There are many ways to walk
to Santiago de Compostela.
One way: The French Way —
Through the Pyrenees,
A six-week slog through rugged terrain,
Past stone crosses and cemeteries,
Along ankle-twisting rock-strewn paths,
Carrying your sins and your gear on your back,
Listening to snores and grumbled confessions,
Trying to sleep in barren rooms among strangers,
So you can arrive, exhausted and drained,
At the steps of the cathedral.
Another way: The Portuguese Way —
Along the Galician Coast,
A ten-day stroll through sun-dappled woods,
Past lemon groves and eucalyptus,
Fields of foxglove, camellia, mint,
Carrying hopes and sunscreen,
Stopping in a village for café con leche
And a slice of almond cake,
Sipping albariño, savoring salty squid, padrons and pulpo,
Listening to the voice of Rosalía de Castro,
Whose very name is poetry,
Falling into a dreamless sleep in a clean bed,
To arrive, well-rested and supported,
At the steps of the cathedral.
I must admit it felt like cheating.
Like that time I went to Confession with an Anglican priest
Who told me I needed to forgive myself first
And didn’t give me penance,
And I thought: What kind of atonement is this?
So I’m happy to report that by Day Ten,
Right arm inflamed by stinging nettles,
Blistered toes wrapped in gauze,
Parched lips covered by balm,
I’d covered a hundred miles
And arrived, spent but hopeful,
To joyful sounds of bagpipes and drums
And pilgrims singing
At the steps of the cathedral.
On the first day we cautiously inquired
Why are you walking?
We hemmed and hawed
Talked about the beautiful landscape
Our desire to be strong and healthy
How we wanted to practice our Spanish
Learn about history and culture.
But the truth came out on Day Three or Four
When Rose spoke of the man she loved who drank too much
And Emma spoke of the man she loved who didn’t want kids after all
And Linda spoke of the man she loved who wasn’t walking with us
And Mariela spoke of the man she loved who wasn’t responding to her
And I spoke of the man I loved who didn’t miss me at all.
I guess we were all just trying to walk them off.*
So when we arrived at the Sanctuary of Santa Liberata of Baiona
And learned the story of beautiful Saint Wilgefortis
Who chose a life of solitude and study —
Who prayed for a miracle to escape an impending marriage,
Whose prayers were answered when she awoke with a full beard,
Undesired but liberated,
We all nodded quietly
And lit some candles.
(*with gratitude to Maggie Rogers and her song “Alaska”)
La Casa de la Misericordia
When we stopped on a cold clear morning
at La Casa de la Misericordia
Somewhere between Pontevedra and Caldas de Reis,
To receive an optional blessing
From a hermit monk called Father Carlos,
I rolled my eyes and shrugged,
Sure, why not?
We stood in a circle as Father Carlos,
Wearing a white fleece and sandals
Greeted us quietly with a soft smile.
Everyone grew quiet and still,
Even the secular sinners among us.
He prayed for God to bless us
And he walked around the circle
Quietly, softly, pausing to speak one-on-one.
And I thought
Oh no, I am not ready for this.
Wondering briefly if I could slip out the back gate,
Not wanting to cry in front of all these strangers.
And goddamn it, he stopped right in front of me
And placed his hand
Firmly, forcefully, against my forehead
And said, as if channeling the voice of God,
I see your heart.
My shattered heart, which softened a little
That cold clear morning
Somewhere on the way
To the hot springs of Caldas de Reis.
How interesting that misericordia
Sounds like misery
But tastes like mercy.
We met in a cold dark church in Padrón
Ostensibly to see the Pedrón
A giant Roman altar rock from the River Sar
Where the boat carrying the headless body of St. James
Was moored by his followers.
And those followers – so they say – dragged that heavy rock
From the River Sar to the altar of the church in Padrón
Where now it waits, cold and heavy,
And pelted by pilgrim coins.
Frankly, I didn’t really care much about that stone
Or the pilgrims tossing coins,
And I certainly wasn’t impressed
By the statue in that church,
Depicting Saint James on a rearing horse,
Trampling on the bodies of three Moors.
And I had to laugh when I met you,
In — of all places — the cold, dark church of Padrón.
You, former hajii,
Who had set down your own stone
Days earlier, in a pile of rocks,
To forget the past and lighten your load.
You didn’t even notice the statue of St. James trampling the Moors.
The heavy rock on the altar —
The Pedrón in Padrón.
You only noticed me
And the hat I wore
To protect me from the sun.
After many miles
And much conversation
And some shared meals
And a few glasses of wine
We found ourselves at first
In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela,
And we found ourselves later
In a hotel room in Santiago de Compostela.
And I, conflicted, said,
I am here for spiritual reasons.
And you, unconflicted, said,
This is spiritual.
Leaning against a cold white pillar
In the Cathedral of Santiago
It was standing-room only at the Pilgrim’s Mass
As I watched eight strong men
Clothed in long red robes
Hoist the botafumeiro,
Expeller of smoke,
Nearly 70 feet in the air.
Like Galician fishermen in a wild ocean
These fishers of men
Pulled two hundred feet of sturdy fishing rope
On a mechanical system of ropes and pulleys,
Lifting the brass burner
To the heights of the cathedral.
Thousands of pilgrims fell silent.
Thousands of necks craned backwards.
And the organ reverberated,
Thrumming vibrations into hearts
As that five-foot, 120-pound censer started to sway
From one end of the cathedral to the other,
Gathering speed, reaching more than 40 miles per hour.
Glowing with burning embers
Above our heads,
Spicy scented resin of myrrh
Wafted down on us in a cloud
Of cinnamon, clove, pepper, and balsam,
Like the wild breath of God.
That feral speeding censer broke free from the fishing knots
In 1499 when Catherine of Aragon sat here in these pews
And it flew right out the window,
It broke free once more in 1937,
Crashing like a civil war bomb.
Leaning against that cold, white pillar,
I watched thousands of pilgrims in pews
Refuse the bishop’s order not to record this moment.
They were trying to capture the impossible:The fiery
Spirit of the Divine.
Our heads were not bent in prayer.
They were tilted back,
Gazing up in silence —