I don’t know that “I have arrived” in any elevated sense of the phrase, but my body is in Santiago de Compostela. We arrived November 6th after a seriously long trek across Northern Spain.
The last 16Km was not so long in distance or in elevation gain, but to make the pilgrim mass at noon, we had our work cut out for us. To allow for any hiccups along the way, we left at 6 :00 a.m. It is seriously dark at six – especially in a claustrophobic, Hansel and Gretel forest. If anyone had dropped bread crumbs for us to follow, we never would have seen them. As it was, the Demboskys and Prebbles, adjusted their minimally effective /better-than-nothing headlamps and headed out through mud, mountain run-off and… no surprise here… rain. Nearly blind, we read the forest floor by Brailling it with our feet.
But we made it! With time to spare, we checked into our hotel, the XVI century Seminario Martin Pinario. The monastery is enormous! I am left to wonder how many thousands of young men gave their lives to God – who these men were – how they were called – and once they were called, to what far corners of the world were they sent.
Parts of the cathedral go back to the 12th century. The exterior is newer and only goes back to 1750. (What snobs we’ve become! At this point, we really can’t be bothered with anything newer than the 15th century. Older is infinitely better.) Despite the cavernous space, the cathedral is warm and feels surprisingly intimate.
Gold drips off every surface behind the high altar (usually I get testy and political… going on and on about the human and cultural costs of acquiring the gold: in Peru, for example, 95 percent of the Inca population was wiped out through warfare, subjugation and disease), but in Santiago, I sat transfixed by the beauty and grandeur of it all. Don’t ask me to explain: my response was entirely emotional.
Smug in 21st century knowledge (if we don’t have the knowledge ourselves, it is only a few computer strokes away) it is all too easy to fall into the revisionist trap. Like Monday Morning Quarterbacks, we sophisticates harshly judge everyone whose past actions ultimately led to bad outcomes.
Prior to the mass itself, a nun welcomed the pilgrims and a goodly number of tourists and townfolk. She was plain of face, and her sensible black shoes, black hose, shapeless black dress and black veil did little to liven her up. But then she spoke. Her voice was warm and humorous. She liked us! She welcomed us to her home. And then as the priest and lay-readers worked their way through the service, she led the congregates in Gregorian chant and call-and-response. Chuckling, she urged us to give it more… to sing louder. What a delightful woman. Her voice was lovely, and the subtle play of her hand as she directed us through the music was beautiful – her artistry was that of a person who “signs” for the deaf. I was transported, not by the service itself, but by the music and the community of like souls together in an ancient place.
I have experienced any number of surprises on El Camino. Perhaps one of the most surprising has been how many people have walked the Camino multiple times. When I have asked them why they did that, to the man they said that walking El Camino is addictive. Foot-sore and exhausted at the time, I didn’t give much credence to their response. Today, however, I have a better notion.
Yes, it gets old… washing out your clothes in the bathroom sink at night and wearing them damp the next day, but walking with an international community of people looking for a transcendental experience, is a powerful motivation that takes you outside yourself. No one is on the same path, but everyone is looking for transformation.
A friend wrote a note the other day… something to the effect that she wished she could travel more. Her note arrived as I had just read Nuthatch, a poem by Kirsten Dierking posted on the November 6th Writer’s Almanac. You should read the poem in its entirety but the first two stanzas read as follows: What if a sleek, grey-feathered nuthatch / flew from a tree and offered to perch / on your left shoulder, accompany you / on all your journeys. Nowhere fancy, / just the brief everyday walks, from garage / to house, from house to mailbox, from / the store to your car in the parking lot.
You don’t have to travel to delight in the greater world.