Santiago De Compostela: A place for Pilgrims, Tourists or God?

One of the first things you notice in Santiago De Compostela is that the Cathedral Quarter is full of people who appear to be Pilgrims. Going into the Praza Do Obradoiro, the main Cathedral Square you see hundred of people with staffs in their hands with Scallop shells (the symbol of St James) and many of these with the cross of St James on them. You also see many people amongst them with serious amounts of camping and walking gear with them looking tanned, dirty and weary! You soon realise that they is a difference between the many who arrive by plane or public transport and then “pretend” to be Pilgrims, and those who have walked much, if not all the Camino. You see school parties who turn up by coach and walk a few hundred metres just to say that they are Pilgrims. There are shops and stalls around the Cathedral Quarter that pander to this group, offering t-shirts, shells and Staffs so people can say “I’ve been there”.

The Cathedral itself is geared up for Pilgrims in two main ways. It offers confession, in native tongues, for all pilgrims, it offers services in Native tongues for all pilgrims (as well as the main Pilgrim Masses). What it lacks is people to greet pilgrims, to offer them the chance to pray and experience properly the Cathedral and the shrine. The most bizarre thing for me was the reaction of those who call themselves pilgrims to a) the shrine and b) the statue of St James behind the altar. They all want to hug the statue but far fewer actually want to see the shrine. For me the shrine was most important, but on going down to it the first time there was a family kneeling in front of it apparently in prayer. I recognised it as the Lord’s Prayer, though spoken in Spanish, but whilst they were praying they were taking photos on their phones! I couldn’t quite grasp this in a way that made sense to me! How can you pray and take photo’s? I went back later when there was just Candace and myself and was able to pray in private but was disappointed that there was no prayer suggestion there before the shrine itself. The other strange thing was surrounding the Pilgrim Mass, a central piece of worship in the Cathedral’s day, to which very few Pilgrims attend. The beauty of the liturgy and the music seeming lost of the desire to say “I’ve done it!” or “I’ve been there”. It seemed to be a number of missed opportunities, and I wondered if they were cashing in on their good fortune on having visitors and not a) reaching our in a meaningful way to all visitors b) not truly offering what these people wanted and c) almost arrogantly assuming that the worship would be the draw for folk instead of drawing people into the worship. Those are my opinions and you may totally disagree with me, I hope I am partly wrong.

Santiago De Compostela is a wonderful city, truly a place to visit, truly a place of Pilgrimage. It is a cultural phenomenon which is worth seeing and visiting.

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The City also offers some wonderful secular Museums which are well worth a visit. The restaurants, cafés and bars are excellent and cater for many tastes and price ranges. I even found a craft beer bar when I was there! I loved the place.

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I loved the Cathedral, the Shrine and its Museums, and I would have loved to stay longer. But, does it work as a centre of Christian Pilgrimage? Has it over cooked the desire to be a tourist destination and a money making factory rather than a true Spiritual Centre? I worry that it has in many ways. It Bizarre Foundations have led to Bizarre practices and has endangered it to the potential of losing its soul. Having said that I was so glad to go, to be there that I can say with hand on heart: go! If you don’t fancy the Camino, or haven’t the time to do it all, you can still visit the Cathedral, Shrine and surrounds, you will be amazed. The people of the City also enable it to be a place to love, as it is obviously a place they love. So: GO!

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Santiago De Compostela: Santa Maria do Sar and the Church of San Francisco.

We decided that a trip to the Church of Santa Maria do Sar was in order (as it was included in the entrance to the Cathedral Museum and you can visit it the next day as we were doing for no extra charge). It is about 15 minutes from the Cathedral Quarter down some beautiful and yet more modern streets (pictured).

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The Church itself is almost as old as the Cathedral but on a much smaller scale. It has some massive flying buttresses holding the walls up.

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When you go inside the Church you can see why, the central pillars are leaning away at the top, and apparently after an earthquake in Northern Portugal in the 18th Century it was deemed sensible to shore up the church as best possible. The Church is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and was a place Pilgrims would often go to either on route to the Cathedral or prior to their return home. Of all the Churches we visited it was the least ornate, and had the least number of altars and memorials and had a minimal use of marble and precious metal inside. It felt, thus, more English in style. There is a beautiful Cloister which was being renovated but I still got some lovely photos (pictured).

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Attached to the Church is a Museum which tells of the History of the Church and also displays some beautiful vestments,

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altar frontals and church requisites (I loved this Thurible especially).

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It also included this relic of St Peter.

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Bearing in mind this is supposed to be of the Apostle Peter to find it in a museum and not behind an altar was quite astounding and also it was virtually unheralded. When you compare this with the shrine to St James at the Cathedral it is strange to note that this is almost sidelined!

