Wednesday, 28 July 2010

The Saint, the King and the Pilgrims

Sunday 25th July 2010 – The Holy Year

At the appointed hour King Juan Carlos and Queen Sophia appeared in the huge square in front of the Cathedral. A military band struck up the national anthem and they stood in solemn silence. Then cheered on by the people of Santiago who lined one side of the square they shook hands with the high echelons of the Galician social and political classes. The President of Galicia was first followed by the Mayor of Santiago, then came a long line of dignitaries. The men were dressed in formal morning suits and the ladies in long dresses, hair piled high to support the traditional Spanish mantilla. As the King was doing this the Archbishop with assembled priests and clerics processed from the side door of the Cathedral round to the square. In this religious precession the dress was even more flamboyant. The Archbishop was surrounded by 14 other bishops. 15 mitred-heads-a- walking. They were preceded by a long line of priests in the blood red vestments worn on the feast day of martyrs and senior church figures in garb strange to the modern eye. In this procession psalms were chanted and prayers recited as the mace bearer led them forward.
Synchronised by tradition the processions formed one line which slowly mounted the mighty steps of the cathedral. The organ sounded their entrance and the Mass of the Feast of Santiago began. The waiting congregation who had been arriving in the Cathedral from 6am heaved a collective sigh of relief but their enthusiasm rallied when they applauded the flying Botafumeiro before cheering the King and Queen out of the cathedral.
This was a weekend of ceremony. The day before Don Jenaro the Canon of Pilgrimages presided at the High Altar for the annual Mass of the Archicofradía which is responsible for the Pilgrims’ Office and the well being of the pilgrimage. Medals were placed over the heads of new members. Everyone was in their Sunday best.
Around Santiago in the plazas and streets a programme of street entertainment and concerts occupied every hour of the days leading up to the Feast. When is a street a street and when is it a concert hall? Or indeed, when is an aisle in the Cathedral and aisle and when is it an orchestra pit?
In the evenings neon lights hung across the narrow streets added to the party atmosphere as did the sounds of rock bands and gospel choirs entertaining into the small hours.

On the Saturday evening there was the final service in the series of nine held each day before the Feast. For each the Cathedral was packed to hear the Cathedral Choir sing anthems medieval and modern. After this last service people poured out of the Cathedral into the square which was already half full with people reserving their places to see the  fireworks display which would herald the Feast Day proper at midnight. At 11.30 the cathedral and square plunged into darkness and there began the most magnificent and deeply moving sound and light show imaginable. On the old walls of this medieval cathedral was projected the mystical history of pilgrimage. Images of stained glass from Cathedrals along the way were projected in full technicolour. Fish, fishermen, octopus, fishing boats and glorious Celtic symbols celebrated all that is Galician. The thundering music accompanied a fireworks display which they say is the best ever. The cathedral appeared to burn and the spires appeared to dance in the sky. Catherine wheels whirled and thousands whooped with delight. High on the roof of the cathedral spotlights picked out gaiteros playing their Galician bagpipes and had there been room everyone would have danced.

