He certainly doesn’t expect to walk this road with his son’s ashes strapped to his back.
Thomas Avery didn’t expect life to turn like this. But it did. And when he finally opens himself to it, he’s changed. Isn’t that always the way?
On the first anniversary of my mom’s death, I snuck an order of sweet potato fries into the movie theater to see “The Way,” the 2010 film about Thomas Avery, a father who travels across the ocean to claim his son’s body after his tragic death, and then, chooses the unexpected: he walks the Camino de Santiago in his son’s stead. “The Way” was written, produced, and directed by Emilio Estevez, and stars his dad, Martin Sheen. Estevez appears in the movie as well. He’s Daniel, the son who dies, whose cremains the father carries, and sprinkles handfuls of along the Camino. Going to see that movie, on that day of all days, seemed like the thing to do because if my mom had been alive, we would’ve seen it together. My mom adored Martin Sheen. (Can’t Jeb Bartlett run for President?) And Emilio Estevez? Well, I’ve loved Two-Bit Mathews and Andrew Clark since I was a tween. (For those of you not up on your 80s teen flicks, those are characters Estevez played in “The Outsiders” and “The Breakfast Club,” respectively — two of my favorites.) That night, in 2010, the fries spilled all over my purse, the movie made me cry, and honestly, I didn’t understand entirely why. (About Mom’s Death)
I decided to re-watch “The Way” a couple of weeks back. Like “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas, this movie is a seasonal must-see. It’s a Lent movie that’s notaboutLent itself, but whathappens to uswhen we go where Lent invites us. Side road: Lent is the 40 day period – not including Sundays – that begins with the ancient ritual of donning our foreheads with ashes on Ash Wednesday and ends with the over-the-top, life-affirming, death-will-not-have-the-last-word celebration that is Easter. There’s something about the Lenten journey that changes us: new life is born out of pain when we really, truly walk through it. Think of it like that old camp song, “Going on a Bear Hunt”: can’t go around it, can’t go over it, can’t go under it, gotta go through it. It’s the going through it that becomes transformational.
It’s the “gotta go through it” path that Thomas Avery chooses. He could’ve just shipped his son’s body home, buried his son and all their father-son mess with him, and gone back to his routine, a routine that includes ignoring his grief about his wife’s death. But he wakes the coroner of a tiny French village in the in the middle of the night to say, “I want to cremate the body,” then he wastes no time. The next day, he begins the walk. As we watch him go, clumsily at first and far too fast, we see glimpses of our own journeys. I did, at least, and that’s when this movie started to make sense in a way it didn’t the first time round. We’re never prepared to dive into life’s pain. “The Way” calls to mind the unexpected trips we’ve made, how life can take sudden, sorrowful turns. In the faces of Avery’s companions, we recognize people we’ve met, and how sometimes, surprisingly, strangers become trusted sojourners. As we watch Avery haul his deceased son’s backpack down the Camino de Santiago, sprinkling handfuls of his ashes at this shrine and on that cairn of rocks, we see the baggage we carry through life and how we let go of it when we’re ready. It’s the transformational journey we take when we are willing to give suffering over to God be used as soil for growth, rather than allowing the suffering to bury us.
As Richard Rohr says, “One of the enlightened themes that develops in the Judeo-Christian scriptures and reaches its fullness in…Jesus is the recognition of the transformative significance of human pain and suffering…how to hold, make use of, and transform our suffering into a new kind of life instead of an old kind of death.” (Transforming our Pain) Perhaps, that’s what’s so powerful about this movie – we see ourselves in Thomas Avery and how we too have experienced “new life instead of an old kind of death”.
We didn’t expect to be making this trip.
We didn’t expect to be joined by these people.
We certainly didn’t expect to walk this road with the ashes of memories, misgivings, and missteps strapped to our backs.
We don’t expect life to turn out like this, but it did. It does. It will. And when we open ourselves to the journey, we’re changed by it. That’s always the way.
Even if you don’t keep Lent as a practice of faith, watch “The Way” sometime before Easter, would you? “The Way” will give you a new way to walk through this life.
Pop Culture Preacher
P.S. A big thanks to Dr. Marcia McFee whose Worship Design Studio series, inspired bythis movie, prompted this post.
P.P.S. You can catch “The Way” on Netflix. Do it.
P.P.P.S. Four days after I re-watched “The Way” one of my congregants told me she is walking part of the Camino de Santiago this spring – crazy serendipity at work! She agreed to write a post about it when she returns.