The other church of note to visit especially (there are many lovely churches around and in Santiago) is the Church of St Francis.

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It is said that St Francis decided to walk the Camino and was so moved by the experience that he built a Church a few hundred yards from the Cathedral to say thanks to God for his visit. There is a beautiful way cross outside the Church

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and the Church, which is attached to a Franciscan Convent, is externally beautiful without being “over the top”. The inside is quite different, it is garish, overly ornate and stifling due to massive monuments, altars and the over use (in my opinion!) of Gold and Marble. It seems out of character with St Francis who dedicated his life to the poor to have a building that must have cost so much to decorate in this fashion. It is still, however, worth the visit especially being so close to the Cathedral.

My next blog will be about my observations concerning Modern day Pilgrims to Santiago, about the way the church is responding to that and also some final thoughts on the City and the experience itself.

Santiago De Compostela: The Cathedral; Shrine and Museum.

When visiting Santiago De Compostela, whether as a Pilgrim, a tourist or other reason, the first place to visit is the Cathedral. Although it is currently undergoing serious and necessary renovation it still dominates the skyline and is the centre of all things in the City. This is appropriate because it is within the cathedral that you have the “Shrine” of St James and also the wonderful altar piece which has a statue of Santiago as its centre.

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In the middle ages Pilgrims would have entered the Cathedral on their knees shuffled through to the shrine of Santiago and then, after prayers of thanksgiving, penitence or whatever they would have gone behind the altar piece to “hug” the statue of Santiago. I did go to the shrine and said my personal prayers but I didn’t then hug the statue (apparently he’s been hugged so often, and there are massive queues to do so, that he has hand marks warn into him!). The other infamous thing in the Cathedral is the Thurible (pictured).

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It is huge and is swung by a rope which takes 12 monks to swing! The reason its so big is because in the middle ages (and even today!) Pilgrims hadn’t washed during the Camino and thus the smell often was over powering. The incense would have masked that stench!

The Cathedral itself is, otherwise, fairly standard in its appearance and style, although it has a few hidden gems that can be missed if you don; t go to the Museum. Entrance to the Museum allows you not just to view ancient artefacts and Architecture but also to go through and up the West Front of the Cathedral. This takes you to the Cloisters

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and ultimately to a balcony overlooking the Praza Do Obradoiro, the square before the Cathedral where Pilgrims gather prior to entering the Cathedral.

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Also in the Museum are many tapestries some telling the story of Santiago (as I told it in my previous blog) and others showing scenes from the Camino (amusingly each of these tapestries has a Pilgrim urinating in the corner!). It is quite a remarkable Museum and your entrance also allows you entry into the “restoration wing” of the Cathedral which explains the works that have been undertaken and what is currently being done. You also get entrance to another Church/Museum 15 minutes away from the Cathedral at the Church of Santa Maria Do Sr which I shall write about in my next blog.

Two things to note about visiting the Cathedral are: 1) its is full of Pilgrims and Tourists so if you wish to visit go early in the morning or later evening 2) it holds Pilgrim Masses throughout the day, the main one being at 12 noon in the main body of the Church, the others, often in a specific language (on the day we visited at 10am there was an English Mass) throughout the day. If you are a Roman Catholic you can, of course receive the sacrament at these, if not you can go but not receive. It give you insight to the life and work of the Cathedral and how central the Pilgrims are to its life and worship. I will write more about my feelings/reflections on the Pilgrims and the worship in a later blog.

Santiago De Compostela: A Bizarre centre of Pilgrimage.

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Pilgrimage to Santiago De Compostela was the third most important Medieval route after Jerusalem and Rome. It is believed to hold the shrine or tomb of St James the Apostle and thus a very holy site. That importance has grown, again, since Pilgrimage has become back in vogue and is one of the most visited Pilgrim sites of the 21 Century. There are several reasons for me saying this is bizarre all to do with the fact that as to why and how St James (Santiago) is believed to be buried in Galicia, Northern Spain, after dying in Judea in c. 33A.D. after being beheaded by Herod Agrippa I (Acts 12.2) and then the cult that grew up surrounding him 800 years after his death.

The Legend has it that upon being executed two of James’ followers collected his body and put it on a rudderless boat at the port of Jaffa on the coast of Palestine. They then put out to sea and the boat was taken the length of the Mediterranean Sea, through the Strait of Gibraltar up to the area now known as Galicia in Northern Spain, just North of Portugal. On landing the followers were first not allowed to bury his body by the Queen of the region called Lupa (She-wolf) but eventually she relented and allowed him to be buried in the centre of her Palace which she turned into a church having become a Christian herself.

