Friday, 26 November 2010

The Holy Year comes to an end

The Holy Year soon enters its final month.  To mark the end of this last Holy Year until 2021, the next time the feast of St James, 25th July falls on a Sunday,  the Confraternity of St James organised a Thanksgiving Service last Sunday. It was well attended including a senior representative of the Spanish Embassy in London who read a passage from scripture. Colin Jones, the Chairman of the CSJ led the service and the Confraternity choir sang anthems from the Codex Calixtinus and led the singing. The Hymn to the Apostle, better known as the “Botafumerio music”, was played and sung as those who attended re-enacted the scene in Santiago by sprinkling grains of incense on charcoal.
 The service was to have also been attended by Don Jenaro the Canon in charge of Pilgrimages at the Cathedral in Santiago but ill health prevented him from being there. However he sent a special message:

Greetings to all members of the Confraternity of St James from Don Jenaro Cebrián, Canon Delegate of Pilgrimages, the Cathedral Church of Santiago de Compostela, given this day of 21 November in the year Our Lord 2010.

My dear members of the Confraternity,
I write to you from the Tomb of The Apostle on this day of great celebration. You have joined together to praise God and to celebrate the end of the Holy Year 2010. I am very sorry that I cannot be with you. In this pilgrimage of life we encounter many challenges. The present challenge I face with my health has prevented my physical presence with you … but please know that you are in my thoughts today and you will always be in my prayers.
You meet today on the Feast of Christ the King, Cristo El Rey. This is the end of the Church’s year. Advent follows, then Christmas with all of the joy that celebrations of the Incarnation of our Saviour brings. Today however is not the end of this special year in Santiago. The Holy Year continues until on the last day of the year when the Holy Door is closed again, this time for another 11 years until the year of 2021 when the Feast of Santiago again falls on a Sunday.
This has been a great year of celebration in Santiago. Over 260,000 pilgrims will have journeyed to the Tomb of the Saint by foot, by bicycle or on horseback. In September, we were delighted to welcome in Santiago members of your own group. In recent days we were humbled to receive the Holy Father himself when he made pilgrimage to Compostela. In addition to the walking pilgrims many millions have come by bus and train and aeroplane to pray in our Cathedral … to walk through the Holy Door and to hug St James. Whilst people have arrived by different means, all pilgrims are united in a common expression of hope and prayer for a better world. This is at the heart of pilgrimage. Pilgrims set off from all different places but walk the same road to the same holy place. It is the experience of that journey in which pilgrims come to know other pilgrims, come to discover Spain and come to encounter God.
Today I hope that you also give thanks, as do we in Compostela, for the magnificent work of the Confraternity of St James. Supporting pilgrims, providing information and resources and, of course, your two albergues at Rabanal and Miraz. These facilities for pilgrims have been provided through your own efforts to raise funds and a continuous stream of volunteer hospitaleros. The albergues on the routes and the hospitaleros who give a Christ-like welcome to weary pilgrims are the spine of the Camino.
And so, dear members of the Confraternity of St James, I want to address each one of you individually, particularly those who have returned from a pilgrimage this year. I want to invite you to look deep into your hearts on this auspicious day. For one moment I ask you to remember the gifts of pilgrimage … the hands of friendship you were offered, the bowls of food, the tears you shed, and the laughter too, the effort you put into your pilgrimage and the challenges you overcame. I ask you to remember those moments of intimacy when you were drawn close to a fellow pilgrim, drawn to the beauty of the countryside of Spain, drawn to the solitude of your own company. In each of these aspects you were drawn to God. Today, above all, I ask you to remember the joy of arriving at our Cathedral, kneeling at the tomb of the Saint, the pilgrims’ Mass, the Botafumeiro, and getting your Compostela.
I invite you now to remember the prayers you said in the depths of your heart and to make these same prayers again.
My dear friends … the Holy Year will end, but your pilgrimage will never end. Continue it. As you go forward in your lives celebrate Santiago, our Patron Saint, celebrate the Confraternity of St James and all of its good works … but, above all, praise our Lord Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour. Go forward in your lives with your pilgrimages continuing every single day and when you falter just keep on walking.
Viva Santiago!  

In true pilgrimage fashion everyone attending obtained the sello of the church on their Commemorative Orders of Service before they left. 

