Farewell to Santiago

After a late meal in Finisterre (also spelt Fisterra, presumably in the distinctive Galician dialect) followed by an even later night on the internet, I woke around 7.30am in my pensione room. The bus stop was only 20 metres from the door – an advantage of the central location – so I was one of the many pilgrims on the 8.20am bus back to Santiago. It was about a two and a half hour journey to cover the 90 or so kilometres.

When I arrived in the city I had a late breakfast at the bus station and then made my way to the Cathedral. The Pilgrim’s Mass had just started, so I joined the congregation, thinking that this would be my last Eucharist in the Cathedral. I was not surprised when the botafumiero was not swung into action at the end of the Mass.

I then checked back into the same hostal from the weekend and left my small pack which I had brought to Finisterre. May backpack which I had left was already in my newly allocated room.

Reckoning that I had been inside enough churches of late – at least five Pilgrim Masses in as many days plus other extended time spent in the Cathedral, not to mention a couple of visits to other churches, including the former Benedictine monastery now a museum – I thought it was time to do something different.

I had noticed a postcard with a view over the city from Monte do Gozo (Mount Gozo). I looked it up and found it was 4kms outside the city. I decided to check it out. The pre-pilgrim Pat would not have considered it, but for the post-pilgrim who has walked 1,000kms, 4 kms each way is nothing, just an hour’s walk each way. It was overcast and there was a light rain so I took my wet weather gear along just in case it poured.

The road followed out the path by which pilgrims doing the Camino Frances enter the city. So I met quite a few pilgrims making their way towards their destination. Mount Gozo is said to be the place where those pilgrims catch their first sight of the spires of the Cathedral (though I noted that the road along which the pilgrims were arriving followed around the shoulder of the hill and did not pass by the scenic lookout on the top of the hill). On the top of the hill is a bronze statue of two 3 metre high pilgrims, exulting in their first view of the Cathedral.
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You can see the spires of the Cathedral almost in the centre of the photo, just a little bit to the left of the leading pilgrim, directly on the horizon of the hill above and behind the large, white buildings.

These pilgrim figures are really quite impressive. They stand in harmony with each other, facing the same direction, arms raised exultantly in parallel, looking almost as if they are dancing, doing ballet.
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I thought of their exultant pose as their “Toyota Moment – Oh! What a feeling!”, much as I explained yesterday in regard to my ‘leap'(!) on Finisterre.
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I wanted to be included in their moment, but there was no one else around to take my photo, so I had to settle for a “selfie”!
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I then made my way back into the city. Since I had walked out and back along the path that pilgrims following the Camino Frances (French Camino) follow, I can now truthfully claim that I have walked the Camino Frances. I just don’t have to mention the very minor detail that I only walked 4 kms of it out and back, not the 700kms or so from St Jean!!!. However, I don’t think I will go to the Pilgrim’s Office to try and claim a compestella (a certificate of formal recognition of having completed the requirements of a camino, the basic of which is having walked the last 100kms!!!

I thought I would pay a final farewell visit to the Cathedral, so headed in that direction. As I rounded a corner I walked into the Dutch couple, Rob and Annamarie, whom I had met in Andalusia way back in mid-April. We had shared some stages together over a period of some days, they walking ahead, and me walking, literally, in their footsteps, tracking their boot/sandal prints along the way.

They had gone on ahead while I had taken a much-needed rest day in Monterubbio and we had never caught up since. However, I had thought of them often. I wondered how they were going. I imagined that I was still following their footsteps, and wondered whether I could find their bootprints! I had thought several times to send them a text message. I had even remembered again today and determined to do so later.

They too had thought of me along the way. I had shared with them the ancient bovine wisdom, “As you walk along the path of life, make sure you take time to eat the flowers!” So when they saw flowers and took photos of them, they remembered me. They also wondered how I was going. They too had thought to text me today.

Like me, they too had started in Granada. They had started a couple of days after me. I had been the first pilgrim they had met on the way. We had stayed in some of the same accommodation. We had shared some time together in the evenings conversing over meals and drinks. So we had some bonds that joined us. But we had not seen each other since those days many weeks ago.

Then, suddenly, out of the blue, around a corner, we walk into each other. They had arrived in Santiago just that morning, four days after me. I guess I must have overtaken them in the stretch between Salamanca and Santa Marta when I was taking the bus.

I was very pleased to see them, and they to see me. Hugs all round. The Cathedral could wait! Our unexpected, chance meeting deserved a celebratory drink!

We shared some of our different experiences over the past weeks, including the differences due to the fact that they were walking a few days after me. Whereas I had relatively good weather most of the way, they told me that at one stage they had actually walked through snow and hailstones. We estimated that it may have been some of the stages after Puerto Sanabria, the high passes over the mountains crossing from Castille into Galicia (one of which I rode in a taxi because I could not find accommodation in the previous town). They had had to take a train at one stage because the weather was so terrible. But when I had walked those stages a few days earlier, it had been quite hot. Then, over the last few days, when I had been walking the last stages into Santiago in the damp, rainy conditions which I said were not too bad, they had been walking a few days behind in much colder, wetter conditions. It is amazing what a difference a few days before and after can make, and there is no telling which will be the best. It can even be so on the one day; one pilgrim group might leave early in the morning and keep ahead of the rain all day while those who come later might be drenched; or those who leave early walk all day through the rain while those who come later walk in the sunshine! It is the luck of the draw. Such is the camino!

We very happily swapped stories and experiences over a couple of drinks. It was their wedding anniversary that day. It had been my ordination anniversary the day before.