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If that isn’t strange enough what happened next is even more Bizarre. His tomb and shrine seem to have become forgotten but 800 years later King Alfonso II was in a fix. Much of Spain had fallen to Muslim rule and was in danger of being over run. A Christian Hermit was “guided by celestial light” to a field where he found a tomb, the local Bishop came and identified the remains as those of St James and told Alfonso who then visited the site. The King immediately adopted St James as the Patron Saint of Spain and had a Church built on the Site. This became Compostela, which derives from the Latin for Site and Star. The Christian reconquering of Spain was struggling but what put St James centrally into the hearts of the Spanish people was that at their darkest hour, when their army was facing annihilation by a large Muslim army at the battle of Clavijo in 844 A.D. Alfonso had a vision of St James who appeared as a Knight on a white charger and promised to lead the Spanish to victory. The vision was told to the troops who were so inspired they routed the enemy. This story led to St James being known as Santiago Matamoros, that is “The Moor Killer” and statues of him on a Horse became established. The fact that St James was a fisherman and not a soldier seemed to be of little concern, and perhaps because in the Gospels he and his brother John are called “Boanerges” or “Sons of Thunder” gave strength to the belief that James was “fiery” and volatile and war-like.

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These two legends combined to make Santiago De Compostela a centre of Pilgrimage and the Pilgrim route became known as “the Camino” and the main route is 500 miles from southern France to Santiago (there are 2 other routes). The Pilgrims ultimately entered the city at the at the Porto Do Campo De Sant Domingos De Bonaval

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and then, in the middle ages at least, go on their knees up the Rua De Casa Reus, to the Cathedral.

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This route has become famous again by virtue of the film “The Way” directed by Emilio Estevez and by the book by Paul Coelho called “The Pilgrimage”. Both allude to how walking the Camino might enable you to find solace, relief or enlightenment. As a result many who travel on the way don’t do so for Christian reasons, or as “true Pilgrims” in the traditional sense but as a journey of discovery about themselves. Over the next couple of blogs I will speak of my own experiences and feelings about Santiago, about those who travel there and about how the Church has responded to them and strived to keep some idea of the sacred (or not!).

Secular Pilgrimage 2: A visit to the Pink Floyd “Their Mortal Remains” exhibition and the V&A.

Ever since I was a teenager I have been enthralled by the music and art of Pink Floyd, sonically, lyrically and artistically they spoke into my world then, and still do today. They were famous for their musical invention, for their willingness to address thorny issues such as madness, warfare and isolation, and for their wonderful artwork in their album covers and their stage sets. Having missed out on the V&A Bowie exhibition there was no chance I would miss out on this, I also found my ideal companion for this “pilgrimage” in John Rocha: Floyd are his favourite band!

You have timed slots to enter the exhibition, as you do so you are handed an audio devise with headphones which you are told not to touch apart from the volume as it will be triggered as you walk through the exhibition. The first sound you hear is the song “Echoes” from the album “Meddle”. You then enter the exhibition proper opposite a 3D artwork of the “Darkside of the Moon” cover through a larger “mock-up” on the Bedford van the band used to get to and from their early gigs.

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You then enter the psychedelic 60’s which spawned their early sound and artwork. Throughout the exhibition there are phone boxes which have artwork, headlines and images of each period in time, as a way of linking the music and art of Floyd to the time they were produced. The next room shows you the early years and the first few albums, as well as documenting the turmoil that led to Syd Barrett leaving and being replaced by David Gilmore. There are video screens whose sound gets triggered as you walk near filled with band interviews talking about there influences, what was going on in their world and what they were trying to achieve through their art.

You then move into a room which explains the thoughts and sounds around their Iconic “Dark side of the Moon”, the political influences, the discussion of madness and the sonic experimentation. Videos talk of how they embraced very early sequencers, guitars that Gilmore used for certain songs (with both instruments on display!), and what their album artwork was about.

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From there you move through a room explaining the album “Wish you were here” and how Gilmore and Waters wrote the title track.

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The next room is filled with stage sets linked to the next two albums: Animals and The Wall. With the huge inflatable pigs and sheep (plus the worrying and amusing story of the photo shoot with the inflatable pig over Battersea Power station!). This was were art and stage sets linked to bring the music and imagery to the audience. A brief section on “The Final Cut” and then and few rooms dedicated to there final 3 studio albums and live album “Pulse”.

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As if that isn’t enough as you enter a final room you read a sign that says “Please remove your headphones”. In that room images are projected onto all 4 walls and you are treated to the “video” to their first hit “Arnold Lane”; then their final hit “The division bell” before, finally, concert footage from Live8, when they “reformed”, of the wonderful “Comfortably numb”. The sound, the filming and this room is worth the entry fee alone!

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Three of the most memorable hours I have spent were at this exhibition, it felt like a pilgrimage, paying homage to the art, the music and the talent that is Pink Floyd. Wonderful!

