The final day of 2010, in a pew within the great crossing of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, I was a sheep amongst wolves. Or spiders. Or maybe just bitches. But in the end the Grand Flaming Fumigator of St. James won out, and the creepy-crawlies scuttled off on all their many legs, and I was left to find a way to celebrate New Year´s Eve alone.
Ah, but I am getting ahead of myself already, in the first paragraph.
31 December 2010 was a day packed full of fun and excitement, here in the Spanish shrine city of Santiago. It started the day before, when I was, with 20-some other people who waited til the last minute of the Holy Year, inducted into the Arch-Confraternity of St. James the Apostle, an honorary brotherhood based at Santiago cathedral. No one seems to know what the brotherhood really does, or why it keeps going after 500 years. Far as I can tell, it is a way for upper middle-class Camino-heads to elect one another into a semi-privileged club based at the HQ, where they wear clunky medals, greet one another with air-kisses, and shove regular people out of the good seats at big liturgical blowouts.
For many years it was a men-only arrangement. (A particular kind of men love dressing up and doing secret, symbolic things together, especially if they involve food and drink and excluding The Unworthy, and not working too hard. But not all men can be priests...) Now the Confraternity lets women in, if only to plan the banquets and arrange who gets to sit where. For New Year´s Eve 2010, the Closing of the Holy Door and Ending of the Holy Year, was a full-on cathedral spectacular, with all the silver polished and the candles burning, national television, the governor and wannabe prime minister, four-star admirals and generals, (each with his twinkling epaulettes and a chestful of medals) six bishops in shimmering hats and tassels, a couple of hundred priests, and an archbishop presiding over all in full gold-trimmed robe, alb, cincture, and miter. The cathedral was packed. We the newly inducted Confraternity members, were told that seats were reserved for us on one side of the altar.
My friend Christine, also a confraternity member, loves all this smells-and-bells Catholic splendor. She arrived at 3 to grab a seat for the 4:30 Mass, which was itself expected to go on for well over an hour. The sun was out, the sky was blue, the stone bench overlooking Azabacheria was warm and inviting – all these things speak much more clearly to me than incense and splendor and “una lectura del santo Evangelio según San Lucas.” I told her I might take a pass on this Mass.
I was feeling a little hinky. I went back to my room, I tried to take a nap, but no good. So I weighed my options:
On the “minus” side was that long, long sit. And the great clouds of incense. Santiago cathedral´s trademark fashion accessory is a 5-foot-tall silver incense burner they swing from the rafters at the end of special Masses, filling the place with fragrant fog. We´d had that spectacle at the induction ceremony the night before, and my eyes were still burning. With another front-row seat, I could expect early-onset brochitis, or at least a sneezing fit of volcanic intensity.
And the crowd. I deeply dislike big crowds of people.
But on the other side of the ledger... This was my last day in Santiago for who knows how long? Everything interesting in town was closed for the holiday. And Christine kinda expected me – she came all the way from Sweden for this, to stand as my co-sponsor for membership.
And the thought of hearing the cathedral pipe organ, with a brass section and two choirs? Well. It seemed like Santiago was arraying itself for a real Classic Christian do. And here I was in town, with no other real plans. I can take a nap any time, I thought. (That´s why there´s a sermon in the middle.)
So I went.
And yes, a section was set aside for the new confraternity members. But as you might expect, old confraternity members had showed up too, and they decided any reserved Confraternity pew was, by right of seniority, just as much theirs as ours.
They were Ladies of a Certain Age, decked in fresh wigs and old furs, their handbags suspended on chains from their bony wrists, their fists full of rosaries. They wore their coats over their shoulders, to grant them even more girth, and to leave their hands and elbows free for shoving Lesser Christians out of their way.
I´d seen small agglomerations the day before during the Confessional Hour, jostling and cutting into the line outside the single confession-box. When another stall opened across the nave, the stampede swept all pilgrims before it, like a school of minnows in a shark attack. These ladies adore their Holy Sacraments, and God help the tourist who might be staring into the domes and capitals when the light goes on at the Baroque booth nearby.
