pilgrim’s progress


in the morning
you are sleeping
in the middle of the night
back home across the ocean
I walk the quiet
quiet streets
and reach my dream
in the morning
round a corner
into the quiet
quiet plaza of stones
and a slow sun
as if still sleeping
in the middle of the night
it is later
my compostela shows
my name
and where I walked
and when
and how many kilometers
the way

It rained in the night, all the world washed and fresh for this Sabbath. Lingering clouds kept the morning dark, as I entered Santiago de Compostela. It seemed the city was still sleeping. My boots found foreign footing on bricks and cement, empty sidewalks lifting me above the roadways. I listened to the rhythmic tapping of my walking stick echoing against the dripping store fronts and wet skies. Like ticker tape of wings, pigeons flocked silently over my head as I entered Santiago, birds like confetti fluttering from the skies, block after block. Streetlights like spotlights lit the way until the gentlest morning light suffused the air, and they, in turn, popped off, the reflected halo of their last light glowing before my eyes like fireworks, before fading.

This hill though high I covent ascend;
the difficulty will not me offend;
For I perceive the way of life lies here.
Come, pluck up, heart; let’s neither faint nor fear.

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

The Old City. I crossed an empty intersection at a stoplight and crossed into history. Now the roads narrowed immediately, worn cobbles carrying me up and up, past old churches and new shops in buildings that looked to be relics of the Middles Ages. Scallop shells in the road led me on, past a fountain with a statue of Cervantes holding the broad courtyard in his gaze. Only a few shopkeepers were awake to receive deliveries at side doors, and I passed unnoticed.

A moderate descent brought me to a plaza, to my left a side entrance to the great cathedral, and to my right, a formal garden standing before a massive convento. I tapped with my walking stick down smoothly polished stone steps, landing to landing, layer by layer, and passing through an arched gateway, I came to the fabled Praza do Obradoiro. There it lay before me, quietly waiting.

My lip trembling, I stepped forward. I looked up and saw the grand cathedral, this destination of the ages, and began to cry, as I beheld the Portico of Glory – wrapped in stories of metal scaffolding and plastic tarping. Confused, tears still poured as, overcome by my feelings of gratitude and relief and accomplishment, I simply stood and stared, high above, to where the highest towers emerged from their protective cocoons, shimmering and bright, transformed by being washed clean.

Calmer, I smiled; then I chuckled…and then I started laughing. The Mighty Catedral de Santiago: “Please Excuse Our Mess.” Everything human was a work in progress. Not a capilla, a chapel; no, The Capullo de Gloria – Cocoon of Glory. Somehow, I felt like Saint James had set up a fantastic punchline, just for me.

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“A man there was, though some did count him mad, the more he cast away, the more he had.”

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

I saw signs for SIN MOCHILAS everywhere – No Backpacks – to enter the cathedral and the smaller churches, so after the plaza, I found an albergue just outside the Old City, “Seminario Menor,” where I could stay multiple nights if I chose, and for an additional three euros, have a private room. I turned the key in the lock of the heavy wooden door, and it swung in to reveal a simple, plain room, with a single bed, a sink, a closet, and a small desk and chair by the long window. I wanted to stay and live here forever; instead, I booked two nights.

Stowing my stick and backpack in the closet, I returned to the cathedral, lighter. I still wore the clothes I had on when I hiked into the city, still wore my boots and cap, my small badge of honor, still obviously a peregrino.

Line upon line upon line. First I stood in line for 45 minutes to enter the cathedral at 11am for the noon Pilgrim’s Mass. So then I sat for another hour, a wonderful reprieve yet exhausting to my aching hips and back, as it was a wooden pew. Still, it let me have time to reflect and begin to rejoice.

Just so surreal: I am actually here. I wanted this journey, and planned, and didn’t plan, sold the house, quit the job, made my flights, took the bus to Irun, learned how to navigate the trails and the albergues, how to pack my backpack so it rode evenly and easily, my routine each night of shower laundry food writing sleep, up at 6am, coffee and something, and walk again. Walk. And walk. And somewhere along the way, walking the road became living my life. And the people I talked with, really talked with, became people I loved. And as I once thought Pablo would be someone important in my life, because of his generosity and his protectiveness and love of my stories, I realized they had all become important people in my life, each giving me their own gifts and unique perspectives.

I sat on the hard pew and thanked the Camino for Svend’s gift for reflection, and Wolfgang’s fierceness and Cordula’s directness; the merry jostling of the first three women from Britain, more sisters than friends; the sweetness of Hernani, and the hopefulness of Felix; the sass of Francesca; Joanna’s open, loving touch and affection; and the mystery and intelligence, the struggle of pride and humility, science and religion that was Christoph.

He had become the best mirror for me so far, willing to tell me when I was being judgmental, or distant, and willing to love me all the same. While it was easier and more soothing to talk to others like Svend or Francesca, I had grown the most talking to Christoph.

The Pilgrim’s Mass was crowded, both in the cathedral and in my heart’s memory. People filled the pews, and sat on the floor beside, and stood behind them, hearing the beautiful service in multiple languages, the priest listing the multiple caminos that brought us all together, people from countries all over the world. Behind the altar, I could see pilgrims filing in one by one to hug the statue of Saint James, and the endless flow of humanity rippled the very air. The readings and prayers kept shifting languages, until an Irishman read one of the Lessons, and here were familiar words I could hear and understand, before I slipped back under the lovely waves of Spanish once again. For communion, the oldest priest brought the wine and bread all the way to the back, for the peregrinos, while the other visitors and attendees went forward to the priest up front. The shaking of hands, saying peace to you, and this touching communion act for the pilgrims, brought me to tears; small gestures, always, were what got to me the most.

