Saturday, May 29, 2010

The Shame of Santiago de Compostela

 After 22 days of walking, we arrived on Pentecost, May 23rd, at 2.46 pm at the front of the Cathedral where it is said the Tomb of St James the Greater is kept.

We’d started off from Logroño, in the Rioja area of Spain, well known for its wines and festive spirit. We’d suffered 12 days of cloudy, rainy and unfriendly weather. Even suffered under a hail storm in the beginning of May. We’d put up with sore feet, sore shoulders, snoring people of all ages (don’t be fooled into thinking snorers are just old men), and finally arrived to the resting place of Saint James.

When we first arrived into the city, we noticed a stench rising up from the streets. Other pilgrims told us that the garbage collectors had gone on strike and the city stank.  There were piles of rubbish on every second corner and sudden shifts of rotting smells.

The pilgrim’s hostels were double the price of anywhere else we had been to, and the souvenir shops were abundant. Suddenly from dedicated pilgrim, we’d turned into dirty and unkempt tourists who were gently laughed at by the ‘clean’ and ‘fashionable’.

It was uncommonly hot for May. The square was littered with tourists and day trippers, and the only shade to be found, to rest under, was on the opposite side of the square. It was polluted with empty water bottles. We sat there, the wind taken out of our sails, and I gently tended my blisters.

We watched the constant arrival of pilgrims and then their confusion and dispersion.  What was there to do, but follow the next sign to the pilgrim’s office? Receive your Compostela with your name in Latin, and head to the nearest bar?

It came upon me, again, that the arrival meant nothing. I wasn’t convinced that St James was buried in the church, and I certainly didn’t walk about 600 kilometers to see a cathedral. It was the journey that counted, as we are so often told. The destination seems trivial in these moments.

We decided to immediately leave for Fisterra, and shake the dust from our feet. But we returned again in 24 hours, and finally received our piece of paper to prove we’d walked the last 100 kilometers of the Camino, and we entered into the cathedral.

As I said, I have no idea if its true that St James is laid to rest here, but I do know, that when we walked into the cathedral, it came upon me we were indeed on sacred ground. The earth shook beneath my feet, and the spirit rose strong in the body.  I couldn’t see details, only shapes.

And after a moment, I became aware of the buzz of the people. The talking, the noise, the photos, the curiosity – people pushing past me to get a better look, the swish of hair, the click click of cameras, the absolute irreverence. And it was ok.

But what was not ok, in that moment, was the hypocrisy of the Church leaders allowing such nonsense in the ‘House of God’, in the sacred space, where they are suppose to be guiding their flock with love and kindness.

Do you know what the tourists come to see? A huge ‘urn’(botafumeiro) filled with burning incense, that is swung from side to side. Do you know what that was for? Because when the pilgrims of old came to the church, they were so filthy, so dirty, and they smelt so much, that they used the incense to overpower the smell of the dirty pilgrims. And today, tourists come in with their cameras (Albert and I included) and take photos of our Holy men trying to take the stench away from the pilgrims. Ohh, click click click, look how stinky we are… click click click – it was madness.

Holy, sacred, reverent – these are lost words. Words dug under the hypocrisy, lies and abasement of the Church through all the years that their people believed. Now the people take photos of their stink and marvel at their rottenness.

But the whole city stank.  It was not just the pilgrims.

My friend said to me ‘but what do you expect?’ And he’s right. With a history like ours, of constant lies and corruption of power, what is there to expect?

But you know what – ‘Like dust, I rise.’

(This is a personal account of my experience of Santiago, and in no way represents what all pilgrims feel/felt. I met several people who arrived early in the morning, after sleeping at the Mount of Joy, and they greeted their fellow pilgrims, and enjoyed the pilgrims mass.  Some said it was the perfect ending to their pilgrimage, and I’m gladdened to hear it. )

Post script 

I wrote this yesterday. On re-reading it, I can see how the reader might think I am over reacting. That, yes, that's life. Who really expects Churches/Cathedrals to be holy places anyway, right? 

But remember, apart from the preparation time, all of the signs, all of the talk, all of the direction is towards 'Santiago' - to Saint James. Its a constant movement forward to 'something', that as it approaches through our daily trudging, and small problems, and blisters, as a moment in time, that is going to be 'special' in some unfathomable way. 

I don't know what I was looking for. I don't know if I wanted a pat on the back. I don't know if I wanted someone to say 'you did it' - but what I didn't expect, was the foul smell of poor communication between local government and their workers, and the reminder that politics and human systems have replaced all that is kind and good and sweet smelling. In that moment, it felt as if I'd reached the pit of stink, not a sacred destination at all. And my pilgrimage was and could only ever be my internal movement towards trusting the inner Self, rather than the designs of power hungry stubborn old men. 


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