Almost poignant in contrast were the familiar scenes of pilgrimage which followed. A scallop shell and the crowd murmured approval. A gigantic yellow arrow and they applauded. When the biggest map of the routes imaginable appeared they cheered and when the entire cathedral became a credencial bedecked with sellos thousands of voices roared approval. The fireworks display had a magnificent finale which reached far into the sky. The sound and light exhibition with some fireworks is being repeated every evening for a week. St James is being celebrated in style.
At the end the massive crowd dispersed as celebrities like Paulo Coelho posed with pilgrims and the King and Queen retired to bed.
This was a weekend with everything. Pomp, music, crowds, fireworks, ceremony and lots of partying. However striking the sight of bishops and royals in all their finery was, the almighty roar of approval when the cathedral was covered in sellos said it all for me. Santiago is a pilgrim town and the Cathedral is the pilgrims’ church. For many of us the grand ritual and rich robes hold little attraction. Rather pilgrimage exposes us to a simpler way of life where our walking brings an intimacy with ourselves, others and the land around us that no other journey brings. It is as we walk we become open to new thoughts and perspectives, when kindness, and tenderness and love take on a new value. Pilgrims assess who and where they are in this life and often contemplate what might lie beyond. This experience is for me the heart of the matter more precious than any cathedral ceremony.
Sometimes you just have to look at pilgrims to see this truth. I caught sight of a group of five young pilgrims sitting at Mass. They had their newly written Compostelas laid carefully on the pew in front of them. They sat in silence, not uttering one word of the prayers. This may have been their first experience of Mass or indeed of church. They took photographs and gazed around them. They stood with everyone when the priest invited the congregation to say the Our Father and their lips moved a little at the words of the prayer perhaps learned long ago. But when they realized that everyone around them was shaking hands and embracing at the Sign of Peace which followed, their faces lit up. They hugged and kissed, greeted those around them, smiled at everyone. They crossed the aisle to hug other pilgrims. They sat back down with smiles on previously bored faces. At the end of Mass when the pious crushed forward to take pictures of the Botafumeiro I watched as they stood in almost stunned silence with eyes cast up following its flight. As they disappeared into the departing crowds I hoped that the lovingness of the Sign of Peace and the wonder of the Botafumeiro which connects us to pilgrims of the past had been as wonderful as the rest of their pilgrimage.
It was great to see the King. The people love him. I enjoyed seeing the Archbishop. He seems like a nice man. My lasting memories are of the sellos on the cathedral, the roar that went with them and the young people in the Cathedral. Pilgrims do it for me every time.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

Hasta Santiago

I'm off to Santiago for a week of celebration. I'll write a full report when I return.
It is going to be a busy week. Yesterday I got a text from friends who arrived in A Coruna and are walking down to meet me in Santiago. On 23 July I am meeting up with the Big Man, friend, fellow pilgrim and guidewriter and of course singer extraordinaire. It will be a special day. I need to whisper this because he clearly doesn't want anyone to know and I have assured him his secret is safe with me...but I can tell you... it is his birthday...
I'll call in at the Pilgrims' Office to meet the new volunteers and staff including my friend Christine who has joined the Archicofradia and receives her medal at the ceremony being held on 24 July at the 1.15 Mass in the Cathedral. We have been corresponding for a long time and I am very much looking forward to meeting her. Christine is joining the staff of the Pilgrims' Office for 6 weeks or so as a volunteer so I'll be working with her too. Or will I?
Yesterday I got a note from the boss telling me that the Archicofradia has opened a new albergue in Santiago. It is big with 175 beds, wifi, luggage storeage etc. Four of my closest friends from the Pilgrims' Office have moved there to run it: Dani, Toño, Catuxa and Fernando. The name of the refuge is "Albergue Jaime García Rodríguez" in memory of the previous Director  of the Pilgrims' Office who died. I've said that I'll go and work there if more help is needed. What an adventure!

The new albergue is in Fontiñas a neighbourhood at the entrance of Santiago along the Camino Frances. To get to it you pass the refuge of San Lázaro. It is near to another albergue called Acuario.
The adress of the new albergue is:
C/Estocolmo, s/n (entrance by the C/Moscú)
Parroquia de San Antonio de As Fontiñas
Santiago de Compostela 

I'll post photographs of the new place soon.

Then comes the celebration of the Feast of St James. They do this in style.
Liturgically it starts with Solemn Vespers on the evening of the 24th. This is a traditional Vespers service of psalms and readings with an exceptionally high standard of choral singing. The first book of the Codex Calixtinus includes the chants for Vespers and a Vigil Mass on the eve of the Feast of St James. The rendition of the traditional Dum Pater Familias from the Codex is most beautiful.

