I haven’t written about my last day with Moritz. It’s because I’m still pondering the epiphany I had that afternoon.
Moritz was out of time so he needed to take a bus and skip 150 miles from Léon to Castromayor. Then he would have about a four day walk to Santiago. So I took a rest day and we just hung out in Léon—walked around, had several coffees and talked. Then we splurged on a really nice dinner in a café across from the Cathedral.
During that dinner a lightning bolt of realization hit me right between the eyes. It momentarily paralyzed me and then completely undid me. To understand, I have to take you back forty years ago.
I was a 26 year-old grad student traveling in Europe with my friend/mentor Neal Flanagan. He was a 65 year-old Catholic priest who’d had a serious heart attack and showed up in my cardiac rehab exercise class. He was a professor of New Testament at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. He was quiet and funny and immensely patient with my endless babble and evangelical theology. He also looked like Gregory Peck.
We began running together outside of class and I sometimes had dinner with him in the house in which he lived with other priests. I got to know his circle of friends and he got to know mine. He let me sit in on the classes he taught. On the weekends we ran 10K races together.
One time on a training run when I stopped to take a breath from my unceasing chatter he said, “It’s good that we run together because you like to talk and I like to listen.” He was that kind of friend that makes you wonder, “How did I get so lucky?” But it is only later that you realize that.
So it made perfect sense that the summer he went to Rome for a sabbatical, he invited me to visit him in the monastery there. So I did. He had spent many years in Rome and was an excellent tour guide. A Catholic priest and a grad student are on the same economic level: poor. So we did things that didn’t cost much money: ate our meals at the monastery and went out for gelato.
Beside exploring every fountain, church and ruin in Rome, we hopped around Pompeii, strolled through Köln and skipped around Brugge. We ate ice cream every day. This man, so patient, such a model of compassion and understanding put up with my judgmental theology except for one time when he said with quiet anguish in his voice, “I don’t believe what you believe.”
So forty years later I am with Moritz talking about the Camino when it suddenly hits me: this is the same situation I was in with Neal forty years ago. Except now I’m the “priest” and Moritz is the young grad student.
I wondered why I never saw that before and nanoseconds later understood that if I had realized it, well, then maybe I’d tried to be all “mentorish” and wise instead of just being myself. Honestly, in no way can I compare to Neal. I’m not a New Testament scholar, I don’t speak Aramaic or Italian or German—which he did. And I don’t look like Gregory Peck.
But there we were and suddenly I’m all teary and Moritz says, “Oh, no. I never know what to do when people have emotions.”
And I say, “Just be here. There is nothing for you to fix. Just sit here and let me tell you why I’m crying—as soon as I can stop crying.”
Then as soon as I stop crying I tell him about Neal. He got it—mostly. I think.
It’s all about passing it on. I’m not talking about passing on crappy experiences like when we hear ourselves sounding like our parents at their worst.
I’m talking about those precious experiences that you are sure are once-in-a-lifetime but I’m here to tell you—you can pass it on. The details may differ but the feeling, the grace, the miracle of it all is the same. I don’t think the opportunity is something we can reproduce. Maybe it is a blessing bestowed upon us.
I think about all the amazing moments in my life and wonder if I can pass them on and to whom? I don’t know—I just know that my eyes are open now.