June 2023 – 2nd Camino de Santiago
Rain glistens on the cobblestones of Pamplona. Rubbish, haphazardly strewn covers the ground, fast-food wrappers, beer cans, plastic cups, cigarette buts and black bags bust open by rats and birds.
If you listen carefully, you can hear the sounds of the previous night’s festivities echoing, the folk band’s rhythm, drunken shouts of passing louts, see lights flashing and dancers waving. Even now, couples stumble home together, mindless of the mess. As the growing morning light sobers them, you can see in their eyes the unhappy resolve of their earlier choices. Yet they walk faster, to see the night to its forgone end.
I can hear the tread of my boots crushing the rubbish as I step through the wreckage of fun. Pigeons take flight before the cathedrals gates and I pause, waiting for the chime of the hourly bell to cease.
My shadow is deformed, I see, by the rucksack on my back and the hiking canes I hold in my right hand. I shade my eyes with my left and look up.
As the bell tone blends into the city’s waking groan, doves take flight as I peer through the iron gate. I can almost taste its metallic tang, as I remember the evening before, prior to the parties and charms, when I took my grief through those gates and sat within.
On a dark wood pew, I listened to the sonorous song of monks and nuns and watched the congregation, fledgling, a quarter full, maybe less than sixty souls. They stood as one and began a pilgrimage around the Cathedral’s columns. A regiment of believers, praying, chanting, they circled the hall, stopping before walls of statues, candles and gold and I thought – stolen gold, dragon’s horde, taken through colonial endeavour, treasure brought here for what cause when people go hungry?
I watch as the crowd shuffles to the next shrine, cued by an unknown signal. The song, that beautiful song I wish to resist, lifts my eyes to the vaulted ceiling above. I draw my gaze back to earth and peer at the faces of those around me. They are the old, the infirm, the malnourished, the obese and the deformed – judged by society’s magazine lifestyle prescribed norms. The invisible who walk among us daily. Their crime? Deemed ugly.
And I wonder….
Later from this moment, yet earlier than when I walk through the trash, I sat in the square beneath a white umbrella in the company of many pilgrims. We eat, we drink, we toast the road and discuss our lives that brought us here to meet.
We discuss politics, religion, sex, yet there is no conflict, just curious, openhearted understanding.
A young woman from New York tells me about her faith, about the terrorist Boston marathon shooter, the victims she knew, and the community rallying together even as the world outside the affected circle tore itself apart. A story of faith misused and faith uniting. Does the nettle not grow next to the dock leaf?
‘Religion has caused so much grief and suffering through the years, but in that moment it brought us together amid all that strife…’ she said.
And I said, ‘we take our grief and strife and lay it at the altar, do we not.’
She nodded slowly, recalling candlelight in her eyes.
And I wonder…
In the cathedral, I watch the man tasked with leading the group and carrying the city’s banner. His hands are knuckled out of shape, clumps clinging to the haft. His face misaligned, one eye drooping, the other lifting. His mouth hangs slack on one side and with the other he speaks his prayers. He has no hair, though his face is that of a child. At the unknown signal he leads the group to the next golden shrine, and I follow, keeping my steps in time to their slowest progress – a wheelchair-bound girl who smiles and taps her hand on the armrest in time to the mystical song. Her father’s head is bowed with the honour of pushing her. His shoes, worn down by duty. He smiles down at her, lips closed.
We stop at the last gleaming wall, and as I look on, I see not a shrine of stolen gold shimmering with candlelight. I see, instead, on the faces of those standing in this community, a golden glow, a warm divine shine on their checks and brow, and I wonder no more. A government voucher can keep a body fed, but only that which lifts eyes to the mysterious, unknowable known, can feed the soul.
Before the golden wall, I see saints and angels, carved and standing, each and everyone radiating gold. We are equal, all one.
The man holding the banner turns to me and smiles, and now I see, they, we always were – eternally beautiful.
For the first time, I bow my head. A tear hits the dusty floor. Its fall a cataclysmic gong. I feel the reverberations still pounding through my booted feet, kicking up litter and crushing broken glass as I walk on out of the city, following the yellow arrows towards the sea.
Walk with me.
Let’s see where the strange road leads.