On the 25th the Cathedral is full from early in the day with many seats reserved. At the appointed hour the Archbishop's procession begins from the door of the cathedral leading to the Plaza Praterias. As this is happening the King and senior politicians inspect the guard of honour in the main square as well as meet the civic authorities. They form up in procession then as the Archbishops's procession enters the square church and state meet and form one prcession into the Cathedral. The order of precedence is fascinating with the Archcofradia of the Apostol having senior rank. Usually in a procession the priest who is presiding comes last as the most senior. In a cathedral that is the bishop or archbishop. In this procession the King or his representative comes last and assumes the throne. He will then give a traditional greeting to the Archbishop and all of Spain. The Archbishop replies and the feast day mass continues. It is really a splendid affair.

To add to the festivities I am having a grand lunch with the pilgrims arriving on the Camino Ingles and others from Santiago and abroad who will be there. If we survive the day we'll all try to find a good vantage point to see the most magnificent fireworks display which includes a realistic re-enactment of the Burning of the Cathedral. This video of last year's give a flavour.

So....Happy Feast Day to everyone on the 25 July. I'll write a full account of the adventure of the week on my return.

Monday, 12 July 2010

The pilgrims and the shepherd

I suppose I’ve always known about Gibraltar. However I confess knowing about the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary apes was about the extent of my knowledge. Then in the beginning of my encounter with the pilgrimage routes to Santiago I read Christabel Watson’s account of her journey. 
I was impressed by this adventure which took her 42 days to complete. It was only after I started walking myself that I realised that she must have been positively racing to cover the distance in this time. Then I found out a little more about Lady Christabel, racing driver and mountaineer and it was more understandable!
Then one day as I was ambling along the Via de la Plata I was overtaken by an older pilgrim who was walking at least 6 kms per hour. We caught up with each other at the albergue in Santa Marta de Terra. This was Hans, 67 years of age from Germany who had started walking in Gibraltar. He was a lovely, gentle soul who had always wanted to walk to Santiago and thought he would start on this southernmost tip of the peninsula. As our conversation progressed I discovered that his hobby was motor cycling. I wondered if all pilgrims who start in Gibraltar are high speed?
I never gave Gibraltar another thought until I started following the blog of Ana Maria and Robert who decided to walk from Gibraltar to Santiago and on to Finisterre in memory of Robert’s brother, William Gomez, who died of cancer in 2000. They set out in April of this year and having reached Santiago and then Finisterre decided to continue on to A Coruña. Theirs is an epic pilgrimage and they suffered serious physical problems and had to cope with a lot of inclement weather. However the cause was noble because as well as being a memorial to their brother, they were raising money for charity. The fact that they took 77 days to finish on 5 July was a pleasant antidote to my early concerns about Gibraltar being the starting blocks for high speed walking. Robert and Ana Maria’s website tells their story and it is an excellent source of information for other pilgrims.
Gibraltarian Robert and Argentinian Ana Maria planned and trained for their journey for a considerable period before they started in April. While they were preparing I got a telephone call which put Gibraltar right on the map for me.
As regular visitors to this column know I have been playing the organ in Clapham for a few years, latterly dividing my time between there, walking and Santiago. The parish priest for 7 of these years, Ralph Heskett, became a friend. A fellow hispanophile, he told me that he had been travelling to Gibraltar for close on 30 years, preaching and filling in for local priests when they were on holiday. Ralph knows my interest in the routes to Santiago and he was surprised that I had never visited Gibraltar. In fact I think at one point I said that I would visit Gibraltar if he walked with me to Santiago. His reply indicated that his idea of pilgrimage to Santiago was to go on an air-conditioned bus. He would simply continue to visit Gibraltar because “I love it” he said.
At the time of that conversation neither of us knew that some years later I would be speaking to him on the telephone minutes after the Vatican had announced that the Pope had appointed him the next Bishop of Gibraltar. The Pope, Bishop, his beloved Gibraltar…he was astonished to the point of being speechless. That was a strange phenomenon for one of the best preachers I have ever heard. The reaction of people who know Ralph was interesting. It was as if they couldn’t believe that someone with Ralph’s outstanding qualities could be appointed. I know that says more about people's feelings about the Vatican but “our Ralph” isn’t a politician, or a mover and shaker. He is a man from a humble background, who was attracted to the mission of the Redemptorist Order, and who has a real understanding of the issues and difficulties of ordinary people. Ralph is a man who I have never heard judge or condemn people. He is someone one you would turn to if you had problems. Ralph is easily moved. He is a man of considerable tenderness. A Bishop? Wow. There is hope.
So Ralph’s invitation for me to go to Gibraltar was at last fulfilled when I flew there last Friday to attend his “being Bishoped” on Saturday. The technical term is to be ordained a Bishop and there were lots of other Bishops in attendance to make sure it was done right. On Friday night I gathered with other friends from the UK for dinner with Ralph on this last night before he became Bishop of Gibraltar. It was a lovely event. People were glad to see him and he was delighted to be with us. The atmosphere was jolly. This was a celebration as it was the first time many had seen him since the Papal proclamation. Ralph sat at a table with the Archbishop who with other Bishops would ordain him the next day. He was surrounded by friends and smothered in good wishes. Tomorrow we would see him in the robes of a bishop, wearing a mitre and carrying a sparkling new staff. Tonight he was simply our friend. I looked over at one point and there midst the party atmosphere sat a man deeply reflective of the task which lies before him. The picture I sneakily took is how I see my friend and why he deserved the oil with which he was anointed and the rapturous welcoming applause of the Gibraltarian congregation the next morning in a gathering so big they had to use an aircraft hanger for the ceremony. Ralph will be a good Bishop for the people of Gibraltar. Of that I am sure.
They will now know his warmth and humour. He is a natural communicator and could easily have been an actor in another life. They will be moved by his insightful sermons. They will be touched by the character of the man.
Ralph lived in one room in the Redemptorist House in Clapham for nine years. He now lives in the Bishop’s House. At the end of the evening we looked out as the sun set on the Straights of Gibraltar. He was surrounded by friends. We won’t see him again for a while as he has a new life now. When pilgrims Ana Maria and Robert next return to Gibraltar they will have a new shepherd. I penned the following little message to him:

