The Death of My Uncles (and the Birth of the Camino de Santiago)

The post I was planning to write was “The Death of Greed”, the first of the final four Deadly Sins I will address, and the first of the four I struggle most with.

I don’t tend towards greed in the sense desiring to accumulate a lot of material goods for their own sake, the most commonly acknowledged form of this spiritual disease; rather, I sometimes get greedy about achievements.

Stuff doesn’t do it for me. I’ve never had a lot of money or things. When I got married, my wife had already bought and furnished our house, and she laughed when I pulled up in my ’04 Chevy Cavalier two-door with a tub of clothes, a desk drawer of random crap, and my “box of memories”, the notes and pictures of things that had sentimental value, my only additions to our new home.

But I am tempted at times to want to accomplish things, in part because I like challenges, which is good, but also in part because I want to prove to myself and others my value as a person and as a man.

And there are things I have done that I am proud of, rightly, but that at times I look to as proof of my goodness and strength.

The problem with this is the same as the problem with accumulating material goods: at the end of my life, they will amount to nothing. Perhaps I will have made some lives better. Perhaps I will be remembered by my kids and (God-willing) grandkids, but fifty years after I’m gone there will be little left of those memories, and then, eventually, nothing.

When I remember this, I am reminded of St. Peter’s response to Jesus when He asks the apostles if they want to leave Him like the rest who found the Bread of Life discourse too much to take:

“To whom should we go, Lord? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)

Nothing in this life matters, in one sense, because it all ends. It’s all transitory. My greed will gain me nothing.

But if what Jesus said was true, if He is Who He said He is, then everything I do has eternal weight; what C.S. Lewis calls “the weight of glory”.

I believe this life matters because it is a choice about who we want to be for eternity and with whom we wish to spend it: ourselves, or God Himself.

*          *          *

As I write this, my heart is heavy with the sense of loss of my Uncle Jim. He passed away early Sunday morning from a heart attack. This is actually my second Uncle Jim to die this year, one on my dad’s side, one on my mom’s.

They could hardly be more different men. My dad’s brother Jim was unhealthy, mentally and physically, for much of my life. He had diabetes, was schizophrenic, and for the last years of his life was incapable of taking care of himself. My dad, with his other siblings and various nurses and caretakers, had that unenviable task, displaying a depth of love and sacrifice, even amidst frustration and sadness, that I have not seen anywhere else.

In his sickness, Jim still had a deep faith and devotion to Mary. He would talk about this at times, though his infirmity and paranoia separated him, from what I could tell, from the life of the Church and the Sacraments.

He did, over the course of his life, partake in at least five of the Deadly Sins, if his stories are to be trusted. I learned a lot as a young adolescent listening to that man; perhaps some things I wish I could forget. Still, it was clear that, as he always said, “Faith, family, and friends” were what he valued most, and I will always remember the kindness he showed me and the fierce loyalty he had to our family, as well as his love of good food and jokes and company.

His health deteriorated over many years until his passing last December.

My mom’s brother-in-law, on the other hand, was a doctor, a man who enjoyed walks and runs with their dogs, a man who flossed in the living room after Thanksgiving dinner, a man who had a love of travel and outdoor adventures that I heard about frequently from my brother who was blessed to go on many trips with him, my Aunt Kathy, and my cousins Zach and Tyler.

I don’t know anything about his faith, to be honest. I’m not sure if he was Catholic or practiced a religion of any sort and am under the impression that he didn’t. I don’t know if he prayed or had any devotions.

But he was so good to people. He was funny and quirky and kind. He was often quiet but always interesting, cool stories and humble intelligence and dirty jokes interweaving themselves in the conversations we would share, catching me off guard and making me laugh and wonder just who the heck this man was.

As my sister said, “I tried to think of a bad memory with him in it. I couldn’t.” He was just a good man, perhaps a great man to those who knew him better, and though I was never particularly close to him (although, honestly, what the hell does that mean? He was family! He was a part of most of my life and so many important moments for me! So screw it, yeah, we were close, even if we didn’t have heart-to-hearts or call each other to chat!), I have cried several times just thinking about the hole that will be in the circle of prayer before our holiday meals that “Uncle Heim” always filled.

He died, stunningly, incomprehensibly, in the middle of the night from a heart attack, the healthiest guy I knew gone, just like that.

It is still hard to even believe it happened.

And so I have my Catholic faith, which is perceived at times to separate people into categories, which at times is impetus for some to judge others, which some use as a rubric to decide who is in Heaven and who isn’t. And I have these two men, neither of whom would, as far as I can tell, hit a perfect score on those tests some Catholics run persons through.

