With just over a week left on our European adventure we landed in Santiago de Compostela, the end of one of the most famous pilgrimage landscapes in Europe. Santiago, as it is known, has been the destination of pilgrims since at lest 800 AD, and it is still active as a pilgrimage destination hosting hundreds of thousands of pilgrims annually who complete all or part of “the Camino de Santiago”. The Camino (way) is actually a series of several paths (each several hundred miles long) converging on the cathedral in the center of town.
Although originally strictly a religious pilgrimage to visit the remains of St. James the Apostle (Santa Iago) located in the cathedral beneath the altar in a reliquary;
modern pilgrims make the journey along the Camino for a variety of different reasons as evidenced by the numerous books written about the sojourn along the Camino. Regardless of their motivation, it is difficult to make such a pilgrimage and not be changed. Indeed, that is the point of pilgrimage, to set out on a journey with an understanding that the journey is more important than the destination in the process of transformation. We go away and return a different person for the experience. We walk the “straight path, the upright path” toward understanding.
Pilgrims follow the signs along the way that point to their destination. In the case of the Camino de Santiago, the paths have been marked for centuries by the sign of a shell which carries both shared symbolic meaning for all, and it is a symbol that takes on tremendous personal meaning for each pilgrim who makes the journey.
One of the first hotels in Europe was established to house the pilgrims just outside the cathedral back in 1499 by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella (the same folks that brought you Christopher Columbus and the voyage to the new world), and it is still serving that purpose to this day.
Ever since this hotel was established, religious tourism has been the lifeblood of the city of Santiago de Compostela as evidenced by the prominent religious and pilgrimage symbols located on the well-worn manhole covers that line the streets of the city.
Inside the cathedral, the altar has been ornately decorated through the centuries by donations from grateful pilgrims who sent gifts back to Santiago after returning home from the journey.
As a medieval site of pilgrimage, most of the faithful who journeyed here would not have been literate. In order to educate them, the cathedral is filled with carvings and statues that tell the story of the life of St James (such as the carvings on the doors to his crypt),
other carvings (such as this one on top of a pillar) offer a warning of the fate that awaits one who does not cultivate their spiritual salvation. In this case it is a person tormented by demons and flames for eternity and it is left up to the imagination of the pilgrim to determine how this unlucky fellow earned his punishment (in this way, the carving acts as a warning against any “sinful” transgression that might give one a similar fate).
The cathedral doesn’t just engage the visual and imaginative aspects of the pilgrim mind but all of the senses are awakened in this space. One of the most significant ways this is done is through the botafumeiro. This is the largest incense censer I have ever seen. It is 5 feet tall, weighs over 100 pounds and hangs suspended from the ceiling above the main altar. It takes 8 men to swing it by pulling up and down on the rope and it picks up tremendous momentum as it swings back and forth across the main aisle of the church. It lives up to its name which translates as “smoke expeller”. I used to love to carry the censer as an altar boy growing up, so to encounter such a commitment to the “smells of heaven” was one of the most unexpected treats of the trip. I was excited to see it in action, but they didn’t light it on the day we arrived, so I will have to come back someday for the full effect.
The original botafumeiro was stolen by Napoleon’s forces over 200 years ago, but a replica hangs in its place based off sketches of the original that still existed.
The pilgrimage to the cathedral in Santiago is an evolving experience. Some journey to the cathedral, not from France or Portugal, but from across town as they express their hopes and dreams of a world without violence, particularly against women. On the day we were there we encountered a street protest against domestic violence that was several blocks long and bound for the square outside the cathedral to rally and give voice to the marginalized.
We too have been on a pilgrimage, a Camino throughout Europe over the course of three months. I totaled my steps from the phone counter and we walked over 500 miles on the trip by the time we arrived in Santiago (that is slightly longer than the longest Camino path taken by land based pilgrims). And so we took our rightful place on the streets of Santiago as pilgrims who had made a long journey far from home to arrive here in this sacred landscape, this site of transformation.
We too had been transformed, not so much by the destination of Santiago de Compostela in the province of Galacia, Spain in late November, but by the journey itself and the long route we took to gaze across the city and see the cathedral for the first time as so many pelegrinos before us had at the end of their journeys.
As the fading sunlight spread across this pilgrimage landscape, it occurred to me that the heart of a pilgrimage is what you learn along the way and who you become when you return home. I have attempted to chronicle in this blog some of what I have learned along the way, it remains to be seen what I will become now that I have returned home to my snowy retreat in the mountains of Colorado. I am certain I will be different for the experiences and lessons of this sabbatical sojourn. For now, I will sit quietly in my winter home, grateful for the warmth of a fireplace, the chance to learn and reflect, my family who traveled so far with me and those who greeted me on my return, and the beauty of the landscapes in my present and in my memories that make me who I am.