Friday, April 1, 2016

Christian Salvation by Tim Heaton

In the season of Lent, the 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Day, it is traditional for Christians to embark upon a course of Bible reading, study and meditation as a way of preparing themselves in mind and spirit for the great festival of Easter. (The six Sundays of Lent are excluded, hence the popular understanding of Lent as matching the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness.)

One of the best-selling Lent Courses of all time (and currently #1 in popularity on Amazon UK) is Tim Heaton's "The Long Road to Heaven", which uses the brilliant film "The Way" starring Martin Sheen as a springboard into discussion about Christian understandings of salvation. In the film, Sheen plays a bereaved father walking the Way of St James to the shrine of the Apostle at Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain - carrying his son's ashes.

Heaton's book ends with a short story called "El Camino", which is reproduced here, and which Church Times, the world's leading Anglican newspaper, said "could stand alone as a powerful and moving allegory of salvation."

"Salvation" is a small word with massive meaning. It is not a specifically Christian idea, and many (but not all) world religions have concepts of salvation. But it is at the heart of the Christian faith and is addressed throughout most of the New Testament writings, and this short story is an intriguing and contemporary way into discovering something about its meaning. 

"The Long Road to Heaven: A Lent Course Based on the Film The Way", Circle Books (an imprint of John Hunt Publishing Ltd), 2013. 

There is more about the book on the Amazon book page, and a bio - should you wish to say anything about me - on my Amazon author page. I've also attached a cover image.

The Rev. Tim Heaton is the author of "The Long Road to Heaven" and "The Naturalist and the Christ"

Please visit:

 El Camino - A Love Story by Rev Tim Heaton
Leaving Burgos by the Malatos Bridge, Rachel passed the Hospital del Rey and followed the yellow way markers onto the path beside the Arlanzón River. It was half past eight in the morning and she had made an early start with the intention of reaching Hontanas by late afternoon. Hontanas, named after its springs of which there are few on the meseta, the arid plain of Old Castile, had a long tradition of hospitality and would be a good place to stop for the night.

She was walking on her own today as she always did, alone with her thoughts about where she had been and where she was going. She didn’t really know where she was going, other than in the literal sense. She was headed west, of course, towards Santiago, but she didn’t know where her life was going or whether she actually had a life at all. She had a life once, she was sure of that, but she didn’t think that she had a life now. What the future held she had no idea, but it looked pretty bleak and she didn’t think she would ever be happy again.
Before she met Peter she had probably never known true happiness in her life, being a bit of a loner through school and the sort of person who always found it difficult to make friends. She had certainly not been “in love” with anyone before Peter, and she didn’t believe anyone had really loved her. She was an only child whose father had committed suicide when she was eight years old, something her mother never talked to her about – though Rachel wished that she had. Her mother went off the rails some years later, drowning her grief in alcohol and drugs, and Rachel was taken into care when she was fourteen. It was a deeply unhappy time, punctuated by bouts of bullying and sexual exploitation, and she was left feeling terribly alone. Until, that is, she met Peter. She was eighteen, he was twenty, and two years later they were married. They made a home together, planned to start a family together, and Rachel knew that they would grow old together. Peter was her rock and on that rock she built her life.
     Peter died suddenly and unexpectedly whilst on their honeymoon in Greece, the result of multi-organ failure caused by acute food poisoning. The best two years of her life had come to an abrupt end. She was devastated by his death, his passing was unbearable, and she knew that nothing would ever be the same again. That was a year ago now, and Rachel was on the pilgrim road to Santiago in a vain attempt to make some sense of it all, to search for some meaning in Peter’s death. She was wasting her time of course, she half-knew that already, because this heartbreaking tragedy was senseless and meaningless. Perhaps, in the end, she was simply hoping that a month on the Camino would allow enough time for some of her demons to walk away.
     Reaching Hornillos at about one o’clock, a little over half way on her day’s journey, Rachel paused to eat the sandwich she had bought on her way out of Burgos. Hornillos was quite unlike other Castilian villages, built in response to the pilgrimage and boasting a wide main street flanked on both sides by large mansions. As she sat on a bench in the shade beside the mud-baked road, her eye caught sight of a large cross inscribed on the lintel above the door of the house opposite. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?” she thought to herself as she started hungrily on her jamon y queso sandwich. The thought didn’t stay with her long. Rachel was not “religious” in any sense of the word. She was astonished that anyone could believe in God in the face of all the evil and suffering in the world. If there was a God, an all-loving and all-powerful God as people claimed he was, then why didn’t he do something about it? If, in fact, he couldn’t, then he seemed to her to be rather a pointless God and not worth believing in at all.
     She reached into the side pocket of her rucksack and took out her e-reader. It came on at the page where she had last left it, part-way through Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, the novel inspired by his experiences as a war correspondent covering the Spanish Civil War. On the first leg of her journey, as she passed through Pamplona, she had read his other great Spanish novel, Fiesta, about the annual bullfighting festival where the bulls are run through the streets on their way to the ring. During her teenage years, Rachel had become an avid reader of Hemingway, trying to get inside the mind of a man who, like her father, had pressed the muzzles of a loaded shotgun to his forehead and fired both barrels. His novels were full of sadness and death, hammered out of the raw material of life – not least his own. He had once likened life to a game of baseball: they threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you. They killed the very old and the very young, the good and the bad, the innocent without impunity. They always found a way to get you in the end. That was her religion Rachel thought: life is a struggle for survival in an unjust world of triumphant evil and endless suffering – and then you die.
She put the e-reader away, lifted on her rucksack, and started to walk. Once out of the town the pilgrim road, now a cart track, wound its way up again on to the crest of the high plain, starved of trees, starved of water, where the dry, impoverished soil was whipped into swirls of dust by the hot wind. As she passed through Sambol, close to the remains of the monastery of San Baudillo, a man came near and went with her. “Ola!” he said. “Do you mind if I walk with you for a while?”Rachel was taken aback. She had walked alone every day out of choice and had many times given other well-meaning pilgrims the brush-off. But this man seemed different. He was English, about her age with kind eyes and a nice smile, and she was strangely drawn to him. “Okay,” she replied hesitantly.

