Well, I suppose I owe you a kind of double report, since I took yesterday off. I’ll do my best to fill you in. Both yesterday and today, the official Camino route passed along (or in some soul-raking instances ON) the highway, yielding a largely forgettable landscape of hay fields. I can only imagine that the pilgrims of old must have trapped through these locales wondering the same thing I did: “When, oh when is the next village?” Sometimes, it’s possible to see the steeple of the village church where the albergues usually are. “Almost there,” I get to tell my feet – which are screaming at me, even with a doctor approved hyper-dose of ibuprofen. My feet usually respond with, “Oh yeah, well this sharp pang shooting up to your hip ought to let you know that we (righty and lefty collude, of course) think you’re a big ol’ liar. ZOW! I am beginning to wonder if I’m not reaching the limit to what my feet are able to take.
I’ve only got two blisters to speak of and they’re all but healed, but no massage, stretch, or oblong tablet with a little number etched into it seems to be able to quench the growing tendon pain. If by chance after León (which is still two days away) and my meet up with Fr. Ryan you find your pigeon-pilgrim-priest throwing in the bastones...well, let’s just say it’s on the proverbial table as I lay here on my bunk chatting to you. Of course, the middle-aged Spanish man across the room spraying himself liberally with some adolescent body spray may be causing me to hallucinate, but such is life in the albergue. (If it’s any consolation, there are also numerous pilgrims hobbling around gingerly, like they’ve accidentally wondered onto a barbecue grill. I’m not the only one!)
I found myself consoling another pilgrim yesterday with words that I myself have pondered with you all in the blogoverse: The Camino isn’t the path itself, The Camino is what happens as you walk the path. While it may sound like daytime television psychiatry, it’s absolutely true. There are so many (Body Spray Spaniard just confirmed it in a conversation between spritzes) that walk only one or two stages at a time–however long their vacation is– and then go back to work. If I don’t “finish” this time around, then I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll also know that there’s a chapter that has yet to be written with what St. James and Our Lord desire for me. Unlike many pilgrims who died on the way to Compostela, all I have to do is get on a plane and pick up where I left off.
Anyway, enough about all that. Father Chris, what did you see? Well, yesterday was an extremely consoling day for me, even though the lower half of my body is waging a quickening revolt from it’s southern-most point. It was the feast of the Queenship of Mary (or the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the Extraordinary Form). This is a day in which we as Catholics recognize the present role that Mary holds in heaven; she reigns as the Queen Mother of her Son, Jesus Christ the King. If you’re interested in the role of the queen mother in the Old Testament, Bishop Barron and Dr. Brant Pitrie both have some excellent scholarship on the subject. Suffice to say, this is one of my favorite “hidden” feasts. (I say this because it almost always falls during the week and only daily Mass goers are introduced to it.)
Getting out on the road early, I managed to have the energy to stop at a few of the recommended sites along the way. One of which is a former hermitage and church dedicated to Our Lady of the River. It was here that I got to say Morning Prayer and pray a chanted Salve Regina to her, since Mary has been extra close on this journey and I happened to be in a church dedicated to her. (Yeah, I know the Salve is done at Night Prayer, but I figured why not?)
A few hours later, I passed into an honest to goodness stronghold of the Knights Templar in Villalcázar de Sirga, which has been saying “Buenos Dias” to pilgrims since the 12th century. Though the Templars are no longer there (or are they?!) the huge church also dedicated to Mary is one in which some of their nobles are buried and features a huge reredos with various statues and paintings of saints close to the Templars. As I’ve done several times on Marian feasts occurring during the Camino, I rededicated my Consecration to Jesus through Mary at the tabernacle, perhaps as a tuniced and girded knight would have done before heading out on patrol.
I then made my way into Carrión de los Condes, which is an old town that was once home to nearly 10,000 people making up several different feudal lands ruled by the Counts (condes) of Carrión. In addition to being extremely powerful in the medieval world, they also have the dishonored memory of crossing the Moor-slaying El Cid and found themselves on the other end of his sword for mistreating his daughters. Today, the town has lost much of its once important political standing (and its counts!) and only has around 2,200 citizens (nearly a metropolis compared to some of these “Population: 80” villages).
The first albergue that I came to was the Royal Monastery of Saint Clare, founded by two of Clare’s own companions in the 13th century. I didn’t give anywhere else a second thought, since St. Clare is a big little sister to me. I also splurged and got a single room with a private bathroom since it was offered. It’s a real luxury when you’ve been crammed into a top bunk for several days and waiting your turn to take your turn in the hygiene chambers, if you understand my meaning.
