The Pilgrim’s Office in Santiago was crowded when I arrived at the end of our trip. I hadn’t walked the last day (though I did get in enough miles to qualify for a compostela), so I got there in mid-morning. The office is in the Medieval old town, near the famous Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. Already there was a line of hikers and bikers, still sweaty from the trail, waiting to submit their credentiales, the little passports we had stamped several times a day along the way.
If your credentiales seem reasonable, you make a voluntary contribution of a couple of euros, and the clerk inscribes your name and date on the compostela, the certificate of completion, which is in Latin. My name was written exactly as I spell it, but some of our group’s names were converted into Latin versions on their compostelas.
Next stop, the scallop shell embedded in the pavement in the huge square outside the cathedral. Tradition says you step on it to complete your journey. Step on it, lie on it, shoot pictures of it – our group came back the next day and group-hugged around it in silence and thanksgiving.
Every day at noon, there’s a pilgrim’s mass in the cathedral. The church is teeming with tourists – not just the walkers, but tour groups chattering in numerous languages. The buzz wasn’t conducive to much spiritual feeling, but we dutifully filed in and took our seats. From outside, the cathedral seems the size of a whole city block, but inside it was small, with a narrow nave in the Romanesque style, with a high softly-arched stone ceiling. We arrived almost 45 minutes early to get seats. As hikers arrived, many plopped their heavy packs and walking sticks against the ancient pillars.
The high altar is, as expected, very gilded and Baroque in feeling. Huge painted sculptures of pink-skinned angels, about twice life-size, showing lots of leg, seemed to float off the sides. At the center is a statue of St. James (“Santiago”). Behind the altar, tourists and pilgrims walked up a narrow passageway and embraced the statue from behind. It was a little disconcerting to see arms come out from behind his head; the line of tourists never stopped moving, even during the mass itself.
Shana has written in an earlier blog post about the service. Although it was conducted in Spanish (did I also hear some Latin?), there were readings in both German and English. At one point, the priest called out the countries from which pilgrims arrived the previous day: Spain, France, Sweden, Poland, Brazil, South Africa, Australia, Ethiopia, the United States, and England were a few of the names I caught. It was quite a moving experience to be in this space with people from so many countries, all of us having spent at least the last week moving toward this moment from different points on the map. While our group walked about 72 miles, some people had come from France, on the traditional route across the Pyrenees, a route that takes three months to complete.
Throughout the mass, God was referred to in Spanish as, “El Señor.” It reminded me of a Spanish- language processional we sometimes sing at All Souls that begins, “Vamos a la milpa, a la milpa del señor…”: “We go to the cornfield, to the cornfield of the lord….”
Hanging down from the center dome of the cathedral was an enormous bronze and silver thurible, a container for burning incense, on a thick white rope and pulley. This thurible, named the “Botafumeiro,” is famous; it’s one of the largest censers in the world, weighing over 175 pounds.
At the very end of the service, eight men in brown robes (it takes that many to handle the thing) lit the incense and then set the thurible flying over the transept – and I do mean flying. It lunged forty feet high into the air and plunged back, arcing back and forth like a wild child on the biggest swing ever, back and forth, fogging the air with smoke and scent. For people sitting below it, the sight must have been almost frightening. Had it come loose, we’d have been a number of pilgrims short. Someone told us later that back in the 1700s it once did fly off its rope. Flew off the rope, out the door and down through the outside plaza.
And then the mass was ended. Despite our not being Catholic, and not understanding many of the words, it was an uplifting experience. Later, after lunch, Claudia and I went back into the cathedral. The pilgrims and tourists had left for a while. It was quiet and peaceful, dark and cool.