Saturday, 23 August 2008

Just another church

At first glance at it was nothing special. We approached it down a side alley, at lunchtime, as the daily pilgrim mass was spilling out hundreds of people from a side door. It didn’t have the gothic magnificence of its sisters in Leon or Burgos, nor their clean, restored and obviously cared for exteriors. The few towers we could see looked untended, moss grown and decaying. It was only later as I came upon the main square and saw the full building against the skyline that I saw what an extraordinary beauty it was. How a medieval pilgrim must have fallen to their knees in awe. Todays pilgrims with their backpacks scallop shells and sticks littering the square faded away for me along with the tourists and the electric guitar playing busker. I couldn’t take my eyes away from the monument in front of me; it’s grey towers soaring into the even greyer sky as if growing out of the earth. Everywhere there was detail; not gothic design but truly gothic substance and texture. Like the wicked Queen’s castle in a fairytale; the window pains dark from within, and green with the creep of the years and the intensity of the weather. The classic Rapunzel towers, with their mossy bells and uneven stone dominating everything.

But it was later, at night when it really hooked me. Lit up from outside, but dark and uncompromising from within, it was Disney with depth. Despite the group of people praying together on the steps, the silence was louder as I stood rooted and calm in the warm air. A lone star that had fought its way through the cloud struggled to compete. I sat down to spend some time with this one building in this one city that has inspired thousands of people, travelling thousands of miles over thousands of years to take on this ridiculously hard journey by foot, horseback or bike. They have come for many reasons but ultimately to see what lies inside; their holy grail, the bones of St James. But perhaps while rushing in to queue up at the altar to have their moment with the relic, they miss the real thing; the keeper of the treasure, the home of the saint, the house of God.

The moss grew on in silence as it has done for centuries, but a group of Friday night drinkers crashed in to the square. Pilgrims, many now limping and on crutches from their long ordeal, hobbled home on their last night in Spain. Some didn’t even look up at the building in front; others just stopped and stared. We have arrived.