Certain life experiences are difficult to describe. For me, walking the Camino is one of those times. I had done research, read books, read other people’s accounts of their journeys, in fact I had attempted to prepare physically, mentally and spiritually, (I even wrote a daily prayer which I used, well, daily,) but none of that was enough. There are so many parallels here to our life journey. (Some of a those will be brought forth in our early summer sermon series entitled, “Time Out.” You can listen to those messages, beginning June 11 at this link. Just click on the sermon link.)
Perhaps the sense of community on the Camino was one of the most profound. Community was formed not only out of the common purpose of walking to Santiago, and of being “away” and in this “bubble,” but community is also formed because of the nature of the Camino itself. One always greets another with the words “buen Camino.” The People who live here also want you to have a good experience. One day Paul from Ct and I were walking out of one of the larger cities together. Suddenly the trash man ahead asked if we were pilgrims, we said yes, and he told us we had missed a turn about a block earlier.
This sense of community is what Jesus was forming in the world. It is found here. One is never alone unless one wants to be alone. On the nights where there were not big tables of pilgrims for meals, smaller groups naturally formed. It’s natural to invite someone to sit with you. So one night I ate with a woman from Bombay, the next night a guy from Sweden, the next a French woman, the next night a woman from Poland, and the next evening a guy from Ireland. (Yes, I did tell him how many American women love the Irish accent.) In each of these cases, deep, profound conversations took place.
The sad part is that some of that feeling of community already began breaking up in Santiago, the very place we were destined to walk. Santiago is a big city and also has many tourists. The pilgrims become very spread out, that sense of community becomes lost very quickly. Even though I had a nice conversation with a woman from Australia at the Tapas bar, the conversation was different; less personal, less deep.
The cathedral itself at Santiago must be one of the largest cathedrals in which I have ever placed my feet. Saint James sits above the alter, his body is in a casket underneath in the crypt. You can actually go up behind the altar and wrap your arms around his golden neck and tell him “thanks” or whatever you want to tell him.
The pilgrim’s mass is at noon. They give a blessing over the arrival of the pilgrims and they announce their arrivals. Yesterday there was a big group of Germans, Italians, Koreans and people from all over the world. I wish I could have understood the sermon, but my 100 word Spanish vocabulary is not that good. Usually the giant incense burner called the “botafumeiro” is used only on Friday. It takes about 8 guys to swing it back and forth. It was originally used to get rid of the smell of sweat and odor of all the pilgrims. (I can assure you, that is needed for me and my clothes about now.) In any case, we were blessed and they used the botafumeiro. What an exciting experience! The Spanish woman next to me did lower her head a few times for fear of being hit! By the way, they are doing work on the cathedral, so there was no going through the famous door and seeing “Jessie’s tree.”
The pilgrim’s office is about two blocks away from the cathedral. It is there that the pilgrims await to receive their Compostela, or certificate of completion. A certificate is only given if you have walked the last 100 km. While I have walked 200 km, I was not eligible for the certificate. I knew that when I made the decision to walk in the mountains instead of the busy and crowded last 100 km. It’s a decision that I do not regret. I did wait in the 1 1/2 hour line of other pilgrims in order to receive my last stamp in my credential “passport.” It is the stamp from the cathedral itself.
Finally, the food in Santiago is amazing. Any weight loss that I might have had was instantly gained back here! There are a few places here that still serve “pilgrim meals” for 11 €. (I ate with a Frenchman who had just completed his third Camino, this time for him was the Portugal Camino.) We had an awesome meal of octopus, a delicacy of the region and fish. After that, for dinner, it was Tapas all the way!
I should explain that there are many different routes for the Camino. All paths lead to Santiago. Perhaps the one I did, the Camino Frances, is the most well know. There are many paths from France, one from Paris too. There are different paths in the North, one from Portugal, and one that is called “primitive.” As stated in an earlier post, pilgrims from the Middle Ages walked out of their front door to arrive to Santiago. They also had to turn around and walk back home! (A few pilgrims walk back home today, but only a few. There were many more Europeans walking from their front door to Santiago. Some do the walk over a course of a few years, a few weeks at a time.) many also continue a few days more to Finisterre, which was considered “the ends of a he earth.” It was here that the miracle of Saint James happened, and there are two different tales of how his body, which was being transported from Jerusalem to Spain, went into the sea. A storm caused the body to be lost, the miracle is that he came out alive, covered with scallop shells, hence the symbol of the scallop shell for all the pilgrims.
I am currently in the airport in Santiago about to return to Paris where I will spend some time with my girlfriend and her family. Then the end of my sabbatical will be a week with my extended family and grandchildren in the states. I have one more post that I want to share within a few days, along with a few other pictures and a video of the sounds of the Camino. Thanks for joining me on this amazing journey.