Twas the night of the Nativity Play and the boy who was to be the shepherd was worried. “I don’t want to do it,” he said. “But why not?” his friends asked. After a moment the boy replied, “I’ll give you three reasons. First, everyone will look at me when I get dressed up in those strange clothes. Second, I’m not sure people will like me, and third, there are many others who might have been better in this part.” His friends listened thoughtfully then replied,“You need to be the shepherd and we’ll give you three reasons. First, you’ve been selected for the part by the Director. Second, you’re the best person we know to look after the lambs. Third, if you ever get lonely as the only shepherd in the play we’ll always be here for you.”

Ralph, Priest, Bishop and dear friend we know you have the talent.
We pray that you are also given the grace to be the shepherd your people need.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Coast of Death and Life

For many pilgrims standing at the point at Finisterre is the final end to their journey. Whilst Santiago holds the joy and excitement of arriving at the cathedral and the tomb of Saint James, many keep on walking to this more ancient place. The Romans believed that this was the end of the world. Where heaven meets earth. The place where if you sailed to the horizon your boat would drop off into the eternal abyss. When I gaze at that same horizon I can understand why they thought this and why modern pilgrims feel an almost primeval urge to walk until you can walk no further.
I find Finisterre a strangely underdeveloped little village. It has a few hotels and hostels but the harbour remains very much the work place of small fishing vessels which have plied their trade here for a millennium and beyond. It is messy with all of the smells of diesel oil and rotting fish, discarded ropes and fragments of fishing nets. Every day the seagulls still herald the return of the boats.

