It is Sunday and we have spent the night in Santiago de Compostela, like many, many travellers before us. Right now I’m siting on the bed listening to birdsong, our hotel is on the edge of a park. Out through my window I can see an old building – a church or a convent or maybe a monastery. Because there are so many old buildings here, only the oldest get a mention on the map. (This is another shift, I’m noticing – old is more appreciated than new.)
After a hearty breakfast this morning I went off to visit the Cathedral. The old part of town is a warren of small streets but all of them seem to lead to the cathedral so I was there in no time. I didn’t realise it but I was at the side entrance, impressive, but I found even more impressive entrances, later. The place I entered was through the shop, with books and maps and souvenirs. When I got into the cathedral itself there was a real buzz. I sat down to get a feel for the place…..
There are couples smiling and taking pictures, bustlingly along. There is a group of about twenty men and women pointing and chatting loudly as they follow their guide to the main attractions. There is a man in his sixties, strong, tall man wearing a bright yellow fleece. When he caught my eye, just now, he was walking from a side aisle with a determined gait towards a bench in the centre of the cathedral. His seat has a good view of the altar, mass will begin in about forty-five minutes. He isn’t carrying a rucksack but around his neck he wears a shell suspended from a piece of red string. The sign that he is on the Camino to Santiago. Maybe he arrived last night in the rain and left his things at the hostel. There is a woman, she had a stick, but from the way her helper guides her into her seat it seems to me her journey has been different, she may have come for healing.
There is a man with a bright yellow umbrella too, and he seems to be leading a group, getting their attention by waving the umbrella and pointing it at something noteworthy. Now he is pointing to a stone plaque of a cross with the Alpha and Omega sign. I first saw this cross in the Holy Chamber of Ovieda cathedral. After a day there I realised it was everywhere, even on the sides of the buses.
But there is one man who is walking slowly, searching. He is wearing his rucksack with a rain cover and he has a stick in his right hand. I can’t see his shell but the way he walks and his heavy load he doesn’t need a sign to show he is on the Camino journey. I get up and follow him. He walks round the corner by a huge stone column and into the main part of the cathedral. He’s not taking pictures, I can’t see a camera. But he is looking for something. He stops, balances on his stick, then looks all around. I find a seat and sit down to watch him.
He passes something I hadn’t noticed until now, confession boxes. Not boxes as such, only the priest has a space inside. There is a window out to the front. Now I see these are lined both sides of the main transept in side walking aisles. I think there are about twenty. I can see two or three with priests inside at the window. If there is no one with them the light is on, when someone kneels down at the window the light goes off. Confession begins. I am reminded of a taxi for hire light and maybe there are similarities. The confessor wants to leave their sins behind and the priest provides the transport. He can only take one person at a time. The cost is the penance he gives the freed person. The priest as taxi driver, listening, directing, showing the way, giving his view on the world, delivering from sins.
While I am watching a man and woman approach the lighted priest. He seems to sense they are coming to him, although I don’t know how as it is noisy here. They don’t seem able to decide who will go first, the man hesitates, almost takes a step forward and then turns back to his companion. Very gently he opens his hands, tilts his head, very slightly. She takes her cue and moves forward. The priest definitely knows they are on their way, he must see the signs every day. He looks up, the woman says something, the priest opens a side window. I hadn’t noticed before, but as well as the window the priest looks out there are two other windows to his right and left sides. They probably afford a little more privacy, maybe he guesses this woman needs it, maybe she told him. Very soon the woman is finished and the man kneels at the front window, she waits at a side chapel. The man’s head is bent and shaking, the priest holds his elbow. This feels like compassion. I look away.
By now I’ve almost forgotten about the slow walking searcher, when I look for him, I see he’s leaving by a door at the back. There are a group gathered by this door and I wonder did he find what he was searching for here. I get up to check. Down by the door there are stone columns with religious carvings on them. On the lower half, about four feet from the ground, the carvings are a lighter colour and are somewhat worn away. Many hands have touched this place. It is now protected by a fence of steel poles, they may have excluded the searcher. I hope not……
It’s time for me to leave.
Be well, Mairead.