Monday, 31 May 2010

John Brierley and the Inner Journey

John Brierley author of best selling Camino Guides is one of the most well known names in the Camino world. In the last seven years over 40,000 of his guides to the Caminos Francés, Portugués and the route to Finisterre have been sold. His books are guides to what he calls the “inner and outer journeys” and as well as route information they contain notes on the “mystical path” and encourage self review and reflection. This aspect of John’s work is not universally popular among pilgrims many of whom simply want information on where to walk and where to sleep and so I was very
interested in meeting the man behind the book cover.

I wrote to John asking if I could talk to him and he readily agreed, stopping off to meet me on his way to lunch with a relative. It was just like meeting another pilgrim on the Camino. Within seconds the social niceties were over and we were into deep conversation. John was animated from the start, his eyes alive with an evangelical conviction for what he says. His life story is vivid and he told it in a soft voice still coloured with the accent of his native Dublin where almost 40 years ago he practised as a chartered surveyor. By the mid 1980’s he was to all appearances successful. He was married with 2 children, lived in a detached house in the suburbs, ran his own company and was in his own words, “materialistic and chauvinistic”. In 1986 at the age of 39 John became increasingly aware of an emptiness in his life as he asked himself the question, “what is all this for?” He described a recurring daydream, his very own “ghost of Christmas Yet To Come” which showed him the meaninglessness of his life.

To prepare for my conversation with him I had read some of John’s story on his website and I was even more intrigued. I put it to John that many people at the age of 40 have these feelings of restless emptiness but that is a world away from up-rooting the family, selling everything and living in a camper van. How did it come about? John described a year of having the daydream but was so “spiritually blind” he didn’t know what to do about it. He decided to follow the fashion of the day and have a sabbatical. He wanted to make it a real break so they sold the house and set off travelling. He described it as just like going on pilgrimage and the act of “taking time out” was what grew into a lifelong spiritual search. On the last day of his year out he resigned from his firm. He realised that the journey he was on was not geographic but spiritual and for the last part of the year he and the family and settled down in the spiritual community at Findhorn in Scotland.

When they were on their travels they parked the camper van in the car park at St Jean de Pied Port and looking out they saw pilgrims starting the Camino over the Pyrenees to Spain. Wanting to find out more about the Camino they drove along the Way stopping in Roncevalles, Pamplona and other places en route. When they stopped they spoke to pilgrims and got some sense of what it was about. This was the first time John had heard about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago de Compostela. The seed was sown but it was to be another two years before he packed a rucksack and walked the Camino Francés for the first time.

I couldn’t resist asking, “When you set out from St Jean that first time, did you have a guidebook?” “I did” he said, “but it was full of inaccuracies particularly wrong distances and at the end of the day an unexpected extra two or three kilometers is a nightmare when you are exhausted.” That’s why in John’s Guides the distances are deadly accurate. “I measure them on maps and wear a GPS device on each wrist,” he said proudly.

As we talked I could see in John’s eyes that he was taken right back to that first pilgrimage. “I got a sense that I was searching for something. I spent a week in silence, avoiding contact with others. Lost in thought as I walked the route. There was a lot of rain and I was soaked through most days. I climbed the mountain to O Cebreiro and I went into the little chapel. I was cold, confused. I was aware something big was happening to me but I didn’t know what it was. I knew that the parish priest of this church, Don Elias Valina Sampedro, had been responsible for much of the modern revival of the Camino and as I knelt beside his memorial I got a huge sense that I was being called to write Guidebooks to the Camino routes for future pilgrims. In that moment a rare ray of sunshine shone through the little window in the wall high above me and bathed me in sunlight. In floods of tears I committed myself there and then to write the Guides.”

“I spent more days in silence but when I stopped in the rain at an ancient cross outside of Portomarin I met two pilgrims I had encountered much earlier on the route. We embraced each other and there was a wonderful sense of joy. I had friends. I had a new sense of purpose. Above all I had a great sense of affirmation that everything was going to be ok.”

