There’s a lot to do when a Camino pilgrim reaches Santiago de Compostela.
You have to find the Pilgrim’s Office, stand in line, and get your Compostela.
You have to find a place to stay.
You have to find all your friends and take group pictures.
You have to go to a pilgrim’s mass at the Santiago de Compostela Cathedral and hope that it’s a day they’re swinging the botafumeiro.
We did all of that, of course, and more, in the one long day we spent in the city of Saint James. And there are a dozen other things that we missed, like the cathedral roof tour or the pilgrim meal at the Parador.
(Side note: The Confraternity of Saint James just published a booklet about what to do in Santiago. I’m picking up a copy before my next trip.)
But the tradition that meant the most to me was the one I didn’t even know was a tradition until we got there.
You get to hug Saint James himself.
(Well, a shiny replica of him, at least.)
The Santiago de Compostela Cathedral is a Romanesque masterpiece, built between 1060 and 1211. But inside, the baroque gold-lovers went a little nuts. Standing tall in the high altar is, not surprisingly, a life-sized, gaudy, jewel-and-gold-encrusted statue of Saint James. (It’s hard to visit a Spanish cathedral and not think about how Ferdinand and Isabella conquered the New World and killed a lot of people to get all of that gold from the New World, but let’s not dwell there.)
But behind that statue is a camarín, or small room, accessed by a set of stairs. And that pilgrims of the Camino are encouraged to climb those stairs, approach the statue of Christ’s disciple, offer their thanks for a safe journey…and hug him.
The stairway to the saint is open any time the cathedral is open, and the line can stretch for hours. So there are a steady stream of faces peeking out through the bright lights and shiny gold, even during the masses and services of the church. I first noticed them just an hour after we’d arrived in the city, while we waited in crowded pews for the pilgrim mass to start. Every now and then, just for a second, a pair of arms appear out of the dark shadows and wrap about the neck of Saint James.
Oh, this was something I HAD to do.
Eric was…more hesitant. But because he loves me, he tolerates my occasional dive into the whimsical.
The long wait mid-day was too much even for me, but we came back in the evening, after the masses had all ended and most of the crowds had dispersed to find beds and dinner. The short line moved quickly, with a volunteer to make sure no one lingered too long. We climbed the narrow stairs – me giddy and bouncing, and Eric embarrassed, hanging back.
There was a man in front of me in line who was…well, he was a big guy. And when he tried to reach around the golden shoulders, I saw him bump the gilded staff…and it jangled as if it was loose.
The pilgrim in front of me almost broke Saint James!
But no, everything was all right. And then it was my turn. I was still giggling as I leaned into the bright altar spotlights and reached out. But then I had a moment, one of those rare I am present, right now, and this will never happen again. And I totally leaned in and laid my face on the shiny gold and said gracias.
Thank you for a thousand miles we traveled without serious injury.
Thank you for the millions of people who have trekked this way before me.
Thank you for the story you left behind.
Thank you for letting me be a part of it.
Eric may still disagree, but I thought it was a lovely, personal moment with the guy at the center of the story.