I’m not suggesting for a moment you need to walk to the top of a mountain to find God. I’m just saying that, for me at least, it helped. I stood on this particular mountain-top on April 27th 2013. I stood alongside seven of the most beautiful people in the world. And, I stood in the presence of something else.
But in order to make sense of this story, I should backtrack in time a couple of weeks to Sunday April 14th. This was the day my pilgrimage to Santiago began. I took the ferry with my wife from Plymouth to Santander, and then we walked with full backpacks for 500 miles across Spain. We hiked through wooded valleys, powered across open-ended plains, and struggled along high and narrow mountain paths. We passed through villages with remote rural chapels, saw towns with subdued Romanesque churches, and encountered cities with glorious Gothic cathedrals.
We walked through idyllic blue-sky-sun, and battled driving wind and penetrating rain. We even had snow. So it was shorts and T-shirts one day, thick wool hats and thermal tights the next. And as you might imagine, when you encounter other pilgrims who are experiencing the same blistered feet and witnessing the same extraordinary sights, you quickly make friends. Really close friends with really tight bonds. And that is exactly what happened to us.
So by the time we reached the Cruz de Ferro on April 27th, the mountain where everything finally fell into place, we had formed a kind of fellowship with several others. We had bought a guitar a few days earlier, and had carried it between us during the day, and played it between us during the night. Many songs had been sung and many memories had been shared. The power of music and song is a real gift when circumstances are difficult. And believe me, the Camino is not easy.
So I’m standing on top of the mountain, and the eight of us, all members of the newly formed Camino band, are holding hands in a circle. We’ve all carried stones on our journey, and there are names written on these stones.
I hold my stone tightly. My mother, my late father, my dear friends Rob and Kathryn from this very church are among those names. A fellow pilgrim called Jacob offers some words, and the chain of hands is undone as we place our stones on the ground, a custom that has been followed by other pilgrims for centuries.
And then it happens. I’m already crying of course, as are others, but normally I can regain my composure in such emotionally charged situations. Usually I can stop crying. But not this time, not today.
Before I go on, I should explain that I’ve spent many years wrestling with the arguments for and against the existence of God. I’ve been interested in the philosophical argument on both sides, and I’ve read many books and listened to many debates. I have spent years sitting up awake at night, alone with a glass of wine, testing the arguments in my mind.
Before walking the Camino I’d already concluded that the God hypothesis was more credible than the non-God hypothesis. I was confident I could argue this case against even the most aggressive of the new atheist proponents. But my belief in God was based on reason, not faith. I’d got there through a slow and reflective process grounded in reason alone. Faith was not part of the equation. Until that is, I stood with friends on top of this mountain. My faith arrived hard and fast. It hit me so hard in fact, that I felt the need to move away from my friends to sit alone on the grass. And how I cried. I cried for maybe thirty minutes or so, but I wasn’t just tearful. I was blubbing. I was emptying all the lingering doubt that had up until that moment remained in my mind. And let’s be honest here, I was asking for forgiveness for all the many sins I knew I had committed in my life.
You see on that mountain, God cut through everything. He cut through the need for possessions. Possessions are a burden when you walk up a mountain. They weigh you down, they hold you back. He cut through pride and vanity. There is nothing to be vain about on top of a mountain. There is only humility, only the recognition of how small we actually are. He cut through feelings of hatred, greed and envy.
The only thing that mattered to me up there was love. Love of my fellow pilgrims who stood a few feet away, many of whom were also in tears. Love of the other pilgrims who were a bit further back or a bit further forward on the track. Love of humanity, frankly. God cut through it all. All the clutter, all the material distractions we face in our day-to-day lives, it all fell apart, in an instant. I’m tempted to use the term Big Bang. And of course, like the Big Bang, it can’t truly be reasoned. No doubt people will try. The neuroscientists will attempt to reduce the feelings I experienced on that mountain to basic chemistry and the evolution of stardust. The atheists will call me deluded.
But I know what happened on top of that mountain. And I have faith in that knowledge.