If you had the chance to walk through a holy door, would you?
I wondered this myself when I learned the Pope declared 2016 the Year of Mercy. In a burst of holy abandon, cathedrals the world around pried off the barriers, flung open their doors, and invited all to enter. Santiago’s cathedral was among them.
What’s a holy door? Like a lot of things Catholic, it is one part physical (a real door) and one part symbolic (a spiritual portal). Catholics believe that the act of walking through it—accompanied by confession and communion—absolves all one’s sins. To walk through a holy door grants the seeker complete forgiveness.
Most of the time, cathedrals’ holy doors are locked up tightly, unused for decades. When a specific sacred day of the church calendar falls on a Sunday, believers flock through all year. 2016 was different. Remarkably so. The Year of Mercy opened every holy door around the world for a whole year in a sign of generous welcome, orchestrated by a merciful Pope.
In the back of my mind, the doubter frowned, Really? A holy door? Pfft. Hocus pocus. For though I believe in the healing power of forgiveness, I don’t believe in the idea of sin. The word seems archaic. The concept punitive. But as I woke up on my second morning in Santiago, my heart yearned. Please, can we go? My seeking soul craved this ritual of entering, releasing, and receiving. So, yes. Yes, of course. And off “we” went.
With its hewn stone walls and thick, oak doors, Santiago’s baroque cathedral reminded me of a castle. Impressive. Imposing.
Set away from the glorious, double-staircased main entrance, I couldn’t find the holy door. After walking around a while, I stopped at a little cart selling pilgrim trinkets. The women pointed me toward the right side of the cathedral saying, “Around, around.” As I did, I discovered a new part of this massive structure.
At the top of the expansive, stone staircase were two modern-day security guards flanking the entrance. Near them, a woman crouched on the ground, begging. Something about the scene made me briefly consider turning back. The trio reminded me of the teaching that when you’re about to do something spiritually significant, you find lions guarding the gate. A part of you begs not to do it, to be cautious, stay safe. A little shiver passed through me. Yet as I approached, one of the security guards smiled at me in greeting. A friendly lion.
From the bright light of morning, I stepped into the deep dark of the doorway. I went forward, unseeing, into a curving corridor of rock, like a passage, a canal—so symbolic of the mother church, the sacred feminine. I felt the cool air and rough stone under my palm. It was unnerving not being able to see, but maybe that was the point.
Four, five, six steps through the darkness. Then before me, like a brilliant sunrise, was the resplendent, gold-adorned altar. A grin spread over my face in recognition. A homecoming.
Confession is like cleaning out an over-stuffed closet. This ritual allows the participant to let go of that which no longer serves. Every day, small slights, moments of meanness, and hasty words accumulate inside us. Purging them mindfully makes space in our hearts for more love and compassion.
Nervous but willing, I walked a circuit of the church in search of a priest. Around the perimeter of the cavernous cathedral dark wood confessionals waited silently. Each had a posted schedule of hours and the languages spoken by the priest inside. Frankly, I felt afraid of doing it wrong, looking stupid. I couldn’t find any in English. I almost gave up.
On my second pass, a young, dark-haired priest exited a confessional nearby. Handsome and exuding calmness, I approached him to ask if he would hear my confession.
“I do not speak English well, but I can try.” He smiled reassuringly, casting down his long lashes and clasping his hands in front of his black cassock.
In that moment, I was struck by the remarkable intimacy of being face to face, standing close rather than in the curtained confessional. Taking a deep breath, I reminded myself this man stood in Jesus’ place, not to judge me but to offer love and acceptance.
“Father, bless me. I have sinned.”
My mind went blank. Nothing was weighing on me, no dark secret to bring to light. Then I remembered that the opposite of sin is love. What is blocking love in my life?
“My heart is so hard sometimes, so closed,” I began. “I hold people away from me, judge them, and create distance to protect myself. I judge myself too. It is so painful. Especially when what I really want is closeness and love.” The words dissolved into air.
“God knows our hearts,” he responded gently. “We can look to our mother Mary as an example of love and compassion. For your penance, say five Hail Marys and reflect on her life.”
This feels like a gift to me, not a punishment. Beautiful, world-worn Mary is a welcome companion.
He continued, “May God grant you pardon and peace. I absolve you of your sins.” Lifting his hand in the air between us, he made the sign of the cross over me. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”
“Thank you, Father.”
Disoriented, lighter, I walked into the connected chapel devoted to Mary. In quiet contemplation, a simple solution arose: I must make time for those I love in order for warmth and connection to grow. Just make time. It’s that simple.
Knowing the Pilgrim Mass would be packed, I arrived an hour early for a seat near the altar. Completely alone on my knees, the waterworks that had started on my arrival the day before continued. I cried, just over-full with gratitude, relief, joy to be here in this city of my heart.
As Mass time approached, I suddenly found myself surrounded by a chatty group from Canada. From overheard conversation, I learned they were more than a little proud of having raised the money to make the botafumiero swing (about $700) and honored with reserved seating at the front—where I was. As they squeezed in around me, jostling to all fit in, I felt myself bristle and prickle. It is so much easier to love one’s neighbor in theory. I pretended to be in prayer, remaining on my knees with eyes closed to be left alone.
But as in most moments like this, I paused to ask myself why this Canadian deluge showed up and what their presence was trying to teach me. Had I not just had a moment with a loving priest and confessed how I hold others at a distance? Had I not admitted how judging others brought me pain? Had I not just resolved to actively seek closeness and love?
So, I looked to consider the group anew, and here is what I saw: They were happy to be pilgrims. They were proud of their teamwork. They felt joyful that this special gift would bring happiness to everyone present. Honestly, they were so adorably excited. Like puppies.
I made the sign of the cross over my body, got off my knees, and sat back in the pew. Within moments, I was chatting with those closest to me and expressing my thanks for their generosity. They tolerated me sitting in their space. It worked.
The last time I had received the Eucharist has been three years earlier just as my pilgrimage ended. By then, I had already resolved to leave the church for good. Even though I was no longer a practicing Catholic, I knew I would go up to the altar, hands open. Not only was this the final step for absolution, I always, always felt called to receive communion.
“El Cuerpo de Dios.”
Back in the pew, surrounded by waves of musical organ vibrations, the tears began afresh. A cascade of beautiful faces went through my mind: All the loved ones who supported me being here. All the people I’d met so far on this journey. All those who touched me on my first pilgrimage. All the people who helped me through those difficult three years between journeys. I am so grateful. My whole body shook with sobs of gratitude as the cup of my heart runneth over. Thank you thank you thank you thank you.
My soul replenished, I realized this feeling is what I seek to feel every moment of my life. Utter gratitude. For everything.
“The Mass is ended. Go in peace.”
“Thanks be to God.”
Say what you will about stuffy Church doctrine and hocus-pocus, I’d still walk through a holy door any day.