At this point in our conversation John enthused about this discovery then caught himself in midsentence and apologised for rambling. “I’m Irish” he explained with a smile. I was interested in everything he had to say but I wanted to know what he felt like entering Santiago for the very first time. John focused. “It was so disappointing,” he said. “I couldn’t cope with the crowd, it was so oppressive, I retreated from the cathedral in tears. In that moment I decided to keep walking and so I immediately set off for Finisterre.”

John said that although he had walked 33 days to Santiago, “one day for each year of the life of Christ”, it was on the 3 day journey to Finisterre, “I got an overwhelming sense of death and resurrection.” He explained that on the way up the hill to the end of the world at Finisterre he realised with utter conviction that the spiritual journey he was on would not end but would continue for the rest of his life.

John decided that he needed to explore this “inner journey” and that this exploration would be an integral part of the Guides he would come to write.

I was confused. “What is this “spirituality” you are propounding John?” I asked. “For some people the Camino is God centred, for others it is simply a walk, for some people there is meaning in crystals, for others it is the Cross. Under the new- age-speak what does John Brierley believe?” I apologised for being intrusive but John continued with absolute honesty. “I am on a journey of enquiry” he explained.”I accept everybody and what they believe. I can sum up my philosophy as being trying to find what connects us rather than what separates us.” He talked about his traditional upbringing in the Church of Ireland, “but it never became an important part of my life.” In contrast the spiritual awakening he experienced as a pilgrim has led to a lifelong search for understanding of the nature of “God, Jesus and the Trinity.” As we talked further the jargon of self help psychology fell away as John spoke about his developing relationship with Jesus Christ. He described him as his brother, an older brother who he can depend on. Just for a moment the simplicity of what he said hung in the air then in a rush like a descriptive chapter in one of his Guides he was off again describing the self help book a Course in Miracles which he uses as a framework for life. He quoted the book verbatim, “Words are just symbols of symbols, and therefore twice removed from reality.” He explained that he is conscious of the limitations of language and that what he tries to do in his Guide books is not simply give directions and information but “like a brother to the pilgrim, I try to walk the spiritual journey with them”.

John is clear that he sets out in his books to give people “permission to talk about the Camino as a spiritual journey” - the concept of the inner and outer journeys is inherent to the design of the Guides and he will not change that approach. “Will there be more Guides?” I asked. The loquacious Irishman was short of words in answer. More routes are being considered. Perhaps the route from Granada, perhaps the route from Montserrat above Barcelona. We’ll have to wait and see.

“What I do,” he concluded with total conviction,  “is write Guide books which point people to an empty space which they can then fill with their own journey”.

“Do you have the best job in the world?” “You bet I do” he answered without a hint of smugness.

We talked for a considerable period more, the conversation reinforcing my impression of John as a man without guile, successful in what he does, energised by the Camino and planning more adventures. Before I met John I had wondered about the whole “inner journey” thing. At the end I realised that although we may question whether a Guide book is best place to promote the concept, his sincerity in doing so cannot be doubted. He is a very nice man.