As pilgrims walk through Finisterre, past the albergue and up the hill out of town excitement mounts. Everyone I met when I was last there felt it. Near the top the waymark records 0 Kilometres. The end has been reached. The pilgrims I met fell to silence. The little group dispersed. People had their own thoughts. Private reflections on the journey which had gone and perhaps a cocktail of emotions about going back to the life left behind. In a whoop of excitement a boy made a little fire with paper and with great ceremony burned his socks. Although I suspect they may soon have disintegrated anyway we watched as he carried on a pilgrim tradition. Some burned all of their pilgrim clothes and plunged into the sea. The symbolism of leaving pilgrimage behind and beginning the next stage of life cleansed at the end of the world is powerful but I shudder at the thought of trying it myself.
Finisterre is the end of the world and the end of the pilgrimage route, they say. Well perhaps, because the next village round the coast Muxía claims to be the “religious end” to the pilgrimage to Santiago. Whatever the merits of this claim I find the walk round to Muxía beautiful and quite reflective. Muxía is a small fishing village very reminiscent of similar communities on the coast of Scotland. Unlike them however it boasts a miracle. Several actually. “This is the place where the Virgin Mary arrived in a stone boat to encourage St James in his work preaching the Gospel.” The hospitalero explained. “And there on the beach in front of the Church of El Sanctuario de la La Barca lies the evidence.” If you look closely you can imagine that one giant rock might be the upturned hull of a boat. But this is a place of imagination, romance, superstition and folklore. This is the coast where the Pedra de Abalar can be rocked by a group of people standing on it and depending on which way the see-saw falls gives yes or no answers to important questions. Other miraculous properties are said to be held by the Pedra dos Cadris where if you wriggle through the low archway you may be cured of kidney or back problems. In the 18th Century these magic stones were said to have powers of fertility but conception had to take place on the stones themselves. It is understandable that this uncomfortable, tourism averse, practice died out.
There is more to the beauty of the coast line and the rugged people of the fishing villages of Galicia. I have been reading a book loaned to me by Antonio who himself started off life as a fisherman. It is called, “Costa de la Muerte - Historia y and Anecdotario de sus Naufragios” by José Baña Heim.
Often when looking at the history of the sea and its people we can get caught up in the excitement of stories about piracy and smuggling, treachery and daring-do. This coast line has all of these from the tales of locals leading ships onto the rocks with lanterns so they could plunder the shipwrecks, to more modern tales of smugglers bringing in booze, tobacco and sadly latterly narcotics.

There is another side to the story and Antonio gave me the book as a result of conversation we had about his childhood as a small boy being sent out on the fishing boats and how hard the life was. The women waited to see if their husbands would return as this can be a savage coastline with merciless seas. In 1890, for example, the Royal Navy training ship, the Serpent, went down with loss of the lives of 172 boy sailors. To this day the small “Cementerio de los Ingleses” marks the spot at Punta Boi. The author has recorded some 200 shipwrecks over the 100 years to 1987 which resulted in 3,000 deaths. Even today some 20 sailors and fishermen per year lose their lives off of this coast marked by numerous granite memorial crosses . Small wonder that Antonio’s mother with the others in the village waited to see if the ships brought home more than fish in the evening.
These are people who have had more than their fair share of personal and environmental disasters to cope with. At this time when we are thinking about the situation in the Gulf of Mexico we remember that three of the world’s worst oil tanker disasters occurred on this coastline. The last was in 2002 when the tanker, the Prestige, floundered on the Costa de la Muerte the coastline most threatened was around Finisterre and Muxía. People rose to the occasion and thousands of volunteers turned up to help clean up Galicia’s beloved coastline. “Nunca Máis”, “Never Again” became the slogan on posters everywhere some of which can still be seen by pilgrims.

This is the land to which pilgrims have travelled for over 1000 years. For many the end of their pilgrimage on this Coast of Death marks the beginning of a new way of life. From death to life – how could it not be so?