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Pilgrims in Santiago – 29 September



We have been in Santiago for a day, and the only walking we have to do is around the city. I am not sure that our feet and legs – and our minds – have adjusted completely. Am I ready to stop being a pilgrim? Do I have to? At least for the remaining couple of days that we spend in Santiago, we remain part of a community of arriving and departing pilgrims.

Last night we went to the pilgrims’ office to collect our certificate, a diploma for having completed the pilgrimage, which is commonly described as the “Compostela.” It is in Latin, with Latin versions of our names. Having remarked earlier that the certificate was not really as important undertaking the journey, I was surprised at the lump in my throat when we were given our Compostelas. Have I become the Straw Man in The Wizard of Oz?!

In the morning, after a brilliant sunrise visible through the window of our monastery room, we prepared to go to the cathedral for the mass for pilgrims. We had been advised to go early, because the cathedral becomes very full. It may be for the pilgrims, but there were very many tourists there as well. This meant that we had to sit for an hour and contemplate – and engage with those around us. An elderly Spanish lady came to sit beside us, and managed to communicate through our limited Spanish to determine what we had done and where we originated.

I sat and looked around the church, especially at the statue of Saint James, Sant Iago, behind the altar. We made this pilgrimage along with thousands of others because this place is holy, marked as a shrine for this man. I’m not one for worshipping the saints, but I have had plenty of time along the way to reflect upon James the Apostle, who he was, and what he means. Yet it took until this time to receive one more illumination from the pilgrimage. The role of the apostle, “one who is sent,” is to introduce others to the one whom he follows, Jesus. All along the way, one of my challenges has been to walk at the pace of another. The one for whom James is an apostle spent his life walking, physically, mentally and spiritually, at the slow pace of people who failed to grasp his message and meaning. Any difficulty of the pilgrimage pace pales in comparison.

The starting points and nationalities of those who have completed the pilgrimage are read at the beginning of the service, and there we were: St Jean Pied-de-Port, Canada … as well as the Australians who have befriended us along the way: Pamplona, Australia. Once again, all those who have been engaged in pilgrimage were included in this worship: part of a body that transcends human differences, and brings people together in diverse ways to worship. We were led musically by a nun with a divine voice and the ability to lead people in learning the service music for the mass.

Our mass concluded with the use of the botafumeiro, which is a huge incense-burner, and which has become rather a party trick for the pilgrims’ mass. We were fortunate to witness the use of the botafumeiro, because it is only used on Sundays and feast days unless someone “sponsors” its use (which obviously happened on this otherwise non-notable Thursday) … Fortunately, the botafumeiro is only used at the end of the service, just before the dismissal, because it resulted in a surge of people with cameras, and was applauded. But what I suspect many of those intent on capturing this spectacle on film missed was that as the incense was released, so was the organ! It was wonderful to hear a full pipe organ in a large cathedral: an inspiring moment for me, because music is so intrinsically part of my own spirituality.

As the mass ended, we found ourselves surrounded by many of the people with whom we have walked: part of the wonder of being reunited in Santiago. We had already encountered Jenny and Dougal. We found our three young German friends. In the cathedral we found many of those with whom we have walked. We met the Brazilians, and the man who had asked for his Compostela to be completed in the name of his father, Heinz. We found ourselves staying in the same albergue as Annie and Louis, from Flanders. We saw two young brothers whom we have seen along the way. We saw Susan, whom we had initially known only as the girl with the bad knees! We keep encountering people who have been with us at one point or another. Is Santiago like a rather theologically simplistic representation of heaven: most people end up there sooner or later, even though some seem hard to find?

In the afternoon, Jenny and Dougal had invited us to go with them, by car, to Fisterra (Finisterre) – another act of kindness and generosity. Having travelled everywhere by foot, and having experienced all the communities through which we passed with some degree of intimacy, it felt very strange to go through villages at driving speed, and not to look into each of the churches that we passed along the way.

I am glad that we went, although for me the pilgrimage felt complete in Santiago. It was part of the process of transition back to reality, of integrating what we have experienced and learned into the lives we continue to lead. We went to Fisterra as pilgrims becoming tourists! And in this place, which can be dark and foreboding (the Romans apparently called the Atlantic at this place “the black sea”), but which for us was warm, sunny and clear, there was time for peace in the sound and sight of the waves breaking upon the edge of the small peninsula on which Fisterra sits.

Back in Santiago, we spent time with Netia, whom we first saw a long time ago on the trail into Nájare, and with whom we shared a meal in Carrión, and who walks very quickly. Ian and Judy, from Australia, sat down and talked to us before they departed. Jenny and Dougal had to go to pack – they leave in the morning. Then we shared some wine and beer with Anne, Christiane and Erik, the three young Germans who seem to have adopted us. They will walk to Fisterra, starting in the morning. I hope that we shall see them again: we invited them to stay with us if they come to British Columbia.


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