“My name’s Josh,” he said, “Josh Christie. I work at the Tourist Office in Santiago. It was a bit quiet this week so they let me walk the Way from Burgos to León to see if I could update their guidebook. It’s just a summer job – I’m hoping to get a proper job as a Spanish-English translator one day!”
Rachel smiled and began, in a guarded way, to tell him a little about herself. But she soon found herself opening up to him completely, and before long she had told him everything about her father and about Peter. There was something about him that made her feel like she wanted to share it with him, to get it off her chest and cry on his shoulder.
As they walked and talked they came to a place where the path divided. To the left was a wide and easy track, and to the right a narrow, harder path, which wound its way up the hillside, overgrown and neglected, before quickly disappearing from sight amid the scrub and rock. Rachel automatically took the left fork, but Josh said, “No, let’s go this way. Let’s go through the narrow gate.

 “But there is no gate,” Rachel replied.
 “I am the gate,” Josh said, somewhat mysteriously, before bounding up the hillside through a thicket of brambles, leaving Rachel trailing in his wake. “Come on!” he shouted.        "

We can still get to Hontanas this way.”
“Are you sure?” Rachel enquired nervously.
“Oh yes,” said Josh, “I know the way.”
Over the crest of the hill the path opened up and levelled out among eucalyptus trees and fertile meadows. It was an oasis of verdant beauty, watered by icy springs, where the hot afternoon sun was reduced to a cool, dappled light in the shade of the trees. As they followed an avenue of poplars, straight and level as far as the eye could see, Rachel knew there were few who found this way, yet it was the most beautiful part of her entire journey so far. To her left and right were endless fields of wheat and barley, still green and short in June, and when the tree-lined avenue eventually gave way to a path edged with yellow broom, red poppies and pink dog roses Rachel wished that this moment of her life would last forever.
As they came near Hontanas, hidden in the valley of a small river, Josh walked ahead as if he were going on. But she urged him to stay with her. “It’s almost evening,” she said, “won’t you stay here the night as well?”
Josh agreed, and so they walked together down the steep path into the village and checked in to the Albergue Santa Brígida. It had two dormitories, each of seven beds, one for men and one for women, and cost six euros for the night. Pilar asked for their credencials, stamped them, and took their money. “Up the stairs,” she said curtly, “men on the left, women on the right.”
A couple of hours later, Rachel came downstairs and found Josh at a table outside drinking a San Miguel. “May I join you?” she asked tentatively.
“Of course,” he replied, “and why don’t we have supper together tonight as well?”
“That would be nice,” she said. “Here?”
“No, it’s another five euros and won’t be all that great. There’s a casa rural up the road with a good restaurant – why don’t I treat you?”
“You’re very kind,” Rachel replied, “that would be lovely.”
When Josh had finished his beer they walked to the restaurant, El Descanso, and were shown to a table by a waitress who was also called Pilar. “Why is everyone here called Pilar?” Rachel whispered to Josh.
“It’s a popular girl’s name in Spain,” he replied. “It comes from the Virgen del Pilar or ‘Virgin of the Pillar’ in Zaragoza, where the Virgin Mary appeared to James in a vision. She was standing on the pillar to which Jesus had been tied for his flagellation.”
“Do you believe in all that stuff?” she asked him.
“Well, some of it,” he said. “James was certainly an apostle of Christ, but whether or not he really came to Spain I’m not so sure. But if he did, who’s to say he never saw such an apparition?”
“But you believe in Jesus?”
“Oh yes, for sure – the resurrection and the life. Don’t you?”
“No,” Rachel replied, “I’m afraid I don’t.”
There was a silence. Josh made no immediate response and they both seized the moment to peruse their menus. After Pilar had taken their orders, the paella for Josh and the tortilla with ensalada for Rachel, Josh asked, “Why not? Why don’t you believe?”
“I just can’t see the evidence,” Rachel said. “If God is good and righteous he’s got a funny way of showing it. He’s certainly done nothing for me. There’s simply too much misery in the world.”
“But that’s exactly why Jesus came,” Josh countered. “That’s precisely the reason why God came into the world in human form: to show us what God is really like. And through his teaching about love and by laying down his life for others – the greatest act of love – help lift the world out of all evil and pain.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem to have had much effect yet.”
“Maybe you’re right,” said Josh, “but we all have to do our bit to help – we have to respond in some way. God works through people.”
This time Rachel was silent. She could think immediately of no adequate response, so she changed the subject altogether and asked him where he lived in England.
“In Oxbury,” he replied.
“I know Oxbury!” she said. “It’s just up the road from me in Winford.”
“How extraordinary – what a small world! Well, I live in the block of flats opposite the Town Hall – between the cinema and a wine bar called The Vine.”
“I know where you mean,” Rachel said, just as Pilar brought over a bottle of rioja with a large chunk of bread and a dish of olive oil and placed them down on the table. Josh poured them both a glass of the wine and said, “Would you like some bread?”
“Thank you, I would.”
Josh broke the bread, gave it to her and said, “Homonis vis.”
“Homo what?”
“Homonis vis – ‘the strength of man’. It’s Latin. It’s how they came up with the name Hovis. Quite clever, don’t you think? It’s like ‘the bread of life’.”
After Pilar had arrived with their food and placed it down on the table, Josh asked Rachel, “Are you carrying a stone to place at the Cruz de Ferro?”
“The what?” she said, conscious that she was now starting to sound a bit dim.
“The Iron Cross. It stands on top of a huge cairn marking the highest point of the Way – 1,504 metres in the mountains of León.”
“Oh yes, I’ve read about that, but I’ve not been carrying one. Should I be?”
