The Corona virus has changed so many things here in Seattle: how we worship, who we see, when we travel, what we buy, where we gather. Don’t shake hands. Don’t touch your face. This virus has invaded so many aspects of our lives. It has even infiltrated my memories of the Camino de Santiago.
I think it is true that there are no pure memories. They are always filtered through the lens of the present. But I was shocked when earlier this week I was momentarily horrified at an experience I hold as precious.
Moritz and I started off early one morning feeling energized and light-hearted. The sun was rising behind us lighting the path ahead. Starting early always gave us the feeling of owning the day before anyone else got to it—like buying a brand new car instead of a used one.
We had not gone very far, maybe just a couple hours when we came upon a drab looking little church. Honestly—there was nothing attractive about it at all and I am not sure what exactly drew us to it.
We quietly walked in. (This may seem obvious but I can’t tell you the number of times I saw people entering a church while yakking on their cell phones or shrieking about their blisters.) It took our eyes a couple minutes to adjust to the darkness. Here is what I remember: there were candles and crude wooden benches; an altar with a crucifix hanging above it. We had seen so many churches similar to this—but. This was different. Moritz did not pull out his camera. I did not walk up the aisle to get a closer look. We both just stood there.
I felt a presence behind me. Moritz must have felt it too because we both turned around at the same time and came face-to-face with two teeny-tiny nuns. So tiny. I am half Spanish myself and come from a family of very small women. I am the tallest of them and I am only five foot two. There is a wedding photo of six-foot-four-inch Wes leaning down to kiss one of my Spanish aunts and he looks like one of those Drinky Birds bending down for a sip of water. That’s how short she was. These nuns were even shorter.
They both wore black veils, plain gray blouses and skirts and sensible black shoes. Little bits of gray hair peeked out around their faces.
I knew Moritz was right beside me but suddenly it was as if it were only this little nun and me. She took my hands in hers and looking into my eyes earnestly began to pray. I knew it was a prayer because after she made eye contact she bowed her head. So I bowed mine too.
“Amen,” she said. Then she reached into her pocket and pulled out a gold medal stamped with the Virgin Mary. It was hanging on a single thin piece of string. She put it over my head, then cupped her hands around my face and spoke again. I bowed my head and she reached up and kissed me.
Although I didn’t understand a word she said, I responded, “Gracias, muchas gracias,” because I knew she had given me something. My mind didn’t understand, but my heart did.
We walked out into the bright sunlight, both Moritz and I were furiously blinking and trying to choke back sobs. We examined the little medals around our necks and silently fumbled for our sunglasses. We were Pilgrims and we knew we had just been blessed.
A few moments later a young woman came out and she too, was wearing a medal around her neck. I recognized her as Andrea, an Argentinian woman we had met a few days before. I didn’t even realize she had come into the church.
“Andrea, buenas dias! What did the nun say?”
Andrea gave me a big grin but I could see that her eyes were shiny with tears. “She pray for you. She pray you find—what you look for. She pray for the pilgrim. Then give you a blessing—God is with you.”
“Gracias,” I said. That was pretty much what I thought and what I felt.
Neither Moritz nor I took any photos because the moment felt too sacred. It would be like watching Jesus raise Lazarus and saying, “Hey, Jesus—quick pic! You and Lazarus—let’s get one with the grave clothes—hold ‘em up! Now the sisters—Mary, Martha, big smiles! Once more—right here!”
So no photographic evidence but the memory of that encounter is vivid and alive.
In light of all the Corona virus precautions what jumps out to me is, she took my hands in hers, cupped her hands around my face, she reached up and kissed me. Not a drop of hand sanitizer in sight. I refuse to let the present danger infect my past experience. I won’t allow fear to color the memory of that holy moment.
I’ll continue to claim her blessing, God is with you.