Saturday, 22 May 2010

You get more than an Indulgence

I picked up a leaflet in Santiago from the foyer of an hotel. The headline runs, “Los peregrinos en 2010 no sólo ganan el Jubileo”. A translation was also provided: “In 2010, pilgrims are not only granted the Jubilee indulgence”. What they ARE granted with this little leaflet is a 10% discount at the duty free shop at the airport. Well, hold me back!
At first sight this will be considered evidence of more commercialisation of the Camino which has been the subject of much discussion of late. Other examples are the fact that the cost of a credencial has increased from 50 centimes to 65 centimes for the Holy Year and for 2010 only it costs 300€ to fly the Botafumeiro rather than the usual 240€. Following my last post about the festivities I even got an e mail signed “Outraged of Milwaukee”. Things are definitely looking up for this blog.
My own view is that whilst there is clearly evidence of increasing commercialism along the Camino Francés in particular it seems to me that as the market grows this is inevitable. I also believe that it was always thus and there are many tales of the profiteers of the middle ages who wanted to cash in on the pilgrimage. At least nowadays they haven’t reverted to systematically murdering pilgrims to plunder their rucksacks. Maybe this is another benefit of lightweight walking?
The fact of the matter is that Spain is no longer a country where food, drink, accommodation and other commodities are dirt cheap. The Spanish economy and the volatile exchange rate have put paid to that. We also have to remember that in this economic crisis Spain is not in a good place. The national debt has soared, the economy is weak, bank lending is nil and unemployment is at 20%. More in rural Galicia they say. It is against this background I find myself using words like timo or estafa (both mean “ripoff”) with increasing frequency. I’ve found a good way to calm myself down is to compare what I am complaining about to London prices and ask why I expect a gigantic Spanish gin and tonic to be a third of the price of its British diminutive counterpart?
Thankfully the Camino brings a sense of peace and perspective. As we walk with everything on our backs we learn that we don’t need very much to meet our needs, there are no phone calls from the office, soap opera plots to follow, bank statements to fret over and, unless you go looking, not even news of world events to ponder. Therefore for some the realities of Capitalism on the Camino, can be really quite ugly.
But I’ve found there are always antidotes if you look for them. Last week for example under the neon lights and through the packed streets the pilgrims still came threading their way to the Pilgrims’ Office. It was busy. I looked up at one point and one of my colleagues another volunteer from Japan called Annuska was talking to a pilgrim with a very pained expression on her face. I saw the pilgrim was wearing a kilt and so I went over. Annuska was trying to explain in broken Spanish with a Japanese accent to David from Dunblane that the name written on his Compostela was his only it was in Latin. He was saying in the calmest of measured tones “But lassie, Davidem is no the name that ma mither gied me”. I provided a translation for both. Annuska bowed respectfully and Davidem doffed his hat. Content. I took a break to talk with this Scottish pilgrim. Clear eyed, tanned and lean he had walked from France to Santiago. His face was lit as if by an inner light but the thing that really got me was the sense of calm and peace he exuded. Within a few sentences we had moved from social niceties to talk about the profound spiritual basis of pilgrimage, how the complicated becomes simple, how we learn to separate needs from wants. Our conversation was interrupted when a group of pilgrims arrived who flocked to embrace David warmly. They had walked together but had split up in the last few days. They were pleased to be together again. From the opposite end of the age spectrum young Alex hugged the older man, their friendship palpable and I suspect lasting. David looked at me and said, "you couldnae buy this, ye know ".
Usually for a break I go over to the Alameda Park to read a book in a quiet corner. This is where the Portugués route enters the City. This time the fun fair and ferris wheel had taken over and so to stretch my legs I decided to walk out a little of a couple of routes. The first was the Camino Inglés where I had received reports that some arrows were missing near the city centre. The arrows were fine and as I walked the last 15 minutes of the route I was reminded of the beauty of the gardens through which it passes.

A couple of days later I strolled out half a kilometer or so from the Cathedral on the Via de la Plata. Victoria in the office had told me I should go and visit her parish Church. “The oldest in Santiago”. Rebekah had also mentioned it. A short walk took me to the very beautiful 12th Century Church of Santa María del Sar. It has everything. Fabulous flying buttresses, a beautiful cloister with fountain, a nave constructed of columns which lean out like the Tower of Pisa, and a sense of peace which must strike believer and unbeliever alike. Here is a place truly set apart.
Ten minutes before I had walked out of the throbbing, noisy centre of Santiago in full fiesta mode. Here I could hear nothing but the gurgle of the fountain. I sat and gazed and thought of the opening words of the Disiderata, “Go placidly amid the noise and the haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence”.
Yes, even with a 10% discount, you couldnae buy it!

