The last day of my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela came and went in a series of visions; the dark forest, the twisting farmlands, the edge of the suburbs, the highways leading to and from the city, and finally the city itself. Unlike coming into Burgos and Leon, the two other largest cities along The Way, where there were vast and ugly commercial avenues leading to the old cities, Santiago suffered from no such definition and confinement.
Time had suspended itself during that day’s walk. Whether my shoulders ached from the weight of the backpack or my feet shouted for pity and eternal rest, I sensed neither, nor would have entertained their overtures for attention. Rather, my attention was focused upon what seemed the goal; the east gate to the old city and the cathedral within. I so wanted to be within the cool and soaring stone walls of the cathedral for the noon Pilgrims’ Mass. It was Sunday, and so that hope carried even a greater strength and purpose. I also – confession time – desired to part myself, bodily and spiritually, from my backpack. By now, it had attained full status as a symbol of my self-containment and daily measure. Here in Santiago de Compostela I wanted to bust out, and breathe the air in ridiculous abundance, stretch my limbs, and heap impetuousness upon my land-leaned body and mind. I had experienced and disciplined myself to the Camino for the past five weeks, practicing what I had preached to myself for the past year of what it should be like on the Camino, that I just wanted a little, untidy exuberance. A hotel awaited my backpack and walking sticks. I could leave them there, and go onto the cathedral and walk the streets to my leisure. Walk? Some more?
What’s interesting here is that while I can write this now, the truth of my feelings were quite more of the disciplined measure that I had become accustomed to on the Camino. I had little idea of how I would actually feel when I found myself in Santiago de Compostela and standing before the great cathedral, or walking down a city street, or even what I would sense while waiting for my Compostela (certificate) at the Dean House, or the Pilgrims’ Office. I was completely in the ‘right foot, left foot’ mode of existence; carrying out the mission. No, that opportunity of experiencing freedom, accomplishment, and the knowledge of my obedience to God would come not as I came through the Porto do Camino (the gate), but later at the Dean House, and again in the cathedral during Mass.
Being Sunday morning, you’ll see that the photos show streets that are relatively shorn of its local citizens and arriving pilgrims. That would change quickly by noon and beyond, when the city would become quite animated and free-spirited. But in the here and now, I found myself somewhat alone in this city as I acquainted myself with her architecture and oriented myself to my destinations, and the first up was to the Plaza Obradoiro; the main square on the west and primary entrance side of the Cathedral de Santiago. It was an experience that I had imagined many times this past year, and now, in standing there, I was not disappointed. It was as glorious as I had hoped, as magnificent as dreamed, and as real as God.
It’s interesting, while modern man can build technological wonders of architecture, they are inevitably only sweeping images of singular expression. There is little craftsmanship, barely any adornment and decoration, and certainly there is no stamp upon them of the humble gifts of those men and women who toiled long to build such structures. Modern architecture is for nothing. They are not of man, but simply for man; his use and his pride. Whereas in viewing buildings like this cathedral, it is obvious in every detail that man’s very human nature is expressed. God’s abundant gifts unto man are in full regalia. Traditional architecture is for something. If there is one thing I learned while out on the Camino, it is the human value of traditional architecture; but that’s another discourse for another time. Being a modernist by nature, I am going to have to give some good thought over to this opposing revelation.
From the plaza I went onto the Dean House to obtain my Compostela. It was just off the square and next to the Plaza de Palterias on the southeast corner of the cathedral. As I approached the arched entrance of the Dean House, I could see that the pilgrims arriving had already secured a line of informal, yet respected, proportion; giving room for the weary. There were two volunteers who were answering questions and engaging in general conversation with the pilgrims. So I took my place in the line that had started within the house upstairs in the Pilgrims’ Office, had come out the door and across the inner courtyard to the arched entrance where I stood. It was soon that one of the volunteers spied my solitude and sought to bring some gentle comfort to me. She asked my nationality and a few other polite questions, and she then asked where I started my walk.
“Saint Jean Pied de Port.” was my response, which prompted her to ask of what my pilgrimage had meant to me. My response was tears. In that moment of comfort from one of God’s friends I had dared to open the door to all that God had placed before me while on the Camino, and it was overwhelming, it was beautiful beyond comparison, and I was fully humbled by God’s most intense love for me. To be honest, it was too much. I closed that door gently – knowing all too well what treasure I possessed – and smiled to the volunteer. She understood; her eyes reflecting a truth she saw within me that she has most likely seen in other pilgrims thousands of times.
The line moved with good posture and friendliness. No one was impatient as we all had learned our lessons well, and in due time it was my turn to answer a few questions and then sign my Compostela in front of the clerk. It was mine, in Latin, and it was beautiful. A frame and a wall in my home office awaits.
