While on a pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago, a traveler finds the beauty of standing still.
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By Tim Cannon
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The way to Santiago is clearly marked by yellow arrows that the pilgrim simply has to follow. The arrows lead from town to town, through villages, across the country side, through mountain passes until the last arrow directs the pilgrim into the plaza in front of the grand old cathedral in the heart of Santiago de Compostela, in northwestern Spain.
I had been on the Camino for several days and still had weeks left before arriving at my goal. A small village on a hill had just come into view. It looked as if it cascaded down from an old medieval church at the top down to the river’s edge at the bottom. All the arrows in the village seemed to be pointing up. It was a tremendous climb through narrow streets, stairs and alleyways. Out of breath, hot and sweaty, I finally arrived on the level ground in front of the old village church. Against the wall near the gate of the church I noticed an enticing fountain — it was designed for pilgrims to refresh themselves by drinking and washing.
Having refreshed myself at the fountain (and knowing there was little elevation change for the next stage of the journey), I grabbed my pack and my stick and prepared to leave the village, which I had so recently entered. At that moment, a tiny lady stepped out of the church and greeted me. She was the quintessential little old lady from Spain. She was short, well dressed and very polite. She looked to be in her 60s and seemed delighted when she discovered that I spoke Spanish. She asked me if I would be interested in seeing the church and hearing about its history. I agreed; my guide book had not mentioned anything about the church in this village nor that it had an interesting history. In fact, it had just said that there was a terribly steep climb through town.
She was speaking before we even entered the church. It was a simple, humble building, nothing compared to the famous and celebrated edifices found on the Camino. True, it had its quaint and medieval beauty, but the way she passionately told of its history (from the small 17th-century silver cross to the laying of the linoleum floor in the bathroom in the 1950s), one would have thought it was one of the most important treasures humanity had ever experienced. I enjoyed the rhythm of her voice and hearing the stories of the priest she knew as a little girl who was now a local saint.
She paused for a moment, asked if I had any question and invited me to look around and enjoy the beauty and peace of the place. I asked her if she had ever been to Santiago. She reacted with a little bit of shock and a hint of dread. She told me that she had never traveled farther than 50 miles from her village and that was only when her husband had taken her with him on a business trip combined with their wedding anniversary celebration. She said she liked staying where she was and doing the important work that needed to be done in her village.
Later that day, I was still reflecting on that little old lady who was so passionate about her crumbling old church and village. She had spent a lifetime on the Camino de Santiago without ever leaving her home. She had spoken with countless pilgrims from countries all over the world. She was a rock in the stream of pilgrims. A rock covered in moss and happy to stay where it was, but all the same enjoying the pleasure of the constant flow of pilgrims through her life. As someone who likes staying at home, but often gets the itch for adventure and travel, I found her lot in life to be very appealing. Sometime we play the role of the rock in the river as others flow by and sometimes we get to be part of the river that splashes against the rocks. Both roles are important. The rock gets washed and refreshed by the river, and the water gets agitated and filled in bubbles by the rock. Together they make a merry sound that separately they never would.