“For medieval pilgrims it was a symbolic act, an act of contrition for sins. They carried their sins with them and laid them at the foot of the cross. But think of it more as representing the load you are carrying now – all your pain and your sorrow, the weight you want to cut loose and cast off. We’ll pick up a stone for you tomorrow. ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest’,” he added, though Rachel didn’t know exactly what he meant. But she found that she could talk effortlessly with this enigmatic stranger, and as he told her about his passion for the Way and everything that it meant to him there were moments when she felt her heart burn within her.
They walked together for the next seven days before reaching León, the city named after the Roman Seventh Legion that established its headquarters there in the year AD 68. As the week drew on, Rachel became increasingly sad at the thought of Josh having to leave and on the final morning, as they stood on the heights of the Alto del Portillo looking down on the city and the imposing towers of its cathedral, she could hardly bear that the end was in sight.
They descended the mountain to the Castro Bridge over the Torio River and entered the city via the Jewish quarter. Josh made straight for the railway station to catch a train to Santiago and Rachel went along too, not wishing to lose a single moment with him. As he boarded the carriage he said, “I’ve really enjoyed meeting you, Rachel. Take good care of yourself.”
“I will,” she said, with tears in her eyes.
The train pulled away. “Buen Camino!” he shouted from the window, and then he was gone.
Rachel felt empty and alone. She wandered around the city for a while and went into the great thirteenth-century cathedral, Spain’s Gothic masterpiece, which has the finest stained glass in Europe. Despite its sublime luminosity, the light of the world creating a play of colours on the floor, she found that nothing could take her mind off Josh. She felt bereft by his absence and her only comfort was the knowledge that she would see him at the Tourist Office the moment she arrived in Santiago.
That evening in the refugio, as she unpacked her rucksack, she found a Bible. It wasn’t hers and she presumed that Josh must have secreted it there sometime during the day. It was called the Good News Bible, which made her wonder whether there was a Bad News Bible as well. A page was marked and a passage highlighted – John chapter 10 verse 10: “I have come in order that you might have life – life in all its fullness.” Rachel didn’t really know what to make of it. She thought about it for a while as she got ready for bed and went to sleep with the Bible under her pillow.
The next two weeks without Josh passed painfully slowly. She walked alone every day and ate alone every evening, politely refusing the other pilgrims who invited her to join them, and when she reached the Iron Cross she laid down the stone that Josh had given her on the day they left Hontanas. As she placed the stone on the cairn at the foot of the cross, she said, “I love you, Pete, I always will. I’ll never forget you, but I think it’s time for me to try to move on now.”
It was raining when she finally arrived in Santiago. She entered the city by the Puerta del Camino, as all pilgrims do, even though the gate and the walls it once penetrated exist no longer, and followed the last of the yellow way markers through the narrow streets to the cathedral. It was the end of her journey. In the square a piper was playing the bagpipes, a reminder of Galicia’s Celtic history, and scores of pilgrims were milling about in groups, greeting and embracing each other, oblivious of the rain. Her first desire should have been to enter the cathedral and pay homage at the reliquary of the Apostle, but instead she hurried to the Tourist Office in the Rúa del Villar to see Josh.
The office was bustling with people. She went in, nervous and excited, and blurted out to the first official-looking person she saw, “Is Josh here? I’ve come to see Josh.”
“I’ve no idea,” the man replied. “There are many tourists here. Look for him yourself.”
“No! He works here,” Rachel said.
“There is no one working here called Josh.”
“Yes there is! Josh Christie, an English guy.”
“There is no one working here called Josh Christie,” the official said. “There are no English people working here at all. Now please move on.”
Rachel was stunned. She stumbled out of the office in a daze and drifted aimlessly around the streets for a while before going to the Pilgrim Office to have her credencial stamped for the last time and collect her Compostela.
The next day at noon she went to the Pilgrims Mass in the cathedral. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been to church, but this was one of the age-old rites of pilgrimage and supposedly the crowning moment of her endeavour. She didn’t understand anything that was said because it was all in Spanish, but when the priest broke the bread and everyone started going up in line to receive she was strangely drawn and joined the long procession. She had never received communion before, but as she took the host into her mouth and swallowed it she felt a strange warmth flow through her. At the same time, though she couldn’t quite explain it, she felt as if something else was leaving her, that something inside her was being purged. After she had sat down again in her seat, the organ of two thousand pipes began to play and the vast cathedral was filled with the most beautiful music she had ever heard. And then the botafumeiro began to swing, gently at first, but then higher and higher with each pendulum swing until it reached the highest point of the vault at each end of the transept. On every downward stroke it soared past her, just a few feet above her head, instinctively making her feel as though she ought to duck. And as the incense billowed out in great clouds and filled the cathedral with its perfume, and as the music from the organ reached a crescendo, she began to cry. She cried like she had never cried before. All the agony of her twenty-one years poured out of her; she cried for her father and for her mother, she cried for Peter, and she went on crying until the flagstone floor beneath her feet was flooded with her tears.

