In July of 1993, I struck up a conversation with a young man from a former Soviet bloc country who was walking the ancient pilgrimage route from Paris to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. We found ourselves drinking hard cider in a small village on the Camino, sitting peaceably in the slanting light from a setting sun outside one of the huts where you have your pilgrim’s passport stamped as you complete each leg of the journey.
He told me that this was the first time he had been out of his country since the Communists were deposed three years earlier. In fact it was the first time he had ever been allowed to leave. He had been a devout Christian in hard circumstances all his young life, and so he had decided to go and give thanks for his new freedoms by making an arduous trek to one of the holiest sites of medieval Christendom. He had been walking for weeks, and was at that moment only a day or two away from his longed-for destination.
I knew the shrine city of Santiago fairly well, but he knew it only from a couple of tourist postcards and a black and white photo in an old encyclopedia. I asked him what he expected to see when he arrived, and he proceeded to give me a detailed, emotional description of the heights above the city where one gets a first glimpse of it; the pilgrim’s gate through which exhausted pilgrims rarely walk, but nearly always run; the vast cathedral plaza where, upon entering, they throw down their walking staffs and backpacks and, despite their exhaustion, form spontaneous circles and dance to drums and bagpipes, drenched with the fine drizzle that dependably falls in Galicia.
My new friend got nearly every physical detail wrong; but the shaping impact of the vision that had formed in his heart when he was younger, the panorama of hope that had spread itself out in his soul when his destination was still impossibly far away, the hope that had sustained him all his life – all of that was precisely accurate down to the last tear that fell from his eye.
I don’t know if he made it all the way to Santiago de Compostela. I would bet good money that he did, but somehow it would have been all right if he had not, because in a profound way he had long since arrived. Before the walls fell and the tyrants too, he had already been en route; he had been running through that gate and dancing; he had already feasted his eyes of faith on the twin spires emerging from the Galician mist.
He made me think of Moses on the heights, looking over the river to the promised land. He too did not really need to see the Promised Land God showed him from the mountaintop: had he died before that vision, it would have been all right. Moses already knew it by heart. And that vision of what life might be—and in some sense, already was—was the source of the peace, joy and courage he needed to live fully every day and to die contentedly, trusting God.
That young man made me think of my own life too, and to ask myself, as I trust we all do sooner or later: What great hope is alive in me, as I sojourn in wilderness? What freeing vision sends me out on quests and pilgrimages? What gleaming city do I visit in my heart that is beautiful enough to lend shape to a life worth living, even if, walking towards it every day, I never arrive at its lofty golden gates?