The Cruz de Ferro. Photo courtesy of Vicente Maza Gómez.

Letting go at the Cruz de Ferro on the Way of St. James

The Cruz de Ferro (the Iron Cross) is one of the most iconic places on the Way of St. James. It calls us to truly embrace one of the fundamental practices of being a pilgrim: to pack lightly. Put another way, carry only what you need.

Obviously, if one is going to embark on a long walk carrying a backpack for days or weeks, you physically want to carry only what you need to avoid unnecessary wear and tear on your body. But the concept of packing lightly is an emotional and spiritual concept as well. Bring only that which serves you on your journey and let go of that which does not.

It is traditional for pilgrims to bring a stone from home or from the beginning of the path and carry it with them to the Iron Cross, and to toss that rock into the massive pile that resides there in order to release a burden. Personally, I go a step beyond that: I literally fill my rock with the energy of something that I do not need or want to carry anymore. And on occasion, I have filled my rock with someone else’s burden, someone who needs help in letting go of a problem or an illness. We cannot destroy energy, but we can move it and release it so I literally transfer that unwanted energy to my rock as a means to that end.

I have witnessed amazing things at the Cruz de Ferro and afterwards. Almost twenty years ago, Juan Carlos and I met a woman who was leaving her mother’s ashes at the cross. When we spoke to her later, she had come all the way to Spain with those ashes not because of any connection she or her Mom had to Spain, but because her mother had been the greatest burden in her life that she had carried, and she wanted to release it once and for all. She was crying tears of relief, not just sadness, when we met her.

I have released many things there. I have filled rocks with others’ illness and tossed them into the heap, and each and every time the person’s or dog’s health improved or at least did not worsen. I have released emotional burdens that I carried for almost a lifetime, and felt 10 pounds lighter walking away from the cross than walking to it. I know someone who released attachment to a dying loved one on behalf of a friend, and the loved one died within hours of that rock being thrown.

The Iron Cross cannot do for you what you are not willing to do yourself. We all carry things that do not serve us or help us on our journey through life. When you truly decide to let something go – just release it like a balloon – the Cross provides a powerful place to perform that ritual. To make it real. To give it substance in the form a rock left on a pile amid literally hundreds of thousands of rock left there over countless years by people just like you. People looking to be free of a burden that has been weighing them down on their life’s journey.

The Iron Cross is not particularly beautiful as an actual object. The pile of rocks seems stark and sad – to me it feels like what it is: a pile of pain abandoned on the top of a hill. You are far more likely to see someone crying, not laughing, at this site.

But while it may lack physical beauty, it is indeed quite beautiful. It represents the choice of a million people to let go of something. To be lighter on their journey through this life. To pack lightly. And it provides a physical place to engage in a beautiful spiritual ritual integral to any pilgrim’s journey: carry only what you need.

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