumb and index finger. It was a Fairy Cross. I had learned about them in North Carolina, where I’d dug this one up last fall. The cross-shaped rock is formed when two pieces of the crystal staurolite grow together. One legend explains that these crosses were formed from the tears angels cried upon hearing about the death of Christ.
I passed the rock around and asked everyone to take a moment and put their fears and anxieties in the cross, so I could take those with me and leave them at the foot of that cross along the Camino.
I then pulled a second stone from my pocket, a heart-shaped one a little larger than the first. “And this one is for your wishes and dreams and hopes. I’m not sure where I’ll leave this, but I’ll figure that out when I’m there.” The rocks made their way around the room.
I carried them over the next few days to meet with friends unable to attend the gathering. Sitting with my friend Dawn at a wine bar a few nights before I left, I told her about them. The guy next to us leaned in when he saw them and listened as well. He, too — a total stranger — prayed with them.
So, it is not only physical things that I carry in my pack, but also the collective burdens and dreams of all who are walking this journey with me from afar. By leaving those rocks along this pilgrim’s path, my hope is to lighten my heart and the hearts of those whose burdens — and expectations — I take with me.
What burdens, expectations, fears would you place in the stone cross were it in your hand? What hopes and dreams would you put in the heart-shaped rock? Whether you pray them silently in your heart or write them here, know that I am honored to take them with me.