Camino Day 26
Wow, as I write that, I realize that I have only 10 more days of walking before I enter Compostela de Santiago and complete this amazing pilgrimage. I have been on this Way almost a month and my guidebook tells me I have239.6 km (148.9 miles) to go. When I started in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, the full route of 776.2 km (482.3 miles) stretched before me—all uncharted terrain, each step a step outside of the well worn geography of my world.
Today I continued the gradual incline that will lead me to the highest point on my journey,
Alto altar, at 1515 m or 4970.5 ft. The difference is that on the first day, I went from 656 to 4757 ft —and then down again to 2952 ft—in a single day. The journey to this peak will be the result of three days steadily climbing, gradually reaching the apex. I guess I could also say that reaching this peak has been the result of 26 days of steadily walking, continuing toward this unseen crest, having faith that each step will continue to bring me closer to this height.
After the vast, flat terrain of the Mesete, I don’t mind the additional challenge these rolling hills, and sustained uphill climbs are bringing and good thing; since then, the Camino is like a roller coaster for the faint of heart--- a steady incline followed by a steady decline but no heart-stopping descents into the pit of nothingness.
Tomorrow’s triumphant summiting, however, will be followed by an almost 3200 ft descent into Ponferrada, a reminder to take care on the Way, to not get stuck in a rut of complacency so that attention and care is not given to the path.
This is a pilgrimage, after all, not a long circuitous walk around and around and around the 400 meter track outside the local high school.
And that’s been true throughout this pilgrimage: as soon as I thought the path would be one of unending pain and uneven footing on treacherous paths, the Way straightened into level, trails with white gravel or dirt that was kind to my feet, and easier to see where I was going. When I was immersed in the beauty and wonder of the wild flowers and mountains and rugged vistas on either side, the view gave way to the cereal crops of the Mesete with their own beauty, if also a sense of unending, unchanging views that could deaden the senses as well as delight.
And now, for these past few days, the road has been changing once again. The roller coaster has returned, though gently for the most part, and there are mountains again in the distance, and thick green forests of trees coating the landscape. The path is varied now: asphalt or gravel for one portion, hard-packed dirt for another, and then, today, a return to the long ascent up a path strewn with large rocks that made pacing challenging and paying attention a must.
Even the blessings have been different. In San Juan de Ortega I joined in a Pilgrim’s mass and blessing in the simple church built there by its namesake, solely as a place of sanctuary for the peregrin@s, a place of safe harbor against the bandits that roamed the area in ancient times, a place of healing. When San Juan de Ortega died, his body was kept in a simple stone crypt while a beautiful alabaster resting place in the center of the main sanctuary was made for him, but when it was completed, he made it clear—from beyond the grave—that he would prefer to stay in his humble stone coffin; he lived among the poor and the wandering and in his death, that’s how he wanted to be remembered. The mass there was simple and there were programs printed in both Spanish and many other languages so that virtually anyone could follow along.
In that village of 20, the congregants were all pilgrims who were each given a blessing and a Saint James cross by the priest.
In Leon, I also attended a Pilgrim’s mass and blessing, on the eve of setting out for Villar de Mazarife. It was a very different experience. I got to the Santa Maria de Leon Cathedral about 30 minutes early. I had already gone on a tour through its private museum earlier in the day and, although the guide spoke only in Spanish, I didn’t need a translator to be in awe at the relics dating from the 12th c. The Cathedral itself was huge, in stark contrast to the smaller church in San Juan de Ortega, though it dated from the same period, and, also in contrast to San Juan—where the village existed much as it had been founded—to be a haven for pilgrims—Leon was built as a Roman military garrison and base for its VIIth Legion. The name, Leon, comes from the word Legion. It’s very genesis was as a place of power and wealth whose existence was predicated on serving the Rome and then the rulers who conquered throughout.
The Santa Maria cathedral, in the heart of the old part of the city was not just for pilgrims. In fact, you could say pilgrims were incidental to the reason it was built. Consequently, the Pilgrim’s Mass was not just for pilgrims, either. Most of the congregants were citizens of Leon, young families and elderly men and women. By the time the service started, over 100 people were in the pews. There was no helpful bilingual prayer book so I just took in the energy of the service while not understanding. Unlike in San Juan de Ortega, when the Eucharist was served, I did not go forward. But afterward, when the priest asked for the peregrin@s to come forward for a blessing, I did. There were more of us than I would have thought—maybe 25 or so, and the priest’s assistants handed out prayer cards which were in the language of your choice so that, although the blessing was spoken in Spanish, I could read along.
Blessings from poverty. Blessings from power.
How different and yet similar they were. The blessing in San Juan included scripture readings which the priest invited pilgrims to volunteer to read in their own language, the Leon blessing was more truncated. Both both invoked the name of Abraham and Moses, both asked for blessings and protection against harm and injury, and both ended with a hymn, one invoking Santa Maria, and the other, Santiago, himself.
Tonight, in the quaint village of Rabanal del Caminio, there is a Pilgrim’s Blessing, as well. It is to prepare us for La Cruz de Ferro—the Iron Cross, a mere 7.3 km into the day. This is a place where people place stones—stones for letting go, for acceptance, for healing. I have been carrying three stones, myself, and I will lay them down tomorrow morning. But I think I will miss tonight’s blessing, as it is at 9:30 PM. I would like to gather in this beautiful church and receive that blessing from the Benedictine monks who serve here, but seriously? 9:30 PM? On the eve of my longest day and a great climb?
I think by now that I can bless myself, send blessings to my heart, my feet, my legs, my journey, my stones. Send blessings to those whose love and presence I have carried with me on this Way whose lives, at least one of these stones represent.
I have ten days left of walking. Ten days of seeking and giving blessings. Ten days of being open to all the blessings this Camino has for me. They will not be walked in vain.