Beside their packs upon the ground
On cobbled stones in this grand place
Before the church. And two embrace,
One with beatific smile,
Another looking all the while
For her companions of the way,
Who may, she fears, have gone astray.
Some with loads upon their back,
Others having shed their pack
Will go inside to see Saint James,
The symbol of it all, whose fame
Has brought them here. How do they feel?
Have they walked so far to kneel
Upon the ground in abject awe
Of Santiago Matamoor?
Or was it something less sublime,
A sudden sense of passing time,
A need to find without delay
A sense of purpose, come what may?
A whim perhaps, a challenge made
To end an evening, one that stayed
And lingered in the mind,
A rite of passage of a kind?
Or was it something more profound,
A personal goal, a quest to sound
The very depth of self? Who knows?
Whatever way the wind now blows,
They've changed, and what may now ensue,
A willingness for something new,
Will make them stronger, more inclined
To venture forth with open mind,
Receptive now to new ideas:
A piercing thought perhaps, that sears
The self-complacent soul and leaves
Instead, an intellect that breathes.
On Monday night, I enjoyed a jovial meal, the Australians, a German couple, Preben and I. Now I have been known, in a dramatic gesture, to sweep my red wine off the table and onto the white dress of the person next to me, but this time it was not my fault. Just as I was raising my glass to my lips, the waiter was putting my dish of pulpo in my place in a contrary movement. The plate struck my glass in mid air sending shards of glass and a waste of wine all over me and the table cloth. No harm was done, and the wine blended in well with the other stains on my Tilley pants. Of course, I was given another glass of red.
Dame Edna Everidge complained that "they always get the best positions" so I walked up narrow alleys to the top of the hill where I expected to see the cathedral, but it wasn't there. Nor was it easy to find, and I spent some thirty minutes looking for it. Inside, I refrained from standing in line to hug the saint as other pilgrims were doing. Notice the pair of hands around his shoulders in the photo below.
There are two Santiagos on the golden altarpiece, Compostelle below and Matamoros above. Santiago de Compostela is so named because seekers were led to his relics by strange lights in the sky, the field of stars. The legend of Santiago Matamoros dates from the final defeat of the Moors. Invoked by the Spanish, the appearance of the saint was the turning point in the battle. Typically, the statues of Santiago Matamoros show the saint slicing off the heads of his enemies. In the statue in one of the chapels, an arrangement of flowers discreetly hides these heads, but as the photo reveals, one can still be seen.
The interior of the cathedral is quite magnificent with its long Gothic nave, with standing room only as the pilgrims' mass begins. This must be one of the only churches in the world that is full every day.
At the end of the nave before the transept is a mighty organ: its pipes, adorned with seraphim and cherubim and all the lesser orders of angels, come down the walls, and then protrude like dragons' teeth above the congregation.
The pilgrims' mass was marked by three curious phenomena.
First, throughout much of the mass the long line of saint-hungers slowly climbed the steps to embrace Saint James, some just touching his shoulders, others rather familiarly, I thought, grabbing his chest. Occasionally, during more solemn moments of the mass the movement ceased, out of respect, or in response to ecclesiastical dictate, I don't know, but then it resumed again, a continual movement from right to left behind the altar. Distracting!
And then communion. Now I remember from previous experiences in church, and even this very same service a dozen years ago, that a minority of congregants take communion. The rest are not in the right religious state of mind, or they are not Catholics, but this time, almost everybody was getting up to take communion. I was the only one left in my pew.
I recalled a story from dinner a couple of nights ago, which, until that moment I had not believed. After attending the mass, a New Zealander had said how nice it was of them to give bickies to the pilgrims. She had got up towards the end of the service, followed the crowd up to the front, and received a nice little treat.
But what was really interesting to me was that the Church was turning a blind eye to the fact that many of the pilgrims receiving communion were not Catholic. How enlightened! Time was when a Catholic would cross himself in horror at the thought of a Protestant or worse taking communion. Mind you, what could they do? Ask each communicant to prove she was a Catholic by saying a Hail Mary or two? But I like to think that the clergy knew full well that many of them were not even Christians, but chose to believe that God works in mysterious ways.
And then the moment everyone had been waiting for, the reason why the cathedral was so full: the swinging thurible, the incense burner. The organ thundered, and the little men in red appeared, lit the bowl, and gathered round the rope with many holds, and pulled. It gathered speed, and swung higher until the rope hit the top of the transept arches on either side, causing the censeur to give a little jig before plummeting down.
Across the church from side to side it swings
And as it passes through the air it brings
Fire, and flaming frankinsense to quench
With purifying scent, the pilgrims' stench.
It has to be one of the great spectacles in Christendom, and I found it strangely moving to observe the ritual that had been carried out for hundreds of years.
There must be several hundred bars in this grand old city, but if you sit in one of them, you are bound to meet all the people you hoped to see again before you leave. First, Jack the Kiwi and Gal the Israeli, who were planning to busk in front of the cathedral, and then Verina the German girl whom we had missed at dinner, and then Eveline the Quebecoise, who was happy at the change of government, but not that the Bloq had won only ten seats. And earlier I had seen Fernando, and later I ran into Ted from Quadra.