And I also have this ache for the loss of both of them, and this prayer that I whispered to the dark a minute before I started writing this: “Jesus, please tell me they are with you now.”

*          *          *

My life is filled with James’s. My grandfather on my dad’s side was Jim. I have a cousin named Jim. I had two uncles named Jim.

I went to St. James the Greater grade school in St. Louis for nine years. It’s the parish my family still belongs to. Now I teach at St. James Academy and have for the last seven years.

I realized a long time ago that there is something in my life Jesus wants me to know about James.

What St. James (the Greater) the Apostle is perhaps most widely known for now, other than being a member of Jesus’ inner circle of friends, is the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage to the site tradition holds as his final resting place on the northwestern coast of Spain.

It was the subject of the movie “The Way” with Emilio Estevez and Martin Sheen and is traveled by thousands of pilgrims, believers and non-believers alike, every year. People the world over know about it, and some, like the Archbishop Emeritus of Kansas City, James (another one!) Keleher gave a personal attestation to in a homily I heard recently, make it a life goal to travel it.

There are many fascinating things about the Camino, but the one that stands out to me most is the symbol you will find all along the way: the scallop shell.


It has many meanings to different people, the most obvious of which for Christians is its connection to baptism as shells of this sort are often used to pour water over penitents as they enter the faith.

And when I started this post, that was all I really knew about it. But as I looked into the Camino a bit more to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself while writing this, I learned of a more widely accepted view: the grooves of the shell represent the many paths the pilgrims come by, all ending at the same destination.

*          *          *

When I read about that meaning of the shell, my heart jumped. This was going to be the whole point of this post, even before I knew the full context of the scallop.

What I have learned as I grow in my faith, as I’ve entered into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through His Church, as I have been cured and filled by prayer and Scripture, as I have been reminded so beautifully by Pope Francis, is that the Church has never, ever, EVER been about anything but salvation.

It’s not about “A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline whereby…one analyzes and classifies others, and…one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying” (Evangelii Gaudium). It’s not about figuring out who is good or bad or holy or not. It’s not about any of that, though those of us brought up in the faith may be tempted to make it that because it makes us feel safe.

It’s about being healed. It’s about being forgiven. It’s about being washed in mercy and love and being filled with life and life to the full. It’s about a relationship of complete and utter inequality between us and Our God, Jesus, Who loves us no matter what and is always, ALWAYS, inviting us into his arms, into his warmth, into that which we are all desperate for: eternal life.

So I look at my uncles. Two different men. Two different paths. Two different lives. Two different deaths.

But I have the same hope for them. It is hard for me to look at these two who, between them, showed me glimpses in our times together of each of the gifts of the Holy Spirit (my dad’s brother with fortitude, piety, and fear of the Lord, my mom’s brother-in-law with wisdom, understanding, counsel, and knowledge), men who I saw love their families and live with joy and make others’ lives better, men who made my life richer and more full of laughter, and think that they are anywhere but in Heaven, that they would have wanted anything other than the love of God when the moment of their final choice came, no matter what choices they did or did not make in this life.

I don’t mean to say our choices don’t matter. I don’t mean to say they don’t impact our eternal destination. Just the opposite: I think all choices bring us closer to God or further, more ready to accept His love or less. But it’s not so cut and dried as some want to make it. We are all only saved by Jesus and through His Mystical Body, the Church, but how that happens in any individual case, I do not know. I cannot know. There are many grooves on the shell that run back to the one Source, many ways along the One Body of “the Way” back into His Sacred Heart.

I know little of my uncles’ interior lives and the circumstances that surrounded them, but I know much of the mercy of Jesus and the pull of His Love that I feel every day in prayer and the sacraments and the love of men like my uncles and the hearts, now hurting, of my wonderful family, and they teach me of the love of God, make me believe ever more deeply and ever more fully that The Trinity, that exchange of eternal love and knowledge, has power enough to draw all of us back to Him through whatever ways He sees fit.

And this is enough for me to believe that the Camino de Santiago has just begun for those two men, these two James’s. It is enough for me to believe that the same James that watched the Lord’s Agony in the Garden is interceding for my heartbroken family, even as he stands before God beside the men who bore his name to me.

It is enough for me to hope, to rejoice in their deaths even when I’m sad, thinking that their earthly pilgrimage is over and that now they are being called “further up and further in” to the limitless love of God.

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