Why Friends Above? Saints, Faith, and Happiness

Dr. Eric and his wonderful wife on retreat at Mt. Saviour Monastery in upstate NY

I blame my wife for this website, at least in part. One of the thing I love about her is that she shares my love for the saints. Those men and women, despite the apparent disability of having died, have somehow managed to be part of every major moment of our marriage: our initial connection (both pilgrims to St. James’ tomb), engagement (St. Marianne Cope), marriage (St. Ignatius), and beyond.

As we’ve faced changes—interstate moves, career shifts, house-hunting, doctors, and a pandemic—one constant that has supported my wife and me is our relationships with others. We are blessed in our families and friends (and in the modern technology that bridges the miles). We are also blessed in our relationships with God and with our brothers and sisters in Christ (and in the gift of prayer, that wonderful precursor to Zoom that bridges heaven and earth instead of mere miles). None of those relationships are perfect and I know I could do more to nurture them; nevertheless they are a source of joy and strength. This blog celebrates and shares them.

Walking through the pre-dawn silence on the Camino de Santiago in Spain with the concha shell that traditionally marks its pilgrims

Becoming Friends with the Saints

There are two incidents that started this blog. The first began twenty years ago: walking the Camino de Santiago, a recently revived pilgrimage-backpacking route from one side of Spain to the other. I was a college student traveling alone for the first time and eager to see the world. I walked through mountains and the meseta. I walked through relentless sun and angry thunderstorms. I walked for the pleasure of it and, by the end, through hurting calf muscles and a nasty cold for something I couldn’t quite name. I walked for twenty-seven days. In the end, I gained two things: I gained the realization that I was not as tough as I had thought, and I gained a friend.

I don’t mean a friend in the sense of one of my fellow pilgrims, though I met many interesting people and exchanged a couple letters afterwards. The lasting friend I made was St. James, the apostle whose body was traditionally believed to rest in Santiago where the Camino ended. There is an odd phenomenon that many walking along the Camino have reported: the feeling of an unseen companion trudging along with them. Even one of my fellow travelers who was an atheist from England mentioned it. It could be the effects of exhaustion after hauling a heavy backpack for twenty miles a day in the sun. It didn’t feel that way to me though. It felt like God was providing me a friend for the journey: James.

What did that friendship mean to me? It was first a feeling of companionship. It was someone to talk with about my problems and thoughts. I also talked with fellow pilgrims and with God, but this had a different register that fell somewhere in between those two extremes like asking a wise, older friend for advice.

Then came an afternoon when I found myself alone in the Galician hills, exhausted, in a thunderstorm, at the end of my ability to go on. At that moment I prayed to the Lord and, for the first time, seriously also asked for the prayers of a saint. What I felt immediately afterwards was an unexpected surge of joy. It was the kind of happiness that bubbles through you and makes you want to just get up and release it. Some people might dance with it or at least skip; for a phlegmatic chap like me, it simply brought me simply to my feet and back on the trail (oddly with no more pain in my legs). It was enough to make me curious about saints.

I should add that while I feel confident of St. James’ spiritual presence in Spain, I am less certain of his physical one. St. James died in Jerusalem, so how did his body end up in Spain? The story is a rather unlikely one involving divine intervention after his death and an impossible boat that sailed without wind or oars across the Mediterranean. That story may only have started centuries later in response to the Muslim invasion of Spain. If so, it served a statement of faith that God, from the time of Jesus, already had plans to care for people on the other end of the Roman world by sending them one of the great apostles. Not every story in this blog is historical, but all have some value, especially ones that seem weird or challenge our assumptions.

For the joy of human love,
brother, sister, parent, child,
friends on earth, and friends above,
for all gentle thoughts and mild,
Lord of all, to thee we raise
this our hymn of grateful praise.
Folliott Sandford Pierpoint
“For the Beauty of the Earth” hymn performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir

Friends Above

The second incident that helped start this blog was moving to new states twice in as many years. Understandably, my wife told me that we needed to make new friends in our new community. Those readers who are as dedicated introverts as myself know what dreadful feelings of horror and anxiety such a reasonable suggestion elicits. The move has actually been wonderful so far, but it was a cause to reflect on my gratitude for those friends who have stuck by me, both those on earth and those in heaven.

The text above is from the old hymn, “For the Beauty of the Earth.” As the hymn says, those friendships here on earth are part of a wider tapestry of love including everything from the little beauties of nature to my supportive spouse to my friends above with our Lord. I hope you enjoy this blog and this opportunity to make new friends of your own.