She left the cathedral and waited for a coach to the airport at A Coruña to catch the ten past six flight to Heathrow, arriving ten past seven local time. It was gone eleven o’clock when she arrived home in Winford and she collapsed exhausted into bed. She was still thinking about Josh, puzzled and disappointed that she had not seen him in Santiago, and she resolved that in the morning she would go to Oxbury to find out if he was already back home.
Rachel stood with her back to the Town Hall and looked across the street. There was only one building between the cinema and The Vine and it was a church, the Church of the Good Shepherd. She crossed the street and went inside, saddened and perplexed once more that her search for Josh had apparently reached another dead end. On the lectern there was a Bible, open at Deuteronomy chapter 30, and her eyes scanned the page: “Today I am giving you a choice between good and evil, between life and death ... between God’s blessing and God’s curse, and I call heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Choose life.”
 She went back out on to the street and, seeing that the wine bar was open, decided that she needed a drink. She went inside and ordered a glass of wine. She took it to a table, sat down, and tried to make some sense of all that had happened over the past couple of days. Where on earth was Josh? Who on earth was Josh? Had she simply misunderstood everything that he had said to her about where he worked and where he lived?
After a few minutes, a man sitting alone at the next table reading a newspaper looked across to her and said, “Don’t worry, it may never happen!”

Rachel looked at him. He looked a bit like Josh, but she knew immediately that it was not him. “Sorry,” she said, “I’ve had a bad day.”
 “Can I join you?” he asked. “My name’s Jake – Jacob really – but everyone calls me Jake.”
 “Um, no thanks,” Rachel replied, “I was just leaving.” She quickly drained her glass of wine and walked out of the bar. She started walking down the street towards the bus stop but suddenly stopped dead in her tracks. Choose life, Rachel remembered. Choose life.
 She turned around and went back into the wine bar. She went straight up to Jake and said, “I’ve changed my mind. I’d love to talk to you if that’s still okay with you.”
“Of course it is,” he said. “Let me get you another glass of wine.”
Two years later, Rachel and Jake were married. They had a son, whom they named Benjamin, and they lived happily ever after. Rachel never forgot Peter and continued to visit his grave three times a year – on his birthday, on their wedding anniversary and at Christmas. She never forgot Josh either, because she knew in all truth that He was the One who had shown her the way that leads to life.

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