But then it was time for us to part, me to make that farewell visit to the Cathedral, and they to meet up for dinner with friends with whom they had been walking the same stages and staying in the same albergues in the past week. I said we should have a photo together, and Rob agreed, saying that we didn’t have any photos together from our earlier encounters. Then Annamarie indicated to me to look at Rob. He was in tears. Then it was my turn to cry, then Annamarie’s. We were all reaching for the tissues to dry the tears. It is amazing the depth of bonding and emotional vulnerability that can occur on the camino. We laughed and cried and called the waiter to take our photo.
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Still caught up in the emotion of the moment, we left the bar without paying our bill! And the waiter had to chase after us. Embarrassing! We complied happily. In fact, I paid for the drinks as a small gift for their wedding anniversary. I followed them briefly to where they met with their friends with whom they had walked stages and shared the same albergues in the past week or so, where we discovered much to our surprise that a couple of those friends turned out to be people with whom I had walked stages and shared albergues in the days leading up to Salamanca! The Camino can be a small world! More reunions! More hugs! Then finally we parted ways.

I went into the Cathedral, paid a final pilgrim farewell hug to the statue of Santiago (St James) presiding over the sanctuary of the Cathedral (here’s how he looks from the back when you climb up the stairs behind the main altar to greet him from behind; you can see past his shoulder into the body of the Cathedral where people are sitting in the pews).
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I also made a final visit to the crypt and the tomb of Santiago (Saint James) – and yes, the stones I had left a couple of days ago were gone, but other petitions and offerings were laid out, as I guess happens every day.

Then, since a Mass was about to start, I decided to concelebrate a final farewell Eucharist in the Cathedral. I vested along with the main celebrant and two other priests from Argentina (?). There was not a big congregation. The Cathedral was not packed to standing room only as it is at the midday Pilgrims’ Mass. With only about a fifth of the midday congregation, there were lots of empty seats. So it was a quieter, more reflective atmosphere.

At all the other previous Masses I had concelebrated or attended at the main altar, the singing was led by a nun who had a lovely, angelic voice. This time, for a change, the singing was led by a man who had a wonderful baritone voice. It was a pleasure just to listen to him sing.

During the Mass, after the readings and the homily, the main celebrant asked me to offer a spontaneous prayer of the faithful in English for the pilgrims’ families. Almost every morning before setting out on my pilgrim walk I had prayed, among other things, “for my family, friends, relatives and colleagues”. Now I was able to pray that prayer publicly for all the pilgrims’ families, friends, relatives and colleagues and have the congregation join that prayer. So if you are reading this blog, you were included!

Also, later during the Mass, as at the first Pilgrims’ Mass I concelebrated, I was asked to pray aloud in English the latter part of the Eucharistic prayer, for the dead – which in my mind and heart included my brother, John, my parents, and other deceased relatives, friends and ancestors – and for the living – which in my mind and heart again included all my family, relatives, friends and colleagues.

So for the above reasons it was doubly special that I had taken the opportunity to concelebrate this Eucharist of Thanksgiving as the final liturgical moment of my camino in Santiago de Compostella.

Then, at the end of the Mass, much to my surprise, the eight men gathered on the ropes of the botafumiero, we concelebrants each added our spoon of incense, and the censer was pulled and hoisted into its arc, swinging nearly up to the ceiling across the transepts of the Cathedral. I felt that having this unexpected opportunity of seeing this ceremony one last time was almost a final farewell gesture from the Cathedral to me! Some people come to Santiago several time and never see this ceremony. I have come only once, have been here for around a total of four days, and have seen it at least five times. How lucky and blessed am I?! When we returned to the sacristy after the ceremony, I thanked the sisters and priests who had assisted me over the past days and took my leave of the Cathedral.

I found a restaurant, had a meal, wrote the blog of the previous day at Finisterre and went to bed. Tomorrow morning I take an early morning taxi to the airport and fly out of Santiago to Barcelona, then on to Rome the next day, then on to Israel on Sunday.

As the priest said at the Mass for the English-speaking pilgrims on Sunday, “one camino is finished, the camino to Santiago de Compostella; another camino begins, the camino of life.”

He also quoted the words of Jesus from the Gospel of John where he says, “I am the way, the truth and the life”. (Jn 14:6) And in Spanish, the word for “way” is “camino“. So for us Christians, Jesus is the camino, the way, the one we follow, and in, through and with him we find truth and life in all its fulness.

I have completed my camino to Santiago de Compostella, but other pilgrims keep on coming to this city, to the place said to be the tomb of the Apostle James (Santiago), called there for whatever purpose, known perhaps only to God, but they respond and follow that call, men and women, young and old, singly, as couples, and in larger groups, on foot, on bicycle, in buses and cars, the fit, the fat, the tall, the short, the veterans of many walks, the novice walkers, from Australia, Germany, Belgium, Holland, France, Spain, England, the United States, Canada, Argentina, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Brazil, Mexico, Austria, and Switzerland, to name just those countries from which the pilgrims I met had come; and in addition to these, from nearly every other country around the world. These pilgrims come to Santiago de Compostela, putting up with heat, cold, rain, hunger, thirst, long distances, heavy backpacks, basic accommodation, blisters, sore feet, sore knees, tiredness, plain food, cold showers, minimal laundry facilities, dirty sweaty clothing, crowded dormitories, snoring, lack of privacy, limited to only what they can carry on their backs; responding to a call, for whatever reason, clear or mysterious, which resonates deep in their desires, hopes, aspirations, dreams; finding days and even weeks of time and space and solitude and silence in their lives. Whether they or we know it or not, in the depths of our hearts, we are all seeking God. May their and our aspirations, hopes, dreams and desires be fulfilled. May we God-seekers know that the God whom we seek has first sought us out and found us and holds us always tenderly and carefully in the palm of His hand, in his heart and mind, through His Spirit and His Word, incarnate in Jesus Christ. Amen.

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Glory be to the Father,
and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and ever shall be,
world without end.
Amen.

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