Carnac: A place of Pilgrimage for nearly 7,000 years.

Carnac is a small town in southern Brittany just north of the seaside resort of Quiberon. The town itself is pretty but in itself unremarkable. When Dad and I arrived there on a Tuesday afternoon we were amazed how sleepy it seemed, saying “If this was in England it would be heaving with visitors.” However, Carnac is world famous for something that lies just beyond the edge of the town: its standing stones.

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There are, literally, thousands of these stretching for several miles to the west of the town, they all stand neatly in lines although there are occasional “Dolmen”, that is a group of standing stones together.

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Each stone represents a burial site, the Dolmen is a group burial site. What makes these stone stand out further is the fact that they were erected between 5,000B.C. and 4,000B.C. during the stone age with extremely primitive tools used to carve and erect them.

If you are to visit the stones then you are advised to go first to the Town and visit the Museum of Prehistory which tells the story of the stones, shows you the tools used to make them and also tells the story of those who have excavated the sites and found out how these things came to be and why the came to be. It is from these excavations that they found the stones to be burial sites, they worked out the alignment of the stones in those straight lines to be linked the “lay-lines” and placed as they were with great ritual.

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Going to the Museum makes sense of the stones before you go to see them. (A piece of advise: check when the museum is open, its closed on Tuesdays in June for example and Wednesday is market day, which is one of the biggest markets I’ve seen when the sleepy town really comes to life!).

After learning about the stones visiting them is stunning. You see how they are all aligned, you can make out rough carvings on some of them, but you are always thinking “how was it possible to do this with such primitive tools and knowledge”. You can walk the site in several hours or you can move from site to site by car (there are also bus trips but they are all delivered in French which is a problem if you have no French like me!).

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So why has this site been a place of pilgrimage for so long? Partly because of why the stones are there: a place to remember the dead, a place to pray and hope that they are safe beyond death. The questions that humanity has been trying to answer for centuries, why are we here and what happens beyond this life. Also, later, there came two legends, amazingly similar, that linked the stones to the Christian world. The first concerns St Cornelius, to whom the Church in Carnac is dedicated. In the 1st Century A.D. during Roman persecutions of Christians he is said to have prayed as the people were being attacked by Legionaries and these were all turned to stone after his prayer (hence the stones all being in lines). The other story is from the Legends surrounding King Arthur, he was being attacked by his enemies in the Carnac area and the Wizard Merlin turned his enemies into stone! Both stories are amazing in that local folk accepted them even though the stones themselves pre-dated and pre-existed them!

Whether you go for the Legends, for the History of simply to see a man made wonder you cannot go to Carnac and leave without a sense of awe, amazement and wonder.

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An “Unintentional” Pilgrimage to Mont Saint Michel Abbey.

My Dad and I travelled to Brittany with the express view of visiting Carnac and its famous stones. However, my Dad pointed out that arriving at St Malo we would only need a small detour to visit the iconic Mont Saint Michel. I jumped at the opportunity and it was not a disappointment.

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Mont St Michel is situated on an Island and the end of a causeway, much like Lindisfarne, but the “mound” on top of which the Abbey sits is far more spectacular and instantly recognisable. The Abbey is dedicated to the Archangel St Michael, who is the head of the Heavenly Armies of God (cf Daniel 10:13-21; Revelation 12:7). Michael is said to have appeared to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches in 708 and he built an Abbey in Honour of the Archangel. It soon became a centre of pilgrimage and in the 10th Century the Benedictine Monks settled in the abbey and a community grew beneath its walls. Michael is not only the “protector” of the weak and vulnerable, the one through whom we pray when we are attacked as Christians, he is also a patron saint for Knights and in the middle ages the abbey became a centre of Pilgrimage for many knights. So much so that a hall was dedicated for their specific use. The Abbey and Mont became an impregnable stronghold during the 100 Years War and as well as being a wonderful example of church architecture it also became an example of military architecture too, and a symbol of National Identity. The dissolution of French monasteries happened in 1863 and the Abbey became a prison and then became an historic monument in 1874. Recently it has reopened its doors to the Benedictine Order and is very much a place of Pilgrimage again.

You climb to it through the winding streets which are filled with traders selling “tat” for the tourists. Its bustling and busy but the further up the Mont you climb the less crowded it becomes.

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The entry and guides to the Abbey are first class and well organised. The Abbey itself is stunning.

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The guide amazingly candid about why some of the lower halls “exist”, mainly to hold up the abbey above them! The views are as amazing as the architecture, and on a stunning summer day, like the day Dad and I visited truly exceptional.

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Truly a place of pilgrimage, homage and prayer and to think we might not have gone if my Dad hadn’t suggested it!