Overt expressions of Catholic life are scarce on the Camino today. Most churches are either locked, with storks in their belfries, or open on limited schedules for touristic visits. One euro inserted in a coin box will illuminate a spectacular altarpiece for two minutes before the church goes dark again. With the exception of a Venezuelan priest-pilgrim who concelebrated at mass in Burgos, I have yet to meet one priest or religious on the Way. Contrast this with 800 years ago, when every town and village had its living parish, and pilgrims were sheltered and fed by religious communities and protected by military orders like the Knights Hospitaliers.
So it was remarkable last evening (Wednesday) to attend evening prayer in a Benedictine community, San Salvador of Rababal, founded in 2001 to minister to pilgrims on the Camino. On our way into town at noontime, Marian and I had noticed their beautiful, ornate chapel behind a locked grill on the right side of the main street. Before supper last night, with Marian staying the night in Foncebadón, I walked down to the 7pm vespers service at the chapel, to find nothing going on. At a couple of minutes before the hour, two young pilgrims told me that vespers might be on at the village church up the hill, just across from the entrance to the municipal albergue. I walked there quickly to find the place SRO.
About 60 pilgrims jammed the pews and several stood in the aisles. Evening prayer, in Latin, was led by two monks in black, including a priest who heard confessions afterward. Perhaps these two represented the entire Benedictine community of Rabanal, I can't say. The priest led the recitation of psalms and canticles, and the other monk responded, seconded by a few laypeople familiar with the drill who sat in choir with them. Program sheets were available, but a few in the pews joined in. Still and all, the experience was very moving—to experience the Camino as Catholic for a change.
The Benedictine liturgy set the tone for my climb to the Cruz de Ferro this morning. This iron cross, mounted on a seven-meter wooden pole, stands atop a massive cairn of stones and other tokens of gratitude and atonement left by pilgrims. At over 1,500 meters above sea level, it represents the highest point on the Camino.
Marian and I had agreed to meet for breakfast at her hostel in Foncebadón, so I left my posada in Rabanal at 5 am. I almost made a monumental blunder. Packing my knapsack in my hotel room, I failed to account for my battery-powered headlamp. Only at the last moment, when I was hoisting my pack on my shoulder and my foot inadvertently kicked under the bed, did I feel the lamp against my boot. If I had left the posada without it, locking the front door behind me as you must when leaving early, I would have had to climb to Foncebadón in the dark, or to wait until first light at about 6:30.
Instead, I walked with my lamp forming a circle in front of my feet. A light rain began to fall. The drops looked like a meteor shower as they passed through my shaft of light. I was startled to see a tiny salamander cross the path in front of me as I walked, like a plenarian worm slithering across a slide in a bio lab. In that circle of light, an extension of my night vision, the cosmic and the microscopic blended. Like Walt Whitman, I contained multitudes.
The path passed through woods and up rocky inclines past a couple of stone troughs fed by natural streams and constructed to cool pilgrim mouths and feet. I suddenly emerged from the trees into a clearing. I looked up to my right and saw clouds that seemed to race toward the rising sun in the east. Then I looked dead ahead and saw what looked like the Cruz de Ferro on a ridge directly above. Then I thought I noticed a second, more slender cross just behind it and thought, Aha, that's the Cruz de Ferro! I should have remembered one of the Camino's first lessons: Never try to look too far up the road. You're likely to take an unexpected turn at the next bend.
I did. The path turned to my left and to the west, and I realized that neither "cross" was even a cross. As I emerged onto grazing lands populated by a herd of cows just outside Foncebadón, I realized that the entire landscape was chock full of "crosses." They were cell-phone towers and power towers running high-tension electric lines across the ridge. Another cross in neon flashed off and on on the face of an albergue in Foncebadón. The munching cows seemed unimpressed, and still I had not seen the Cruz de Ferro.
I arrived at the hostel for breakfast with Marian, a yummy, crunchy assortment of breads and jams and cereals with plenty of hot coffee and hot milk and spoonfuls of sugar. We stepped outside and admired the village, which has been effectively resurrected by the Camino. Marian told me that, in addition to the cows, only two people live here year-round. The village lives and moves and has its seasonal being thanks to four albergues built in recent years. Otherwise, Foncebadón looks like an abandoned village in the west of Ireland, with stone walls standing like bombed-out shells where cottages once were.
Having come from the relatively gentrified Rabanal to this wilder mountain village, I thought that in some ways the entire Camino teeters and totters between a haven for latter-day hippies and an Elderhostel outing for all of Europe. But the face of Christ is never wholly absent.
Nervously (why?) I walked with Marian along the hillside to our left, then doubled back until finally the Cruz de Ferro came into view at the end of a long path. We could see several pilgrims gathered in colorful rain slickers at the base and another posing on top of the cairn , with his arms outstretched before the cross like a crucified Christ. The Cruz de Ferro represents one of the better photo opportunities on the Camino, but to judge by the thousands of stones and other mementos left at the foot by fellow pilgrims, it is also a shrine of deep significance. Pilgrims bring everything from 30-pound rocks to family snapshots. "In memory of our beloved Christine" was the caption on a color photograph that had been signed by at least twenty people. Many rocks and tokens have hand-written messages, like slips of paper inserted in the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. Marian and I each had brought our own small tokens—for family members, friends, and ourselves. I knelt at the base of the cairn and said a short prayer for two friends before tossing their stones on the hill, followed by my own. A rainbow, cast by the sun behind us on the clouds ahead of us, formed a perfect arch over the Cruz de Ferro. I have photos of Marian beside the cross to prove there was a rainbow.
Afterward, we headed downhill as the weather thickened. Then suddenly we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in Ireland. (Credit: Marian Bull, for this turn of phrase.) Seriously, the weather (driving rain) and landscape (heathered hills) became something you might find walking the Dingle Way in the West or perhaps the Scottish Highlands. As the storm intensified, we jumped inside the remarkable pilgrim refuge in Manjarín, founded 20 years ago by a pilgrim from Madrid and still running on voluntary donations. There is no running water or electricity in the refuge, and the hospitalier apparently lives here with friends year-round. A striking shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary greets pilgrims as they enter, prompting Marian, a fan of Mary, to take multiple photographs.
It was mostly downhill from here, thought that's not always a good thing on the Camino, where downslopes can be hardest on knees and hips, especially when you're skipping over wet and slipperty stone paths as we did through much of the rest of the day. For lunch, we stopped to refuel at a bar in El Acebo, where pilgrims huddled around a natural fire drying out their hats and socks as in a ski chalet during a blizzard. We passed a happy half-hour over boccadillos with our friends from Paris, Constant and Lucille. Constant continued his French history lesson begun with Henri Plantagenet three days ago on the bridge at Hospital de Óbrigon.
Then Marian and I continued the hard trek downhill to Molinaseca, where we gratefully took a private room looking out on the river. We go to sleep tonight to the sound of the running rio Boeza.
[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]