Monday, May 21, 2012
Camino de Santiago, Day 7: Torres del Rio to Logroño
We started the day at breakfast alongside Simon and Sam, our merry hobbit companions from northern England. Setting out from the Albergue Mariela in Torres del Rio, Marian and I were soon overtaken by the much faster English pair. We drafted them a while, the way a motorcycle would an 18-wheeler, letting their energy carry us at high speed.
What I haven’t made clear in prior posts is that, unlike Martin Sheen’s character in “The Way,” Marian and I have made no agreements to join forces with anyone else, not even Simon and Sam. Our frequent meetings with them, starting in Marian’s cubicle on our night at Roncesvalles, are left to chance, coincidence, or the Holy Spirit — take your pick. The way these two Brits and others keep popping up on our Camino is one of the mysteries of this pilgrimage for me.
Later this morning, while laboring up a steep incline, I urged the couple to go on ahead, which they did. But that was not our last encounter. As the two of us trekked out of Viana after lunch, Marian looked down at the sandy trailside and said, Look! Written in the sand in large capital letters were the words GO BULL GO! Then a little further on was the artist’s signature: SAM.
We stopped in Viana not certain where we would attend mass on this Feast of the Ascension. We checked at the Church of Santa Maria and found that mass started at noon. It was 10:40 and we thought we might use our time better by having a substantial second breakfast and moving on right away to Logroño, a big city where we were sure to find an evening mass. We sat at a café across the street and dug into cafés con leche and bocadillos, when we noticed two pilgrims passing the door. They were Ricardo and Gerson, the Brazilian oncologist and his traveling partner. I waved to the Brazilians through the glass and they came in to catch up at a table beside us.
As Marian and I stepped out of the café fifteen minutes later—just exactly as we stepped out—the church bells across the street began ringing. I thought this might be a sign that we were supposed to attend mass here and not in Logroño, and then I saw a man carry a tuba into the church. I have often ignored church bells, but I seldom pass up the chance to hear a tuba, especially in a church.
C’mon, I told Marian, this mass is for us. We stood beneath the portal with a Crucifixion that included the two criminals executed with Christ—something you rarely see in church iconography. At our feet, we noticed an engraving marking this as the burial place of Cesare Borgia, the son of Pope Alexander VI. The theme of this moment in our Camino was set: the blending of life and mystery, of God and Caesar.
It was just past 11:30 and the pews were beginning to fill. As we set down our packs, we noticed that many rows were marked FAMILIARES. We inquired and found that these were for family members of the children receiving their first communion here at noon. Last Sunday, Last Sunday in St. Jean Pied de Port we attended a half-Basque first communion liturgy, but compared with the tight-lipped parishioners there, the familiares of Viana, and apparently the familiares de los familares who eventually filled the Church of Santa Maria to the point of making any fire codes laughable, were like Mardi Gras revelers set loose in St. Peter’s.
The older generation of abuelos and abuelas was discretely turned out and the very model of solemnity, but not so the younger generation, especially the teenage girls. Mini-outfits were noted by my wandering eye; we saw a young lady of no more than fourteen in black Spandex shorts with a formal top, a sort of Speedo tuxedo.
The priest and altar servers and 24 first communicants processed up the center aisle, the girls dressed in long flouncy party dresses, their hair done up in ribbons and waterfalls of curl. All but one of the boys was dressed in a variant of a Spanish sailor's costume, one so elaborate that each looked like a little South American dictator. The one boy who apparently had not received the memo was dressed in a pale gray jacket and white pants, but he beamed all the brighter for it.
The liturgy was a riot. The short happy priest spoke with a microphone in hand like an emcee at a school talent show. He led a couple of remarkable singalongs, including a Gloria set to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”: Gloria, gloria, hallelujah! He set down the mic for the communion liturgy but that did not stop a low hum of incessant conversation from the congregation, which sounded more like the floor between votes at a US national nominating convention than a community at prayer.
When it was time for each of the 24 children to receive for the first time, the priest stood before the altar in profile and each child approached, hands extended. A photographer positioned directly in front of the pair popped her flash, to catch the very moment when the Body of Christ entered the body of child. Only about 20 percent of those at the mass received communion after the children.
This crazy first communion was like the Camino, I thought as we headed out of town. Most of the people at the Mass and on the Camino are not here for Jesus, but they are here and, whether they like it or not, the ultimate reason is Jesus. Marian said later that the Camino is just like Jesus, “an equal-opportunity grace-giver.” You may not come to the Camino for Jesus, but he will give you something here anyway. You just have to walk.
It was a long afternoon's walk from Viana to Logroño, and for the first time, at the very end of our first week on the Camino de Santiago, Marian and I covered the entire distance alone, without meeting any old or new acquaintances. This was beautiful. We talked about everything under the sun, from the year of three Popes (1978) to “South Park” and the films of M. Night Shyamalan, a flowing random father-daughter riff. We were together, still, after a full week, and we were doing this thing, we were really doing this thing. To reward ourselves for completing the first seven stages in seven days, we checked into a three-star hotel, complete with a very hot bath.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]