When I arrived at the Reserved Seating at 3:45, a Confraternity Queen Bee, resplendent in Prada, seated me between two of these Veteran Ladies. And throughout the ceremony they leaned and pitched, sighed and fidgeted, both of them deeply envious of the tiny slice of view I had of the high altar and the video screen mounted on a pillar nearby, a live feed from the TV broadcast. The woman from Pamplona was the most shameless. She couldn´t see the screen from her seat, so she practically laid her head in my bosom in her anxiety not to miss a single moment of the Door-Closing Ceremony going on invisibly a few yards from where we sat.
The Cordobesa to my right made full use of the moments when we stood up or knelt, to spread herself and her possessions over the pew. Each time I sat again she recollected her handbag and coattails and thighs, with heavy sighs. I believe these two beatas wanted me to give up and flee to the comfort of the nearest bar, where the TV broadcast could be seen un-interrupted. But I wasn´t going to give them the satisfaction. They´ve seen all this before. I hadn´t. Way too many times have I let this kind of old Spanish lady go ahead of me in the checkout line at Supermercado Lupa, only to have her step aside to admit several of her friends and family members in front of me, with cartloads of purchases.
Spanish old ladies don´t watch football. Jostling for Position is their contact sport. (They are never too old or frail. I saw one once drive her wheelchair full-speed into the front of a queue for goat cheese at a Renaissance Faire in Benavente). So this day in Santiago was their collective comeuppance. This was MY slice of pew, and I wasn´t giving it up to the Spider-women.
A bit of hubbub arose from the pew behind us. Prada Woman discovered two young interlopers in a Members Only pew. They were pilgrims, freshly arrived, just in time for the Mass. They were scared. I turned and told the Queen Bee the youngsters could have our seats, seeing as they were real pilgrims. Rather than take on the unnamed “us,” she buzzed off and left them where they were.
The Pamplonesa to my left looked at me from her upturned nose. “I am a pilgrim!” she said. She turned around and asked the youngsters where they´d started their pilgrimage.
“Sarria,” they said. “Four and a half days ago.”
The woman sniffed. “I did the entire Camino del Norte three times,” she told them. “You don´t even start feeling like a pilgrim until you´ve walked at least a week. Don´t tell people you are a pilgrim if you only walked four days.”
I thought the girl was going to cry. I patted her knee.
“There are lots of presumptuous, judgmental people around here. Egoistas. Take no heed. Santiago knows his pilgrims,” I whispered, sotto voce. I hope she heard me, and understood.
“Sssshhh!” shushed a purple-robed beadle. I was not the only person talking out of turn, and the music was about to start up again. I turned back to the action.
The Mass was long and windy and spiked through with Latin and Gallego, incense, chanting, towers full of bells and the hands of hundreds of clerics raised to add their juju to the consecration. The organ and trumpets were in full voice, and the choirs were almost drowned-out by the thousands of voices singing the responses – an educated laity is a beautiful thing indeed, especially where music is concerned.
It was a beautiful piece of theater, 2,000 years of church history done up in full emboidered vestments. It went on for two hours or so, in which the Christian ladies on either side of me did their best to not give me the sign of Christian peace nor a slice of pew nor a sideways glance. When the Mass finished, while the organ voluntary blasted its way through the frankincense fumes and the roaring masses, the beatas beat a hasty retreat.
I realized I had a fever. It was way too late for a nap, but I went back to my room and got one anyway. No midnight shenanigans for me, not even the ones right outside the front door. I was done for the day.
At 10:30 p.m. Samson, a well-scrubbed young attorney from Sacramento, California., himself a new inductee to the confraternity, rousted me out with a shiny bag of giveaway toy hats and horns, streamers and a tiny plastic pouch with 12 green grapes inside. And so, with another new friend, I celebrated the arrival of 2011 with grapes and bells and multimedia projections across the front of the cathedral in Quintana Square. The fireworks rumbled and shook the great stone pavements, and brilliant burning lights screeched and exploded over our heads, way too close. It was splendid!
A few hours later, on 1 January 2011, I woke up in my little room with cordite in my hair and an edge burned off my little paper fez. I have no memory of my hat catching fire. And I wasn´t even drinking!
It was time to go home.
And so here I am in Moratinos, where our fireworks and our Masses are stripped down to the bare minimum, but our pilgrim quarters are full and our hearts are five times more warm than the most exalted of the ladies of the Archiconfradia de Santiago Apostol.
My membership certificate calls me "Doña," the Spanish word for "Lady" -- a cathedral of a word.
But here in the Peaceable Kingdom there are no Doñas.
Call me Reb instead.