By now it was nearing eleven in the morning, and my thoughts turned to the noon Mass at the cathedral. I returned to the plaza and mounted the steps to the main doors where many others had congregated. In not too many minutes the doors yawned open and I, with so many other eager eyes and hearts, ventured into the portico and then into the main nave and transepts where wooden pews awaited our tired, yet urgent bodies.
The cathedral before us is immense in size; with soaring arches radiating the glory of the cross with its cruciform layout, and focusing our attention to the crossing and altar. Perhaps one of the most unique and elevating features is the chevet; the architectural ‘head’ of the cathedral. It is comprised of the altar, the choir behind the altar, the ambulatory, or walkway that surrounds the north, south and east sides of the altar, and the small chapels that radiate off of the ambulatory. The degree of ornamentation is stunning, and the chapels are each a wonder of individuality. And underneath the choir section, behind the altar, is the crypt of St. James. I suggest that for proper information you click on this link to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, and unto this link, Architecture of Cathedrals and Great Churches, for an understanding of basic cathedral architecture. I could never express it with enough depth for anyone to receive the full benefit of such grace and wonder as a grand cathedral built to the glory of God.
I was fortunate. Somehow, I was in the right place at the right time, and I found myself sitting in the center section, just three rows back from the altar and the open area in front of the altar where the great censer, the world’s largest, would be swung through the transepts by the mighty effort of the tiraboleiros. As I had experienced in all of the churches along The Way, the pews were simple, wooden constructs without seat or back cushions, and the kneelers were fixed in place. And as you can read, I am once again commenting on such an assumed condition; the need for man to humble himself, no matter the age or infirmity, before their Creator. The Church is not here to pacify or ameliorate man’s state, inclinations, or weaknesses, but to show the way back to the Creator; the One who can pacify and ameliorate man’s conditions, no matter what they are, through His love and ever-patient covenant to man. And it is through each man and woman’s search for God – their meaning of life – that they come to participate in and express God’s love unto one another, thus creating a Church that can tend to the wounds of man’s afflictions and self-indulgences. That is God’s pleasure.
The cathedral was rapidly filling with many, many pilgrims and tourists. In a short period of time, all the pews lined down the main nave and the two transepts were full, and the width of the flanking aisles were increasingly constricted by the wandering, eyes-upward pilgrims and tourists finding themselves more awe-struck than cooperative to the arterial necessity. At about thirty minutes before Mass, a nun came to the lectern and began to instruct us all in the several canticles and alleluias that we would participate in during Mass. She was most patient, and had the most melliferous voice that seemed to bring out the harmony of the cathedral’s purpose as a structure. She sang, and the angels appeared; hovering into position in the upper arches, smiling and looking down to God’s faithful stewards, hopeful to join in the praise and worship themselves.
At noon, there was a call for silence and a cessation of camera clicks and flashes. Shortly afterward a procession of priests, deacons, and altar servers, dressed in green and white, came from the transept, Nave del Crucero Platerias, walked to the crossing of the main nave and transepts and turned right; ascending into the altar space and choir beyond. The Liturgy began. The Pastor expressed himself in several languages throughout the Mass, giving kind regard to the many nationalities present, and finally settled into Spanish for his homily. He spoke of the call upon the world for unification under one banner of morality. He called for us all to go out into the world to remind people of God’s yearning call for us to come home to Him as one people. He reminded us that in such an action, our names will be written in Heaven, as Christ reminds us all in Luke, chapter 10.
You know, in such a place of intense, spiritual history, a history that surmounts the greatest of modern man’s efforts to proclaim their relative and temporal actions as necessarily divine cloth, to divest oneself of such modern vesture is to come quite close to God, Himself. I had done so back at the Dean House when the volunteer asked what my pilgrimage had meant to me. In attempting to answer her, I had inadvertently opened the door to God’s kingdom but a crack to permit His true presence and glory to shine upon me, and I was overwhelmed by the immediate; the cleansing of my soul with His presence of pure love. I had done this several times earlier; mostly during a day’s journey through some particularly difficult stretch. I had needed Him so for His strength, as I had none that was sufficient, and in calling upon Him, I was, in effect, opening a door. It had started when I was on the Meseta; that barren, flat stretch of land that offered little comfort, but a good portion of denunciation of one’s reasons for self-confidence. It would occur inadvertently, yet I began to find its catalyst, or trigger. This is why I call this an inclination; because I believe it is something that can be called upon through the force of habit.
This is an inclination of an opposite sort than that inclination of the fallen man and woman; that concupiscence to sin. This is the sort of inclination that I believe God first placed within man and woman; that innocence and purity that calls one to His worship, His love and His purpose. For fallen man, it is too exquisite to bear in company with guilt and sin, and thus its fullest nature is held for that time of glory in Heaven.
