Reverse Camino Day 11: The Holy Door of Santiago de Compostela

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.

Enter

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.

Release

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.

Receive

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.”

“Amen.”

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.

Reverse Camino Day 9: Aguapesada to Santiago

After walking four days from the Atlantic, I finally arrive in Santiago. But I’ve been walking much longer than that.

Total distance on foot: 12.3 km/7.6 mi (plus three years)
Towns traveled through: Alto de Vento, Quintáns
This day in 2013: Day 40 Santiago to Negreira

Now I walk alone, I told him.

The helpful man saw me weeping and looking lost fifteen minutes ago in a park outside Santiago de Compostela. I show you, he said. Grateful, I followed this speed-walking, parka-wearing pilgrim with the thick accent through the busy streets toward the cathedral.

 *   *   *

I’ve been walking eastward from the Atlantic toward this city over the last four days, but in reality, it’s been much, much longer.

In the time since I was last here, I returned home, emotionally naked as a newborn, to discover my life no longer fit. There’s no way to count the miles through an unending dark night of the soul. How do you measure facing your deepest fears and ultimately finding the will to live in spite of them?

Eventually, I committed to traveling that road out the darkness. Of learning to tell the whole truth, not just the diplomatic one. Of understanding the deep attachment I felt to Meg, my joyous pilgrim sister. Of deciding whether to stay in my marriage. Of learning that walking outdoors is my salvation and that opening my heart—even when it feels terrifying—is the only way to survive this condition called being human.

It took me all this time to learn how to live an undivided life. If the true Camino starts in Santiago, as they say, the last three years have borne it out; I have been a pilgrim ever since. One step at a time.

 *   *   *

Although I’m hoping to arrive in time for the noon mass, I take it as it comes. I’m only ever 60% sure I’m going the right way, but up I go through little cobbled villages of quiet, cobbled houses. Past the quiet dude inexplicably carrying an inflatable giraffe head. Past the funny, flirtatious Puerto Rican man from Queens. Past the inquisitive, sixty-something lady from Queensland who says there’s a party in Santiago. Up a hill, stopping for a bar’s strong coffee and blaring news. One foot in front of the other.

In a quiet suburban neighborhood, I chat with a local guy about the direction of Santiago as a cat rubs against his black slacks. He points into the morning sun and says, Down the road then to the right en el bosque. Through moss-covered trees, the bright sunlight streams into my eyes.

Then, at last, in a clearing at the top of a hill, I see it: the cathedral. There it is! My eyes well up, and a grin spreads across my face. The emotion spills over I continue walking, as I have all these years, to that distant place where the real pilgrimage began.

*   *   *

My fast-walking, helper-guy stops to chat with a friend, but I continue, feeling as though pulled toward the square where all pilgrims arrive. When he catches up with me, I’m almost there. Gracias, I say. Thank you for helping me. Now I must continue alone.

He nods knowingly and gives me a friendly pat.

Up the steep street, I see the cathedral from the top down—first the spires, then the facade, the doors, and the double symmetrical stairs—and finally I arrive at the plaza, overwhelmed by emotion. Here is where it all started. Here is where I felt happier than anywhere else on the planet. Where I arrived with dear Scott and Gary. Where I met Meg. Where I realized who I really am.

My hands are shaking. My knees feel wobbly. Here I am. At last. Collapsing onto the cobbles of the cathedral plaza, I’m overcome with gratitude and relief and joy. I lean forward, sobbing, my butt in the air, elbows and knees on the cold ground. I don’t care that my pack is still on or that dozens of sight-seers might witness my body shaking with sobs. I’m here. I’m here at last. I’m so grateful. For everything.

Finally, when I sit up and wipe my eyes, I lift my chin to see the clear blue sky and silhouetted spires, grinning madly. Oh my God, I’m here. It’s so beautiful! I recall the last arrival and the hugs and tears I shared with Gary. My spirit is bursting.

I notice a well-dressed woman approaching me, bowing slightly. Hand on her heart, she says in an Irish accent, I was so moved to see you arrive. The pin on her lapel is a tiny gold angel. Reaching down to touch my shoulder tenderly, she smiles at me. I smile back at her, grateful but speechless.

You must have walked a long way, she says.

Sometimes all we need is to be seen. This Camino angel blesses me with her acknowledgement. The truth in her words make the tears start all over again.

I have walked a long way. I really have, I reply. And it was worth every step.

Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago

If the Camino is replete with unexpected angels who help you, guide you, inspire you, then Meg was an archangel.

This is a long post. I hope you’ll hang in there with me.

On the day after I arrived in Santiago, everyone was leaving to see Finisterra by bus except me. After a leisurely breakfast of coffee and toast with the guys in the albergue‘s modern kitchen, they vanished for the bus station to return later. After 38 days of walking, I had earned a day of rest, but had no plans.

Continue reading “Day 39 – Sleepless in Santiago”

Day 38: Arrival – Monte de Gozo to Santiago de Compostella

On May 26, 2013 I walked into Santiago to complete a journey more than two years in the making.

The cool, clear morning air around us crackled with the anticipation of our final departure. As Scott and I waited for the café to open, I listened to birds singing in the treetops and frogs chanting in nearby ponds. I watched the sun slowly rise over the distant hills, casting long shadows and making the grass glisten.

Continue reading “Day 38: Arrival – Monte de Gozo to Santiago de Compostella”