Hot, huffing, and puffing, I was four days into my camino. Strangely enough, my knees were not bothering me nearly as much as I imagined they would, nor were my legs too sore, but I was dogged by blisters. And by the overstimulated exhaustion that can come about in the pursuit of a dream. Four days in, I was still a Camino Santiago neophyte without a clue.
Making it to the top of Alto del Perdon was no joke. It was not as steep as it was to get from St. Jean Pied de Port to Orisson, nor was as long and hard as it was to keep going uphill from there on the way to Roncesvalles. It was however hot! And again, those blisters. Ouchie. Anyway, making it to the top of Alto del Perdon was also a glorious moment – what a famous spot for those who know the Way of St. James! It is the place where the “the path of the wind meets the path of the stars.” In a word – magical.
Like most matters of faith, the high is often followed by a challenge. So consumed was I with getting up Alto del Perdon, I gave little thought to getting down. An essential camino lesson for me was this – going down is often far worse than going up. As we began our descent, my weariness gave way to an overwhelming anxiety with each footfall on the steep and rocky path. In fact, I felt certain that I might not be able to get down. I simply believed that I could not do it. And you know where that kind of thinking gets you.
In today’s Gospel from John, Nicodemus pays a visit to Jesus. At night. I love this imagery, poor old Nicodemus sneaking into see Jesus under the cover of darkness. It is a real struggle for Nicodemus to understand what it means to be “born again” and to be “born of the Spirit.” Here he is wrestling, like anyone who is inclined to being too literal, wondering how a “man once grown old” gets back into the womb to be born again. As usual, Jesus is trying to tell him. Jesus speaks to us in ways that leave us no place to go but deep into our hearts. Our literal and practical heads won’t allow us to understand, although our literal, practical – you know, our “realistic” heads – the ones that we value in the material world. Overvalue, it would seem. Nicodemus is basically saying, “Wait – what?”
Yesterday’s Gospel deal with a different kind of doubt in the story of Thomas. Thomas needed to “see” in order to believe. We do know this, he saw and whether or not he ever put his hand in Jesus’ side, he believed with immediacy. These stories follow one another for a reason, because wrestling with our faith periodically is essential for following Christ. A life of faith is not a “one and done” matter, it is a relationship that goes through many phases. Not all of them are easy.
Thomas’ belief comes with immediacy and power, but in his favor is the sight of the risen Lord. Nicodemus’ journey takes longer, when we see him publicly helping Joseph of Arimathea prepare Jesus for burial. There are many ways that a life of faith unfolds… Sometimes we see with clarity and light, other times we struggle onward in a swirl of fog and darkness, only later claiming our position in the light. These moments, like waves on a shore, roll in and roll out. Like the ocean, they are eternal. In or out, it is there. So is God.
Like my time in the light at the top of Alto del Perdon, I felt like I had made it! One and done! Hah! Delusion induced by exhaustion. I heard that things got flatter after Alto del Perdon, so I was ready! Did it not occur to me that going up would mean going down? And why did I believe I could scale this steep peak, yet doubt that I could get down? Looking down at the rocky, slippery path before me, I had my “wait – what?” moment!
Yet, one slippery, rocky, shaky footstep at a time, with help from my compañera Sue, I made it. With my blisters rubbed raw, with new ones erupting around the existing ones, hot, sweaty, dusty, and utterly decompensated in every way, my doubt persisted, but my feet kept moving.
Like Nicodemus, it took me awhile, but I got there. Later in the journey, when the hills and mountains reappeared, I feared them a little, but I never doubted that I would make it. These things take time, faith takes time. Sometimes it is strong and resilient, other times it seems tenuous and weak. That’s us – but Jesus, he is always with us, whether we realize it or not. For all of our “wait -what?” moments, he is ever present, saying “follow me, follow me, follow me.”