Saturday, 23 August 2008

The closing ceremony…

Carved wooden confessional boxes line the walls, each occupied by a priest in white robe and purple sash. People queuing can request their dialogue in any European language, but for many the hug or clasped hand in response to their confession seems as powerful as the words. The pipes of the organ fly over the congregation, each longer than the next, an ensemble that resembles the grey jagged teeth of a shark. More and more people enter through a small porthole in the grand wooden doors and rucksacks are abandoned as pilgrims sit or kneel on worn wooden benches and wait for a mass that is dedicated to them. In front of me a woman in sandals kneels, her now unwanted boots swinging from her backpack, still gravelled from the road after many, many miles. The cherubs adorning the organ seem to blush as camera’s flash and flash. Tour guides with pink umbrellas or yellow fans say a last few words of interpretation. A priest comes forward and starts reading out the nationalities of all the pilgrims who arrived in Santiago yesterday marking the end of their journey on the camino. Behind him, huge gold angels hold up the platform where Santiago Matamoros sits astride his white stallion. Fifty six members of the Ave Maria Novia party who have been dancing and singing in the square take their places at the front.

My family and I take up almost a whole pew. They have been briefed and bribed, but actually they need no policing. They are busy drawing the scene that fills their view, filling scrag ends of lined paper with lights and chandeliers and statues in the brightest colours they have. There are no seats now yet still the pilgrims come, filling aisles and squashing into corners. One or two of them I recognise from the last day on the camino, most I don’t. All so different, from a jumble of places and backgrounds, yet each has reached this moment on their journey. I look at them and admire them. Despite my occasional irritation at the crowd of plodders on the road, I recognise that I have done it the easy way, whizzing down hills and rushing through villages. They have had to put one foot in front of the other for more than eight hundred kilometres, in the heat, the rain, the dust, their bodies bearing the strain of their weight and that of their belongings.

On the altar the golden statue of St James watches over us all. Every few seconds he is hugged from behind or someone touches his cloak as they file past, on the way to pay homage to his bones, in a relic case beneath us. The Compostella list continues. An air of anticipation seems to hang over everyone who has come to this church today for all of their different reasons; to celebrate their safe arrival into Santiago, to confirm their faith and worship at a place that has welcomed pilgrims for thousands of years, or just to rest and think, about endings, beginnings, and the long, difficult road that lay in between. As the final names are read out, the lights in the giant chandelier glow brightly, and the sunshine illuminates the dust flying in the air that each one of us has brought into the church; you can take the pilgrim out of the camino, but you can’t take the camino out of the pilgrim.

There is a moment’s silence. Hannah shows me her picture of the church. It is a neat list of number 1’s. Next to her Cameron has managed to make Santiago resemble a gnome on a pedestal while Matthew has sketched an elaborate chandelier. I am overwhelmed with thanks for my little family unit. For the time we have spent getting to know each other for the last six weeks, for all the moments of pure energy and exhaustion that have gone into cycling the route, and for their quirks, differences and similarities. The list of pilgrims is over. We have all followed ‘The Way’ and the way ended here. With the beginning of a ceremony. The organ strikes up and everyone stands.