Carrying the pain of others: reviving an ancient journey

Monsignor Tony Doherty

To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling, asks Tony Doherty.

BY Tony Doherty*

At first blush, the concept seemed frankly medieval. An idea left behind centuries ago. Not just pre-Vatican II but pre-Lutheran. Quaint theology but tinged with medieval superstition, with more than a whiff of magic and money.

The idea – a pilgrim setting out to walk the famous Camino de Santiago carrying on her back an unusual cargo – a load of other people’s sins (for a small monetary consideration). This followed the best traditions of medieval believers who paid others to carry their sins to such sacred sites as Santiago, and so buy forgiveness. Not surrogate parenting, but surrogate reconciliation.

An Australian writer, director and actor, Ailsa Piper took on a 1,300 kilometre pilgrimage walking continually for about 45 days through storms and cold, across the rough and the smooth (this woman is no slouch) to the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostella.

Before leaving home, Ailsa published the quirky invitation: “I will walk off your sins. Pilgrim seeks sinners for mutually beneficial arrangement. Proven track record. Tireless. Reliable. Seven deadlies a speciality”.

In our so cool and sophisticated, post-modern culture could such an arcane invitation work? “…yes, people gave me their sins. From the first day, there were confessions, even some from strangers who’d heard of the quest.”

Hang about! Confession of ‘sin’ has been replaced has it not by more contemporary and non-judgemental counselling procedures – or have I been out having lunch somewhere?

But confessions they were – genuine admissions of sin from half-believers, once-upon-a-time believers, even acknowledged atheists. Always heartfelt, often unnervingly disclosive. “I have slept with my best friend’s husband. Not once but four times.” The ‘penitents’ left the impression they were just aching to deal with previously undealt with material.

Taking the project quite seriously, the writer-pilgrim would read the load of sins she was carrying religiously each morning, like some monastic chapter of faults. Her own struggles and sins became part of the daily examination. The honesty and integrity of the author’s description of this process is expressed with uncommon sensitivity and indeed sacredness. At some quite deep level it made totally good sense.

The book, Sinning Across Spain (Victory Books, Melbourne, 2012), tells the story in graceful and stylish voice which at times becomes quite lyrical.

The ‘Camino’ is in the news these days, thanks to Emilio Estevez’s splendid film The Way, the story of a father who, faced with the death of his son killed while attempting the pilgrimage, decides to do the walk carrying his box of ashes to Santiago and eventually the sea. The Piper story and the Estevez film contain a fascinating common thread – carrying a heavy load on the journey: the ashes of a son’s life and the wounds of other people’s lives.

Unburdening oneself of some personal load is an ancient practice on the Camino. At the highest point of the path to Santiago, on top of one of the most challenging hills, there stands a large iron cross. For centuries pilgrims have carried stones, more frequently not much more than we would call ‘gibbers’, often wrapped in paper on which is written a prayer or perhaps a promise. The stones would represent some guilty memory, some emotional wound, perhaps unhealed grief. It might represent a relationship sorely in need of repair or a renewed commitment to the future.

More enthusiastic pilgrims will bring several stones representing the struggles of those left behind at home. Some might choose instead of a stone a symbolic item which better represents what they want to leave behind. The genesis of the Piper invitation, to carry somebody else’s load of sin, probably finds its inspiration in this ancient practice.

Does it make sense? You’d better ask a weary pilgrim struggling up the hill with their heavy swag.

If I may intrude a personal story. Several years ago while walking the Camino I was at the ‘iron cross’ and there on top of the centuries-high pile of stones were two pink baby’s shoes tied together by their laces. I couldn’t get them out of my mind. What did their presence mean? No explanatory note. A pile of symbolic items as untidy as a garage sale. Left there undoubtedly as silent witness of some family tragedy. Hemingway was once famously challenged to write a short story in six words. His story: “For Sale. Baby shoes. Never used.”

So here’s the twist. To what extent are we willing to carry the pain of others? In a Church which claims to be a supporting community of believers, how do we give hope, in some genuine fashion, to someone whose life is fast unravelling?

For Catholics, facing with horror the shocking events of child abuse and sexual manipulation, how do we stop from drowning ourselves? One familiar response is denial. “It can’t be happening.” “Just a few rotten apples.” Another response is angrily scapegoating whatever easy target comes to mind, or the rather shamefully pulling the blankets over our heads and pretending it will go away.

Ailsa Piper’s strategy might hold a valuable clue. Are we strong enough to carry the pain of others – say, the victims of this terrible abuse? Or an even more unspeakable possibility – to carry a little of the disgrace of those seen as responsible.

Sinning across Spain asks the question: how really connected are we? It is a powerful and tantalising question.

* Monsignor Tony Doherty, a priest of the Sydney Archdiocese, is pastor of two Sydney parishes, Dover Heights and Rose Bay. His lifetime search is to find an appropriate language of faith for contemporary adults. He also admits to being a little addicted to walking pilgrimages.

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The Good Oil, May 15, 2012. If you would like to republish this article, please contact the editor.

One Response to “Carrying the pain of others: reviving an ancient journey”

  1. Alison Gatt says:

    Wow!! A question we could all do well to ask ourselves each day, not unlike the Good Samaritan.

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