After the service 50 members attended lunch at La Terazza to raise funds for the extension to the albergue at Miraz - £500 was raised. Well done everyone.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

English breakfast

I love being in Spain and I particularly like to walk the routes less travelled such as the Camino Inglés. I can understand the attraction of the busy Camino Francés but these days perhaps it is a little too commercialised including cafés advertising English Breakfasts as if the medieval pilgrimage route was on the Costa del Sol or the South Coast of England. I prefer a quiet way with homemade Spanish food in the evenings. So when I saw a week free in my diary and a flight to Santiago for £36 I couldn’t resist.
But I had some choices to make: Should I walk the Camino Inglés to up-date the Guide book ready for next year? In the time available should I walk from A Coruña in 4 days or Ferrol in 5 days? Or should I stay in Santiago and help out in the Pilgrims’ Office with the surge of pilgrims expected for the Pope’s recent visit. Two e mails made up my mind. First was a prescient note from Mari in the Office saying that numbers in the start of the week leading up to the Pope’s visit were half that of the previous week. Pilgrim numbers were dwindling. Secondly I got a note from a pilgrim who had walked the route from A Coruña and had got “horribly lost”. Since with this route and the Guide this is nearly impossible the decision was taken – off to A Coruña.
I like A Coruña a lot. It is the seaside resort of choice for Spanish people and you will rarely hear an English voice. It is the more authentic starting point for the Camino Inglés with records showing that pilgrims from Northern Europe would arrive there by boat for the relatively short walk of 75 kms or so to Santiago. However since it doesn’t meet the 100 kms requirement to qualify modern pilgrims for a Compostela a second branch of the route was designated from Ferrol which is approximately 118 kms from Santiago. The route from A Coruña is very straightforward, nowadays well waymarked, and passes through beautiful hamlets and miles of pastoral countryside. The first Guide in English to this route had been produced by a member of the CSJ. There were no arrows or signs and simply using the main churches and common sense they had discerned the route medieval pilgrims might have taken. They described this in the Guide and when I came along a few years later I walked “their route” and up dated the directions and information. Having spent two days exploring what could have caused the pilgrim's confusion I discovered that at some point either the local authority or local Amigos had waymarked a route which in parts is substantially different for a few kilometres. I’m pleased to say it is now sorted out and the new version of the Guide will avoid any confusion. Promise.
Because pilgrims can’t get a Compostela for walking the route from A Coruña it isn’t known how many start there as the numbers are not registered. Certainly in the previous times I have walked that arm of the route I haven’t met any other pilgrims and I have been struck that local people didn’t really know much about it. But the Camino Inglés has been growing in popularity over the last few years and here are the numbers of pilgrims who walked from Ferrol:
2000 - 98, 2001 - 131, 2002  - 181, 2003 -  260, 2004  - 3,096 (Holy Year) 2005 - 651, 2006  - 804, 2007 - 1,085, 2008 - 1,451, 2009 - 1793,  2010 - so far this year - 6,000 (Holy Year)
I set off not knowing whether more pilgrims had left from A Coruña than before but I noticed a difference as soon as I started walking. One or two people even in the city smiled as I went past with my rucksack. A van driver at traffic lights sounded his horn and waved “buen camino”. The route goes past the beautiful Parish Church of Sigras with an historic pilgrim hospital and is then out in open countryside. Passing a little cottage a man dressed in overalls emerged from the garage adjacent. He responded to my greeting with, “Hola, de donde es usted?” “Soy de Escocia” I replied in Spanish. He continued in broken English, “but if you are Scottish why are you walking the English Way?” He asked laughing at his own joke. This was Guillermo who 20 years ago lived in Inverness in the North of Scotland learning welding. “near Loch Ness, but I didn’t see the monster” he laughed again. He confirmed there had been many pilgrims passing his garden gate this year and after a little wished me “buen viaje”.
