Cruz de Ferro

In 2012 I attended a three day spiritual retreat. At the end, the leader prepared an altar in the middle of the room with several small stones. He asked each of us to pick a stone as a way of remembering what we experienced during the retreat and to talk about what the stone meant. Things clicked inside my head.

A few months before I had seen the movie "The Way" and was deeply affected by the scene at the Cruz de Ferro (Iron Cross) on the Camino Francais. Pilgrims place a small stone or other object on the mound at the foot of the cross to ask a blessing or as a symbol of leaving their burdens or sins behind.

As I sat in the room at the spiritual retreat I knew I was going to walk the Camino and realized that the spirits were asking me to pick a stone from the altar and carry it to the Cruz de Ferro. One afternoon, less than a year later, I walked up from the little town of Foncebadon to the hill that looks down on the Cross. My heart was pounding.

When I walked to the mound that holds the Cross I assumed other pilgrims would treat the shrine as a sacred place and observe the sanctity of the ritual. I was upset and shocked to find that pilgrims were walking all over the mound, blindly stepping on the sacred stones left behind by others. After awhile I calmed down and began to suspect I was missing something. I walked up to the top of the mound and was overcome by the number and diversity of the objects that were lovingly left behind. Each pilgrim had chosen their own way to ask for a blessing whether it was a simple little stone, a picture of a loved one, a pair of boots, a prayer, a friend's name painted on a stone, a ribbon tied to the post or a pair of discarded crutches. I realized my expectations were way too formal and restricting. This was how pilgrims participated in their own spiritual path, with all its diversity and creativity.

It is amazing that the story of the Cruz de Ferro is clouded in history. Even the signs on the site state that no one can determine for sure when the cross was placed there or why. And it doesn't matter. It is not there to preserve some ancient ritual. It is there so that each pilgrim can look within themselves at that moment when they see the cross in the distance.

It was a profound, emotional experience for me. I placed my small stone on the mound and asked the spirits to help me release many of the burdens I had accumulated over the years.

I noticed one of the signs at the site recommended that the size of the stone should be proportionate to the amount of your sins. There were some pretty heavy rocks on the mound. And my rock was pretty small in comparison. If I walk the Camino Francais again, how heavy will the rock be that I bring with me?

I walked up to the Cruz de Ferro again the next morning and felt the presence of the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pilgrims that had walked past the cross before me and the power of what their combined prayers and blessings had created.

Pictures of the Cruz de Ferro

Iron Cross, Foncebadon
Cruz de Ferro
Iron cross
cruz de ferro, iron cross


May 11, 2013 (email to my sister)

The stone now lies beneath the Cruz de Ferro. I made a push to walk up to Foncebadon today. It's only 2 kilometers from the Cruz de Ferro and I figured that would give me more time at the Cross without feeling hurried. Then I read this morning about the death during the America's Cup trials and it really upset me. So as soon as I was settled into the albergue, I walked up to the Cruz de Ferro.

I shed some tears and said a prayer. What I wasn't prepared for were the hundreds of messages wrapped around the base of the pole, or the crutches, or the hundreds of little stones with names and prayers painted on them. I tried to say a prayer for all of them.

Foncebadon is a tiny little town at about 5,000 feet and their only real business is serving pilgrims. I'm writing this from a little bar as I drink a beer (one of the essential food groups on the Camino) and swallow down an ibuprofen.



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