In the procession of the liturgy of this long-anticipated Mass, I found myself at that door several times, my hand on the lever, my spirit’s eye focused upon what laid beyond that door, and its absolute, conquering affirmation of God as love, and of His undisputable omnipotence. Tears flooded my heart, and eyes, several times during the Mass, for there was little I could do as long as I left my hand on that door lever. In choosing to be of Heaven and not of Earth, I belong to Him in body, mind and spirit; finally a soul complete as it could be while on this earth. No man or woman can stand before Him, or resist Him. I cannot even speak of Him without facing His salvific power overcome me. (You may now understand why this post has taken so long for me to compose.)
Sin is there, of course, for sin I cannot derail, but I can put sin behind me in choosing Him, for true repentance is unavoidable when such a choice is made through His grace and your understanding. And understanding in its explicit form is available to mankind for those things God has revealed. Those things God has hidden are left to us to be treasured through implicit faith. There was much that I experienced on the Camino that was explicit, and so much more that was implicit. Perhaps this is why faith is so important in our lives. What God holds hidden far surpasses what He has revealed. Through God’s grace I can make a choice. Why one would permit themselves choice is beyond my spiritual understanding, but not beyond my human intellect. I pity the man and woman who holds their intellect above all things, for to do so abrogates their opportunity to share all that God has offered.
I sometimes think that the Mass is too short, and thus too human. As with them all, this one came to an end. And it did so with a ritual I had heard of, and seen in video; the swinging of the great censer, or incense burner. In the Galician language, this censer is called the Botafumeiro, meaning “smoke expeller”. Eight tiraboleiros, lay persons dressed in burgundy robes fill the censer, and through a series of pulls on the rope tied to the censer and looped through a very old pulley system, manage to bring the censer into a swinging arc that travels through the length of each of the two transepts. At times it looked like it would crash into the railing defining the crossing where they stood, but it never did, rather a perpetual motion that seemed to hover in time at its apexes before sweeping downward and through the arc until it reaches its apex in the other transept where time seems to freeze once again. Here is a link for those who would like to read a little more about the Botafumeiro and this wonderful ritual.
My self-guided tour of the cathedral afterwards was something I shall always remember. Again, I suggest the links I have provided, as well as research in your local library, and the vast resources of the internet. To learn so much more about the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela.
I had arrived in Santiago de Compostela two days earlier than I had originally anticipated. I am “with merry” that I did arrive on Sunday; God’s day of rest, for I took it to heart. After the Mass, and my tour of the great cathedral, I found my way back to the hotel on the Rua Verxes de Cerca. There, I unpacked and took a long look at the contents of my life for the past forty days, and I reviewed the maturation of my disposition to the economy and performance of those contents and my stewardship of them. It’s important to do so because God is at His closest to you when your life is boiled down to a simple statement. There is little to interfere with His clear voice, except the chatter within your mind.
In part, the Camino is a place to get a handle on the basic function of your being, and its favorable existence. There is little to interfere with your direct contact with painful conditions that arise from your lack of attention to the realities about you. If your boots are wet, you get trench foot. Give the path not your full attention and it’s a twisted ankle or a fall. If your gear is not secured, it’s lost. I saw many a shoe, or sock, or glove along the Camino. I lost a hat when I chose to be creative as to where I stored it.
I can and probably will offer up many lessons learned on the Camino in months to come. Over all of these lessons though, I am sure that one crucial commonality will be present and persuasive; that everything learned comes through walking out faith, not in imagining or speaking about it. For now, simplicity stands out in abundance. Keep your life simple. I have always thought of life in this fashion, and the Camino has certainly reinforced this belief. There are twenty-four hours in a day. A routine of simplicity is the most sumptuous and leads to the greatest contentment because its power comes through experience and not through information. To add each new enticement that society indulges itself with – each new and improved measure of life – is to slowly dilute experience and ultimately starve the body, mind and spirit of the ‘family’. Think of what a family is by definition, and by what Jesus Christ defines it to be, and ask yourself which is the purer statement to that perfect form of the family. In doing so, you might realize that I am not talking about simply blood or faith relations, but rather that quality of being that conceives, nurtures, sustains and propagates happiness and contentment. To be in Heaven is to be in the family; of God’s.
With immaturity comes impetuosity and trial. With maturity comes the calm of knowing those things that promote the welfare of the individual and the society of man. Whether we choose to be mature or not will always be subject to our understanding of God’s pure love and moral law. I know that The Way of Saint James is an immeasurable source for seeking maturity as a virtue by habit. It lays bare the most human of conditions, his and her body, to the truths of the physical world. It offers the mind unconditional surrender to its unrelenting power. It frees the spirit to the lofty constellations of the land that permeate all things; to the very ground that one walks upon. The pilgrim can ignore, but can never deny. No pilgrim goes home the same.
Hope you enjoy the photos.
Love and God Bless – Reese