Apart from his warmth there were other clues that the route is more popular. The waymarking has significantly improved and the tradition of passing pilgrims placing a stone on top of the waymark was more physical evidence that told me that pilgrims have indeed been on the route. There was none of this four years ago when I first walked. In a bar the owner gave me coffee and asked if I needed anything to eat. “Are you walking to meet the Pope?” she enquired. I explained that I was walking to avoid the crowds going to Santiago to see the Pope. She lamented the effects of the economic crisis in Spain on small rural communities but she said that this year in particular there had been a lot of passing trade from pilgrims. Further on I encountered two signs a few kilometres apart which I hadn’t seen before. The first was offering to buy Gold from the villagers of Galicia. I think this is a powerful symptom of the recession. No less so but perhaps a more attractive response further along the route was a new sign advertising “Horses to rent”.
Signs and notices are often very good indicators of what is going on in places and along this route local people could not fail to see the increase number of Camino signs and yellow arrows. Sadly, I also saw the beginnings of the “DO NOT” approach which I hate on the very popular Camino Frances. Here is an example. Rather than saying “Pilgrims if your are wet, please come in and shelter” the sign says “Pilgrims, don’t come in if you have wet ponchos and rucksacks”. The route becoming more popular has its downside.
I was thinking about all of this when José, the shepherd appeared from behind a hedge. It was one of these conversations when total strangers talk as if they have known each other for years. His English was excellent and José explained that he had worked all over England as a waiter for almost 30 years when he had been forced to return to the village in Galicia where he was born to look after ailing parents. “They are both dead now” he said, “it is just me. I have the house and a pension from England”. We chatted for a while. “José, what do you make of the pilgrims?” I asked. “Without the pilgrims who do I talk to? He asked. “The sheep?
I arrived in Hospital de Bruma in the company of two lassies from Madrid who had walked from Ferrol. I had a fond reunion with Carmen and Benino, the wonderful hospitalera and her husband. For those not sleeping in the albergue or who want food Benino has painted blue arrows showing the short walk to Meson do Vento and my hostal of choice, the highly recommended O Meson Novo. There I was greeted warmly. “El Señor de la guía esta aquí” I heard them say. This is a family run roadside bar and hostal which has rooms which are not only half the price of the hotel across the road but are also double the quality. When I first arrived at the O Meson Novo 4 years ago I asked if they provided food. They looked glum. “We really don’t do meals but we could do sandwiches or a ración for you” they said. In fact they produced a splendid meal of delicious boiled ham, french fries and fresh salad. The following year a couple of us arrived cold and hungry. “Do you have any soup to start with?” I enquired. “I may have a packet in the kitchen, would that be alright?” The lady was hesistant. When it was served she had obviously added things like pieces of real chicken. Fabulous. This time I sensed a difference. I checked in and showered. It had been a long day. When I got downstairs the lady said, “now sir, what do you feel like eating…just ask and I will prepare it?” What a difference. “Have you had many pilgrims here since I saw you last?” I asked. “Lots”, said Don Antonio who fetched his wife and they spoke in the English they had learned 25 years ago when they worked in Leeds, “oh yes, a busy year, we like the pilgrims, many of them have your guide, we try to help them if they have problems, if they need to make phone calls or if they need informations.” Then with chests swelling with pride they announced “and we can now do English Breakfasts if you wish, – bacon, sausages, tomatoes, fried eggs, fried bread. Oh yes, the English Breakfasts, we do them here.”