Monday, 17 May 2010

Party time in Santiago

At one point it seemed completely surreal. Just before the Mass ended with the Botafumeiro they announced that its conclusion everyone should leave quickly as a pilgrimage of 2000 people was arriving for an extra Mass at 1.15. I walked outside to see what was happening. I stood at the top of the great staircase at the front door of the Cathedral. Behind me was the sound of the organ playing the Hymn to the Apostól as the Botafumeiro swung in front of the packed Cathedral. In front of me were at least 2000 people filed in lines behind regimental flags and a military marching band. This was Spanish retired service people on pilgrimage. Above the din the familiar sound of the Galician pipes pierced the air from one side whilst to the other a huge group of people cheered on a talented juggler. I gazed in amazement as a choo choo train drew up disbursing tourists in front of the Parador and a group of walking pilgrims threw off their rucksacks and threw themselves to the ground in celebration of their arrival.
Almost on cue several hundred chanting soldiers processed into the square in full kit including rifles. They were finishing a 3 day march from Sarria and they were on their way to the Pilgrims’ Office with their Military Credenciales to collect their Compostelas.
Santiago is celebrating the Holy Year Big Time. There is a festival air about the City. In the Cathedral nothing is normal. The place is packed several times a day. Security has been stepped up. There is more order. Walking pilgrims are submerged in a sea of groups of other pilgrims. I was waiting on Joaquin at the foot of the stairs to the organ when a marksman with a Kalashnikov appeared. “Surely his playing wasn’t that bad?” I wondered. No. A Royal was making an unannounced private visit. A couple of days later the Prince and Princess with the President of Galicia walked 15 kms into the City with full panoply of press. Hundreds walked behind the statue of Our Lady of Fatima to celebrate the feast on 13 May. A Cantor with a call-centre style radio microphone bellowed above the din…”Ave, Ave, Ave Maria.” He glowered darkly when an usher called loudly through the main microphone that the next service was about to begin.

In the streets clowns clowned and jugglers juggled. Serious bagpipers made a lot of noise whilst Gallegos in national dress danced in circles in the Plaza Quintana entertaining the long queues for the Holy Door. Someone started a Conga and I saw an American pilgrim whose Compostela I had issued earlier tag on with the most bewildered look on his face. In the park a calliope struck up its carnival sound and in the streets I found a better class of busker than ever before. Children ran everywhere with bubble making machines which are all the rage competing only with balloons and balls of candyfloss on sticks.
In the office the queues of pilgrims were relentless. We started at 9am and most days it was after 12 before someone placed a tepid coffee in front of us to be drunk at the desk. All round the office I heard colleagues still taking time to ask “How was your pilgrimage?” “Did you walk all the way?” “How was the weather?” But they were doing so without lifting their heads whilst stamping the credenciales, entering the data and writing the pilgrim’s name in Latin on the Compostela. There were still some problems. Pilgrims with very few sellos who said they had walked considerable distances were outshone by one Spanish pilgrim who had collected more sellos on his way from Roncesvalles than I have ever seen. And there was still time for some tender moments. Karin from Sweden a small women in her early 70’s appeared at my desk. “Where did you walk from?” I asked, gazing at some unfamiliar sellos at the beginning for her passport. She appeared almost embarrassed and with huge modesty whispered, “ I walked from Sweden.” She quietly shed some bittersweet tears as the final stamp of her journey was applied. On the other hand David from Australia chatted in one of the few quiet moments. He had walked from France but he hadn’t really enjoyed it and really didn’t know what all the fuss was about. He was a very nice chap and I wonder if when he reflects he might understand more. I also think we will see him again! Winfried from Germany is a doctor who recently retired. He said the experience had been so powerful he couldn’t describe it. With a tear in his eye he told me that he had cancelled his 4 star hotel booking in Santiago and was off to spend two last nights in the albergue at the Seminario Menor with the friends he had met en route before the group had to disperse to their respective countries. An American pilgrim was overjoyed to have reached Santiago. She kissed her Compostela and said, "All this, and I've just seen a poster for a Glen Millar Big Band concert tonight in the square!" She gushed. In Santiago? Can't be. Or so I thought.
Sadly for the first time I also witnessed people who were aggressive, insulting and just downright offensive. It would be easy to put this down to their nationalities. That may very well be a common denominator but what was more immediate was the fact that of the several incidents which occurred this week none involved weather beaten, weary pilgrims who have that air of still calmness about them. Rather every single argument involved people who for some reason or another thought they were entitled to a Compostela when they patently had not walked 100 kms or in one or two cases perhaps even 10 kms! I must confess I can’t get excited about people who try to cheat. In many ways I wonder “so what?” if they get a piece of paper to which they are not entitled. What I do object to is loud mouthed arrogance. As ever, honey would be more effective than vinegar. If it is any consolation my colleagues reckon that Spanish people are the worst offenders. Schhhhh, don’t tell anyone.
They also know how to enjoy themselves and although in this Catholic country only a minority go to Mass that doesn’t stop the great feasts of the Church being used as a reason for a good party. In the UK we also “celebrate” the Ascension, often not really knowing what to do with it. In Santiago they’ve adopted it as their local feast. They make the weekend a “Puente” i.e. if the feast is on a Tuesday or Thursday it is not really worthwhile going to work on the Monday or Friday. Very civilised.
So the week ended with the big wheel and big bands, classical concerts and a huge bicycle race. There was a lot of rain and the weather is still cold. Pilgrims reported facing all kinds of weather from snow to scorching sun on the routes. From the queues in the Office and to enter the Cathedral to the packed bars and restaurants everyone is saying, “Wait until it gets really busy in summer!” Can’t wait.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

