The cathedral is impressive – towering, ancient, powerful – a plaza on each of its four sides and construction scaffolding everywhere. St. James mounted on a rearing horse and wearing a Gabby Hayes hat with a scallop shell on it gazes down on us from the high pediment and I seem to sense he is smiling. We take several group photos and then over to the center of the square to kneel and place our hands on the last scallop shell embedded in the concrete, ground zero – the act which finalizes our journey.
But, we are not quite finished…now to the office which issues the official certificate of completion – our guides know the time with the fewest pilgrim applicants, so the process of certifying the stamps on our camino passports and checking IDs is relatively short. We proudly receive our papers with our names in Latin and go outside and sit on a wall to wait for the others. Suddenly I hear the dulcet tones – “Mama mia, mama mia, mama mia”….yes, it is out Italian friends and we exchange shouts and laughs as they head in to get their certificates.
We retrace steps away from the center and find our hotel several blocks away. Its modest entrance belies the garden and aviary areas behind, but we barely notice as we drag to our rooms.
We are numb as if we are on “pause”. Having a destination and focusing on it made life a little simpler and clearer. The journey seemed more real and satisfying somehow than the arrival. It will take a while to sort this out….so after using much soap, shampoo, and hot water, we march off to our final group dinner at a nearby restaurant. It is both joyful and poignant. We bid adieu to Jason and Ria and it is painful. They have been wonderful – caring, professional, humorous – terrific, interesting, intelligent people who somehow changed our lives a little.
The next morning we meet our new guide for the day – Margerina (sic) who takes us on a tour of the cathedral and surrounds. She is delightful and speaks with the classic Galician lisp. We walk around the four plazas then inside – it is a fabulous space – ancient, but busy. Our guide walks us around the interior pointing out the private chapels, the sealed off steps to the vast catacombs, the history and legend of it all. We are led up a narrow stairway behind the altar and as we pass by we each hug and lay our heads on the back of a once bejeweled bust of St. James. For an instant you have him all to yourself and whisper a short prayer onto his neck. The service is very relaxed, almost casual – it is noontime and most of the pilgrims are still in pilgrim road gear. It is called the Pilgrims Mass when all pilgrims are acknowledged and blessed, and then disperse eventually to the worlds we came from.
The most amazing feature of the service came last – not liturgically correct, I believe – but who cares. It is the huge, silver censer which hangs like a lantern from the dome in front of the altar. An elaborate rigging sits high in the dome right at the apex of the cross layout of the sanctuary. As the music begins, five men take their ropes and lower the censer for the priest to ignite – it must weigh 200 lbs. – one man gives it a little push, and suddenly it is jerked upward with smoking incense streaming from it. Eventually this slight push and vertical movement are worked into a swinging motion aligned with the short arms of the cross going back and forth in front of the altar. It swings at 60 mph and is quite high above our heads and you want to watch it forever. On one pass overhead we note a huge star worked into the bottom of the censer before it flies away from us – yes, this is the place. Later we will return on our own to the cathedral when it is quieter to light candles for several people. I imagine the soft candlelight and the sweet aroma as we put fire to our small prayers to God to remember and bless those we name, but it is strange times and we end up putting euros into a slot for electric light.
Our friends depart to resume their own schedules and lives. We miss them already and hope to meet again. This incredible journey has been a gift for a lifetime – a piece of time forever enshrined in our hearts. There are so many precious moments unmentioned here, so much beauty in God’s creation that was laid out before us, such a sense of the passage of time over the millenia that we just cannot sense in America, and all of it enhanced with a sense of the sacred. It will be some time before we can estimate the extent and form the pilgrimage has affected us, but we are willing to wait. Buen camino…