Excerpted from Along the Way from REGINA Press
By Losana Boyd
Slept okay, even after all the midnight maneuvering. I wake up feeling excited…today is the day! Who cares about being rested? A quick juice and coffee, and I am off. The morning is cool and lovely. I practically want to run to Santiago!
I pass, then am over-taken by, and pass again, a few bands of pilgrims. No language connection seems apparent, so we just smile an “ola” and that’s about it. Oh, and a “buon camino!” of course.
The two hour mark arrives with a familiar burning in my feet. Taking Magda’s advice, I re-apply the Vasoline, put on a pair of fresh socks, and get back on the path. Success! The painful irritation is distracted down to a dull throb. After this much effort, naturally things are aching and a bit sore. I’m learning to overlook a lot.
Then a lovely surprise. With about six kilometers left, and interrupting, blessedly, a prolonged interior monologue on my marital failures, I run right into two English-speaking–as in the Queen’s English–pilgrims, asking me if I know the way we are meant to be going.
“Well, if we are all here, and you are asking me, apparently, I don’t,” I replied, which brought on some laughs. It seems the trail markers have stopped.
They are a band of Britons here to celebrate a friend’s birthday. We make a few tries at alternative directions. Then, a local woman walks by. The map leader speaks fluent Spanish, and after a brief conversation, is able to get us onto the right road.
What amazing grace from the Lord. To stop, without question, the further psycho-self assessment and give me instead this fun. A group of lovely Londoners to pal with for the final effort home.
Joanna is an art/English teacher, now living and working in Paris. Amelie, whose birthday it is, tells me that this is a spiritual pilgrimage for her. She was raised Catholic and has drifted away. I am sorry I can’t recall the others’ names, but their energies all contribute to a joyful final trek. The afternoon heat seems less oppressive as our destination awaits.
“You are a Catholic, right?” The map leader asks.
“You’re a Catholic, aren’t you? Do you think now that you’ve done this pilgrimage you will go to heaven?”
She knows enough to know that pilgrims completing the Camino de Santiago may be eligible for a plenary indulgence. The Camino is one of the three pilgrimages in the Church, along with Jerusalem and Rome with that distinction.
“I do not presume on God’s judgment, but I trust in his infinite mercy, with or without the Camino,” I said.
We pause for a group shot and continue through the lush, Galician countryside.
Approaching Santiago on a July afternoon, it is oppressively hot. As excited as I am, the effort of the day is beginning to weary me. The hills in the distance are a lovely shade of green… I am trying to imagine that up there must be a cooling breeze. Then, on the horizon, “Look! There they are!” someone in the group calls out.
The Cathedral spires! My heart leaps and my pace quickens. Indeed, there they are! Thank you Lord. Almost home. We have all come so far. Through the still good number of kilometers remaining, we all walk a bit more briskly.
The Londoners are planning a photo shoot on the steps of the Cathedral; friends are waiting for them there. I don’t want to impose on their private celebration, besides, I have my own thoughts on how I want to arrive at the Cathedral. Soon after reaching the city limits, we part company.
Oh blessed and holy St. James. Pray for us. The experience is nearly overwhelming. I am exhausted, probably a bit heat-struck, thirsty and weak… but such physical states are nothing compared to the reality that I am here. Here at my destination, the place of my longing.
Through the streets and markets of Santiago, I make my way. I don’t stop walking until at last, from the blistering sun on the steps outside, to the cool darkness of the Cathedral interior, I am on my knees before the shrine itself, where St. James’ mortal remains rest within a silver casket in the undercroft of the Cathedral.
Blessed and holy St. James, pray for us. On my knees I offer all of the prayer intentions that family and friends have entrusted to me.
Pilgrims file in, down the stairs, pause briefly, and climb up again. Some of us stay to pray awhile, others keep moving on. We are all part of the great continuum. We form a long line, with those who came before us, who have taken these same paths over many centuries, and those who will arrive tomorrow and day after; all of us have made the journey to be here in this same place.
A Mass for the pilgrims is to begin in about forty minutes. I make my way up from the Shrine into the main aisle to find a seat.
This is a pilgrim town indeed, yet so different in feel from Fatima. Here we multitudes are sweat-stained weary hikers with our dusty shoes, grimy clothes and heavy backpacks trudging up and down the narrow lanes. And we are crowding into the cathedral, with backpacks lining up against the inside walls, fronted by hikers who arrive late and can’t find a seat. There is a clumsy out-of-place look to all of us inside this exquisite masterpiece of art and architecture. The staff look non-plussed, which would be expected, I suppose. For me this is a once in a lifetime moment; for them, well, they see the likes of us hikers every day.
After the Pilgrim Mass, the Botafumeiro , the giant thurible, for which Santiago is also famous, is lowered , filled with incense, and swung across the transept of the Cathedral. It requires eight men using a series of ropes and pulleys to get the enormous in-censor moving, and then to get to to stop again, and it is quite a spectacle. I understand that many pilgrims, especially the non-Catholic ones, come to the Pilgrim Mass for the distinct pleasure of catching a glimpse of the Botafumeiro in action.
It’s cool, for sure. I especially love that its original purpose, described as quite liturgical, and which may also be quite applicable today, looking around at the crowd of us, was to provide a pleasant aroma inside the Cathedral where so many road-weary pilgrims were eating and sleeping.
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After Mass, I leave the Cathedral, to find and check into my hotel. The view from my room is amazing. The entire front face of the Cathedral is in perfect full frame, with the lovely hotel garden in the foreground. Nothing else occludes my view. I really need a shower, but I can’t stop staring at the magnificent cathedral.
I longed for this sight. I am here at last.