As each footstep brought me closer to Santiago, my excitement mounted. The milestones took on greater significance – 50, 40, 30, 20 and then 12,5 kms to go. It hardly seemed possible that I had started 800 kms back in St Jean Pied de Port. Before I left home I would lie in bed at night and have minor panic attacks about walking such great distances. And in the end it wasn’t the distances that were the problem at all, but a sprained ankle that hindered me. I realize now that I can walk any distance and that everything is possible if the mind (and body) is right.
I spent my last night on the Camino at Monto de Gozo (Mount Joy) just 4.7 kms from Santiago. The enormous monument commenorating Pope John Paul II’s visit forms a dramatic backdrop to the pilgrim village with its numerous blockhouses of accommodation. The next morning the walk to the Praza Obradoiro, the square in front of the cathedral, seemed to take forever, but what an emotional moment it was when I arrived and stood before that magnificent cathedral. I wasn’t the only one crying. I saw people on their knees, people hugging each other for ages and ages and others just staring up, not quite believing that they were actually there. I’m sure there were prayers of gratitude on everyone’s lips. I wondered if this was reflective of the joy that believers would feel when they were welcomed home at the end of their lives.
All pilgrims are issued with a Pilgrims Passport at the start of their Camino, which needs to be stamped at every albergue along the way. Stamps are also available at cafes, churches and other places en route. On arrival at Santiago, pilgrims must go to the Pilgrim Office and present their passports, with the required number of stamps to prove that they have walked at least the last 100 kms. They will then be issued with a certificate of completion (Compostella), which is given to all bona-fide pilgrims.
It was one of the proudest moments of my life when I was handed my Compostella.
The pilgrim mass in the cathedral is a fitting end to the pilgrimage. During the mass an enormous 54 kg incense burner, called a Botafumeiro, is swung across the cathdral. It is quite dramatic watching this and I think quite a few pilgrims would have been taken out if the rope had accidentally snapped during the ceremony. It took numerous scarlet robed attendants to hold the rope while all this was happening. Inside the cathedral complete strangers, who had seen me limping along the path, came to hug me and congratulate me on making it despite painful odds.
It is customary for pilgrims to go behind the altar and give the statue of St James a big hug and a prayer of thanks for his protection on the pilgrimage, which I duly did. His remains are kept in a crypt nearby.
In closing, I would say that it’s difficult, in a few short blogs, to convey the camaraderie and spirit of the Camino de Santiago. It is an unequalled experience. My personal view is that once you step onto the path you are on a matrix that has an energy of its own. People are kind, helpful and friendly. In fact, the words “brotherhood of man” come to mind when I think of the people I met. It’s here that your faith in the goodness of humanity is restored.
Nature, too, embraces you without judgment. Clouds float across silent skies and trees rustle in the gentle wind. The path beckons you to see what lies beyond the next kilometer and you never feel alone when birdsong fills the air. Peace and tranquility are your companions.
What do you take away from the Camino? A realization that you really don’t need all the trappings of modern society. A realization that material possesions are largely quite superfluous and a knowing of what is really important in your life. In the end it all boils down to loving your family/friends, your neighbour, Nature and your Creator. It’s as simple as that. Love is all!