Seasoned travelers

My bags are packed and I hope to be in Santiago tomorrow. But the volcano has sent up another cloud and yesterday many airports in the North of Spain were closed. I’ve been sending information gleaned from websites to friends in Santiago who are trying to get home. However we’re all getting used to the possibility of disruption and if my flight is cancelled tomorrow I’ll simply go when the airports open again. I’m much less anxious about it this time. If there is a point I wonder if that’s it. I wonder if every now and again Mother Nature delivers a slap to the human race to remind us we are not in charge no matter how much we think we are. Sometimes no matter how hard we plan it just doesn’t work out the way we think it will.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot this week. In last weekend’s posting I tried to express my view that there are many kinds of pilgrimage and although we walking pilgrims can think of ourselves as a cut above the rest, those who travel to Santiago by plane, coach or car are often pilgrims too. Pilgrimage, it seems to me, is a state of mind rather than a mode of transport. But my observation brought a sharp reaction from a couple of people who wrote to me. Their view is that rather than spiritual thirst the huge increase in numbers of “pilgrims” to Santiago this year is largely due to the selfish, grasping motives of the Spanish tourist authorities who for purely commercial reasons are heavily marketing all things Camino.
There is of course an element of truth in that view and many pilgrims rail against what they see as the over commercialisation of the Camino. In truth this is at the heart of my love hate relationship with the Camino Francés. I love the fellowship of others on this route. I love the vistas of endless vineyards in La Rioja and the sight of the long meseta stretching to the horizon. On the other hand I hate the intrusive advertising, the posters on country paths announcing the features of the next albergue and the one after that. I detest signs telling me I can buy a Full English Breakfast in rural North West Spain. And although I’m Scottish, I’m not mean, but I thoroughly object to paying 1 euro for a bottle of water in a shop that costs 15 centimes in the supermarket.
However I have no doubt it was forever thus and that in medieval times the growth of pilgrim numbers led to commercial exploitation. Wherever there is demand the market will respond. Maybe next there will be a chain of McPilgrim restaurants along the Way offering a menu of a Big McPilgrim with large fries and a coke all advertised by a living St James. Oh wait a minute isn’t that the lomo and chips that appears universally already?
Those who are concerned about the rampant commercialisation of the Camino should brace themselves this year. To cope with huge numbers tented villages will appear with all their attendant services. Sports halls and community centers will be sleeping centers. During the first week in August the Spanish European Youth Pilgrimage will take place when 30,000 young people will walk at least 100 kms into Santiago using all of the main routes. They will arrive on the 7th and 8th to get their final sello and Compostela. Inevitably the quaint stalls selling Camino trinkets will adapt and expand accordingly.
Can anything be done about this march of Mammon? Plenty. I can buy my water in a supermarcado and deny the profiteers their euros. We can seek out and support those albergues run by the Confraternities, Amigos and religious groups who offer a simple welcome and hospitality based on the traditional donativo rather than a scale of charges. We can cherish people like Rebekah and Paddy who open their home and hearts to pilgrims on the Way in their Peaceable Kingdom. We can embrace new groups like the Peterborough Pilgrims who are unequivocal in their Christian approach to pilgrimage. They may not be for everyone and they may step on a few toes to begin with but we should applaud their motives. They like many others are the signs that amid the money,  profits, and self seeking, pilgrims with good hearts still walk.