And then, as pilgrims stood in back, sat on the floor, and leaned on the stone columns themselves, they lit the incense burner, and it began to swing. Having given my pew to an older woman, I stepped to the place where the church crosses in the center, so I could watch the botafumeiro swing slowly back and forth, between the columns and under the arches, over the priests and over the people, like the watchful pendulum of Time.

I am here. I came. I am in Santiago, in the cathedral, and it is more beautiful than any movie, any cinematography. Because it is real. Now. And I smelled the incense, and felt the tears, so happy. I leaned my head on the pillar where I stood, resting on this new old friend, and smiled, and smiled, hugging myself and the aged stone. Deeply satisfying, this grand gesture of purification and sacred essence that I could not completely understand, which was always attractive to me.

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I left the cathedral by first entering deeper within. As I stepped into the oldest chapel, I felt the presence of layered centuries, the hush so solid it seemed to fall from the massive gray stones themselves. So small, so rugged in feeling and texture, this powerful space gave me a feeling of awe and something close to fear – maybe a wariness, or proper respect, for old energies I did not quite know the power of. I later learned this was the parish church of Santiago before the rest of the cathedral was built; it would have been where medieval pilgrims came, those of the Primitivo.
I had followed their footsteps into the inner sanctum of absolution – the Christian word for freedom. I was freed from my past, as they had been. The question was where we would go from here.

The obvious answer was the line for Hug-A-Saint. Reverence to sacrilege, tears to giggling snorts, I got in line for Santiago’s next Redemption Park ride, behind a string of tourists and peregrinos making a hot mess of salvation as we waited under the now clearing skies and burning sun for almost another hour. I entered by slow steps forward, through the Monks’ Door, into the cathedral but now behind the gilded altar, NO PHOTOS, SILENCIO, and at last, up the marble stairs to place my two hands, one on each shoulder of Saint James, and to touch my forehead to the scallop shell on his cape, thanking Life for this moment before I was whisked away again by the surge of humanity.

But the center of the spiral rested at the bottom of the stairs leading down, and down further: the silver casket holding the bones of Santiago. I stood before this window, this gap in rock wall and eternity, and then, as my spirit reached forward, I knelt. As if I were Pelayo. As if I had found something, something real, buried below all the shine.

“Most men will not ignore the present world that they can see
in order to make the world they cannot see
the object of their desires.”

— John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress

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After you go to mass, and hug Santiago, you head to the Pilgrim’s Office for the compostela, which means: a long, long line. I resigned myself to hours of waiting, and watched the people. The French bicyclist, slightly older than me, cut the line, and though people told him where he could join the queue, he refused to move back, as if either he didn’t understand what they were saying or he didn’t give a flying sello. I later saw that he understood several languages.

I was chatting with the sweet, tired-eyed Portuguese woman who shared her breakfast cookies down the line, looking back toward the fountain in the center of the courtyard, when I saw someone moving diagonally through the crowd – Christoph. I put my hands to my mouth as we recognized each other, and I let out a truly delighted shriek, and called out, “Christoph!” How wonderful it was to see him, to hear him, to have him say my name back, “Barbara!” I felt like singing.

We shared a heartfelt hug, and I held onto him. He told me how much they had missed me and talked of me, Joanna, Cordula, and himself. Joanna had played them my songs she recorded when I sang to her in the albergue.

“I have been searching for you, since arriving in Santiago,” Christoph told me. For two days. As his words sunk in, I imagined him searching faces in the long lines, walking through the now-crowded plazas. He had come today, looking for me, just for me, to find…me.

I hadn’t felt this loved since I was a child, and my father carried me to the doctor for stitches, my blood dripping onto him, and I squeezed his hand at every stitch in my leg; or when he gathered me in his arms and carried me to the house for a sling when I broke my arm falling out of a tree; or to the hospital for my concussion falling from the high feed truck, or the doctor’s office for more rocks ground into my knee on the school playground. It was always him, always there when I fell, and I knew it was okay, no blame, only love. Because he knew that in life, we need help, stitches, slings, and this was just the cost of being alive. He loved me ALIVE. And I felt this again, with Christoph.

He stayed with me in line and told me how the others were, and where, Cordula finishing research on alternate Camino routes and albergues so she could write her guidebook, Joanna on the way to Finisterre, and he, himself, going tomorrow. But first, Christoph had plans.

“There is to be a certain style of singing, here, in this chapel beside the Pilgrim Office. It is sung in four parts, and I think you would enjoy this. Would you like to meet there, at 5:00?” So away he went to attend to other concerns, and I waited in line, and waited in line, until I was next, and stood excitedly, watching for an available clerk. When it was my turn, I stepped forward, from dust of the trail to dust of the courtyard line, my turn, adding my name, and my dates, and my distance walked, to the neverending list of compostelas. And yet, in those few minutes, it was just me, questions asked about me, and I was congratulated, and smiled at. Me.

At 51, I had arrived.

“Sing, Faithful, sing, and let thy name survive;
for though they kill’d thee, thou art yet alive!”

— John Bunyan, Pilgrim’s Progress