Saturday, 24 April 2010

A Pilg´s Last Days

Some people finish their caminos with a sad sense of longing. They can´t seem to let go of the trail. They finish their visit to the great shrine cathedral in Santiago de Compostela and they just keep walking, onward to the Atlantic at Finisterre -- also known as The End of the Earth.

Me? I couldn´t wait to get to Santiago this time. When I first spotted its towers in the distance on the evening of 19 April, my heart went pitty-pat. I remembered reading about medieval pilgrims who had a similar experience back 800 years ago. When they saw the cathedral they supposedly fell to their knees and burst into a hearty chorus of "Dum Paterfamilias."

I just said "Yeehaw! I´m almost there!" and then turned my attention to securing a bed in the nearest Casa Rural. I stayed at a couple of fabulous Casas Rurales this trip -- these are bed and breakfast inns set in old country houses, usually run by families. They don´t cost much more than a regular pension or hostal, and they´re clean and charming and the food is much better. And they usually have a dog around who likes to be petted. Value added, I call that.

I set out from Lestedo the morning of April 20 for the last push into the sacred city. It was only 9 a.m., and the signs said Santiago was only 10 km. away. I walk an average of 4 km. per hour, so I could easily make the noon Pilgrim Mass. I thought.

But it was not to be. The road zigzagged and doubled back on itself, gerrymandered and detoured, climbed and plummetted, and just generally gave me a last-chance going-over. Yes, there were pretty baroque pilgrim fountains, chapels, and quaint scenes of hay-mowing and carts being pulled along by cows. When I finally got into some serious suburbs, it was already almost 11. I realized I wouldn´t make that Mass, and was peevish for a few paces. And then I decided I didn´t need another church service to make this real. The pain in my ankles was real enough. I needed to slow it down and let this day´s walk unfold like any of the 30-odd days that went before it.

Not long after I sat down on a bench near a little babbling river. Traffic rumbled over a sweet little three-arch medieval bridge. And on the other side, through the trees, I saw the apse of an unmistakeably medieval church. I had time. I decided to check it out.

It was Santa Maria la Mayor y Real de Sar, the oldest church in Santiago, founded in the 8th century. A playground full of schoolkids screamed and shouted alongside. A teacher sat on the stoop, smoking desperately. The church is open, she said. Go round the other side. There´s a tour-bus full of people in there already.

How lucky! I thought. These ancient suburban churches are almost never open on weekdays, and this one might have a guided tour going on that I could poach a listen to. I stepped inside, got a cool stamp on my credential, and showed myself around the beautiful little cloister garden. The church door was open, and voices floated outside. I walked closer. They were familiar somehow, cadenced. A Mass was going on. It was the tour group, evidently a religious one, traveling with their own priest. And they were speaking English. North American English! Again my heart went pitty-pat.

I stepped right in and crashed their Mass. I had MY pilgrim Mass right there in Sar, in my native tongue, amongst 38 jet-lagged Canadians on a whirlwind tour of The Great Shrines of Europe. I felt immensely blessed, swept up into Divine Providence... how likely was this? How rare, how wonderful, and how perfectly timed for me, who hasn´t heard a church service in English since London in February. I am not sure how my fellow worshipers felt at the Peace, shaking hands with a damp, bedraggled stranger. But in that place, that morning we all were strangers and foreigners and travelers and pilgrims. They ain´t tourists, I thought. They´re my brothers.

After that it was not long until I arrived at the Pilgrim Office of the great cathedral atop the hill, where pilgrims take their stamped credentials and apply for the Compostela, the official church document that attests to their intestinal fortitude and their worthiness for extra credit on Judgement Day. Who was working the desk but my friend Johnnie Walker? 

Gone were any doubts about the acceptability of my Camino Invierno pilgrimage -- I was signed, sealed, and delivered within moments, with hugs and kisses all around. We went off to lunch in a lovely little garden restaurant. I found a 20 Euro hostel room, and got a train ticket for home. And after a shower and a ceremonial Tossing Of the Busted Hiking Boots Into the Dumpster, I made my way to the Cathedral to deliver all the promises I´d made for people.

It was three pages long, mostly just peoples´ names, but there were a few other things on there, too:  Peace. Politicians. Moratinos. Volcanic Ash Cloud. The Bangladeshi döner kebab man in Barco de Valdeorras. The priests of Roncesvalles, and the one in Los Arcos. The old lady at the church door in Burlada. The doctor in Puente de Domingo Florez. Rory, the Methodist minister from South Africa, and Rafa, the only other pilgrim I met on the entire Invierno Way. Farmers. The Peaceable Kingdom. The next big project. Hospitaleros. Waymark-painters, guide-writers, and map-makers. The Canadian Catholic tourists, and the attendant at the door at Sar who gave me a great big hug when I enthused about finding my little miracle there.

There was a bit of a queue to hug the St. James statue, a traditional pilgrim gesture. I decided to pass. I´d been hugged already by a Saint of God, that very morning in Sar. I´d walked my many miles and delivered my prayers at the altar. My pilgrimage was finished.

So I got my hair cut. I bought some fresh bright clean socks, an Arzua cheese to take home, and a nice pair of silver earrings. I took a nap, with the great bells of Santiago singing out the hours until I met my friend again for a seafood extravaganza, til an all-night rain rolled in, til the 9:20 Arco pulled out of the station the next morning and carried me backwards over the trail I´d just walked, all the way to Sahagún and Paddy and home.

The finest place in the entire world is right here.

But here are a few photos of the final five days of the trail.


Anonymous said...

Just beautiful...what a privilege, what a blessing...

thank you for carrying us along....


Laura said...

I have been checking and re-checking for this post. Thank you for sharing so much of you with us.

I love the photo with the terraces on all the hills - beautiful.

Your life is so full that it overflows and splashes blessings on the rest of us.

Kiwi Nomad 2008 said...

I love everything you say- how precious were the ways it ended..... with that Mass and seeing Johnnie when you got your Compostela. But I love the photo of the dog poking his nose under that door best of all!!!

ksam said...

So glad I thought to check before I crawl off to sleep! Lovely ending to a terrific tale, Gracias. Home again Home again...


Grandpa Joe said...

What a bautiful climatic ending to a very personal pilgrimage.... very well written and inspiritional.

claire said...

This end of pilgrimage is so very much you with the small miracles, the prayers, and the return home to the Peaceable.
Thank you, yes thank you, for carrying us along.

Lynne said...

"Home is the pilgrim, home from the camino". (paraphrased Houseman).

Thanks for this journey. It was very special and magical. Your writing is wonderful.