This week I got a letter from someone I haven’t seen for quite some time. In a quiet moment a few years ago he shared that he had always wanted to journey to Santiago and that one day he set off for France in his car. He parked at St Jean de Pied Port bought a walking stick and set off over the route Napoleon. The rain came on. His feet were sore. Halfway up he decided that this was not for him. Back in his car he set off for Santiago. He reached the destination. There are those who would say he isn’t a pilgrim but here is an extract of what he wrote to me this week. You decide.

"Dear John,
On Monday I’ll be 70 – becoming an old guy now – adjusting to the slow unfolding of life. When I was young, I couldn’t understand how anyone would give up the chance of excitement – to potter in a garden; makes me smile to remember. The swallows returned this week – suddenly the fruit trees are in full bloom; the terracotta Bhudda smiles from its new niche and I’ve started planting sweet peas and the like. The rewards of manual work and closeness to nature are much undervalued. I find myself absorbed.

Often, when I’m gardening, a tall gaunt woman passes – a toff – ages with me but more mobile. I’d guess, from her face, that she is familiar with ‘the grave and constant’ of human suffering – but her spirit seem undefeated. She usually has the smell of strong drink about her – sometimes glides past in a beatific state of drunkenness – but we always exchange smiles; seasoned travellers who know that the only path through life is the one we make with our footsteps.

The Tao Te Ching was written 2500 years ago – we don’t really know by whom. 81 short chapters – timeless wisdom on the art of living in harmony with the way things are. There are at least 30 current English versions – the one I mostly use is by Stephen Mitchell. In chapter 67, it says: ‘‘I have just three things to teach: simplicity, patience, compassion’’. I’ve decided that these are what I want for my 70th birthday – to help me navigate the remainder of my journey."

Sunday, 2 May 2010

We’re not the only pilgrims

What a week! It took me nearly a whole day to catch up on correspondence on my return from Santiago. This included a long letter of complaint to my service provider for cutting off my broadband and also a letter to Ryanair asking for a refund and modest compensation for a cancelled flight. The latter was written more in hope than expectation! I also got an e mail from friends in Santiago telling me that walking pilgrim numbers continue to increase steadily following the lull after Holy Week and that the old town remains full of visitors with long queues at times for the Holy Door and the Cathedral.

Certainly when I was there the Cathedral was full to capacity several times. Bus after bus load of visitors arrived and mounted the steps to the Cathedral like the regiments of an occupying army. So much so that crowd control measures have been set up outside and inside there is a strict one-way system and a division between the liturgical space and the area behind the High Altar with the Holy Door, the place where one can hug the Saint and the Tomb of the Apostle.

