It has been raining pretty much constantly for the past two weeks in northern Spain. Possibly it has been raining longer, but before two weeks ago I wasn’t checking the weather regularly.
We pilgrims are prepared, as pilgrims are supposed to be: we have our Patagonia rain shells, our REI rain pants, Goretex hiking boots, backpack covers, and rubber ponchos. Medieval pilgrims walking the Camino may have had more opportunity for spiritual preparation, not having had to spend so much — or actually any — time worrying about, and acquiring, technical gear.
For them, walking in the rain would simply have been a trial to which they were resigned or even a form of penance. One of the traditional purposes of making a pilgrimage is to purge oneself of sins during the long, hard journey to the place where the Apostle James’ relics are said to lie.
Over the course of sixty-four years one can look back on a lot of sins depending on how hard you’ve tried to lead a good life and how well you can stand up to temptations you know you should avoid. So I’m going to focus on one recent sin I’ve committed, and it has to do with weather.
A few weeks ago I was scheduled to fly to Dallas from Tucson to visit a dear friend from my Madison days. Several years ago she and her husband moved to Dallas, and shortly afterwards Jim and I started spending most of the year in Tucson, so we have seen each other only a few times since. Last fall my friend had a major health scare, and though it looks like her surgery was completely successful, I wanted to visit her.
Now, March and April are the stormy season in Dallas, and the forecast for the week of my departure was not looking too promising, at least to me. I get very concerned when I see thundercloud icons on my weather apps: I’m a nervous flyer who always requests a seat by the window, where I compulsively scan the sky for aggressive-looking clouds.
As Thursday approached the local forecasts in Dallas got more ominous, and I called my friend to tell her that I hoped the weather wouldn’t interfere with my visit. But in my head I was already deciding not to go, and in fact I waited until the night before my flight on Thursday morning to pack my bag.
When I woke up the next day, my flight was still showing an on-time departure, though subsequent flights were already delayed; the storms were supposed to start later in the afternoon. So Jim took me to the airport and dropped me off. I went through security and sat down in the boarding area.
And then I took one final, fateful look at Weather Underground, which displayed an hour-by-hour row of tiny lightning bolts on Saturday, the day before I was to return, as well as storms all day Sunday and much of Monday. I wasn’t scheduled to leave Dallas until 5 p.m. What if my flight was delayed or cancelled? What if I spent much of my visit fretting about getting home?
I had wavered back and forth for days. Now they were announcing the start of boarding. I went up to the desk and informed the airline representative that I wished to cancel my flight, and then I sat down and called my friend and told her I wasn’t coming, that it just looked too iffy for my return. She was very gracious, and I told myself that since she had also entertained out-of-town friends the previous weekend, she was probably relieved not to have to take up yet another weekend with me.
Once I got home, Dallas became off-limits as a focus of weather interest, and when I talked to my friend a week later, she told me that I wouldn’t have had any problems getting out. And in any case, I could have stayed an extra day; it’s not as if I had professional appointments on Monday.
I had committed the sin of cowardice. Cowardice is usually thought of more as a character flaw than a sin, but in this case cowardice caused me not only not to love my neighbor as myself, but to fail to love even my friend above my dislike of dark clouds.
“It benefits me little to be alone making acts of devotion to our Lord, proposing and promising to do wonders in His service, if I then go away and when the occasion offers itself do everything the opposite,” writes St. Teresa of Ávila in The Interior Castle. Teresa would also have said that we ourselves are not courageous except as God gives us courage. But cowardice is all ours.
I’m not looking at the forecast for the day I leave for Spain. Of course, unlike the Dallas trip it would be considerably more drastic, in all sorts of ways, to back out of the pilgrimage because of trans-Atlantic turbulence or low visibility in Madrid. I don’t have to rise above my own irrational fears for this trip, or at least for its beginning. In short, in Teresa’s words it isn’t an “occasion” offering itself. But perhaps the weather along the Camino will remind me to stop using thunderclouds as a low and convenient ceiling on the house of my Self.