Two summers ago, late one afternoon I sat on a low stone wall, swinging my legs—one of the advantages of being only 5’2”—and contemplated the expanse of a cathedral town square before me. I was in Santiago de Compostela, Spain. I had flown into Madrid that morning and immediately taken the train west, to Galicia and Santiago, the capital. It was chilly—I could feel a breeze off the Atlantic Ocean—and I realized I had brought clothes for Madrid and not Santiago. I was tired, but not unpleasantly.
I was a pilgrim, one of the first of thousands who would pour in streams through the winding medieval streets of Santiago during the following week. We were arriving from all over the world—later I would share Mass with a fellow middle-aged woman from Brazil—for the Feast of St. James, which is celebrated in Catholic Christendom on July 25. When July 25 falls on a Sunday, the commemoration is a Great Feast Year. And so it was in 2012—and not again until 2020.
Towards evening that first day, the square was almost empty, but I had no inclination to move from my perch. I was enjoying medieval Spanish Latin church music, coming from a source I could not see, but amplified by the ancient paving stones. From the stops and repetitions, I concluded that I was listening to a rehearsal for the festivities ahead.
I am not a Catholic. It seems to me unlikely that the martyred body of James, the brother of Jesus and first leader of the early church in Jerusalem, found its way to Galicia and was buried, to be discovered in the ninth century. But no matter. Santiago de Compostela is a holy place—one of a few I have been privileged to see—sanctified by the faith and works, even the imprints of the steps, from the centuries of believers who have travelled there long before me.
I was on a quest, just as pilgrims to Santiago in Chaucer’s day had been. I was trying to find closure to the extraordinary and largely inexplicable previous few years of my life. I would eventually get that satisfaction, and Santiago was a way-station. A link in the bracelet of end.
Ending. Beginning again.
And so the Great Day of St. James is an appropriate place to launch this new chapter in my blog Nattering On.
Surely, it is time for me to share the few truths I have learned, for family or friends or acquaintances or former readers or whoever might read.
In August, I will turn sixty-eight.
If not now, when?
This is a scary move for me, for reasons that will become clear as I write more.
But back to July, 2012 in Santiago, Spain, where in the unfolding of that evening lies a shard of truth.
I was alone. A middle-aged American woman who spoke no Spanish. It was dusk, and I did not know where I would spend the night.
On the cathedral square, just behind my perch on the parapet, reigns the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos, founded in 1492 by King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella as a pilgrims’ hospice, since many of the visitors to fifteenth-century Santiago arrived sick and dying. The doors of the Hostal have been open ever since. Today it is the best hotel in Santiago, one of the loveliest in Spain. It had been booked solid years in advance of July, 2012.
Yet somehow I knew that the Hostal would have a room for me. I stood, turned around, walked up the broad steps and through the fifteenth-century arch. The desk clerk could not have been more gracious and welcoming. Of course, he had a room.
And so my spiritual journey turned out to be temporal as well, for during Feast Week I would sit in close proximity to King Juan Carlos, now recently abdicated, but at the time crowing and regnant—I remember thinking that here was a man who had just entertained his mistress. And in contrast, his inward-looking wife, the drawn-faced but forbearing Queen Sofia, with her ladies-in-waiting passing by me on her way to and from her suite at the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos.
I would enjoy the spectacle of Paulo Coelho and his retinue of lovely women at the Hostal. Coelho, the most famous living chronicler of the camino, the pilgrimage road from France to Santiago, was the guest of the King and Queen of Spain for festival week. I do not know Coelho, but he is a fellow believer, and today I am one of the Brazilian writer’s two million+ followers on Twitter.
My sojourn in Santiago encapsulates much of what I will be sharing with you in the next few weeks.
Lately, I have been thinking about how the Lord, other than in Scripture, teaches us about Himself and our relationship to Him. Basic question: who are we? And who is He?
To begin, with the kernel in my Santiago story. Life unfolds simultaneously on two parallel tracks. We have been made creatures of a material world subject to the laws of physics and limitations of biology. Gathered in communities of our making, we daily live and work. Yet we are hardwired to seek He Who Hath Made Us, our Creator who is both immanent within the world and outside it beyond time.
Therefore, all of us—you, me, everyone we know and will never know—are at one and the same time the Mayhill that day in Santiago de Compostela and the innkeeper who took her in. We are seekers—and surely if you are reading this far you are either already curious about God or about to submit yourself to the discipline or on your way and yearning for Him. Some of you have travelled farther with Him than I ever will.
But most of the time we live in the rhythm of our daily chores. There is a deceptive simplicity to rhythm. It is hard to go about our business mindful at all times that a tedious stranger could be the angel in disguise mentioned in Hebrews.
The desk clerk at the Hostal dos Reis Catolicos undoubtedly was tired by nightfall. He had been dealing with entitled, imperious rich people all day. Even as I approached, a gentleman was grumping away from the massive desk. But the receptionist looked at me, looked again. He was calm, but with a flicker in his eye.
“Of course, we have a room for you.”
I will never forget the ripple of expression. It was as if a half-millennium of caring for strangers—more than—since 1492—suddenly coalesced, descended and gathered into one face.
His awareness. That young man. That stranger. I never asked his name, but he is in my thoughts and sometimes my prayers.
I do not know the why and wherefore of that evening. And sometimes mystery is beautiful. (If often not—as you will hear from me in subsequent weeks.) Perhaps there is timelessness in the power of community, as believers join one by one, but linking, hand-to-hand and face-to-face as we live, day by day, year into year, passing the connection on to those who come after us, century after century.
July 25, 2014
Farther and Further:
Camino De Santiago: Medieval Music from Spanish Pilgrimages (available on iTunes)
Paulo Coelho, The Pilgrimage (account of the camino and his spiritual journey)
Coelho, from Pilgrimage: “And when I think about it, I guess it is true that people always arrive at the right moment at the place where someone awaits them.”