Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Santiago Notes: Not Alone After All

It's more than four days since I arrived in Santiago de Compostela. This morning (Wednesday) I was starting to feel it. Two days earlier, Marian left on foot for Finisterre, and since then I have been alone here, waiting to pick her up in a rental car on Thursday. By Tuesday I felt the eerie unreality of hotel living—not going anywhere or doing much of anything, being fed more than I need, sleeping maybe more than I should, feeling aimless. This morning I was fixing to write a post entitled "Alone in the City."

Part of the problem was that I had stopped seeing friends from the Camino. In a recent post I listed over two dozen acquaintances I had run into in Santiago between Saturday afternoon and Sunday evening. As long as these encounters continued, my Camino continued. But after Monday morning, nothing, no one—except for one repeat encounter with a guy who looked at me quizzically because I had shaved my beard and got a haircut. "Yeah," he said after realizing who I was, "you were lookin' pretty gnarly." Then he turned back to his breakfast companions.

I wrote myself a pep talk in my journal this morning—about prayer, taking one step at a time, and remembering it's "not about me." I needed cheering up. And then things changed.

I decided to go to 11 am mass. That was the turning point, I think. Not the noon "pilgrim" mass with its promise of being bombarded by the Botafumeiro but the daily mass for locals in a side chapel where the Blessed Sacrament is exposed for Adoration afterwards. I had been to this mass once before, on Monday, it's in Spanish, I understand hardly a word, but I went anyway, again.

Coming out of the chapel after a few moments of Adoration, I wondered which way to turn: left back toward my hotel or right toward the main entrance and a walk, which, the way I was feeling, was a push beyond my comfort zone. I turned right and walked smack into Constant and Lucile. My heart soared.

I wrote about this French couple here, and elsewhere too. They are among the most joyous people Marian and I have met on the Camino. They are outspoken about being non-religious but they exude such joie de vivre that you can't help but feel faith in their presence. We stood on the balcony over the square in front of the cathedral and took each other's pictures and exchanged jokes and e-mail addresses. I was happy not to lose touch with them. I know, I probably will never see them again in my life. But they matter to me. The Camino made it so.

Buoyed by this encounter, I felt better about walking to the park fifteen minutes west, where there is a spectacular view back toward the cathedral. Note that I already have to talk myself into a fifteen-minute stroll, after hiking eight hours a day for five weeks with a twenty-pound pack. But the pull of that old devil habit is strong.

I did walk to the park, and I did sit to read for 45 minutes and even to sketch the cathedral in my journal. Then I headed back uphill to the square and ran straight into Brook.

This young man from Canada is another one of the most refreshing people Marian and I met on the Camino. I first wrote about him here. He is enthusiastic about life, like Constant and Lucile, but unlike them he is overtly Catholic and unabashed about letting you know it. We had a happy reunion, and he told me he had spent several days with a young woman I called "Carrie" in another post. He said that Carrie had experienced some sort of religious reawakening on the Camino—something about Carrie's enounters with two priests and what happened in some church. (Brook talks with such energy that I picked up more of his emotion than his gist.) He said that Carrie had spoken positively of her encounter with me in Terradillos, and I asked Brook to pass along my e-mail address to her, if he would.

I felt so darn good by the time I was back at the cathedral, and I hadn't even met with Angel yet. This reader of my blog gave me an art-history tour of the cathedral and some of the city's neighborhoods on Monday, and we had agreed to meet for lunch today. Never mind that Spaniards eat too late, and I had to hold off until 2:30 pm for my next meal. Angel's name was not given in vain. He is a great soul who has been extremely generous with his time, showing me around Santiago de Compostela.

This afternoon was no different. It started with a remarkably inexpensive prix fixe lunch at the one of the first restaurants on the Camino that I would dare call gourmet. (Katie would have loved it). Then Angel took me to the pilgrim museum a few blocks away.

Here the first gallery begins PC. It frames what is fundamentally a Catholic pilgrimage, the Camino, in broader terms of human pilgrimage—Muslims to Mecca, Hindus along the Ganges, and so on. But the rest of the museum gets down to the real business at hand, what makes Santiago Santiago.

The next large gallery develops the history of the cathedral itself—from the discovery of the grave of St. James in what was once a Roman cemetery, to the building of a crypt around it, to the first and probably second pre-Romanesque churches erected over the crypt, to the Romanesque church of today and the Baroque adornments that were added later, turning a structure with rounded ends and arms into a rectangular, crenellated fortress.

Further along on the first floor and up on the second, I was struck by a broad collection of paintings and iconography of St. James himself. Angel took ten minutes to explain a particularly detailed painting showing a dying man and his intercessors, including the Virgin Mary and St. James.

I began to realize that, even after reaching Santiago, I had never seen the importance of this Apostle. He was one of the three to witness the Transfiguration, but for me he had always taken a backseat to the other two: Peter, with his keys, and John, the beloved Evangelist. But James is the only one of the three with a pilgrimage built around him. We travel to Rome for much more than Peter, and we read John but don't visit him. James? He took the biggest evangelical leap of the three and was the first Apostle to suffer martyrdom. And as the museum made clear to me this afternoon (a convert, I'm always last to know), he and John were related to Jesus, since their mother, Mary Salomé, was related to Mary, Mother of God.

Angel explained in depth nearly every object on display at the museum, then led me back to the cathedral because of a question I had asked him Monday: Where is Christ? When you look at the facade of the cathedral from the great square of pilgrim arrival, Jesus is not in evidence anywhere! There's St. James in the center of things, and two smaller pilgrims who look just like him, though Angel explained that they are in fact his two closest followers.

Today, Angel took me behind the baroque facade to the original (c. 1200) Romanesque front of the church. Here Jesus Christ is at the center of the design, at the center of all history. The problem is that this church front has been "under restoration" for about four years and is mostly covered over with scaffolding and scrim. Angel decried the apathy of officials who have not gone about the restoration quicker. When Pope Benedict visited a couple of years ago, he moaned, they didn't even remove the scaffolding so that he could see Jesus!

Angel finished his tour by generously circling the entire interior of the cathedral and explaining each chapel in detail. I was struck by his love and enthusiasm for this building, its history, and its raison d'etre, Jesus Christ. Since mass this morning, and my meeting with Constant and Lucile, I had been injected with a new energy and enthusiasm.

I thought it was the least I could do to write about it before leaving Santiago de Compostela in the morning.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino concludes here.]

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