Here is how it works. Pilgrims wanting to visit the Holy Door form a queue in the Plaza de Quintana and on entering the Cathedral follow signs to the right to mount the steps behind the Statue of the Saint then proceed down to the tomb then back out through a side door which has been opened for this purpose which comes out onto the Plaza Quintana again slightly further up. There is a significant police presence all day long outside the Cathedral and inside security guards ensure that the traffic flow is kept in order.
Having gone through the Holy Door pilgrims then queue again at the entrance to the Cathedral in the Plaza Praterias. The traditional entrance from the main square up the double staircase and through the Portico de la Gloria is now the exit! Once in the Cathedral there is only one way out and that is strictly enforced. This departure from the traditional pilgrim entrance is proving universally unpopular and let’s hope it will be reviewed. However the impassive faces of the security people give nothing away. They have also set a limit on the number of people allowed into the cathedral. Everyone entering is counted and when that number reaches 1200 the entrance is closed. Twice in the week that happened at about 10 minutes to 12 0’clock.
It is clear that all of these measures have been put in place to cope with the huge numbers expected. They are already arriving. The Archbishop is committed to saying one of the four pilgrim Masses every day during the Holy Year and the diary is full of bookings for the Botafumeiro. At the best of times the 12 noon Pilgrims’ Mass can be very busy and often walking pilgrims can’t find a seat because they have all been taken by those who have arrived by bus. We call them, uncharitably,” tourigrinos”. Perhaps we need to revise our view.
One day it was standing room only and as I gazed down the transept where traditionally the pilgrims sit to see the Botafumeiro fly over their heads I couldn’t spot one walking pilgrim. You see rucksacks are not allowed and have to be left in a deposit next to the Pilgrims’ Office. Rather there was a sea of smartly dressed people wearing coloured neckerchiefs sitting in obvious groups. 100 blue neckerchiefs. A group of around 50 older people wearing yellow neckerchiefs and a huge group of very elegant Spanish women wearing scarlet neckerchiefs. I heard the hissing before I saw its source. “Ssssssssssssssssssss”. “Ssssssssssssssssssssssss” The chatter of the congregation fell silent as blue robed young men some with bright yellow scapulars moved through the Cathedral. They all had a slightly far away, intense look in their eyes and they clearly took their task very seriously. A man was told off with a wagging finger for using the flash on his camera. People were ushered aside to clear a corridor down the aisle, they clicked their fingers and pointed like mute traffic policemen in an attempt to maintain the one way system. These are members of the modestly titled Commanders of the Order of St Michael the Archangel. It turns out this is an Asociación Publico de los Fieles – an organisation for lay people permitted in the Law of the Church. I suppose much like the Knights of St Columba in other countries.
Being serious young men, they took to their task energetically and with much hissing and gesturing they achieved silence. There was an eerie moment where I didn’t feel comfortable to be honest and I was drawn back to my first memory of this place.
Four years ago I arrived in Santiago and went to my first Pilgrims’ Mass. Although entering the Cathedral I noticed all the usual “Don’t signs”, “Do Not enter”, “Do not speak” and so on I quickly felt at home as the pilgrims arrived. Some were shiny having arrived the day before and had washed clothes and bodies. Others still wore their rucksacks and frequently the tap of a pilgrims stick could be heard. As the Cathedral filled with pilgrims the noise levels rose. Pilgrims greeted each other the length of the transept. “We’re over here”. “You made it”. “Have you seen Antonio?” Pilgrims embraced and laughed and clapped each other. When the pews were full they sat on the floor around the altar rails. They took photographs of each other, the magnificent cathedral and of course the Botafumeiro if it was hanging there. They took over. This was their place. This was the Pilgrim Cathedral.
I loved all of this. I felt a sense of solidarity with my fellow pilgrims but I was also proud of a cathedral with very much a conservative tradition which was happy with people enjoying themselves. The stern looking Dean said hello to people as he made his way through the crowd. The nun smiled benignly when she had to call for silence a few times before she could rehearse the music. At the beginning of Mass the priest read out a long list of everyone who had arrived that day…I listened carefully for my country and departure point to be mentioned. Exciting.

I was startled from this reverie by a great clatter. Everyone turned around and the Commanders did not look pleased. A group of pilgrims had arrived and had placed their walking sticks against the wall. They had tumbled to the ground. Just as that happened the organ sounded the entrance song and the Archbishop appeared in procession carrying his own pilgrim staff. I smiled.

Mass started with a long list of the pilgrim groups who were present. 105 retired members of staff from a factory in Seville, 82 pilgrims from a Diocese in Portugal, 34 young people from a youth club in Cordoba, the list of walking pilgrims followed. Then for this Holy Year before Mass began two or three individuals stepped forward to a microphone and gave an “Invocation to Saint James” a declaration of their commitment and best wishes for the Holy Year. The Archbishop responded to each. Rest assured these will inevitably increase as the year progresses! Mass went on as normal and at Communion the Commanders leapt into action to try and maintain order. Finally the Botafumeiro was lowered and as the Archbishop filled it with incense and great song to the Apostle sounded on the organ the congregation could no longer contain their excitement. They stood on seats, jostled for position, cheered as it flew higher and higher and many hundreds of cameras flashed. As it was brought back to earth the Archbishop led the applause and the Commanders looked dazed.

The pilgrims felt at home again and one thing was clear to me. Whether we arrive by bus, on foot, train or bicycle in this year especially those with the walking shoes are not the only pilgrims. We better get used to that!