A Long Time Sighing.
My first Camino, the Via de La Plata was a great adventure and praying was easy; my second, the Camino de Levante was about learning to pray at all times and led into my Pilgrimage from Loyola (in the Basque country to Iona in Scotland) during which I encountered the “sigh”. This year the Ruta de La Lana was not even a “sigh”. It was an encounter with desolation.
The mysterious sigh
The sigh began as I walked up through England from Newhaven in the mediocre summer of 2011, I noticed that sometimes I had a huge sigh in my heart. It might escape as noise and nearly always I had a powerful physical heave from my chest as air filled and then left my lungs. To me this was a new experience and I would like to know if anyone else has this. There were some key times when this would happen, often at night before going to sleep or on awakening in the morning. I even had a sigh or two which awoke me at night. The feeling was not uncomfortable either physically or psychologically but seemed to come from a numbness within me and a profound inner emptiness.
Even when I reached Iona and might have expected a moment of elation after completing a double pilgrimage of over 3000km, all I had was my sigh. Often I wondered what it meant.
This was the pilgrimage which had begun with Theresa of Lisieux’s presence saying to me to “pray all the time”. Some five months later I was doing just that. Walking through France had been full of wonderful and grace-filled experiences. Now, in mid-England the going was hard and the sigh accompanied me.
When I finished the pilgrimage the sigh stayed with me in a much more “normal” life. For a year and a half it became my companion. That was until December 2012. Then in the morning meditation which I do every day with my partner (we listen together to Rezandovoy) I understood and embraced “the sigh”. It was all to do with Compassion.
Before the pilgrimage my partner had told me that I lacked compassion. I didn’t like being told this and even doubted its accuracy. Yet one thing I have learned is not to rely on my own description of myself, so I decided to add “compassion” to a prayer I often repeated as I walked, “Lord give me Faith, humility and trust”. I asked thousands of times, as I repeated this prayer, for Compassion.
One day during this long Camino I was reading an article, “Lessons in love and anger: Rima two weeks in May.” (an Article in Coracle, Iona Community, Spring 2011) and I was filled with Compassion. I noticed a completely new experience for me and knew right away that it was Compassion: it was pure.
Before that I did not know what compassion was! (I was 63 at the time.) I know about empathy and sympathy and sadness and capturing someone else’s sorry state as a sadness of my own, but I had no idea about compassion. This was passion, pure and simple, without any anger or ego: it was an outpouring of love. Compassion and love go together because compassion is always a prelude to love. (Love has many preludes.) It was at this point that I had caught “the sigh” but I didn’t make the connexion.
This gift of compassion has changed me deeply and enabled me to to go back to people I have hurt and ask for forgiveness without defensiveness or being full of justifications for what I did. Compassion has let me see and, in a very special way, be one with the suffering of the other, even though I do not have that suffering. It is communion. Compassion has been an essential grace for me in reconciliation, especially with some of my family.
Understanding “the Sigh”.
During that December morning meditation I was full of compassion. I expect it began with a gospel reading: I can’t recall. “The Sigh” rose up in me and my outgoing breath joined, it seemed, with the last sigh let out by Jesus at his crucifixion and with all the sighs of suffering humanity. The sigh came out of emptiness, through Compassion and into total communion with all who are brought down with suffering,
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” Rom 8.26