Somewhere over the Atlantic, Delta flight attendants handed out customs declaration cards.
“As you go through immigration and customs, put your cell phones away,” they warned.
“Put your cell phones away – or they will be confiscated!” they warned again later.
We buried our cell phones deep in our bags, and went through without trouble … except for that jar of thick Basque honey that looked like jam on the x-ray but may have been meat (seriously guys?) forcing us into another line.
It was not until we were home and checking the news did we learn of the US policy that prompted the flight attendant warning. According to U.S. government files released that very day, Homeland Security is able to seize and search the data on privately owned electronic devices at the border without a search warrant. Yes, your cell phone may be confiscated.
We had just returned from a trip to France and Spain, brimming with love for French pastry, Spanish wine and tapas, broad beaches, and newfound friends. Local city guides added depth to our understanding. (Did you know the bayonet is named for Bayonne, France? And just ask me about the Basque love of pelota/jai alai.) The local guide in Guernica darkened the lights in the bomb shelter and played sirens, as our small tour group imagined the horror of Franco and Hitler. Two days short of 9/11, as we stood looking up at the vast tile representation of Picasso’s Guernica, our Spanish guide and new friend, Francisco, spoke of the horror we together had experienced in September, 2001.
Then we spent a half day walking the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrim path, the Way of St. James. Francisco told us the path is broken into four stages that correspond to birth (a sudden push into the world in the Pyrenees), the highs and lows of youth, the long stretch of adulthood, and old age and the end of life. We walked stage three, through flat farmer’s fields, over rock-strewn paths, with endless vistas and unforgiving sun. It’s the path that leads through marriage, jobs, children, friendships. We have time to review our lives, to seek forgiveness, to learn and grow and leave our sins behind, in piles of rocks at the side of the trail. Stage four awaits us, alive with green beauty and the hope of salvation, offering abundance at the end of life.
I’m not sure the linear path of the Camino is the best representation for life. TS Eliot writes “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” (Four Quartets) What was and is and is to come. In the beginning was the Word. Creation abundance surrounds us now, not just at the end or in the next life. Eternal life can’t begin at some future point if it’s truly eternal. We inhabit the Kingdom of God, with all our flaws and faults and piles of stones.
The bells resounding over the rooftops of Paris, elbowing up to the counter for pintxos in San Sebastian, stumbling over rocks and shedding sins on the Camino – perhaps that story doesn’t belong here with Delta flight attendants and Homeland Security. But I can’t shake the notion that these stories are somehow interwoven. I can’t shake the notion that we are so flawed, and that our institutions are so flawed, that the nation who helped free Europe from the stronghold of the Nazis now wants to take our cell phones.
Picasso’s Guernica includes no identifying marks that tie it to place and time. The horrors of war are universal. The wounded horse, the dead soldier, the mother wailing over her dead child live in every time and place. But almost unnoticed at the bottom of the painting, the dead soldier who clutches a sword also holds a small flower. A sign of hope? Hope that wars will cease? Hope that our institutions can better reflect the ideals we hold dear? Hope that we can harness the power of Creation in our daily lives?
Next time I pass through immigration and customs, maybe I’ll bring flowers instead of Basque honey. I’ll leave them with the officials who want my cell phone, like daisies in the rifles of the National Guard. A wish that we can learn compassion. That I can learn compassion. With a whispered prayer that hope will abound as we leave our sins in piles of stones at the side of this winding road we walk together.