On our last day’s walk up to Santiago it rains. As pilgrims we’ve learned one camino mantra well: it is what it is. As Tasmanians we’ve also learned to embrace “atmospheric” weather, recognising that rain begets rainbows. And sure enough, as the sun tentatively lifts above the horizon, a beautiful bow arcs its promise across the sky.
[A promising start to our final day]
Santiago is a city, and like all such it sprawls untidily. If we feared that would mean an anticlimactic last day slogging through suburbia, we are pleasantly surprised. Using some clever rerouting and a less-than-straightline approach, the way manages to get us close to the centre via relatively quiet and greenish paths.
[Approaching Santiago de Compostela]
When we eventually reach the inner city, where concrete, stone and cars dominate, we’re within sight of the cathedral spires. Still, that last kilometre is slow, and the grand Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela proves surprisingly coy for such a huge edifice. We trudge up the narrow lanes of the old city, craning our necks to see our end point. Each of us is simultaneously bone-weary and elated. Lynne is limping, but the rest of her is buoyant. So too are Tim and Merran.
There’s a false “summit”, of course, when we walk into the side courtyard of the cathedral. But a minute later it’s clear that we’re coming into the main cathedral square. Multi-coloured marquis tents and stalls crowd the central area. Everywhere else there are people, laughing, embracing, wandering, crying. A woman in a wheelchair pumps her fists in emphatic jubilation. From one corner of the square comes the sound of Galician pipes. And the tune? Thrillingly, it’s Aires de Pontevedra.
[Pilgrims embracing in the Cathedral Square, Santiago]
The four of us embrace, hardly believing that our camino is over. For some time we just stand there, smiling, laughing, searching for words that won’t come. Instead we walk around in front of the cathedral just trying to take it all in. I’d read a few accounts of pilgrims feeling a sense of anti-climax here; of their arrival at the cathedral being a let down. It’s far from how we’re feeling right now. (Perhaps in the next hour and a half, while we stand in a long line waiting for our official compostela, we’ll come a little closer to that.)
* * *
And now that we’ve completed our pilgrimage, what was it all about? What have we taken home from the journey? And did it serve any spiritual purpose, or somehow bring us closer to God?
[Happy Pilgrims: Lynne and me outside the Cathedral: (photo Tim Dyer)]
Before this journey began, I would certainly have said that you don’t need to go on a pilgrimage, or enter a church, or climb a sacred mountain in order to draw near to God. Nonetheless I was stunned by the beauty of some of the magnificent church buildings we visited along the way. And the quiet inside them certainly allowed for a sense of the holy. I was humbled along the whole journey to experience landscapes and cultures that have been profoundly shaped by long exposure to the Christian faith. And on our final day I was both thrilled and gobsmacked to witness the 53kg incense-filled botofumeiro whooshing through the aisles of the Cathedral in Santiago during our Pilgrim Mass.
[Inside Igreja Matiz, Ponte de Lima, Portugal]
But for me it wasn’t in those settings, not even in that concluding Mass, that I felt closest to God. Rather the still small voice of God seemed clearest on the journey itself. More than anything the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other helped me sense that God was as close as my next step, my next breath.
Walking everywhere, every day, became a discipline; an act of obedience. We submitted to the way, moment by moment, regardless of the difficulties. And there were some. At times I was brought low by rain, by heat, by blisters, by muscle strains. I felt befuddled by language barriers, and sometimes by my own mental state. Just because it’s a pilgrimage doesn’t mean the pain is accompanied by a compensatory choir of angels!
These hardships, according to Quaker writer Parker Palmer, are not accidental but in fact integral to pilgrimage.
Challenges of that sort, largely beyond our control, can strip the ego of the illusion that it is in charge and make space for the true self to emerge.
Control is always illusory, but that illusion shreds more readily when you’re far from your everyday props and routines. And, as 16th century Spanish mystic John of the Cross put it, God may be the closest when we feel we have lost control. Reaching the end of my resources did nudge me towards a greater dependence on God, even if through gritted teeth, and after the kinds of “frank” exchanges that sometimes pass for my prayers.
Getting beyond that grumpiness was important. Australian pilgrim and researcher, Lucy Ridsdale, pondered
whether walking pilgrimage might be transformative, by way of enabling a deep shift from an attitude of entitlement towards the world, to one of gratitude, as one’s fundamental orientation.
When things didn’t go to plan, it was tempting to grouch, and reach into the bottomless bag of entitlement that comes with being well-off westerners. But we found that the graciousness of locals, the flow of the walking, and the pilgrim mantra “it is what it is”, all helped us to become more real, more present to the moment.
If God could tone it down to a still, small voice, we might do the same with our demands. We could instead take pleasure in the simple things, like water, food, conversation, a soft bed under a solid roof, and coffee (of course). We could smile at the wag of a dog’s tail, admire the skill of long-gone builders, enjoy the symmetry of a ploughed field, savour the fragrance of ripe fruit, or rejoice in the colour of tiles. And just once or twice we could laugh at Merran breaking into an exuberant twirl mid-walk.
[Merran does a twirl between Lynne and Tim]
In all of this we began to identify with early 20th century pilgrim and writer, Hilaire Belloc, whose robust conclusion was that
the volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience.
For me as a Christian, that intensity was magnified by the fact that Jesus himself was a pedestrian and a wandering teacher. Walking past vines, sheep, shepherds, and widows in black; watching fields ploughed or harvested; smelling crops of corn or mustard, was like inhabiting Jesus’ parables.
[Ripening fields in Galicia]
And now it’s over, except … There’s that question, the one that almost every pilgrim asks you. “Will you be going on another pilgrimage?” While I wouldn’t rule that possibility in or out, for me there’s another thought that lurks behind it. And that is the notion that life itself might become an ongoing pilgrimage.
[A mysterious doorway into an abandoned building]
I can’t help thinking of a mysterious doorway we passed on our last day. A narrow leafy path leads up to the doorway of an old abandoned building. Beyond the entry I can see a winding staircase that leads further up. I half expect to hear the voice of Aslan saying
Come further up, come further in!
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