Something is happening on the Camino Inglés.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Silent smiles

There is a documentary programme on the BBC at the moment called the Big Silence. It is about a group of people who join a silent retreat and their search for the things they think are missing from their lives. One has “everything” but not contentment, another is searching for faith in God and another “just feels there is something missing”. The programme is led by Abbot Christopher, a Benedictine monk who wants to show them the value of silent meditation as a way of discerning the way forward in their lives. The series of programmes charts their journeys individually and together. We see the tears and laughter, people who were strangers forming close bonds and deep personal moments of realisation. As I have watched this programme I’ve found myself saying again, and again, but that’s what walking the Camino is like.
Abbot Christopher describes what happens when people are silent. He says that they eventually focus on themselves and their own lives. They begin to realise that often their motives are not as good as they would like to think, they may remember times when they were hurt and then feel the pain of remembering times they hurt other people. Through these memories relived in the silence, says the Abbot, people face the truth inside themselves. They encounter God.

I’ve paraphrased what he said but as I heard his words I was taken back to walking the Camino. The times when tears sprang easily to my eyes or I felt a flash of long forgotten anger and resentment I thought had gone away. Often I had memories of antics and escapades which made me chuckle and reminiscences of the past which made me smile.
One of these was remembering when I left home for the first time. “Left home” is too gentle a description. There was an almighty argument with my parents and I packed my bags and stormed out. Well, I packed a couple of plastic bags and stormed out. Those who also have had fiery tempers will remember that the anger can go as quickly as it erupted. So it was I found myself on a cold night determined not to go back home but with no idea of what I was going to do. I could think of only one solution. I’d go and stay with my Aunt Susan. My father was the eldest son of a large Irish Catholic family and his sister Susan was the youngest. My father could be very strict and conservative. Aunt Susan on the other hand was … errrr…colourful and adventurous. My mother (pictured) who was always attracted to fun thought she was daring and courageous. They were both stylish and beautiful and my father worried about their friendship. In truth I could be jealous of her children. At times I thought she’d make a better mum than my own. After two bus journeys to the other end of town I knocked on her door. She took me in and gave me a bed. She understood immediately what had happened between angry, early teenager and much older parents. I basked in her sympathy. I bridled a little when she said she would phone my parents to tell them I was safe. I bridled even more when she got me up 1.5 hours earlier than usual the following morning for breakfast before she insisted that I went to school as normal. Coming back in the evening she explained that this was study time and there would be no television or supper until homework was done. Within the hour I was starving. She explained that before dinner I could wash my clothes and hang them up to dry and that she’d get me up even earlier in the morning so I could iron them.

That night in bed I took stock. My parents may not understand me, I thought, but, well, most of the time we are ok together… after school the next day I was back home. My first bid for freedom was at an end.

Of course it was years later before I realised the plot my clever Aunt Susan had hatched to make me understand the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Later in life she and I were to become firm friends and the memory of her making me do my homework and washing always raised a smile.

Aunt Susan’s funeral was today. The last of the generation is gone. She lived her 88 years to the full. A life well lived.

I will continue to think about her often and I know that when on Camino that memory will still come to mind and raise a silent smile.
I was telling a friend about the Camino and how memories just pop into my mind when I am walking. He wisely said that all we can hope for is that amongst the array of thoughts of the past we always have ones which make us smile. He wrote about one of his own. Whenever I think about it I smile to myself. Maybe it will have the same effect on you.

"Dear John

Because the adults in our family spent so much time ‘in the shop’ we usually had someone ‘over from Italy’ staying with us - cooking, cleaning, learning English, sending home some money. When I was 13 Ermenia arrived - she was 17 and beautiful like Sophia Loren - and I fell in love with her. She was vivacious - loved to talk, and though she had no English this did not deter her. She would lean out of the window and hail passers-by - when they stopped she would declare happily “Sorri - no speaka Inglese.” She discovered the phone and took to calling total strangers. I would retrieve it to hear someone say, “It’s some crazy foreigner.” After a while it became clear she wasn’t settling - that she was homesick. “People here no talk,” she said. She took to collecting jam jars compulsively - filling her room with them. Then from time to time she’d weep quietly, which made me very sad. Eventually we agreed with her mother to send her back. On the day, it fell to me to take her by taxi to the Waverley. 17 year-old girls know when 13 year-old boys fancy them. She kissed me full on the lips - my first such kiss, it stayed with me for three years. It was 1953 and Tony Bennett was top of the ‘hit parade’ with - “Stranger in Paradise”.

In 1999 I am in Italy visiting our ‘tribal homelands’ - lunching in the hotel where Sunday families gather. On the way to the toilet I am stopped by a vision - a clone of the 17 year-old Ermenia. In shock I ask the owner, “Is that girl called Ermenia?” “No,” she says, “Ermenia is her Nonna - over there.” Another shock - the girl who gave me my first kiss - is an old woman. I don’t introduce myself. She was with us less than a year - probably doesn’t remember. But the owner must have said something - on the way out she pauses - she calls me Lorenzino and smiling asks, ‘do you remember the jam jars?’ We laugh. She has many grandchildren - grabs them as they pass - recites names proudly. Everyone’s talking at once - the noise is deafening. “Has life been good Ermenia?” With a big smile, she says, “I thank God every day.” Leaving, she kisses me. I smile - “You once kissed me 47 years ago.” Her eyes flash mischief –“I know,” she says."