So many of these hostels attached to churches can be kind of depressing, because the orders that began them centuries ago have long since died out or moved. The spirit of welcoming the pilgrim may be there, but the soul of the charism of the order is suspiciously absent — I wonder if the other “spiritual but not religious” pilgrims (which seems to be most of them) would notice this missing piece of their Camino?
Not so with Santa Clara! As I was climbing the stairs to cell 104, I noticed a sign saying that Eucharistic Exposition is present every day for a substantial portion of the day. “Neat!” I thought, “I’ll finally get a few moments in a functioning church. Maybe even a Franciscan nun might be toddling about.”
Boy was that an understatement.
As I clacked open the door with a satisfying “KA-CHUNK” what should I find but a seven foot monstrance containing the Blessed Sacrament on a custom made platform in front of the altar. It was lit with flood lights from an indeterminate source making the whole church recede into shadow while Our Eucharistic Lord was thrust into sharp focus. After a few tears and a double genuflection (mostly out of shock!) I made my way into the back pew, but not before catching sight of a single Poor Clare Nun sitting behind a monastic enclosure (or “grill”) who was vector-locked upon the Eucharist.
The next thing that I experienced was something that is surprisingly missing from much of the, shall we say, fraternal experience of the Camino: Real Silence. I had forgotten what this was like. The parish is often so busy, the work so ongoing, the distractions ever present, that true silence tends to occur only in short bursts. This was a solid hour of a near palpable veil of the Holy Spirit that has been cultivated by these nuns since the 13th century.
After about an hour, I heard shuffling behind me and a wheelchair rolling into place. A few of the townsfolk hurried in and opened apps on their iPhone. Before I knew it, we were standing and an unseen organ intoned the opening tones of “Oh God, Come to My Assistance...” which is the starting invocation for the Liturgy of the Hours. We were going to chant Vespers on the Queenship of Our Lady. And we did, mostly. The psalms and scripture reading were read, but nearly everything else was chanted in a beautiful Spanish-style tone.
It was heavenly. After this, I smiled my way down the street for dinner. Just as I was tucking in to my Linguine Carbonara (in Spain, I know...) the German Aerospace Engineer from a few days ago sat himself down and ordered some spaghetti. With dinner, I also got a little bit of a lecture on the absurdity of priestly celibacy. Ah, the Camino. All I really felt like saying after such a beautiful experience of about 20 celibate chanting nuns was, “Celibacy is the easiest promise we make.” I didn’t really expound on it much other than taking about obedience to a religious superior being at times more challenging, but he seemed pleased with this new nugget to chew on, especially since he likened obedience to “just following orders blindly like an army man,” which I found ... well, you know ... interesting coming from a citizen of Germany. “We have the ability to ask questions about what’s being requested of us,” I rejoined. We finished our pasta amidst a few lighter topics and he offered some unsolicited advice about the next day’s journey. It was pleasant enough, but it’s frequently disheartening to encounter someone who is convinced that The Catholic Church is a relic of a bygone age. If it were man-made, it would have succeeded in crumbling to dust long ago. And yet, here St. Clare’s Monastery is nearly 720 years later offering both a place to sleep (of which, I noticed he availed himself) and hidden prayers for all the souls who have eyes but do not see. I prayed that St. Clare would reinvigorate his heart, heal whatever hurt he had perhaps known, and asked God’s forgiveness for any frustration that may have been a sub-carrier in my attempted apologia of the Faith.
Gosh, hard on the feet and the heart, eh?
Today, my feet barely made it the 16.65 miles from Carrión de los Condes to Terradillos de los Templarios, a former township of the Templars, only the name remaining now. The population is, in fact, 80 people – not counting the 60 or so daily pilgrims that nearly double the population with its two albergues. There’s not much to see here, and there were only gently rolling hills (mercifully) along the Way today in addition to a really good granita coffee ice cream thing at one of the small bars before the last 3km stretch into this little Templar hamlet.
Tomorrow, the journey on foot is much of the same, about 16 miles on a bit of an incline and passes though Sahagún, once a site of great importance in the Catholic Church in Spain and the home of The Benedictine Monastery of The Holy Cross, which like the Templar strongholds, now lay in ruins. There are plenty of sites that are still in active use in this town of 2,800, so we’ll see what I see on the way to Bercianos del Real Camino.